Posted on Leave a comment

Time to stock up on zinc?

As if stubbornly high rates of COVID-19 aren’t giving us enough to worry about, welcome to cold and flu season!

Yes, colds and influenza, two well-known upper respiratory infections, will soon be on the rise. Last year we saw remarkably low rates of flu. Many experts don’t think we’ll be so lucky this year.

Think zinc?

A new analysis reviewing available research suggests that over-the-counter zinc supplements could be one way to make cold and flu season a bit easier. Of course, this isn’t the first study to look into zinc as an antiviral remedy, including for COVID-19. But the results of past research have been mixed at best: some studies find modest benefit, others find no benefit, and the quality of the research has been low. Also, some people experience bothersome side effects from zinc, such as upset stomach, nausea, and in some cases, loss of the sense of smell.

What did the study say?

Published in November 2021 in BMJ Open, the study looks at zinc for preventing or treating colds and flulike illness. The researchers reviewed more than 1,300 previous studies and narrowed the analysis down to 28 well-designed trials, which included more than 5,000 study subjects. Here’s what they found:

For preventing colds and flu-like illness:

  • Compared with placebo, zinc supplements or nasal spray zinc are associated with fewer upper respiratory infections. The estimated effect was modest: about one infection was prevented for every 20 people using zinc. The strength of the evidence for these findings is considered low.
  • A few studies suggest preventive effects were largest for reducing severe symptoms, such as fever and flulike illness. It’s worth noting that the studies didn’t confirm whether participants had flu infections.
  • Small studies of intentional exposure to cold virus found that zinc did not prevent colds.

For treating colds and flulike illness:

  • Compared with placebo, those who took zinc had symptoms go away about two days sooner. The study estimated that of 100 people with upper respiratory infections, an extra 19 people would have completely recovered by day seven due to zinc treatment. The strength of the evidence for these findings is considered low.
  • Some measures of symptom severity were lower for those treated with zinc (versus placebo): on day three of the infection, those taking zinc had milder symptoms. Further, there was an 87% lower risk of severe symptoms among those taking zinc. However, the daily average symptom severity was similar between those taking zinc and those taking placebo. The data quality and certainty of these findings were low to moderate.

What else to consider before stocking up on zinc

While these findings suggest promise in the ability of zinc to prevent or temper cold and flulike illness, here are other points to consider:

  • Side effects. Side effects occurred more often in those taking zinc (versus placebo), including nausea and mouth or nose irritation. Fortunately, none were serious. But they might be bothersome enough for some people to stop using zinc.
  • Cost. Zinc supplements are generally inexpensive. A daily dose of zinc lozenges for a month may cost less than $2/month (though I also found certain brands for sale online for as much as $75/month).
  • Zinc deficiency. Study subjects either had normal zinc levels or were otherwise considered unlikely to be zinc deficient. There’s a big difference between taking a zinc supplement to prevent or treat respiratory infections and taking it because your body lacks enough of the mineral. Zinc deficiency is more likely among people with poor nutrition or digestive conditions that interfere with mineral absorption; they require supplementation to avoid serious complications such as impaired immune function and poor wound healing.
  • Different doses or types. Additional research is needed to determine the best way to take zinc.
  • COVID-19. None of the studies in this analysis assessed the impact of zinc supplements on SARS-CoV-2, so these conclusions do not apply to COVID-19.

You know the drill

Perhaps this new analysis will convince you to take zinc this winter. Or perhaps you’re still skeptical. Either way, don’t forget tried and true preventive measures and treatments during cold and flu season, including these:

  • Get a flu shot
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Avoid contact, maintain physical distance, and wear a mask around people who are sick
  • Get plenty of sleep
  • Choose a healthy diet.

If you do get sick:

  • Stay home if possible
  • Wear a mask if you can’t avoid contact with others
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Take over-the-counter cold and flu remedies to reduce symptoms
  • Contact your doctor if you have symptoms of the flu; early treatment can shorten the duration of the illness. In addition, other conditions (especially COVID-19) should be ruled out.

