It missed several opportunities to help readers interpret these findings critically. Most of the deficiencies could probably have been remedied by talking to an independent expert or two.
The Washington Post did slightly better in its competing blog post about the same study.
This new analysis of the ongoing, prospective Nurses’ Health Study is not novel, but adds to the evidence base about the effects of moderate alcohol use on chronic disease incidence.
The cost of alcohol is not in question.
We expect that a story will attempt to provide us with some measure of the size of an association beyond just the relative risks, which can often give an inflated sense of the effects. That’s what happens in this story when it says that women who drank lightly almost every day “were nearly 50% less likely to develop disease.” Sounds like a big difference, but the figure would certainly be much smaller if expressed in absolute terms. The story could have made these statistics more meaningful with comments from an independent expert.
Any story that discusses the potential benefits of alcohol consumption should say a word or two about the potential harms of overdoing it, since heavier drinking is unequivocally related to a host of health risks. This story didn’t include any such warning.
We liked that this story is generally careful not to suggest that alcohol “reduced risk” for diseases, which is something an observational study cannot prove. But it lost focus where it counts most, which is in the headline. There, it uses cause-and-effect language. We might have forgiven this, but the story also should have included some caveats regarding the limitations of this research and some alternate explanations for the results. For example, older women who get together frequently for a drink might benefit from the increased social interaction and support they receive from one another. Women who drink lightly probably have other attributes (higher socioeconomic status, etc.) compared with teetotalers or heavier drinkers. Although the authors tried to adjust for these factors, they note that they might not have caught them all, and that “the findings should be interpreted with caution.” Readers should be given the same disclaimer.
There was no disease-mongering.
The story quotes from the study, but includes no independent perspectives.
Again, an expert could have put these results in perspective with other factors known to promote healthy aging, such as a healthy diet and regular physical activity, which were not mentioned in the story.
The availability of alcoholic drinks is not in question.
The story didn’t really capture what is novel about this research. Many studies show potential health benefits for light to moderate alcohol consumption, but this is one of the few studies to look at whether the positive effects extend into older adulthood. The story didn’t hype the “newness” of the findings, but it didn’t quite earn a satisfactory here, either.
The story didn’t lift anything direct from a press release about the study. Since there are no independent perspectives provided, however, we can’t say for certain how much this story relied on the release. We’ll call it not applicable.