Hey, it’s Pat here with another research backed article on health and wellness. I’ve recently been swamped with schoolwork and with the enormous amount of pre-seminar material that I have to learn for the upcoming Functional Range Conditioning certification in Vancouver. So instead of writing fresh articles on hot fitness trends, I’ve gone back to the archives of my undergraduate kinesiology essays. This one was written for a course on health psychology. In the article I describe how we must analyze health-related news with a critical eye. All too often, media outlets (like the LA times, as you will read about in a moment) misinterpret scientific data and present unrealistic health claims that potentially do more harm than good. We must not be duped, for the sake of our health. Anyways, as always if you’d like to know more about, and start taking responsibility for your own health, fitness, and wellness, please reach out to Crux Fitness in Richmond or Surrey for any of your personal training needs.

Patrick Koo – Personal Trainer at Crux Fitness Richmond

Oftentimes, when science is shared to the public through media reports (i.e. newspaper articles), causal claims are exaggerated in order to increase news uptake (Sumner et al., 2014). Although there are definitely cases of academic malpractice, with scientists making their own exaggerated and biased claims in order to get published (Yavchitz et al., 2012), much of the exaggeration comes from media outlets (Sumner et al., 2014). In other words, it is highly likely that CBC or the LA Times, for example, are misinterpreting scientific data and presenting too-good-to-be-true health news to us. While the motivation to create these exaggerated “click-bait” articles may be to increase viewership, there is actually very little evidence that exaggerated statements leads to increased news uptake (Sumner et al., 2014). Unfortunately, exaggerated statements in the news may lead to public mistrust, especially from critically thinking people. Exaggeration may also lead to a one-dimensional view of the relationship between health behaviours and illness. For example, a headline claiming that loneliness leads to cardiovascular disease might have some people believe that the risk of CVD can be eliminated with enough social outings, when in fact it is the sum of many different health behaviours that help to decrease the chance of illness. The media, for the most part, does a good job of disseminating complex scientific research. However, it is important for people to think critically and compare what is conveniently presented in a news article with what is actually stated in a scientific research article (Sumner et al., 2014).

As an example, the LA times recently broke down the findings from a study published by the British medical journal Heart. The research article was titled Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies (Valtorta et al., 2016). The news article was re-worded for the layperson as Loneliness: The new (old) smoking? (Healy, 2016).

The news article, for the most part, was very well written, with no inaccuracies compared to the original scientific research. Key points from the research were re-worded and simplified, with no exaggeration. For example, in the research article, Valtorta (2016) concluded that “Poor social relationships were associated with a 29% increase in risk of incident CHD (pooled relative risk: 1.29, 95% CI 1.04 to 1.59)…” For her LA Times piece, Healy (2016) re-worded and simplified that statement by writing “the studies suggest that people who suffer from loneliness or social isolation were 29% more likely than those who are not to develop coronary heart disease.” No exaggeration or false claims, just the subtraction of complex statistics. Furthermore, the news article went above and beyond just parroting what was laid out in the research article, which did not touch on how to best deal with loneliness (Valtorta et al., 2016). To give readers some concrete, practical tips to deal with loneliness, an editorial by Holt-Lundstad & Smith (2016), from the same edition of the scientific journal Heart, was cited:

“Efforts to strengthen existing family relationships may prove more effective than interventions by hired personnel.” The fact that the LA Times author cited two scientific articles in order to lay out the facts (that loneliness contributes to CVD risk) and give practical tips (on how to deal with loneliness) points to why it is important that media outlets disseminate complex, and oftentimes hard to read, scientific literature for the public.

Finally, to illustrate that journalistic malpractice does happen (Sumner et al., 2014), note that in the third paragraph of the news article, a hyperlink was provided that was supposed to lead to a scientific article related to how loneliness and heart disease are equally prevalent in men and women (Healy, 2016). Instead, the link leads to a (seemingly random) article by Semsarian and Ingles (2016) on preventing and screening for sudden cardiac death in athletes. This false hyperlink was posted to potentially trick readers; the more links and citations provided, the more credible the author and news outlet might seem! No matter how well written a news article may be, it is important to read with a critical eye in order to spot exaggeration and inaccuracies.

References

Healy, M. (2016, April 19). Loneliness: The new (old) smoking? Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com. Holt-Lunstad J., Smith T.B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence-based patient care and scientific inquiry. Heart, 102, 987-989. Semsarian, C., & Ingles, J. (2016). Preventing sudden cardiac death in athletes. BMJ, 353:i1270.

Sumner, P., Vivian-Griffiths, S., Boivin, J., Williams, A., Venetis, C. A., Davies, A., & Chambers, C. D. (2014). The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: Retrospective observational study. BMJ, 349, g7015. Valtorta N.K., Kanaan M., Gilbody S., Ronzi, S., & Hanratty, B. (2016). Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for coronary heart disease and stroke: Systematic review and
meta-analysis of longitudinal observational studies. Heart, 102, 1009-1016. Yavchitz A., Boutron I., Bafeta A., Marroun I., Charles P., & Mantz J. (2012). Misrepresentation of randomized controlled trials in press releases and news coverage: A cohort study. PLoS Med, 9(9):e1001308.

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