Many of the measures recommended for cold and flu season overlap with those recommended to prevent or treat COVID-19.

The bottom line

Colds and flulike illnesses afflict millions every winter. You might feel as though it’s inevitable you’ll be among them. But you may be able to spare yourself the misery by following some simple, safe, and common-sense measures. As evidence mounts in its favor, perhaps these measures should include zinc.

As for me, I remain steadfastly on the fence. But it wouldn’t take much — perhaps one more large, well-designed, randomized controlled trial — to push me onto the zinc bandwagon.

Posted on Leave a comment

A conversation about reducing the harms of social media

495c6518-f40e-4082-add7-640a7441e890

Editor's note: In this blog post, Dr. Sharon Levy interviews her son Isaiah Levy, a college student. We appreciate Isaiah’s insights and comments on social media's impact on teens and young adults.

It is hard to remember (or for younger people, hard to imagine) a world without social media, but indeed such a world once existed — and in fact, it is the world humans evolved in.

Humans are social animals. Friendly interactions release dopamine in our brains’ reward centers to get us to repeat the behavior. Until recently, that feedback loop suited us very well, with little opportunity to get off track. Social media changed things by providing the opportunity for nearly infinite interactions. This excess exploits our natural inclination for social contact in the same way that sweets exploit our natural drive to eat ripe fruit. Too much refined sugar can cause a cascade of medical problems; too much social media can also affect health — especially mental health.

Beyond sheer volume, social media interactions are qualitatively different from in-person meetings. For one thing, social media platforms have developed easy opportunities for viewers to react to content, resulting in objective feedback metrics for the content creator. Because the denominator is essentially infinite, no matter how many likes a post gets, the numerator may not feel like enough. Feeling insufficient, not liked enough, judged by others, or excluded from an "in group" takes a heavy toll on mental health.

For perspective from a digital native, I posed questions about social media to my son Isaiah Levy, a computer science major at New York University.

What do you see as the benefits of social media?

Theoretically, social media can connect people across the globe at scale, presenting an opportunity for users to form relationships beyond their geographic boundaries. Popular social media platforms can also provide a stage with a potential audience of one billion eyes. Social media offers tremendous potential for people who want to be noticed. However, most connections are extensions of our real-life relationships, and many users say that social media enriches friendships. For example, a Pew survey found that a majority of teenage respondents said that Instagram enhanced their connections with people they already knew (many of whom are classmates).

Why is Instagram so popular with young people?

Web developers and graphic designers created Instagram using sophisticated algorithms and attractive visual presentation, to keep users engaged and interacting with its nearly limitless content for as long as possible. According to surveys done by Facebook (owner of Instagram), youth describe Instagram as current, friendly, trendy, and creative. Many teens say that Instagram helps define who they are and makes them feel more connected to the people they know. Another significant source of Instagram's allure, particularly for younger users, are the objective feedback measures that can make users feel important or of high social status.

The flip side is that the drive for attention creates its own problems. The Pew survey linked to above found that more than one-third of teen Instagram users said they feel pressure to post content that will get a lot of likes and comments, and more than 40% feel pressure to only post content that makes them look good. According to Facebook’s own internal surveys, more than 13% of teen girls said that Instagram worsens suicidal thoughts, and 17% said their eating disorders got worse with Instagram use.

As the government considers regulating social media, what suggestions do you have in regard to protecting mental health?

Government regulations should protect our freedom of expression while mediating risks, especially to children. The government could consider regulating some of the advanced algorithms that social media corporations use to increase user time expenditure (and thus profits). For example, "infinite swiping" is a design feature that continuously pushes forward new content after a user has exhausted content from the people they follow. These tactics pose serious threats. Just like use of alcohol, nicotine, or drugs, the act of swiping triggers neurological reward. Over time, the brain learns to seek social media instead of more natural rewards, putting users at risk of dissociation with meaningful priorities. As with drug addiction, younger users are at greatest risk. Government regulation of the most sticky algorithms would help promote a healthier balance for users. Deciding which algorithms to ban and how to implement such a ban is certainly a difficult task, and the solution will not be perfect; however, given what we know of the impact of social media on children’s mental health, it should be a federal priority.

