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Caution–Misleading Information Ahead

Gail Carlson, MPH Ph.D, State Health Education Specialist, University of Missouri Extension

Headline 1—(May 18)

“Higher salt intake results in higher blood pressure”


Headline 2—(May 22)
“Lowering salt intake has little effect on blood pressure”

With conflicting headlines like these it is no wonder that people are skeptical or uncertain about what to do to maintain their health. Many health studies make headline news, but changing your health practices based on these headlines may be risky. Following are some guidelines when faced with headlines that promise new medical cures or treatments or quick fixes for making lifestyle changes.

  • Read the whole article. News stories about health and medical breakthroughs can be good sources of information, but sometimes they distort or exaggerate research findings. The facts about the study are often buried in the middle of the article or may be at the end.
  • Understand what the numbers really mean. For instance, a 50% "greater risk" of cancer does not mean that you have a 50% chance (a 1 out of 2 chance) of getting cancer. It means that your chances of getting the disease are 50% "higher than average". If a disease is rare, that may still put you at very low risk for that disease.
  • If possible, determine who funded the study. Studies commissioned by companies or groups with a vested interest in a particular result are more likely to have biased findings than those supported by National Institutes of Health or voluntary health associations like the American Heart Association.
  • Consider the nature of the study. Generally the larger the study group and the longer the study the more reliable the results. Usually studies done on humans, rather than on animals, will provide better information about how the research may affect you.
  • When considering a behavior change don't rely on just one study. It is important to know how the research or the recommendations in a reported study relate to the findings of other studies. Also, watch for phases like " further studies are needed" or "this preliminary research". Phrases like these suggest its too soon to form any conclusions.

The best approach when reading about miracle cures, new treatments or conflicting advice about lifestyle behaviors is to continue the treatment prescribed by your doctor and the lifestyle behaviors known to protect your health. Then, take a copy of the article along next time you see your health care provider and ask what he/she thinks about the information provided.



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Last Updated 05/05/2009