This evening news TV broadcast focuses on a study about whether statin drugs reduce the risk of dementia. It essentially does a good job of responsibly conveying the key findings and providing a very clear take-home message to viewers. These are the big matters a story needs to get right.
The piece could have been improved with a bit more detail about the study findings themselves (including a mention of absolute risk) and information about side effects and costs.
The segment does not indicate how much statins cost. They range from pennies to nearly $4 per pill.
Given the anchor’s and reporter’s questions about whether people should start taking statins now as a prophylactic despite conflicting research, the price should have been mentioned.
The correspondent reports that study subjects taking statins "were about half as likely" to develop dementia or early warning signs. On-screen, a graphic shows this number more precisely, 52 percent. But that’s a relative risk number, which can be less helpful to understanding.
The report should have stated what the absolute risk of dementia was in the statin group and the non-statin group. According to the study abstract, the risks of developing dementia or early signs within five years appeared to be about 8 percent for the non-statin group and about 3.5 percent for the statin group.
The study should have mentioned whether the studied group that took statins showed any side effects compared to the group not taking the statins.
The story is implictly about the potential benefits of long-term, prophylactic use of statins for people at high risk for dementia and some vascular diseases. The possiblity of side effects in this group should have been mentioned.
The journal’s press release says "the most common side effects of statins are headaches, nausea, fever and muscle pain."
The study the story is built around is a carefully done cohort study published in a major journal. The article reports the number of people enrolled in the study, their age, the study’s duration and the basic outcome.
This is sufficient evidence upon which to base a story. The segment should have named the journal the study appeared in. It also should have explained that the subjects were at high risk for dementia in part due to vascular disease.
The use of an on-screen graphic to report the numbers is an excellent practice for TV journalism.
The reporter does a responsible job at the end of the segment by indicating that these results are not conclusive and should not be acted upon.
The segment does nothing to exaggerate the risk or consequences of Alzheimer’s disease.
The reporter talks to one of the researchers on the study, and an expert with no relationship to the study.
This is adequate sourcing. A third source would have improved the story.
The segment does an excellent job of reporting on the established methods for reducing risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s: physical and mental activity, a good diet and general heart-healthy behaviors. And it does a good job warning people away from the conclusion that based on this study they should take statins to reduce dementia risk.
The availability of statins is not in question.
The segment does a good job explaining that the benefits of statins on cognitive function have been studied previously, with conflicting results.
There were two press releases issues with this study, one by the journal and one by the University of Michigan.
The segment does not draw excessively on either.