While the government grapples with regulation, parents can step in. First, set a good example by putting your own screens down when interacting with your children. Talk to your teen about the pros and cons of social media: while it can be fun, it can also become a distraction. Set limits on your child’s social media use. Most importantly, talk to your children about their experiences, including who they are interacting with and what they are talking about. We know social media can harm mental health, so be on the lookout and intervene if you have concerns.

Posted on Leave a comment

Wondering about COVID-19 vaccines for children 5 to 11?

Last week, the FDA authorized the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. After conducting their own review, the CDC now recommends this vaccine for children in this age range, who can begin receiving their first dose within the week.

While many families have been eagerly awaiting the opportunity for their children to be immunized, others are hesitant. And most parents have questions about how COVID-19 affects younger children, vaccine safety in this age range, and whether the benefits outweigh potential risks. As a pediatric infectious disease specialist, I hear certain questions crop up repeatedly. Here’s what we know so far.

How does COVID-19 affect children in this age range?

While children continue to be much less likely than adults — especially adults 65 and older — to get severely ill from COVID-19, some children do get very sick. Thousands of children 5 to 11 have been hospitalized or need ICU-level support to recover from this infection. Almost 150 children in this age range have died from COVID-19. Additionally, over 5,000 cases of a serious inflammatory condition known as MIS-C that can follow COVID-19 infection have been reported. The majority of cases of MIS-C have occurred in children in this age range.

How has the Delta strain of the virus affected children?

The Delta strain of the virus that causes COVID spreads easily, particularly among people who haven’t received the vaccine. Children ages 5 to 11 remain more susceptible to infection, given their ineligibility to be vaccinated. In fact, more than one in five new cases recorded over the past two months while Delta infections surged in the US occurred in this age group, according to weekly reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association.

Can children spread the virus to others?

Several detailed reports describing outbreaks associated with settings such as summer camps, daycares, and schools, and those tracing transmission of COVID-19 within households, clearly demonstrate that children can spread this virus and infect others with whom they come into close contact.

Which COVID vaccines and doses are authorized for children ages 5 to 11?

Pfizer/BioNTech is the first COVID vaccine authorized by the FDA for this age group, based on results from a randomized controlled trial evaluating safety and immune responses. A separate trial launched by Moderna is being considered separately.

In a small number of children, the Pfizer/BioNTech trial compared three doses:

  • 30 micrograms (the dose adults receive)
  • 20 micrograms
  • 10 micrograms.

This part of the trial showed that 10 micrograms, the smallest dose, resulted in fewer side effects while still generating robust immune responses similar to responses achieved with higher doses.

In the next part of the trial, more than 2,200 children ages 5 to 11 were randomly assigned to receive either a 10-microgram dose of the vaccine (two-thirds of participants) or a placebo dose (one-third of participants). All received two shots, spaced three weeks apart.

Those given the vaccine had similar immune responses as 16-to-25-year-olds who had received the full-dose series of two shots.

When Pfizer/BioNTech submitted data to the FDA, there were not many cases of symptomatic COVID-19 infections in trial participants. Out of 19 documented cases, most had received the placebo shots. Estimates suggest the efficacy rate of the vaccine is 90%. (Efficacy measures how much a vaccine reduces infection in a controlled trial.) Tests confirmed that the Delta viral strain had caused the infections.

What do we know about side effects for children this age?

Most children had no side effects other than pain at the injection site. Those who did have side effects most commonly experienced fatigue, headaches, and/or muscle aches after the second dose rather than the first dose. For example, only 6% of children had fever after the second vaccine dose. There were no cases of severe allergic reaction to the vaccine.

What is not yet known?

