It takes researchers years, sometimes decades, to pin down subtle, important findings about your health, but it takes bumbling journalists (or their editors) just a few seconds to screw it all up. Here, a selection of the most misleading headlines, and a few tips to help you spot the hype early.
Junk Food in Pregnancy Leaves Children Fat for Life
U.K. Daily Mirror July 1, 2008 The Studies aOffspring from Mothers Fed a aJunk Food’ Diet in Pregnancy and Lactation Exhibit Exacerbated Adiposity That Is More Pronounced in Females,aThe Journal of Physiology, 2008 The Hype Doughnuts during pregnancy doom kids to lifelong obesity and diabetes. The Subtler Truth The media made a correlation that this study, conducted on rats at the Royal Veterinary College in London, did not prove. aWe cannot be certain that what happens in the rat will apply 100 percent to humans,a says lead author Stephanie Bayol. The basic takeways: Good neonatal nutrition is important, but it alone won’t determine a child’s waistline. Bayol objects to athe message that someone is doomed to a lifetime of obesity because of their mothers’ bad diet and that nothing can be done. This was not supported by our findings.a The Bottom Line Maternal nutrition has been linked to several maladies, but the link to obesity needs to be taken with a grain of salt (and a carrot stick).
Bacon Gives Kids Cancer
U.K. Daily Mirror January 31, 2009 The Studies aCured Meat, Vegetables, and Bean-Curd Foods in Relation to Childhood Acute Leukemia Risk: A Population Based Case-Control Study,aBMC Cancer, 2009 The Hype In this action-packed 85-word story, we find out that children who eat bacon more than once a week increase their leukemia risk by 75 percent, probably because the preservatives in the meat promote the development of cancer. The Subtler Truth This study used a questionnaire to suss out the eating habits of 145 Han Chinese leukemia patients aged 2 through 20 in southern Taiwan. The researchers suspected a possible link between leukemia and smoked meats, but there is no direct causation borne out by the study; the scientists couldn’t rule out environment, genetics or other causes. The 75 percent risk number misinterprets results, and the study considered all smoked meats, including Chinese favorites like salted fish. It certainly didn’t compare Taiwanese bacon to the Western variety. As for the quote aGives Kids Cancer,a an overeager editor seems to have just plain made that up. The Bottom Line Be very suspicious of big headlines above brief articles, especially those published in the U.K.; British tabloids have a long track record of misleading headlines.
Fountain of Youth in a Wine Rx?
60 Minutes January 25, 2009 The Studies aResveratrol Improves Health and Survival of Mice on a High-Calorie Diet,aNature, 2009 The Hype Morley Safer interviewed the founders of Sirtris, a company planning a pill form of resveratrol, a compound found in red wine. He ended up doing a lot of cheerleading. Among the untested claims the show let slide: that a pill could forestall diseases in our 50s, 60s and 70s, and that it works using the body’s natural defenses against Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. The Subtler Truth Though it’s often a paragon of journalistic rigor, 60 Minutes has a record of falling short on health issues. Its breathless 13-minute coverage of resveratrol, which has been tested mostly on mice and yeast, presented no opposing view and was tempered only by a single (and damning) statistic: a9 out of 10 drugs that look good in mice ultimately fail in human trials.a Says Gary Schwitzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota and founder of journalism watchdog site HealthNewsReview.org, aThe job they’ve done on health and medical-science stories makes me watch the rest of their stories with greater scrutiny. Sometimes journalists become enamored and fawning about the progress of science. They check their skepticism at the door.a The Bottom Line There seems to be some sort of connection between heart health and red wine, but it’s not clear that resveratrol is why. And considering that plenty of animal tests don’t credit resveratrol, one has to wonder at all the puffery. When it comes to surprising health claims, even the much-vaunted 60 Minutes needs to be viewed with a critical eye.
Maggots Prove Effective Treatment for Leg Ulcers
MSNBC.com March 19, 2009 The Studies aLarval Therapy for Leg Ulcers (VenUS II): Randomised Controlled Trial,aBritish Medical Journal, 2009 The Hype The wire story claims that maggots heal leg ulcers as fast as an absorbent hydrogel, the standard treatment. The Subtler Truth It’s been known for centuries that maggots can help clean out leg ulcers. The study instead asks whether they do a better job than the usual hydrogel procedure, and the answer is no. This headline suggests that maggots are a viable new therapy instead of presenting the real conclusion: that maggot therapy heals no better than the current treatment, causes more pain, and is no cheaperafacts that led the Canadian Press to the opposite headline: aMaggots Disappoint in Healing Leg Ulcers.a The Bottom Line Watch out for items about cartoonish medicine. Stories of ulcer-healing maggots and cancer-sniffing dogs tend to draw readers a and obscure facts.