If you watch the news or spend a lot of time online, you’re no stranger to all the medical news going around. Miracle cures, new developments, and breakthroughs are reported daily by news agencies and medical journals.
In this heap of information, things can quickly get confusing. For example, eating chocolate can be a miracle cure for your heart one day, and a month later it’s decided that it’s not good for you after all. Research, just like the news, is conflicting.
Why do we hear so much contradictory information in the news? One reason is that news agencies need something to report and they all want to have the latest, greatest, and most shocking content. To back up their information, they usually cite press releases issued by medical journals.
Medical journals are a venue for countless scientific studies. Some popular journals include The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, The American Journal of Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and PLOS One,among others. There are journals dedicated to particular fields of study like heart disease, endocrinology, diabetes, or others that are broader in scope. The original intention of these journals was for peer-to-peer review.
This means they were meant for other researchers and doctors to review and potentially replicate. They were created to inform other researchers of what was going on, providing an opportunity for further study. Now, however, they have become products of mass consumption. While this is good for keeping the public informed, the volume of it, particularly in the online world, can become overwhelming.
A Study Isn’t the Law of the Land
The results from a single study don’t always tell the whole story. The researchers might have designed their study poorly, or been paid by a particular group to get a desired result. Personal bias can also come into play. Results should only be taken seriously when the same results are repeatable by other groups where larger analysis can be completed. The gold standard for scientific study is called a randomized control trial.
As someone who reads health news and is health-conscious, this is very important to understand. It takes years—sometimes decades—to realize the effectiveness of a particular treatment or how something contributes to poorer or better health. There are often studies on both sides of the equation. It’s only when the same result can be repeated that a study becomes valid and is to be taken seriously.
For example, there is only one study that shows a link between autism and vaccinations. Numerous other studies show no link, but some hold on to the results of study that links them, choosing to ignore the other results. The other results, however, came from experiments that were designed better, and most importantly, have yielded similar results after being tested repeatedly.
Knowing this, it’s important to take studies that garner a lot of media frenzy with a grain of salt. Is chocolate healthy? Yes. It contains compounds that might help relax blood vessels. But it’s still chocolate. It’s still pretty high in fat and sugar and causes more harm than good when consumed in excessive amounts.
Furthermore, its beneficial qualities can be found elsewhere. Chocolate may have components that are good for your heart, but so do other foods. Therefore, it isn’t the only means of improving your heart health.
Take Health News with a Grain of Salt
Trying to keep up with every study that’s reported and taking each to heart is stressful and confusing. The best approach is to use your common sense. If you really don’t know if you believe the claim, look for a larger body of work. Meta-analysis, for example, can provide you with better insight.
These are analyses of a number of studies to spot consistencies and trends. Also remember that news isn’t always about the truth; it’s a business. Different outlets are constantly competing for your eyes and dollars, and will report on anything that could potentially get your attention.
This isn’t to say that all health news should be disregarded. Far from it; I think you need to read anything and everything you can find on the topic. I’m just saying to be careful whose health information you trust. Claims made by a credible institution for the sake of informing the public are absolutely worth your time.
Reports on these types of findings by media companies are also a good read. When it comes to educating yourself, it’s important to know where to go to get the best and most accurate information; translation: find a source that you trust and stick with it. Just keep in mind who is telling the story and don’t believe everything you hear.
Contopoulos-Ioannidis, D., “Translation of highly promising basic science research into clinical applications,” National Institutes of Health, April 15, 2003; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12731504, last accessed March 27, 2015.