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Spinning the Health News

Debbie says:

Last week, Body Impolitic stringer Kerry passed on this article from the BBC. I glanced at it, and was immediately struck by this sentence:

“The findings held true regardless of how overweight or poor they were.” This is in the second paragraph of the article.

The “findings” are that not smoking, eating lots of fruit and vegetables, getting exercise, and drinking in moderation, when put together, showed a 14-year increase in life expectancy in this 20,000-person British study. The major new finding is that the four factors are “additive”; each one shows some increase in life expectancy, but the four together show five (not four) times the difference of one separately.

The lead researcher expands on the weight and income issue in the following statement: “And we also found that social class and BMI – body mass index – really did not have a role to play.”

Notable about the story is that it is upbeat and encouraging:

Health campaigners welcomed the study.

“This is good news and shows that by living a healthy life, people can reduce their risk of dying from heart and circulatory disease,” said Judy O’Sullivan of the British Heart Foundation.

Later the same day, Richard (another BI stringer) sent the AP wire version of the same story, the one Americans will see. The only mention of weight and class in this version is in the fifth paragraph, “The benefits were also seen regardless of whether or not people were fat and what social class they came from.”

BMI is never mentioned, and the weight and/or class issues are never mentioned again. Perhaps even more interesting, the tone of this article is dismissive and discouraging:

… because the study only observed people rather than testing specific changes, experts said that it would be impossible to conclude that people who suddenly adopted these healthy behaviors would automatically gain 14 years.

“We can’t say that any one person could gain 14 years by doing these things,” said [Dr. Tim] Armstrong [of the World Health Organization]. “The 14 years is an average across the population of what’s theoretically possible.”

But experts worry that the new findings may still not be enough to persuade people to change their unhealthy ways.

“Most people know that things like a good diet matter and that smoking is not good for you,” [Susan] Jebb, [head of Nutrition and Health at Britain's Medical Research Council] said. “We need to work on providing people with much more practical support to help them change.”

In many ways, the AP version is more accurate: although this was a large study, and sounds reasonably well-planned, the results are, and can only be, statistical. And the study absolutely did not address rapid changes in life choices and their effect on longevity.

At the same time, the two articles leave the reader with two completely different impressions, although all the facts are the same. The BBC article says that readers can make some easy choices that will be good for us in the present and the future, and that things we can’t change (like weight and income) are not running my life. The AP leaves the reader with feeling that the weight and income issues are just not important to the conversation, but still ominously in the background, and that making changes may not be worth it anyway (and that people can’t make them without “support”).

Maybe I should be getting my health news from the BBC.

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6 Responses to “Spinning the Health News”

  1. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    That’s an extremely interesting comparison.

    “The BBC article says that readers can make some easy choices…” but I think that changing one’s eating habits to include more fruits & vegetables and changing one’s exercise routines are both difficult to accomplish. Quitting smoking (if one smokes) is a huge struggle for almost everyone who succeeds in quitting.

  2. Lisa Hirsch Says:

    IOW, the BBC article is more upbeat and encouraging (and it’s forthright about the role of size and income), but is it accurate?

  3. Rachel Says:

    That study is why I’ve started walking again. Before, I had this idea that I had to get hours of exercise every day to be healthy, which of course is impossible for anyone who works a real job and has a life. But half an hour of walking every day + veggies that I love anyway? I can totally do that.

    So I am. And it feels wonderful. ^_^

  4. Lynn Kendall Says:

    Hmm. I wonder if the lack of class impact would be true in the US. After all, the British have universal health care.

  5. Debbie Says:

    Lisa, my personal read is that the BBC article is accurate enough for the purposes of a mainstream article, but I also take your point.

    Rachel, yay!

    Lynn, good question.

  6. Jill Lundquist Says:

    Sandy Szwarc doesn’t agree with the media’s interpretation of the study.

    http://junkfoodscience.blogspot.com/2008/01/if-only-it-were-true.html

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