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Non-Fried Fish Might Help Ward Off Alzheimer’s: Study

Rating

2 Star

Non-Fried Fish Might Help Ward Off Alzheimer’s: Study

Our Review Summary

Readers heads must be spinning worse than Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist” when they read – in one story – that this “must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause-and-effect” – yet they get cause-and-effect language such as:

  • “Raji said he was ‘amazed’ that this effect was seen”
  • “may boost brain health”…”lower the risk”…”helps to preserve gray matter neurons, strengthening them”…”cranial benefit”

 

Why This Matters

Over and over again, many news stories confuse readers about observational studies.  It leads to a loss of confidence in science and a loss of credibility in journalism.  That’s why this matters.


Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The cost of fish in the diet wasn’t discussed but we trust most people have a general idea of those costs.


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

Not Satisfactory

A classic case of promoting a surrogate marker – what shows up on an MRI scan – as an outcome of benefit.

The story uses the phrase “cognitive benefit” barely mentioned any benefit to actual cognition – emphasizing only a change on an image of the brain. Only one line inadequately referred to: “The team further observed that people who ate baked or broiled fish weekly displayed better so-called ‘working memory’, enabling them to more effectively execute routine tasks.”  Huh?  How?  To what degree?  But that’s the only explanation of true potential benefit readers received.

Journalists need to explain things better than this.


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

Not Satisfactory

Not as good as the competing WebMD story, which stated:

“The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish and limiting albacore tuna to 6 ounces per week because of concern about levels of mercury in these fish.”


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

Not Satisfactory

The story never explicitly stated the limitations of an observational study.  For help, see our primer on this topic.

It backed into it late in the story, stating, “For now, the connection must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause and effect.”

But the story confused readers throughout, using causal language inappropriately.   Examples:

  • “Raji said he was ‘amazed’ that this effect was seen” – but observational studies can’t prove cause and effect.
  • “may boost brain health”…”lower the risk”…”helps to preserve gray matter neurons, strengthening them”…”cranial benefit”

Subjects filled out a questionnaire – but the story never explained the limitations of this approach.  That’s not to dismiss the approach – but the limitations are real and worth mentioning.

The story did include boilerplate language about the limitations of interpreting results of talks presented at scientific meetings, but by then, the confusion had been wrought upon readers.


Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

No disease mongering of Alzheimer’s disease.


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

Satisfactory

At least the story had one independent source, a NY neurologist who said, “One has to wonder if there are other factors… that they didn’t measure.”  But his comments were buried deep in the story, as was the line “For now, the connection must be viewed as an association, rather than a cause-and-effect.”  That should have been in the second paragraph at the latest.


Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

The competing WebMD story much more explicitly stated “other risk factors for memory loss.”


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

Not Applicable

The availability of fish is not in question.


Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

A WebMD story, by comparison, said “Several studies have linked a diet rich in certain fish to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease….the new study is the first to establish a direct relationship between fish consumption, brain structure and Alzheimer’s risk.”

This story had none of that context.


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

Satisfactory

We have no evidence that the story relied on a news release.


Total Score: 3 of 8 Satisfactory

Comments (1)

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Kevin Lomangino

December 2, 2011 at 10:01 am

Love the new comment feature on the reviews so let me be one of the the first to take advantage of it. Agree with the rating on harms, but thought it was perhaps worth mentioning that there is not an unlimited supply of fish in the world, and that fisheries scientists are increasingly alarmed at the collapse of the world’s fish stocks. As demand for fish steadily increases based in part on potential health benefits seen in observational studies, we should consider the environmental price we are collectively paying for those potential benefits.

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