Reading beyond the headlines: research in the news

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By Kirsty Marais | Monday 31 March 2014

If you’re a news hound like me, or you have an interest in dementia, you’ve probably noticed an increasing amount of dementia research in the headlines lately. Some of these headlines are explored in tonight’s episode of the BBC’s Bang Goes the Theory, in which our Head of Research talks about research in the news, and what we can really take from it. News like this keeps us busy: journalists often ask us to comment on new findings and put the research into context.

These requests are important to us. We hope to help people decide if it’s worth trying the latest prevention they’ve read about, or whether it’s likely to be a waste of time and money – or worse, dangerous for their health. So how do we do this?

There are a few questions we can ask to help evaluate a study:

1. What sort of research is it?

Is it lab-based – in cells, or in animals – or does it involve people? These different types of research are all important in their own way, but each can only tell us so much.

Experiments in cells are among the first in a long chain of research: this is early-stage stuff. It’s incredibly important, but findings may take a long time to be translated into treatments, if they even reach that stage. Compounds tested in mice – an important and necessary stage of drug development – need years more research to know whether they can help people.

Studies in people tell us more about real life outside the lab, but there are still questions to be asked. For example:

2. What else might have influenced the results?

The flip side of studying people in the real world is that life is complicated. We all have different lifestyles, which means there are many competing factors to take into account. Some people exercise more than others. One person might eat a healthier diet but spend more time sitting at a desk than another, and our habits change over time. It’s not easy to tease apart all the factors affecting our health.

Observational studies, which look for trends among groups of people, can be good at identifying factors that might influence our risk of disease. They’re less good at telling us about cause and effect, so we have to interpret results carefully. To know for sure whether something can prevent or treat dementia, we need clinical trials.

3. How was the study conducted?

To evaluate a study, it’s important to know how it was carried out. In research involving people, we need to know who was involved – how old they were, for example, and whether they were representative of the general population. We also pay attention to the methods used. How were people’s thinking and memory assessed? If it was a prevention trial, did it run for years, or just a few weeks? Understanding how a study was conducted provides insight into its strengths and weaknesses.

4. How big is it?

In population studies and clinical trials, size really is important. The fewer people taking part in a study, the greater the likelihood that the findings could have been down to chance or circumstances that don’t hold true in the population as a whole.

This doesn’t mean small studies have no value. They are more practical to run, and are often the best way to explore whether potential preventions or treatments are worth investigating further. But to be really sure of your results, you need bigger studies, involving thousands of people.

5. What does the bulk of evidence say?

Our experts have a good overview of the different strands of dementia research currently taking place, and this helps them assess where the latest results fit into the overall picture. One study isn’t enough to create certainty, but if repeated studies have similar findings, we can be surer of the results.

Conversely, we often treat ‘breakthrough’ findings with caution. When scientists found the cancer drug bexarotene had possible benefits in mice, the headlines prompted dozens of enquiries to our office: people wanted to know how to get hold of the drug. Sadly, a year later, several studies trying to replicate the initial finding had less positive results. The story illustrates how complex research can be, but it’s important to recreate and retest previous findings to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Helpful resources

It’s not always easy to know how to interpret research in the headlines, but there are some resources that can help:

  • The Cochrane Library carries plain language summaries of current evidence on different topics
  • NHS Choices’ Behind the Headlines has in-depth breakdowns of studies making the news
  • Our own news pages offer the charity’s take on research in the headlines
  • You can also find out more about the different types of research, and how they can help defeat dementia, in our interactive Lab.

One thing I love about my job is the chance to learn about efforts researchers are making to tackle dementia. It’s clear that our understanding of the condition is constantly growing. It may not be tomorrow, but I look forward to the day soon when we can comment on a real breakthrough treatment – one that can truly make a difference.


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About the author

Kirsty Marais