Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Headlines can hit or miss the story

Photo from the
National Institute on Aging
I'm a journalist by trade, and I've seen some great - and not so great - stories about strokes, research and treatment.

For instance, over the last few days, I've seen stories about a recent study about memory loss and stroke risk. The study included a portion saying that people who complain about memory loss have a higher risk of stroke. But then it gets muddy.

The researchers included three groups, by level of medication - low, medium and high. And the high group members seemed to have had a higher stroke risk. Or did they?

One story really played that up - a really bad idea given details to follow. Here's the headline and a snippet from a story title Memory loss is a risk factor for stroke, and having college degree ups your chances by 39%:
While going to college may be integral to furthering your career, a recent study suggests that educated individuals who also suffer memory lapses may be at risk for stroke. A team of researchers from Erasmus University Rotterdam in Holland found that the risk of stroke was 39 percent higher in individuals who had higher levels of education than in those who had lower levels of education. Although the link between stroke and studying has been identified, the researchers weren’t able to say why it existed in the first place.
A horrific headline and story. Just because something seems to be connected doesn't mean those things are directly connected. Read on for the second sample, more fine-tuned, titled Memory lapses may signal stroke risk:
"Given the role of education in revealing subjective memory complaints, we investigated the same association but in three separate groups: low education, medium education and high education," Ikram explained.
"We found that the association of memory complaints with stroke was strongest among people with the highest education. If in future research we can confirm this, then I would like to assess whether people who complain about changes in their memory should be considered primary targets for further risk assessment and prevention of stroke."
Ikram said most of the study participants were white, and added that future research should include a wider range of races.
Finally, here's one that, in my opinion, explains it best. Memory complaints linked to risk:
That findings could be explained by a masking effect of education on objective cognitive test scores, the researchers suggested.
"In these persons, cognitive tests are not of incremental value because they might perform well, despite their subjective memory dysfunction," they wrote.
"This suggests the importance of a single self-rated question about memory complaints that can prompt clinicians to consider screening for and treatment of vascular risk factors. People with high level of education who complain about changes in their memory should be a primary target for further risk factor screening and prevention of stroke."
In other words, people who are more educated might well be more likely to be more critical in a self-rated question about memory problems.

Other things to ponder: Are other characteristics normally present in white, educated people (see middle example) that might explain this? Age, for example?

I'm certainly not an expert in reading medical studies, but sometimes it doesn't take an expert to know when some stories make too many leaps and assumptions for the sake of a scary headline.

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