“Alzheimer’s disease breeds desperation and people will look for answers anywhere they can.”
The words of Dr. William Thies, Senior Scientist on the Medical and Scientific Advisory Council of the Alzheimer’s Association, have a distinctly truthful ring. It sometimes seems as though a revolutionary Alzheimer’s screening or new approach for delaying the effects of the disease is discovered every other day.
News reports often tout huge advancements in dementia research that can be misleading and spark anxiety. For example, a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) concluded that signs of cognitive decline can be found in people as young as 45 years old, and a separate series of studies found that smoking might provide some sort of protective effect against cognitive decline.
Should a 47-year-old be concerned about possible dementia if she misplaces her keys a couple of times? Do cigarettes really prevent memory loss? What does all of this mean exactly? The biggest takeaway is that the public should be discerning when consuming health news.
The Role of the Media
According to Thies, much of the confusion and concern surrounding Alzheimer’s findings stems from how a study is covered by the media.
He says that journalists and reporters too often overdramatize and oversimplify study results, portraying them as more important or impactful than they really are. Many times, research may present a possible new diagnostic tool or therapy option, but substantiated facts about Alzheimer's are discovered far less frequently than people are led to believe.
Thanks to the Internet, the public has greater access to more media outlets than ever before. People can find out about breaking news events minutes after they happen, and the digital publication of research journals puts scientific studies at web users’ fingertips. However, increased availability to the news means that competition for readers’ attention is intense. As a result, sensational headlines litter the Internet and occupy the highlight reels of television news segments.
After initially hooking readers, reporters often tone down the shock factor in the body of the article with a series of facts and figures from the actual research report. Unfortunately, media studies have proven that headlines have a powerful influential effect on readers that can sometimes outweigh the contents of the article itself. Fortunately, there are some guidelines that caregivers, dementia patients and the general public can use when assessing whether the next neurological breakthrough is as monumental as the news outlets claim.
How to Evaluate Medical News
According to Thies, there are ways to tell whether a research study about dementia is relevant and reliable. He says that discerning whether a study has immediate impact on a person dealing with the disease is relatively easy if you know what to look for.
As you read through coverage on a particular study, focus on these key pieces of information:
- Was the study conducted on humans, on animals or in a test tube? Unless the study featured humans as the primary test subjects, the discovery isn’t likely to change how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed or managed in the near future.
- How many people were involved? An impactful study will include a diverse group of hundreds or thousands of participants. The results of a study with fewer than 30 test subjects or cases generally cannot be applied to a larger population.
- Has the data been peer-reviewed? The most reliable medical journals and publications are peer-reviewed. This means that all studies must be reviewed and approved by a panel of fellow doctors or scientists in order to be published.
- Who sponsored the study? The results of studies funded by private companies and special interest groups should be taken with a grain of salt. They may be valid, but the possibility for bias and excessive marketing and publicity may make a study seem more important than it actually is.
Focus on the Facts
Thies believes that everyone should try to become more informed about Alzheimer’s. He says that, even if a person is not currently affected by the disease, chances are that someday they or someone they know will be. Making sense of the wealth of research on dementia and Alzheimer's isn't easy, but being aware of the basic facts surrounding these conditions can be beneficial.
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