In very rare instances, the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is linked to myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart. When this occurs, it is mostly seen in young males following their second dose of an mRNA vaccine (Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna). Most cases are mild, and children show no signs of long-term injury to the heart.

Among the 5-to-11-year-olds who received the Pfizer vaccine during the trial, there were no cases of myocarditis. However, this side effect is very rare and might not be noted until the number of children receiving the vaccine is much higher. The FDA and Pfizer/BioNTech will continue to closely monitor this age group for any occurrence of this rare side effect.

Can children get vaccinated against COVID-19 and influenza at the same time?

Yes. Children and adults can safely get both vaccines at the same time. The CDC urges everyone to get flu shots to help stay healthy during this flu season.

A randomized, controlled trial in the UK evaluated adults who received a flu shot or placebo shot in one arm and their second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the other arm. The researchers reported in Preprints with The Lancet that side effects and immune responses were similar, whether the flu shot or a placebo shot was given at the same time as the COVID vaccine.

What other steps can parents take to protect children against COVID-19?

Parents should remember that an individual is not fully immunized and protected by the vaccine until 14 days after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. Masks are recommended for anyone who is unvaccinated, or not fully immunized, when indoors with people outside of their household. If rates of COVID-19 are high where you live, masks may be recommended indoors for vaccinated individuals as well.

Parents can continue to encourage other simple habits that help prevent colds, flu, and COVID-19, such as washing hands often, coughing or sneezing into an elbow, throwing away used tissues quickly, and avoiding crowded places and people who are ill when possible.

Posted on Leave a comment

Menopause and memory: Know the facts

By 2050, 13.8 million people in the US will likely have Alzheimer’s disease, and two-thirds will be women. The economic cost is staggering, as it is estimated to rise to more than $2 trillion. Women are at the epicenter of this because the economic threat is especially dire for women, given they are an increasingly powerful element of our global economy and the vast majority of unpaid caregivers. Thus, maintaining intact memory starting early in midlife with the transition to menopause is critical not only for women themselves, but also for their families, society, and our economic health.

Preventing memory decline starts in early midlife

The decline in cognitive ability is not limited to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease (AD), but also part of healthy aging, with consequences for our quality of life. Most studies of aging and cognitive decline, particularly studies of AD, begin in people in their 70s. However, understanding factors that happen earlier in life, and how they impact age-related brain changes, is critical for developing prevention strategies for one of the major public health challenges of our time.

What happens to women’s brains through the transition into menopause?

In addition to chronological aging, women undergo reproductive aging in early midlife: menopause, during which they experience a depletion over time of ovarian hormones such as estradiol, the primary form of estrogen that works in the brain. Our research team and others have demonstrated that estradiol directly relates to changes in memory performance and reorganization of our brain circuitry that regulates memory function. Thus, women and men undergo different aging processes, especially in early midlife when reproductive aging is more critical for women than chronological aging. However, cognitive aging is rarely considered a women’s health issue. This is essential, because viewing brain aging as beginning in early midlife, and understanding the impact of menopause on the brain, will allow for development of strategies to prevent memory loss for women.

On average, women perform better than men on measures of verbal memory, beginning as early as post-puberty. However, women’s advantage for verbal memory performance is reduced with menopause. Many women report increased forgetfulness and “brain fog” during the menopausal transition. All women eventually undergo menopause, but there is a large age range for when it begins (from late 40s to early 60s), and substantial variation in women’s experience of its impact.

Over the last 15 years, an increasing number of studies are mapping out the intricate ways in which menopause affects the brain and what helps maintain intact memory. For example, menopause can affect how brain cells are generated, connect with each other, and even die, and these processes impact brain regions that are critical for memory. Menopause also lowers the level of glucose in the brain, the primary fuel used by brain cells. The brain then looks to other metabolic sources to provide the necessary fuel to function — that is, the brain adapts to a new hormonal environment in order to maintain functioning.

