An egregious headline shouts "Resveratrol May Slow Aging in Humans." But 10 people took the active substance in the trial and the only outcomes reported in the story were intermediate or surrogate markers – blood levels of various "pro-inflammatory markers." Read Dr. Michael Kirsch’s excellent blog post, "Evidence-based Medicine in Disguise: Beware the Surrogate!" This is exactly the kind of story he describes when he wrote, "Why do some medical studies, which achieve breaking news status, often fall so short of our expectations?"
Gullible people may jump at anti-aging stuff in the news. This study is far from being ready for prime-time – and so was the story.
No discussion of the cost of the supplements used in the study. Doesn’t cost matter?
How many of the 10 people taking resveratrol had changes in "pro-inflammatory markers"? All of them? Half of them? How big were the changes? How meaningful were the changes? We weren’t told any of this.
Anything we put in our mouths has the potential to cause harm – a concept not recognized in this story.
The story called the study results "promising" and said, as a matter of fact, that "resveratrol suppresses inflammation." But deeper in the story one of the researchers said "something in the extract other than resveratrol" may have been the reason for the anti-inflammatory effects.
So which is it?
The story never addressed the limitations of drawing conclusions from a study that had just 10 people in the active arm of the trial taking the resveratrol supplements.
Intermediate endpoints or surrogate markers – such as blood levels of "pro-inflammatory markers" do NOT equate to "may slow aging" as the headline suggests. Yet the story made the leap to say that "resveratrol reduces inflammation in humans that could lead to heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes."
But let’s drop back to a bigger picture: Shouldn’t we introduce at least a line in the story about whether aging is a disease requiring treatment? This is the way the story was framed – appearing in WebMD’s "Healthy Aging Health Center" with four mentions of aging in the short story.
Only two authors of the study were quoted – no independent expert source was cited.
Since the story framed this primarily as an anti-aging therapy – with possible impact on heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes thrown in – it would have been helpful for readers to be reminded about proven approaches to any of these conditions. But the story gave no such comparisons.
The story says that resveratrol can be found in common food sources. But the study was about resveratrol supplements in pill form and the story never explained to readers whether these were available. Are they at the corner drug store or health food store? Are they experimental? The story should have explained.
The story discussed a little bit of past research, suggesting that interest in resveratrol is not new.
Not applicable because we can’t be sure of the extent to which the story was influenced by a news release. We do know that no truly independent source was quoted in the story.