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Health in the Media: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Posted on December 3, 2013

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Oh hello, it’s been too long. I’ve been busy doing some cool things (*cough*). Since it’s a special week, what better time to do this again.

The Good

Caffeine energy drinks ‘intensify heart contractions’

As most of you reading this are humans, I can imagine that you consume your fair share of caffeine. As I haven’t heard reports of anyone rocketing to the moon as a result of overconsumption, caffeine is great right? Right?

This article from the BBC reports that caffeinated energy drinks “intensify heart contractions”, this science is only in the form of an abstract reported at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. You can read the one page abstract here. This reports the results of a study in which 18 healthy adults had their heart function assessed in an MRI scanner before and after drinking an energy drink.

The researchers found that peak strain, strain rate and speed of contraction during heart contraction were significantly increased one hour after consumption of the energy drink. One of the chief limitations of this study is its small sample, most of whom were men. It is not known how these men were selected, or whether the same effects would be seen if a different sample had been used.

In addition, this research was presented only in abstract form. We as punters, as consumers of health information, cannot read the full methods and results of this research; we cannot critically appraise it for its worth and therefore cannot make up our own minds. Any claims of it being a “scientifically robust study” are nothing unless we can read the full methods and results. I feel it’s massively unethical to publish this in newspapers when all we have to go on is an abstract or a press release.

This was reported well by the BBC and it raises an important question. However, we cannot take this for granted. This study cannot tell us that caffeine energy drinks are bad for the heart and unfortunately, raises more questions than it answers.

The Bad

Could aspirin be the simple and effective way to beat deadly diseases? OLDER people can fight dementia and cancer with a daily dose of the humble aspirin, scientists say

2013-11-30 19.30.30

As you can all see in photo of the headline, the Express led with the story of ‘ASPIRIN WARDS OF DEMENTIA’. I’m sure many people saw this breathing a sigh of relief to celebrate a small victory over this horrible disease.

As I read through the article and found the “research” they quoted here (and of course it’s paywalled), this optimism melted away with each and every sentence. The Express continued “The claim came yesterday at the launch of the largest study to find out how useful it could be in beating the diseases”, “Now the study on 15,000 people aged over 70 will be the most extensive clinical trial on the use of aspirin to prevent disease in the elderly”. They didn’t even report on the results of a trial, they just reported on the fact that a trial is going to happen.

I just want to take the Daily Express aside and tell them about this wonderful thing. This wonderful thing is called the scientific method. The scientific method seeks to explain the events of nature in a reproducible way. How cool is that? Better yet? It’s dead easy to understand, here it is in 4 easy steps #canihazscience.

Step 1: is when we think of a new explanation.  This new explanation is used to make falsifiable predictions that are testable by experiment or observation.

Step 2: The predictions are to be posted before experiment or observation, as proof that we’re not cheating (here’s looking at you pharma)

Step 3: We test these predictions through observation of natural phenomena and experimentation. Experimentation is especially important in science to help establish causal relationships

Step 4: When a hypothesis proves unsatisfactory, it is either modified or discarded. If the hypothesis survived testing, it may become a scientific theory. (hurray!)

What the Express reported on is something that is on step 2 of #canihazscience. This means they shouldn’t be making silly or misleading claims about the efficacy of aspirin in dementia. They should at least play nice and wait until the trial is finished before doing that. Provided all trial results are reported. See you in 2018.

The Ugly

Footballers and boxers are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s: Study confirms repeated blows to the head do increase risk of the disease

The Daily Mail reported that if you’re a footballer or a boxer you are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease.

The study it reports on did not involve footballers, or boxers, or indeed, any living humans. Their conclusions are speculative and assumptive, which in the real world of illness, suffering and death is unhelpful and possibly harmful. A 2013 study did look at whether football players had an increased risk of brain damage. The results were inconclusive.

I despair. How do they get away with reporting this nonsense?

David Carroll

David Carroll

Medical Student, Queen's University Belfast. When I'm not a medical student, I do PharmAware (wwww.pharmaware.co.uk) and Medsin (www.medsin.org) too. I like science, epidemiology, EBM, global health, really bad jokes and cats. I'm predominantly found on twitter. Email me: carroll.davide@gmail.com

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Health in the Media: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly by David Carroll is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Unless otherwise stated, all images used within the blog are not available for reuse or republication as they are purchased for Students 4 Best Evidence from shutterstock.com.

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