hen people learn that I am involved with Alzheimer’s research, one of the first things they usually ask is what should or shouldn’t they be doing to protect themselves. They only heard the other day on the news that eating cayenne infused chocolate every other Friday after 8pm will definitely prevent them from developing Alzheimer’s! “Is that really true?” they ask me.
I completely understand how overwhelming the stories can be that we read and hear in the media. Only this morning I heard a news headline on the radio that claimed if you sleep in it’s not good for your health. When the actual story came on later in the bulletin, they reported that researchers had found that sleeping more than nine hours a day increased your rate of dying by 44%. My first thought was, there goes the weekend lie in on Saturday as I’ve now only got a 56% chance of waking up on Sunday morning!
Taken literally, this would be a normal assumption, but as a scientist I then thought, oh no, here we go again! I wasn’t being given the full facts on what was probably a perfectly legitimate study. For example, what was the sample size of sleepers-in versus early risers in the study? Would you need to sleep more than nine hours a day, seven days a week to have the same effect as that for someone who slept nine hours every Friday night, so they got their well-deserved sleep-in on Saturday morning?
And herein lies the problem …
The media regularly only has space to give us some of the facts and these are sometimes out of context. I’ve had personal experience of that one! I often hear other researchers claim they don’t even recognise their own research when it is reported in the media. Headlines are usually full of spin and over sensationalised, obviously to peak our curiosity and make us listen or want to read more. Did you know that it’s not the journalists themselves, but the editors who write these headlines? Of course these are old tactics to earn a greater audience or readership, that have changed little over time. We all want to know that coffee, red wine and chocolate are good for us, right?
The example of September 1st, 2016
I was in London on the 1st of September, 2016 when news broke of a study that had just been published in Science, one of the world’s leading academic journals. Of course I was lured into a newsagents by a billboard screaming the headline, ‘Alzheimer’s drug is huge leap forwards for sufferers’. I quickly scanned the other UK papers and it was only The Guardian that seemed to show some restraint. They used words such as “seem to show” and “while the trial was to assess the drug’s safety and not whether patients fared better on it”. The other papers made it sound like a cure was all but done and dusted. When this isn’t in fact the reality, it falsely gives hope to families and those living with the disease. I know, I have been there myself with Mum and it is very discouraging and disappointing. Within social media, the lines between fact and spin become even more blurry as anyone with access to a keyboard can prey on vulnerable groups of readers desperate to find answers. The story of ‘wellness’ blogger, Belle Gibson and her cancer con is a classic example that comes to mind.
What you need to ask yourself
When you see these sorts of headlines that declare the next ‘major break-through’ or ‘new drug discovery’ for Alzheimer’s, or any other illness for that matter, it is important to do some of your own research to make sure you don’t get false hope. Here are some tips that may be useful:
Read the headline and then ignore it! People who want to sell newspapers write those, so go on to read the rest of the article and then consider the following items in this list
Was the research carried out on humans or animal models such as mice or rats, or even single-cell models? A mouse bred to generate the hallmark proteins of Alzheimer’s over an artificially short period of time, can help us understand some parts of the mechanisms of the disease. However, while the results may look encouraging in a geriatric mouse, it doesn’t mean they will necessarily translate to the same Alzheimer’s in a human being
Delve deeper and do your own investigation into the actual study carried out by the research group and academic institution the results come from. The research will most likely be found on their website and you can contact the named scientists to ask for more information. Researchers are usually only too happy to discuss their work with you
Look carefully at who is funding the research to make sure there is no conflict of interest. A company that produces refined sugar and pays for research into the health benefits, or otherwise, of their product, is not unbiased research and can tend to be skewed towards a more favourable outline
Is the number represented in the study statistically significant? If a trial consists only of five people taking a new drug under development, by the law of chances, we are more likely to see positive results. The statistical significance of a trial of say 100 people taking the same drug, gives us a far more accurate understanding of how the drug affects a broader range of individuals.