Calorie restriction stories highlight best practices when writing about research

Judith Graham

About Judith Graham

Judith Graham (@judith_graham), is a freelance journalist based in Denver and former topic leader on aging for AHCJ. She haswritten for the New York Times, Kaiser Health News, the Washington Post, the Journal of the American Medical Association, STAT News, the Chicago Tribune, and other publications.

Down crashed one of the great hopes of anti-aging medicine recently with the news that calorie restriction did not lift longevity in rhesus monkeys.

Core Topics
Health Reform
Aging
Oral Health
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It was a surprising finding, as Sharon Begley of Reuters reported in an elegantly written, nicely balanced story.

In 2006, a separate study of starvation-level diets in close-but-you’re-not-quite-family primates had indicated that monkeys were less likely to get “heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases of aging” after abstaining from normal eating for 20 years.

As Begley notes:

“They also lived longer: By 2009, 80 percent of the free-eating Wisconsin monkeys had died of age-related illness, but only 50 percent of calorie-restricted monkeys had. Those findings, the scientists reported at the time, showed “that CR slows aging in a primate species.”

Also, earlier research had confirmed that lab rats, mice, yeast, fruit flies and round worms fed up to 40 percent less than normal lived 30 percent longer, and sometimes even more, Begley observes.

So, hopes were running high and negative findings from the new National Institute on Aging study were not expected.

That’s how it goes, folks. Research findings in other members of the animal kingdom (and insects and worms) do not tell you anything about what will happen in people, necessarily. They can suggest a line of inquiry to be pursued, but not give the answer.

Take this lesson to heart! Too often, health reporters fall into the trap of heralding “breakthrough” studies in mice, rodents, or other critters. Don’t do it. Let this example breed caution and serve as your guide. If you write about such matters – and I suggest you ask yourself why you would – always, always tell your readers that findings from animal (and insect) research do not automatically translate to humans.

Reading Begley’s story inspired me in several other ways.

First, look at the quality of her language. While being entirely serious and delivering nuanced, detailed analysis, Begley plays with her subject, using words such as “emaciated,” “abstemious” and “gourmand.” What a sign of mastery this is, possible only when a reporter is fully in control of her material and enjoying the act of presenting it to the public.

I suggest that this quality of serious playfulness is something that every young medical journalist should aspire to. Make it interesting! Make it fun! To do so while not sacrificing an intelligent presentation of the subject is an accomplishment and something your readers will appreciate. (It should be acknowledged that not every subject lends itself to this approach.)

Next, look at the quality of Begley’s analysis. Succinctly, in easy-to-understand language, she teases out the complexity of this subject rather than making it overly simple and one-dimensional:

“The new study, from the National Institute on Aging, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, suggests a surprising disconnect between health and lifespan. It found that most of the 57 calorie-restricted monkeys had healthier hearts and immune systems and lower rates of diabetes, cancer or other ills than the 64 control monkeys. But there was no longevity pay-off.”

…”The oldest animals in each group had the same incidence of tumors, heart disease and general deterioration. While the abstemious monkeys had some improved health markers such as cholesterol and triglyceride levels, Mattison said, “that didn’t translate into better survival.”

Is this topic loaded? You bet. Those who hold forth the promise of anti-aging remedies have looked to calorie restriction as a great success story. Popular books have been written on the subject. Thousands of people have adopted a calorie-restricted diet in the hopes that they’ll live better and longer and a society devoted to calorie restriction has been established. (Thank you, Begley, for the links.)

That’s all the more reason to pay attention to the anti-aging claims circulating on the Internet and being advanced by those with an economic interest in drawing patients and selling products to the unsuspecting.

Of course, many other reporters covered these findings and their work deserves notice too:

Look at how Gina Kolata of The New York Times creates a sense of drama over the extent of weight reduction in her lead. And pay attention to the significance of this quote regarding the 2006 study whose findings fueled hopes regarding calorie restriction:

“This shows the importance of replication in science,” Steven Austad, interim director of the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Any medical journalist worth his or her salt should repeat this as a mantra. Replication! Replication! It’s all about replication.

For a different angle, look at this piece by Rosie Mestel of the Los Angeles Timesabout a St. Louis lawyer who practices calorie restriction – a story that could be replicated in communities across the country. Asked what he hoped to get out of his calorie restricted practice, this is what Joe Cordell said:

Judith GrahamJudith Graham (@judith_graham), AHCJ’s topic leader on aging, is writing blog posts, editing tip sheets and articles and gathering resources to help our members cover the many issues around our aging society.

If you have questions or suggestions for future resources on the topic, please send them to judith@healthjournalism.org.

“First and foremost, I would like to live to the outer limits of what human beings normally live. [But] I would be delighted to take 90 to 95 years without cancer, without heart disease, without diabetes or other chronic illnesses. To me, that would have warranted this.”

I like hearing this ordinary person’s voice in the mix. Often this doesn’t happen with reporting about medicine or science because there simply isn’t the time to find someone willing to speak. But follow ups are always a possibility if the topic is interesting enough, as was the case here.

Related

For more about accurately reporting on studies, download the AHCJ slim guide “Covering Medical Research.” It offers advice on recognizing and reporting the problems, limitations and backstory of a study, as well as publication biases in medical journals and it includes 10 questions you should answer to produce a meaningful and appropriately skeptical report.
Chapters deal with the hierarchy of evidence, putting types of research into context, scrutinizing the quality of evidence, phases of clinical trials, explaining risk, embargoes, pitfalls of news from scientific meetings, criteria for judging your story and more. The guide links to online resources throughout.

2 thoughts on “Calorie restriction stories highlight best practices when writing about research

  1. Paul Raeburn

    Judith,

    In a post at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, I take issue with some of your comments about covering animal research. You seem to suggest that reporters should not cover these stories (“ask yourself why you would”), and you say that they “do not tell you anything about what will happen in people, necessarily.”

    I disagree on both points. I’d welcome your comments on my post, either here or at the Tracker. I think this is an important issue, and I think many reporters and editors are confused about it.

    Thanks.

  2. Judith Graham

    Paul, I didn’t mean to suggest that reporters should never cover animal research or that findings from that research aren’t important. That would be irresponsible, as you point out in your blog post.

    I only meant to suggest that reporters shouldn’t reflexively cover this research and make the assumption that research findings would automatically translate to humans. When I said “ask yourself why” I was encouraging reporters to think about what they were doing and why, rather than adopt this reflexive posture. Too often, as you know well, this doesn’t happen.

    Judy

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