This was an ambitious piece for such a short amount of space. The story tries to cover all the relevant ground and give readers enough context to make sense of the findings. While we applaud some of the conflict of interest information it provides, it does not quote any independent sources.
As we age, one of the things that worries us most is memory loss. So a drug that promises to restore memory to nearly half of what it used to be is certain to be gain a lot of interest and attention. The most important line in the story is the caveat from the researchers themselves: “whether these effects are clinically important will require larger studies.”
The story didn’t mention cost. The nicotine patch is readily available over the counter. We found a range of prices online, including one big chain’s patch for roughly $2.70 a day.
Quantifying changes in cognitive function for readers is a challenge. Exactly what does a long term memory performance of 46% of normal mean? Are these changes important for daily living or are they statistically significant but clinically irrelevant? The story included that important caveat from the researchers: “whether these effects are clinically important will require larger studies.”
The story reported: “The study found no problematic side effects associated with the nicotine patch and none of the patients had withdrawal symptoms when it was stopped. However, patients on nicotine did lose a few pounds, which is a known side effect.”
The study also reported a small drop in systolic blood pressure in subjected treated with nicotine – an unusual finding which the story did not report.
We like that the story, unlike the MSNBC piece, noted that “nicotine might enhance the cancer-causing properties of other substances.”
The study design, number of subjects and other information is provided.
Both this story and the one by MSNBC used information that we could not find in the journal article, but which did appear in news releases by the American Academy of Neurology and by Vanderbilt – the “46% of normal” and “26% decline in recall” statistics.
We liked that this story, unlike the MSNBC piece, stated that “when clinical experts rated overall change in the patients, they did not see a significant difference between the two groups.” That’s an important finding and, possibly, could have led to a different lead and headline for both stories.
The story does not resort to disease-mongering. Like the MSNBC story, though, it could have more clearly distinguished between mild cognitive impairment and forgetfulness.
We can’t give this a satisfactory score because, unlike the MSNBC story, this one does not include any information from clinical experts not involved in the study.
It does, however, note that some of the authors on the study have received drug company funding and funding from tobacco makers. It also noted that the nicotine patches themselves were provided by Pfizer.
There is no mention of alternative strategies to either improve or slow down the degradation of cognitive function in people with mild cognitive impairment.
We’re going to rule this one Not Applicable because – while availability was not explicitly addressed – this is a product that’s probably well known to most readers. However, both stories we reviewed could have been more specific about the exact types of patches that were studied and in what doses.
The story didn’t make any claims of novelty. However, the story could have briefly explained whether there has been other research studying nicotine’s effects on memory. (There has been.)
As explained in the “evidence” criterion above, there were numbers used in this story and that by MSNBC that we couldn’t find anywhere in the journal article but which did appear in in news releases by the American Academy of Neurology and by Vanderbilt. But it’s clear that the story didn’t rely solely on news release, as it brought in enough good contextual information, including the conflict of interest information and the information about nicotine and cancer.