2017 year-ender: What I’ve learned from reading health news every morning

Each morning, Jill U. Adams (health journalist and an associate editor at HealthNewsReview.org) scans 26 news sites for stories that report on some claim of a health benefit by a specific intervention.

From this practice (for work it must be noted) she’s come up with a list of things that are becoming clear in health reporting this year (read the full article here):

 

Coffee. It’s neither terribly good nor terribly bad for you.

CelebritiesA study about the most attractive female lips offered up a chance for news outlets to post photos of Angelina Jolie. We’ve seen the same thing with many other celeb-focused health stories. New treatment for morning sickness? Kim Kardashian.  Wacky health claims? Gwenyth Paltrow. A “struggle” with chronic dry eyes? Marisa Tomei. It’s clickbait.

Headlines. Beware the hyped-up headline. Nothing makes me skeptical faster than a headline telling me how to live longer. And it’s hard not do a second roll of eyes when I scan ahead to see the article describing findings from an association study. I also watch for any of publisher Gary Schwitzer’s seven words you shouldn’t use.

Headlines, head-spinning version. Talk about different framings to a story! In April we blogged about seemingly opposite headlines on stories covering the same study. One news outlet’s story on colonoscopy warned readers that delaying the procedure was risky; another proclaimed waiting was okay.

Healthy foods. Please no. You can have healthy diets — such as a healthy pattern of eating that is rich in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. But there is no one food that will prevent cancer or make you sleep better or make you heart healthy despite what headlines may tell you. Why? Because there is no evidence for such things. Most of the studies on individual foods are association studies that rely on participants’ self-report of what they eat. They are not clinical trials that randomly put participants into an “eat blueberries” group and an “avoid blueberries” group and test the intervention for long enough in enough people to show causation.

Ill-defined interventions. Exercise is a prime example. Everyone knows by now that “exercise” is good for you. A health news story looking at exercise as an intervention should be specific  — how often, how long, and how intensely the physical fitness was measured. In December, we called out the lack of specificity in this HealthDay story review.

Proxy outcomes. Another HealthDay story, Can Coffee Perk Up Heart Health, Too?, reports on a study that measured the activation of particular gene clusters involved in inflammation. It’s quite a jump from these molecules to inflammation in general to inflammation that leads to pathology, much less to actual health outcomes. A New York Times story from the same month, Running may be good for your knees, reported on a study that found different inflammatory mediators in the knee’s synovial fluid after running or sitting for 30 minutes–which is a proxy, or a surrogate marker, for knee health.

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