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Be wary of news headlines promising to unlock secrets of ‘living longer’

Rating

2 Star

Categories

Want to Live Longer? Every Movement Counts, Even Cleaning the House

Our Review Summary

The story recaps a recent study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society that used accelerometers to track the activity of women between the ages of 63 and 99. The study followed study participants for a mean of 3.1 years, tracking mortality for all participants. The study found that even “light activity” reduced the relative risk of dying during the study period. In other words, even light physical activity can contribute to health.

The story did a good job explaining what “light activity” means in this context, and explaining how the study was designed.

But, when it came to the risk reduction, we wanted to know what this translated to in absolute terms, but the story doesn’t say. Also, as the story points out, the study can’t prove a cause-and-effect relationship between light activity and reduced mortality. Yet the story never really explains why this is the case, and it contradicts itself with the clickbait headline.

 

Why This Matters

Telling readers that the study wasn’t able to prove cause and effect is a good start, but providing more information on why this is the case helps them understand why studies like these are often contradicted by later, more rigorous research.

 

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

Cost wasn’t mentioned, but given that this is light activity, we’ll rate this N//A. Still, the story could have explicitly said that the activities that are highlighted in this study probably have no cost associated with them.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The story notes that engaging in light activity for 30 minutes per day reduced relative risk of mortality during the study period by 12 percent. It also noted that engaging in moderate activity for 30 minutes per day reduced that risk by 39 percent. But what about the absolute risk reduction? 

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Applicable

As the NIH has noted, the benefits of physical activity far outweigh the risks. For that reason, we won’t ding this story for not going into details regarding the risks associated with light physical activity. Nonetheless, it would have been nice to see the story mention that older adults may want to consult with a health professional to determine what types of activity they should (or should not) engage in.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The story does briefly point out that this type of study can’t prove cause and effect, though it quickly pivoted to a “however…” to weaken that point.

A limitation that should have made it into the news story is that individuals weren’t assigned a level of activity–rather they presumably went about their usual activities for a week (just a week) and the device captured it. The authors then categorized individuals into three categories of increasing level of activity. The challenge is that people who are less active, may be that way for a reason. Maybe they are sick, or have other issues that make them less active. And that might have been a temporary problem. This helps readers understand why the study can’t prove cause and effect.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There’s really no disease mongering here, though there is one note we’d like to make that falls under this heading as well as anywhere. The story tells readers that increased physical activity is “linked to a lower risk of death.” Reader, we have bad news…death is inevitable. It would be more accurate to note that physical activity reduced the relative risk of dying during a given timeframe (in this case, the three-year period of observation).

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

No outside sources are cited in the story, nor does the story make clear who funded the research (addressing potential conflicts of interest).

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The study compared different levels of physical activity. As such, it was comparative. However, there are other important lifestyle habits that affect mortality (cigarette smoking or drinking alcohol, for instance), and it would be interesting to know how helpful light activity is compared to these other lifestyle modifications.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story does a good job of defining what light activity means, which is important for understanding how accessible it is. Bike riding is a moderate activity, for example, whereas “strolling around the neighborhood” is a light activity.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The story refers to national guidelines and some (nonspecific) “recent analyses,” noting that the “new study refutes that research.” But is this the first study to show benefits like these from engaging in low-intensity daily activities? No. For example, this 2014 study published in Preventive Medicine examined “examine[d] the association between household physical activity and all-cause mortality in a cohort of older adults from Spain.” The study relied on self-reporting from study participants, but found that — among other things — “Household physical activity may have benefits for longer survival in older women.” It would have been interesting to see the article look at how the new study compared to the 2014 study. Do the findings support each other? How do they differ? This sort of context would be valuable for readers.

What does appear novel is the use of a device to assess activity–versus recording what people report as their activity levels.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

This is borderline. The story maps very closely to the news release. However, the story appears to incorporate quotes from study author Andrea LaCroix that are not found in the news release.

Total Score: 3 of 8 Satisfactory

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