Wednesday December 28 2011
Sometimes the image of health research gets distorted
The year 2011 has been an interesting one for medical science, with remarkable progress made in a wide range of fields, notably stem cell research. But for every great piece of research covered well by the media, there are examples that sensationalise more equivocal studies. We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting stories where the headlines told one story, but the research told quite another.
Just plain wrong
Analysing health news can be fascinating, giving us a better understanding of what’s good for us and what exciting developments are happening in medicine. However, sometimes people writing health news get it wrong. Here are just a few examples of the worst uses of health research this year:
- Chocolate is as good as exercise. It isn't. Many newspapers went a bit giddy over research in 25 mice of a chemical found in cocoa that improved their muscular endurance. This finding is a million miles away from claiming that eating chocolate is exercise.
- Sweets are good for kids. Again, there were excited headlines about a 24-hour long study of children’s diets that found that kids who ate sweets (during a single day) were less likely to be overweight. There are huge problems with jumping to this conclusion from this flawed study, not least that it ignores all previous data on the effects of sweets on kids’ teeth.
- Pylons cause asthma. In August, papers linked pylons to babies’ asthma, based on limited research that looked at the health of the children of women who had been exposed to different magnetic fields during pregnancy.
Few of the studies that these stories are based on are ‘bad science’, but overeager reporting of findings can turn interesting, but minor, findings into overblown news. Thankfully, dangerous claims are rare. More often, the claims made in the media are just plain weird. Here’s a selection of the strangest:
- Saucepans can cause early menopause. This bizarre claim suggested that household objects may be a health risk. In fact, they based this inference on a limited study of chemicals called perfluorocarbons (PFCs) in drinking water. The research did not prove that PFCs can bring on the menopause.
- Bear bile may help the heart. Ursodeoxycholic acid can affect heart rhythm in heart cells extracted from rats – beyond that it’s unclear what this chemical that is produced synthetically (but can be extracted from bears’ bile) does for humans.
- Quilting keeps you happy and healthy. One paper hyped this survey of 29 women that did not objectively measure any aspect of their physical or mental health, or compare quilt-making to any other type of hobby.
Cancer cures featured heavily in the news this year, as always. The media appear to be obsessed with possible cures, particularly dietary ones. Earlier this year Behind the Headlines analysed all the claims for ‘superfoods’ (not just cancer cures), but despite our advice to view such stories with caution, they keep coming. Added to the list of possible cancer-busting advice were:
- Tangerines. In this study, genetically engineered mice were fed a chemical produced from tangerines. No tangerines – or humans – were involved and the researchers simply found that mice fed the chemical produced and secreted less ‘bad fats’ from their livers.
- Beans and lentils. Although this claim used strong science that examined the effect of a vegetarian diet on bowel cancer, it did not directly link beans and lentils with bowel cancer. The study also drew its participants from Californian Seventh Day Adventists, who tend to avoid alcohol and smoking, and often limit their meat intake. This is likely to have contributed to their reduced risk compared to the general population.
- Crocuses. Hailed as a ‘smart bomb’ for cancer, these common-or-garden flowers were used to make a chemical that researchers hope could help to cut off the blood supply to tumours. Unfortunately, the media coverage stemmed from a press release about a study in mice that has yet to be published. Any human treatment is still a long way off, even if it makes it through rigorous testing and peer-review. View the news with a pinch of salt, not a pinch of saffron (made from crocus stamens).
It’s a common saying that there’s a pill for every ill. And if you read the papers regularly it may seem so. However, news stories about wonder drugs and magic pills are the ones that should be viewed with the most scepticism (more so if they’re on the front page of the paper). This year we’ve been told that there are new pills to:
- Help you lose weight. There is no pill yet. There is, however, a chemical called SRT1720 that, after testing in yeast and worms, was found to help mice fed an artificially high fat diet live longer. The research has very few implications for us humans – any potential treatment will be many years away.
- Halt ageing. Alas there’s no 'fountain of youth' discovery here. In reality the papers were reporting on some genuinely interesting research on a small study of a drug for use in progeria, a very rare premature ageing condition.
- Cure fear of heights. Not a new magic pill this time, just plain old cortisol, a steroid hormone used to treat many conditions. Unfortunately, the research the news was based on looked at its use to complement virtual reality exposure to heights (already an effective treatment) in a small number of people with a psychiatric diagnosis of acrophobia - the fear of heights. This is not much help to the larger number of people who simply get sweaty palms near balconies, drops, edges and ledges.
This year, Behind the Headlines has fact-checked and explained more than 500 health news stories such as these. Tomorrow we will present the most interesting and accurately reported health stories of the year. In 2012, we hope that health news remains interesting, insightful and exciting, without some of the problems Behind the Headlines has unearthed in the past 12 months.