Further, women with other medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension are at increased risk for cognitive decline. Research into understanding this is focusing, in part, on how the brain and body share similar processes to produce energy to function (metabolism), and how blood pressure and other aspects of the vascular system function similarly in the brain and body.

Can hormone replacement treatment help?

Research shows that timing matters. Initiation of hormone replacement (HR) in perimenopause (roughly four to eight years before menopause) or early menopause may have positive effects on brain activity and memory function, although systematic HR trials have not been conducted during perimenopause. Initiation of HR in late menopause may have adverse effects on the brain, and increase risk of disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Research is critically needed to establish the most effective timing of administration, hormonal formula, dose, route of administration (for example, orally or by skin patch), and duration.

Further, to date much of the HR research has been conducted in healthy women, and little is known about its impact in women with chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Finally, there may be differences in responses in women who are genetically at high risk for brain disorders, like AD, that show increased benefits for using HR. Research shows us that one size does not fit all, and precision medicine is needed to identify which women may benefit the most. One example is for women with bilateral removal of the ovaries, particularly at a young age, for whom HR has been found to be very beneficial for brain function. In some women HR may not be an option, and alternative mechanisms may need to be identified, such as targeting levels of glucose and other effects associated with estradiol regulation of the brain.

What can women do to maintain brain health?

There are three major pillars for maintaining intact memory: effortful physical activity, effortful cognitive activity, and social contact. Research shows that the first two of these have direct beneficial effects on the brain, even at the level of cellular function. Social contact is another form of keeping our brains active by external stimuli, novel experiences, and perspectives outside of ourselves. Dietary habits (such as the Mediterranean diet, or intake of omega-3 fatty acids like in fish oil) have also had beneficial effects on memory function. The good news is that these are modifiable lifestyle habits, which may be particularly important for women with hypertension or diabetes who are at higher risk for cognitive decline.

Finally, adequate sleep (currently suggested as seven hours a night) is critical for brain health. Research has shown that during certain periods of sleep, learning is consolidated; that is, sleep plays a key role in storing and maintaining what we learned during the day, and even helps in clearing the brain of amyloid, one of the markers of potential AD pathology. More research is required to fully understand the beneficial impacts of these modifiable lifestyle factors. However, the time to start incorporating them into your life is now.

Posted on Leave a comment

What it takes to achieve world-changing scientific breakthroughs

fd30f478-b920-4e18-b0d1-ad48129e30a2

In science, advances are a daily occurrence, but true breakthroughs are rare. What does it take to achieve world-changing scientific breakthroughs? Some are the result of a lucky accident, combined with curiosity: scientists traveling down one road suddenly find reason to veer onto another road, one they never planned to travel — a road that may well lead nowhere.

Other major breakthroughs stem from scientists pursuing a very specific dream. One day, usually early in their career, they get an idea that they can’t stop thinking about. It’s crazy, they say to themselves, but is it really impossible? They talk to respected colleagues who often remind them of all the reasons their idea might not work, and how damaging this could be for their career. It’s a sobering message, yet the idea won’t die. So, they scramble to find financial support and seek out colleagues willing to risk traveling that road with them — a road that may well lead nowhere. But sometimes the road leads to major breakthroughs like penicillin and mRNA vaccines.

Breakthroughs due to lucky accidents and curiosity

One day in 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming at St. Mary’s Hospital in London was growing bacteria in a laboratory dish. Fleming was not pursuing a scientific dream. He was a microbiologist, just doing his job.

Then he noticed something odd: overnight, another kind of microbe, a fungus, had traveled through the air, landed on the laboratory dish, and started to grow and spread on the dish where the bacteria were growing. Fleming soon noticed that the growing fungus seemed to be killing the bacteria. He surmised that it was making some substance that killed the bacteria. Because the name of the fungus was Penicillium rubens, he called the substance the fungus was making “penicillin.”

When Fleming published a paper about his discovery, few were interested. It took another 10 years before other scientists tried to generate large amounts of penicillin to see if it might be able to cure bacterial infections and save lives. We all know how that worked out.

