This story is about a study claiming that an organic compound called curcumin, most commonly found in small doses in the spice turmeric, appears to reduce inflammation, one of the many risk factors for diseases such as heart disease. The story does a pretty solid job of explaining what happened in the study and its limitations. However, readers would benefit from a better explanation of just how much the curcumin regimen reduced inflammation and what that specifically means for reducing the risks of heart disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. According to the CDC, “Coronary heart disease alone costs the United States $108.9 billion each year.” A significant portion of this expense is related to medications to reduce heart disease risk. For example, a 2012 study estimated that in 2006, U.S. patients spent $64.9 million on statins — which are prescribed to reduce cholesterol (like inflammation, a risk factor for heart disease). In short, heart disease is a big problem in the U.S., and finding ways to reduce risk factors for heart disease is a big business with potentially huge rewards (both monetary and, possibly, health-related).
The story fails to mention or discuss cost at all. A quick online search found that the price of curcumin supplements can vary significantly from as little as $8 for 90 one-gram doses (the size of the dose used in the study) to as much as $45 for 60 doses. The story also notes that “most of the clinical benefits reported for curcumin have been achieved when curcumin was added to a standard drug therapy regimen.” Adding a potentially high-cost supplement to an existing drug routine could tip the scales of any cost-benefit analysis.
The story explains that the study reported “improved blood levels” of three biomarkers of inflammation, but does not say how much lower the biomarkers were — or what that might mean in terms of reducing the risk for heart disease. Assessing heart disease risk can be extremely complex, but even addressing the issue in broad terms would have been useful. In addition, the story allows one of the researchers to claim that the study results “indicate the usefulness of daily use of curcumin supplement for the prevention and treatment of several diseases.” Why use that quote if you need to add, in the very next sentence, that “the researchers didn’t examine the effect of curcumin on any diseases”?
The story does say that pregnant and lactating women should avoid using curcumin supplements, and quotes one of the study authors as saying that “patients with malabsorption syndrome, gall bladder problems, gastric ulcer, bleeding problems as well as those who are undergoing surgery, and those who have a history of hypersensitivity to herbal products should be cautious and consult with their physician before taking this supplement.”
We’ll rate this good enough for a satisfactory, although the story could have noted that many of these warnings seem to relate to the fact curcumin may interfere with iron metabolism (posing problems for those with iron deficiencies), and that curcumin can apparently also cause nausea, dizziness, or diarrhea in some people.
The story does a great job of explaining the study design, noting that it was “a randomized controlled clinical trial” and discussing the dosages, the length of the study and the size of the experimental and control groups. Just as important, the story explains that “the researchers didn’t examine the effect of curcumin on any diseases, and it was a fairly brief study, so it’s not clear what the long-term implications may be.” These are important limitations to mention in a study that looked only at risk factors — not disease.
The story makes clear that inflammation is a risk factor for heart disease, rather than equating it to heart disease. It also does a nice job of placing inflammation in context by explaining how it is one of a number of “metabolic syndrome” factors that increase risk for heart disease.
The story does acknowledge that one of the study authors is the CEO of two companies that manufacture curcumin supplements. However, it includes no independent sources. Given the obvious potential for industry influence, this story really needed an independent voice to help evaluate claims for readers.
The story does not mention any other medical interventions that can be used to reduce inflammation, such as corticosteroids or over-the-counter anti-inflammatories (e.g., ibuprofen). Statin drugs also reduce certain inflammation markers and are proven to reduce the risk of heart disease. However, these drugs weren’t mentioned.
The story notes that one of the study co-authors is affiliated with companies that make curcumin supplements, so it is easily inferred that such supplements are available.
The story places this study in context, referring to both previous animal studies and the (few) previous human studies.
The story includes extensive quotes from an interview with one of the researchers, which goes beyond the news release.