We often joke that if we had a penny for every claim of a "breakthrough" for Alzheimer's, maybe there'd be a breakthrough for Alzheimer's. Newspapers, magazines, and the Internet are replete with stories making such promises, and it's common to come across articles hailing experimental treatments, miracle foods, new screening tools, powerful brain scans, or challenging cognitive activities that purport to advance our war on Alzheimer's.
With the hope of protecting you against sensationalism and false hope, here are a five things to keep in mind when reading stories about Alzheimer's disease research.
1) Look beyond the facile language used in headlines. If you read that "BLUEBERRIES MAY CURE DEMENTIA", take a moment to think: can the simple act of eating blueberries really have such a powerful effect? What would the mechanism be? What other factors would be involved in something so complex as "thwarting dementia." Can dementia be thwarted?
Refuse to be seduced by sensationalism: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
2) Know the background of those claiming the breakthrough. Remember that researchers have their careers and funding bound up in the work they are doing and are not likely to give modest assessments. It is important to know, for instance, whether the expert touting blueberries owns stock in blueberry distribution companies!
3) Be aware of the type of study that has produced the data. The "gold standard" in research is the randomized controlled trials (RCT). This is a research design in which an active intervention in one group is assessed against a placebo in another group to determine whether that particular intervention may have a significant effect.Much of the data that makes its way into news headlines is not from RCTs, but is, rather, from epidemiological studies that lack the rigor of RCTs and can be distorted by various confounding factors. Or they may reflect studies performed on animals, which are insufficient to study human maladies. Has the study tested blueberries against a placebo and determined a significant effect? Or has it rather surveyed vast groups of people and observed that those who eat more blueberries tend to have less dementia. Or determined that mice that eat more blueberries tend to have a slower cognitive decline?Knowing the type of study will help safeguard against sensationalism.4) Don't be seduced by the power of RCTs. In the event that you sift out the bad studies and encounter positive, scientifically-sound RCT studies that seem to offer hope, you must still be cautious. This is because the size of the effects demonstrated in RCTs are often small and exaggerated by the authors, especially in studies supported by drug companies. For example, a study with eight blueberry eaters and eight placebo eaters may not have enough statistical power to discern a meaningful difference in outcome.
In many cases, placebos cause improvements, and sometimes perform better than biologically active treatments. Simply thinking that the placebo conferred a protective effect can make it such for the non-blueberry group. Furthermore, side effects are often underreported and studies are often not of long enough duration to establish long-term safety. Moreover, people who participate in RCTs are often carefully selected to be healthier or to have more clear-cut diagnostic categories.In other words, just because RCTs are a "gold standard", they are far from being definitive.5) Don't let hope become hype. Be aware of your own personal biases and tendencies in reading a story. The headline "BLUEBERRIES CURE ALZHEIMER'S" is attention-grabbing. Are you inclined to trust the information because it seems sound and logical, or because you want to believe it?Remember: with stories covering a condition as complex as brain aging, you must read carefully, and keep your faith on a short leash.