4 Tips On How to Approach Misleading Headlines and Blurbs, Especially When They Are Reporting Research Findings

photo by Bennett Tobias

We all know that headlines and blurbs (short descriptions of articles) can be misleading.  In fact, we run across misleading headlines every day.  The most common ones online are those that are used as clickbait.  They mention a subject, for example, McDonald’s new hamburger is one of the best things about fast food right now, and this is how it will change the way we eat!  But, when you click on it to read the article, McDonald’s is nowhere to be found in the first 90% of the article, if at all.  Instead, the article takes you on a frustrating ride of subjects loosely related to food, with many pop-up ads to further annoy you.  I call this bait and switch.  And, in the end, the source is typically not a very reputable publication anyway.

I do expect more from reputable sources.  In fact, if it comes from a generally good peer-reviewed source, there is also more influence on the reader.  I find increasingly that more people tend to get their information from just reading headlines and blurbs.  If a headline states something about exercise, especially about exercise not being beneficial, it has my attention.

The headline, actually the blurb, that inspired me to write this came from a very reputable institution—JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.  They posted it on Twitter.  The first thing I saw was the blurb about the article, which stated this,

“In this RCT, treatment with #vitaminD, omega-3s, or strength-training #exercise did not result in improved blood pressure, physical performance, infection rates, or cognitive function in adults 70 years without major comorbidities.”

This didn’t make sense to me.  One of my specialties is working with older adults for those who don’t know much about me.  So, you can see how the subject really caught my attention.  I’ve read many studies that found that strength training improves blood pressure, physical performance, and cognitive function in older adults.  I have also seen it with the people I have worked with over the years.

So, I read the journal article.  And, in fact, the actual title of the article was not misleading at all.  The title was this, “Effect of Vitamin D Supplementation, Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation, or a Strength-Training Exercise Program on Clinical Outcomes in Older Adults, The DO-HEALTH Randomized Clinical Trial.”   Sounds like a promising study.  Right?

When the first few paragraphs gave a synopsis of the study, this is what was stated.

“In this randomized trial that included 2157 adults aged 70 years or older, 3-year treatment with vitamin D3 (2000 IU/d), with omega-3 fatty acids (1g/d), or with a strength-training exercise program did not result in statistically significant differences in improvement in systolic or diastolic blood pressure, nonvertebral fractures, physical performance, infection rate, or cognition.”

Basically, taking the vitamin supplements and working out, in any combination, did not improve blood pressure, fractures, physical performance, infection rate, or cognition in older adults.

What??  That doesn’t make any sense.  So, I read on to see how they determined that.  Way down toward the end of the report, I found what I was looking for.  Right before a section called “Limitations”, there was a paragraph with a disclaimer letting the reader know that even though this study did not show improvements in the specified areas of study with strength training, that didn’t mean that this study invalidated previous studies that showed these specific benefits of exercise.  In fact, they cited studies that showed how beneficial exercise is.

Further, of the many limitations described in that following section, the first was the one I was most interested in.  It read,

“… 83% of participants were already engaging in moderate to high physical activity at baseline, and there may have been little potential for further benefit from additional exercise.”

Aha!!  Well, that explains quite a bit!  Which had me questioning the purpose of the study, really.  Because except for that one significant fact, nearly everything about the study looked good.  There were a couple of other issues that may interfere with integrity.  But, most likely, not significantly.

Which leads me to this, why didn’t they use subjects who represent a fair cross section of that age group?  These particular participants were exceptionally active and health-minded.  They came from Switzerland, France, Germany, Portugal, and Austria.  I know Europeans, in general, exercise much more than Americans.  However, 83% is extraordinarily high for any country.  Even the Scandinavian countries, who lead in physical activity in the EU, are only in the 50 – 60% range when it comes to getting the recommended amount of exercise, according to WHO’s (World Health Organization) guidelines.

My main beef with this study is the misleading blurb about it, now being used by many news outlets.  And the biggest reason that this is so frustrating to me is that many people might be browsing through headlines, see this blurb, and think, “Great!  I don’t need to exercise.  It doesn’t improve these health conditions.”  When in reality, that is far from the truth.

photo by Zui Hoang

Stories that discredit exercise, rightly or wrongly, spread like fire through the news outlets.  That is a subject for another time.  The reasonable conclusion for this is that people want to find excuses for not exercising.  I first saw this article on Twitter yesterday.  This morning it was one of Google’s top news stories from the source UPI (United Press International, UPI.com) with the title “Study:  Little benefit for vitamin D, omega-3, exercise in seniors”.  It is in other publications as I write this and probably will be published by other news outlets like the New York Times soon.

What Can You Do To Avoid Being Misled?

I do not expect that everyone will start to read about research studies.  But, there may be a subject that really interests you, and you might want to dive into it a bit more.  Here are some simple tips that may help you.  And these also apply to everyday news headlines, blurbs, and stories.

1.            Be skeptical when reading titles and blurbs, even from reputable sources like JAMA.  Do not automatically assume the headline or blurb is a fact.  Question everything and read for yourself.  If it doesn’t make sense, be skeptical.

2.            Do consider the source.  Who published the story?  And, look for the party or parties who conducted the study.  Look them up if you do not recognize them.  For the most part, you can count on the more recognized research institutes like The Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University, ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), Mayo Clinic, and many more.  There are also many reputable institutions outside of the United States.

3.            Try reading through a research study.  If you don’t know how to read research studies, get a dictionary, or use Google, and give it a shot.  I still have to refer to my dictionary and Google when I read studies – especially neurological studies!  Most studies have abstracts that describe what was studied, how it was studied, the results, a final summary, and a list of the references used in the study.  Learn something new today.  This exercise will also help your brain, a bit like learning a new language will.

4.            Beware of Conflicts Of Interest.  If you are going to read research studies, remember to look for any conflicts of interest (COI).  COI might include who sponsored the study, or maybe if one of the researchers has a connection to the subjects, or many other things.  There was a decent size section listing the COI for this study.  Typically, the COI is based on who funded the study.  Has the money influenced the outcome?  That can be a tricky question.

Here is one final important statement about exercise.

Exercise for older adults is crucial.  It can be the difference between being independent as you age and needing help to get through the day and sometimes night.  Better balance and strength leads to fewer falls and fractures.  Strength training increases bone density.  Aerobic activity fosters neurogenesis (new brain growth) and helps lower blood pressure.  In a nutshell, exercise is medicine!

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If you’re interested in reading the article I refer to throughout this post, here is the link:

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