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Headline vs. study: If only health news headlines would …

Michael Joyce is a writer-producer with HealthNewsReview.org and tweets as @mlmjoyce

health care journalismIf only jolts of electricity to my brain could make me less forgetful.

If only mice and baby pigs could read; or, at least, learn which oils and infant formulas are good for them.

If only headlines — like those we feature below — would stop misleading people. Especially when it comes to common health problems like Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease that are of interest to millions of people.

It’s a lot to ask, I know. So how about just one of the above?

So, once again, we’ve decided to take a look back at the news stories and releases we’ve systematically reviewed to see if the headlines and the content are in synch. This is what we found when we looked back at what we’ve published so far this year.


News RELEASE report card: 8 of 15 (53%) headlines overstate evidence (we list three examples below)

Headline: Choose Omega-3s from fish over flax for cancer prevention, study finds

animal researchStudy: Researchers measured tumor growth in mice with an aggressive form of breast cancer that were fed varying types of omega-3s.

Our review: Who’s supposed to “choose” the omega-3’s? The mice? Or humans who prematurely base their dietary choices on rodent studies? Our reviewers said:

“… there’s no conclusive evidence that eating fish reduces cancer risk, and no mouse study can prove otherwise. News releases shouldn’t extrapolate from the evidence as this one does by conferring benefits seen in a few unusual mice onto all humans looking to prevent any form of cancer. Such misleading news releases tend to produce misleading coverage …”


Headline: Prebiotics in infant formula could improve learning and memory and alter brain chemistry

Study: Researchers measured if adding prebiotics to “infant” formula influence brain development. The infants in question? Piglets. (Yes, this was industry-funded.)

Our review: “While formula-fed piglets might have shown higher scores on a “novel object recognition” test, it is far too early to imply that these results would be replicated in humans. The likely value of this research is in better understanding of the relationships between gut and neurological function. That’s important basic science, but not ready for clinical application.”


Headline: Proper exercise can reverse damage from heart aging

Study: A small study (~50 people) showing that fairly aggressive and regular exercise in sedentary, middle-aged adults can marginally increase maximum oxygen uptake and moderately improve the elasticity of the main pumping chamber of the heart (left ventricle).

Our review: The headline is misguided, and much of the language in the news release is unjustified. Here’s why, according to our reviewers:

The research can’t tell us if risk for heart failure has been reduced in these study participants. Nor does it establish what is meant by “heart aging” and how that has been “reversed” by the intervention. The news release would have been markedly improved if such terms had been dropped, and focused more on what is — and is not known — about poor fitness as a risk factor for heart failure.


News STORY report card: 4 of 15 (27%) headlines overstate study evidence (we list two examples below)

Headline: Brain ‘pacemaker’ might help slow Alzheimer’s

Study: Designed to test for safety, this was a “proof of concept” study of deep brain stimulation (DBS) using an implanted device.

Our review: The headline states the device “might help slow Alzheimer’s,” but this concept was tested on just three people, and there was no control group to compare the results against.

Our reviewers concluded: “We think this study was one of those that isn’t quite ready for a consumer news audience; it’s just too preliminary and has the potential to stoke false hope.”


Headline: Sleep apnea patient finds rest with implant device: ‘It saved my life’

Inspire Therapy implant

Study: An implantable device (called “Inspire”) was used to treat obstructive sleep apnea, and appeared somewhat effective for some people in the study (which was published in 2014).

Our review: The headline makes the device sound like a lifesaver, and the story cites a medical professional who calls it a “cure,” “revolutionary” and a “game-changer”–without telling readers that the doctor is a consultant for Inspire. There is also no objective medical assessment of the device’s effectiveness, as the medical professional quoted is also the treating physician.


You can find more from our Headline vs. Study series HERE

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