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What is reality? Headlines distort information about aging and health

So you read a headline and say, what, what?? But of course we regularly find ourselves incredulous.  Can that headline be accurate? What did that study say? Who did they survey to get that result?  This has been a particularly bad week for distortion headlines – and not about politics, actually.  These are about topics seniors and families would care about and be disappointed when they read more.  Let’s start with the Wall Street Journal article title:


  • This brain exercise puts off dementia Wow! Speed training does that? That title was in the print edition of the WSJ a few days ago; it has been rephrased as a question online, but if you examine the URL, clearly editors thought it was a statement of fact. The reported study has been the basis for a commercial brain training company, Posit Science. You read on excitedly. Oops, we find out that the researcher who reported the findings, Dr. Jerri Edwards, consulted to Posit Science. Another researcher, not affiliated with the study, Glenn Smith, noted: “It isn’t clear that speed training affects the neurophysiological processes that cause dementia.” Finally, the CEO of Posit Science, Jeff Zimman, scrambles online the next day: “We make no claims about the use of any of our exercises to prevent or treat any disorder or disease.”   Oh well, that went well. 
  • Seniors who live alone are likeliest to rate their health highly.  Wow! How to interpret? This time the source is the Journal of Applied Gerontology, based on data about 41,603 adults aged 65+ examined from 6 years of federal surveys:  "People over 65 who live alone were more likely to describe their health as excellent or very good than were seniors who live with others, according to a study exploring connections between older Americans’ health status and their living arrangements. That may be because when seniors encounter serious health problems and mounting physical difficulties, they often stop living by themselves and choose to live with others for support, they speculated." Ya think?  And could it also be that these seniors want to stay living alone and answer accordingly when asked about their health?  Add this: "mental health from living alone was worse," said Judith D. Weissman, the study’s lead author.  And what about the link between depression and health?  Clearly out of scope.
  • Baby boomers take to digital healthcare.  The headline was intriguing – but the 'survey' was conducted by a purveyor of cloud-based software for doctors.  Okay, getting past that and onto the 'finding,' we learn that 62% of Baby Boomers—individuals between the ages of 51 and 69—use the web to access and update their electronic health records compared with 58% for mature users (age 70 and above), 54% for Generation X (age 35 to 50) and 48% for Millennials (age 18 to 34). Why does that sound fishy?  Maybe we are talking about requesting an appointment or asking for the refill of a prescription? What is 'digital healthcare' anyway? Consider other research on the topic. Or read a report about doctors' frustration with digital healthcare, including the inadequacy of patient portals. The doctors are frustrated, the portals are inadequate, but the baby boomer patients use them to update their records. Can all of this be true? Wait, according to Pew Research, only 50% of the population aged 75+ is online as of 2015. So are they talking about those aged 70-74?  What ARE they talking about? And why would the oldest in the survey be more likely to access and update than the youngest?  Go figure.
  • Scientists get closer to harnessing the health benefits of red wine.   Not a bad headline -- they get closer, eh?  "A recent human study that suggested resveratrol could slow the progression of Alzheimer’s used a daily dose equivalent to the amount in about 1,000 bottles of red wine, says Scott Turner, director of the Memory Disorders Program at Georgetown University Medical Center, who led the study."  Well, that sounds great, right?  Except that the study was September, 2015. Here's the kicker: "The investigators enrolled 119 participants for the one-year study. The highest dose of resveratrol tested was one gram by mouth twice daily — equivalent to the amount found in about 1,000 bottles of red wine."  That's right, 119 participants, and no pill is available. Not that much closer.
  • Nearly a quarter of seniors regret this Social Security decision. And finally, here is a click bait twist on survey results -- start with what the data did NOT show. The actual percentage of older adults regretting starting their Social Security benefit in this particular study was 23%. Says the writer: "Admittedly, this means three-quarters of those surveyed wouldn't change when they filed for benefits, but 39% of seniors also noted that a life event forced them to begin taking Social Security benefits. Okay. So reversing this tortured language, 77% of people age 50 and up have no regrets. And 61% did not have a 'life event' that forced them into it. And by the way, forget about 12 years of folks '50 and older' noted in the article -- they were ineligible. 

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