Fleming’s scientific breakthrough, like some others, occurred not because Fleming had a brilliant idea and exclaimed “Eureka!” Instead, it occurred because he noticed something and said, “That’s odd,” and then tried to figure it out.

Breakthroughs due to persistence and resilience in pursuit of a dream

The story of mRNA vaccines, like the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for COVID-19, is very different from the story of penicillin. For 30 years, a small group of scientists believed that mRNA vaccines would have great advantages over traditional vaccines — if only several obstacles could be overcome. Many of these scientists gave up as they encountered those obstacles, but a few persisted and, ultimately, succeeded. (I described what mRNA vaccines are, how they work, and how obstacles were overcome in a previous blog post.)

One scientist, Dr. Katalin Karikó, joined the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1990s with the dream of creating an mRNA vaccine. She applied for grants to support her work, but was repeatedly rejected: the reviewers stated that it was so unlikely that she or anyone could overcome the obstacles that supporting her research would be a wasted investment. Her university only agreed to continue supporting her work if she accepted a demotion and a pay cut. She accepted both, and doggedly pursued her dream.

One major obstacle to mRNA vaccines particularly fascinated her: the violent reaction of the immune system when it encounters mRNA from a virus. Ten years of dogged work helped Karikó and her colleague Drew Weissman figure out how to make a small change in mRNA that prevented that violent immune response — a major step in making all mRNA vaccines possible. Without this, the world wouldn’t have mRNA COVID vaccines today.

Two other scientists who created the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID vaccine, Uğur Şahin and Őzlem Turëci, are Turkish immigrants to Germany who met, fell in love with the idea of creating an mRNA vaccine, and then fell in love with each other. According to The Wall Street Journal, one day in 2002 they took a break for lunch, got married, and then returned in the afternoon to their laboratory to finish an experiment — just one more among many conducted over 30 years. Each experiment was one more possible step toward their ultimate dream until finally, in 2020, they achieved that dream: their mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 proved to be very safe and effective.

Holding hard to their dreams

Whichever path scientists who achieve lifesaving breakthroughs travel, they often endure disinterest, like Fleming, or repeated skepticism, ridicule, and rejection, like Karikó, Weissman, Şahin, and Turëci. Only through sheer persistence did these scientists bring their dreams to life. They have been rewarded with fame and wealth and something even more valuable: the knowledge that because of their work hundreds of millions of people around the world never got sick, and millions never died before their time.

Of course, a relentless obsession with an improbable dream fails to pay off for many scientists. Their ideas, while quite brilliant, in the end are proved wrong: nature doesn’t turn out to operate the way they predicted. In the end, their beautiful theory is murdered by a brutal gang of facts.

Still other scientific dreamers ultimately prove to have been on the right track all along and would have achieved their dream — if only they had done the experiment a little differently, if only they had persisted a little longer, or if only the support for their work had not run out. As a result, neither they nor the rest of us benefitted from what would have been — until other scientists rediscovered their work years later.

Ultimately, scientific breakthroughs are possible only if a society is willing to invest in dreamers, recognizing that not all investments will lead to major breakthroughs. However, the investments that do lead to breakthroughs bring an economic return that is far greater than the investment — as well as preventing suffering and death and changing the world.

Want to participate in COVID-19 research? Download the COVID Symptom Study app to help researchers track symptoms and hot spots across the US. Click here for information.

Posted on Leave a comment

Careful! Health news headlines can be deceiving

c31004b6-0b67-45dc-b092-ddf0ab3a0ddb

Ever read a headline that catches your eye but then found the story itself disappointing? Or worse, did you feel that the dramatic headline was utterly misleading? Yeah, me too.

The impact of a well-crafted headline can be big. We often skim the headlines, then decide whether or not to read on.

Previously, I’ve written about how media coverage of drug research can mislead or confuse. Here I’m zooming in on health headlines, which can be equally deceptive. Watch for these pitfalls.

