How to Read The Health News


Editor’s Note: We’ve all gulped at some scary health headline. But chances are we’re overreacting. Here, from experts at the National Institute on Aging, are some suggestions on how to read the health news  so you can be informed, not overwhelmed:

“Risk” is the chance that something bad will happen—like catching the flu or being hit by a car when crossing the street. Risk does not mean that something bad will definitely happen.

What does risk mean when it’s part of health news? Every day, news stories report medical findings. How risk is described can change how you handle your health. Perhaps a certain medicine carries a 50% increased risk of stroke. That sounds scary. Does it mean that 50%—or half—of everyone taking the drug will have a stroke? No, it doesn’t. Let’s start by assuming that in every 1,000 people who are not taking the medicine, two people will have a stroke. A 50% increase means 1 more person, or 3 total out of 1,000, will have a stroke while on this drug. Stroke can be a devastating illness, but maybe 3 out of 1,000 doesn’t seem as big a risk as 50% sounds. And that risk might be an acceptable one if the medicine could help your health problem.

But how can you know if that increased risk even applies to you? This article provides background you can use to make sense of research results. Better understanding of risk might help you sort out news that might be important to you from other reports that might be of interest, but would not be a reason to change how you take care of your health.

Are All Research Studies the Same?

No, there are different types of studies. Some take place in a laboratory, others involve animals, and some look at people. A scientist might start with a question—maybe whether a new drug cures a bacterial infection—and set up an experiment to answer it. In this experiment, the scientist grows the bacteria in the laboratory and then adds the new drug. Usually, there is also a control—that is, the same bacteria are grown in the same way but not exposed to the new drug. The scientist then watches the treated bacteria and the untreated bacteria. If the treated bacteria are dying while the untreated ones are still growing, that could mean the drug is working. Scientists might next test the drug in laboratory animals and later in people.

Which Studies Involve People?

When studying people, scientists often use observational studies. In these, scientists keep track of a group of people for several years. It’s useful to be able to observe the same people over a long time period. By looking at what those people have in common, as well as how they differ, scientists can discover clues as to who develops a disease and who does not. What they learn can suggest the path for more research.