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.
Natural News January 14, 2009 The Studies aBreast Size, Handedness and Breast Cancer Risk,a_ European Journal of Cancer,_ 1991
Dressed to Kill, Sydney Singer and Soma Grismaijer, 1995 The Hype The article rehashes a 20-year-old claim: that bras block lymphatic vessels, and the resulting toxic buildup induces breast cancer. The Subtler Truth The article cites an inconclusive 1991 study that linked cup size to cancer risk and then goes on to rely heavily on a 1995 book by a husband-and-wife amedical anthropologya team that claims that three out of four women who wear bras 24 hours a day get cancer. A statement by the American Cancer Society, though, says the book does not meet scientific standards and that a lymph-cancer connection is rubbish: aThe alleged mechanism suggested in the book . . . is inconsistent with scientific concepts of breast physiology and pathology.a The Bottom Line Beware headlines about underwearathis story continues to make the rounds, but no clinical study has shown bras to be any more cancer-causing than spandex, neckties or G-strings.
U.K. Daily Telegram September 11, 2008 The Studies aGlycemic Instability and Spontaneous Energy Intake: Association with Knowledge-Based Work,a Psychosomatic Medicine, 2008 The Hype According to this wire story, a study showed that mental work increased calorie intakeaa purported connection between the demands of modern life and the obesity epidemic. The Subtler Truth Indeed, this study from the University of Laval in Quebec showed that after a session of aknowledge-based work,a such as reading or taking tests on a computer, subjects who were led to a buffet ate at least 200 calories more than a control group. But the story doesn’t mention the limited scope of the study: There were only 14 participants, all women and none over 30. The study doesn’t quantify how much energy they actually expended during knowledge-based work, and hey, guess what? It wasn’t truly a blind study. Participants were broadly aware that food perception was being measured, and may therefore have convinced themselves that all that mental exercise made them hungry. The Bottom Line The idea that knowledge work puts us in the mood for an Oreo binge would explain a lot about the obesity epidemic, but it’s going to take better experimentsaand journalists who don’t publish vague findings as factabefore we can blame our waistlines on thoughtful days at work. Gary Wade/Getty Images
New York Daily News December 12, 2008 The Studies aEvidence for Sugar Addiction: Behavioral and Neurochemical Effects of Intermittent, Excessive Sugar Intake,a Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 2008 The Hype This story introduces Princeton University psychology professor Bart Hoebel’s tests on rats by stating in the first paragraph that asugaraas anyone who mainlines sweets can attestacan be just as habit-forming as cocaine.a The Subtler Truth Hoebel’s study shows that rats fed a high-sugar diet go through neurochemical and behavioral changes, and even withdrawal symptoms, similar to those associated with nicotine and cocaine. But this newspaper article jumps the gun, suggesting that sugar addiction has been proven in humans and going so far as to have a doctor specializing in weight control give advice on how to kick the sugar habit (protein and veggies in the morning). Hoebel hasn’t proven this addiction in humans, however, and he is quick to point out that his work is more relevant to understanding eating disorders like bulimia than to curing a Dr. Pepper obsession. The Bottom Line Stay skeptical about sugar stories. Is there such a thing as sugar dependence? Possibly. Can we say aSugar on Par with Smack, Cracka? That headline needs more research. iStock
MSNBC.com March 19, 2009 The Studies aAlcohol Consumption, Social Support, and Risk of Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease among Japanese Men: The JPHC Study,a Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 2009 The Hype The Reuters wire story clearly lays out the basics of a study by Professor Hiroyasu Iso of Osaka University, which found that moderate drinking and social support may improve cardiovascular health. Then MSNBC twists the headline. The Subtler Truth Of 19,000 Japanese men aged 40 to 69, those who drank a moderate amount of alcohol each week were at lower risk for heart attack and stroke, and those who had both a strong social network and a tipple or two were at even lower risk. Heavy drinkers, no matter their social support, were at increased risk. The study says nothing about drinking buddies. Instead it points out that athose with low social support had more unhealthy lifestylesa and ahigh stress,a a leading cause of cardiovascular disease. The Bottom Line The headline should be aDrinking and Friends Good for You.a Bingeing with your buddies hurts everyone. Don Farrall/Getty Images
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,a The 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,a BMC 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,a Nature, 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.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation August 17, 2007 The Studies aHead to Head: Is Depression Over-Diagnosed?a British Medical Journal, 2007 The Hype The report’s headline and first section seem to support Australian professor Gordon Parker’s conclusion that clinical depression is overdiagnosed. The Subtler Truth The story doesn’t prepare the reader to fairly assess what is, in fact, an important two-essay debate. Another Aussie doc, Ian Hickie, wrote in his counterpoint that depression is not overdiagnosed, and that increased treatment and awareness has been a agodsend.a Says Hickie, athe headline . . . reinforce[d] a popular media idea. Many articles did not cover the debate at all.a The Bottom Line Watch out for recurring memes in health stories. This rehashes one of the oldestathat depression is not a real disease. Christian Baitg/Getty Images
Maggots Prove Effective Treatment for Leg Ulcers
MSNBC.com March 19, 2009 The Studies
aLarval Therapy for Leg Ulcers (VenUS II): Randomised Controlled Trial,a British 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.