Overstated study findings

  • Were humans studied? If a study finds that a drug is safe and effective for an important disease, that’s big news. But what if all of the study subjects were mice? Leaving out this important detail from the headline exaggerates the study’s importance.
  • Too much drama. Dramatic terms such as “breakthrough” or “groundbreaking” are common in headlines about medical research. Yet true breakthroughs are quite rare. That’s the nature of science: knowledge tends to accumulate slowly, with each finding building a bit on what came before.
  • Going too far. Headlines often make a leap of faith when summarizing a study’s findings. For example, if researchers identify a new type of cell in the blood that increases when a disease is worsening, they may speculate that treatments to reduce those cells might control the disease. “Researchers discover new approach to treatment!” blares the headline. Sure, that could happen someday (see below), but it’s an overstatement when the study wasn’t even assessing treatment.
  • Overlooking the most important outcome. Rather than examining how a treatment affects heart disease, let’s say, studies may assess how it affects a risk factor for it. A good example is cholesterol. It’s great if a drug lowers cholesterol, but much better if it lowers the rate of cardiovascular disease and deaths. Headlines rarely capture the important difference between a “proxy measure” (such as a risk factor) and the most important outcome (such as rates of death).

Faulty logic

  • A link for illness is not the same as a cause of illness. The distinction between “causation” and an “association” is important. Observational studies can determine whether there is a link (association) between two health issues, such as a link between a symptom (like a headache) and a disease (like stomach ulcers). But that doesn’t mean one actually caused the other. Imagine an observational study that compared thousands of headache sufferers with thousands of people who rarely had headaches. If more people in the frequent headache group also had more stomach ulcers, the headline might boldly declare “Headaches cause ulcers!” A more likely explanation is that people with a lot of headaches are taking aspirin, ibuprofen, and related drugs, which are known causes of ulcers.

Hazy on key details

  • Someday isn’t today. Studies of new drugs or devices may be heralded as life-changing for people or practice-changing for doctors. Yet, a closer look often reveals that the new treatment is years away from reaching the market — or it may never get approved at all.
  • A work in progress. “Preliminary” is the missing word in many headlines. Studies presented at medical conferences but not yet published in a peer-reviewed medical journal offer preliminary insights. This research, while promising at the time, may ultimately be a scientific dead end.
  • Is it a study, a press release, or an ad? It’s hard to tell with some headlines. Press releases or advertisements typically present a positive spin on new findings or treatments. We expect news stories to be more balanced.

One story, many headlines

Here’s a great example of overhyped headlines. A 2021 study presented findings about a pacemaker that treats abnormal heart rhythms for a period of time and then dissolves. Amazing, right? For people who need a pacemaker only temporarily, a dissolving pacemaker could allow them to avoid a surgical procedure to remove it once it was no longer needed.

Three headlines covering this research spun the story this way:

Coming Soon: An Implanted Pacemaker That Dissolves Away After Use

Could people one day get pacemakers that dissolve into the body?

First-ever transient pacemaker harmlessly dissolves in body

But that dissolving pacemaker had never been tried in living humans — an important fact! To test the dissolving pacemaker, the researchers had performed open-heart surgery in rats and dogs, and lab experiments on heart tissue removed from mice, rabbits, and deceased humans.

The first headline demonstrates the pitfall of overpromising on the findings of preliminary research: yes, a dissolving pacemaker might someday be routine in humans, but it’s unlikely to be “coming soon.” And when a headline says “harmlessly dissolves in body,” we might reasonably think this refers to a livinghuman body. Not so.

The bottom line

Why are we constantly bombarded with misleading headlines? A major reason is that headlines attract attention, clicks, reads, subscriptions, and influence essential to media sites. Some writers and editors lean into hype, knowing it attracts more attention. Others may not be trained to read or present medical news carefully enough.

In a world full of misleading health news headlines, here’s my advice: be skeptical. Consider the source and read past the headline before buying in. And if your go-to media often serves up misleading headlines, consider changing channels or crossing that news source off your list.