Reading health news headlines may be hazardous to your health

 

A panel of experts recently published a report on the evidence linking the consumption of red and processed meats to colorectal cancer. A reasonable headline for a news article describing the experts’ conclusions might read something like:

Eating red and processed meats may slightly increase your risk of developing cancer

The experts estimated how your risk of developing colorectal cancer at some point during your life changes depending on the amount of red and processed meats that you eat.

Here’s a quick summary of what the experts found:

Meat eaten                      Cancer risk

      None                                         5%

    Average                                      6%

  2x Average                                   7%

In other words, eating red and processed meats may slightly increase your risk of developing cancer.

This is important information. We already know that eating red and processed meats may slightly increase your risk of developing other health problems, such as cardiovascular disease1. Adding cancer to the list of problems associated with red and processed meats therefore reinforces the idea that we should eat them in moderation.

Unfortunately, rather than conveying an accurate summary of the experts’ findings, the headlines describing the results of the new report in the mainstream media were clearly designed to make us think that the dangers associated with red and processed meats are much greater than they really are:

Processed meats do cause cancer – BBC News

Meat is linked to higher cancer risk – The New York Times

Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – The Guardian

That last headline is particularly misleading. Here’s a quick summary of how your risk of developing lung cancer at some point during your life changes depending on how much you smoke:

Cigarettes smoked                      Cancer risk

               None                                                1%

             Average                                           20%

To compare that jump from 1% to 20% with smoking to the analogous increase from 5% to 6% that is associated with eating red and processed meats is disingenuous to say the least.

The people who write the headlines are well aware that they are misleading – on the same day as the ‘Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes’ article, The Guardian also ran another article with the headline:

Meat and tobacco: the difference between risk and strength of evidence

and the subtitle:

Comparing smoking to bacon in terms of risk of cancer is extremely misleading, despite the strength of evidence being similar

Yes, that’s right – they ran one article that was misleading, and then ran a second article alongside it pointing out that the first article was misleading.

Why run the first article then? Because sensational headlines get more clicks, of course. Last time I checked, the first article had 10 times as many shares and comments as the second.

I understand that news organizations need to make money, so I’m not going to act outraged that they would deliberately use misleading headlines or lament the fact that they seem to be ignoring their social responsibilities.

But if you’re a news junkie, you may want to consider why you are constantly scanning the latest headlines. Is it because you need up-to-the-minute information? I doubt it. And if you do, you should probably find a more accurate source.

So if it’s not information you’re after, then what is it? Entertainment? If so, you can do better than the news. Are you really enjoying yourself when you’re scanning those headlines? Probably not. In fact, the news is probably leaving you feeling anxious. It’s difficult to think of an experiment to show definitively that constant exposure to the news is hazardous to your mental health, but there is some indirect evidence2.

In the words of one physician, “the news is clearly nothing more than a poor form of stress-inducing entertainment that becomes addictive, soaking up leisure time, exercise time, and time that could be spent with family, all while leaving a negative void in its place” 3.

Ouch. That might seem a bit over the top, but he has a point. If you really do care about what’s going in the world, why not switch to some kind of “slow” news? There are plenty of weekly publications that will publish more accurate articles on important stories after the dust has settled. Slow news will leave you better informed at the very least, and it might even make you healthier and happier.

 

1 Pan et al., Arch Intern Med, 2012

2 Holman et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 2014

3 http://www.myhealthwire.com/news/breakthroughs/908