TCS Daily

Heart of the Matter

By Iain Murray - November 25, 2002 12:00 AM

Recent news coverage of research about heart disease beat the drums a little too loudly. To begin with, NBC News correspondent Robert Bazell reported on a study about a new test for coronary heart disease on November 14. The test, which analyzes levels of the C Reactive Protein (CRP) was hyped by Bazell in his broadcast report (the web link is more circumspect). He signed off:

The CRP test is already on the market, costs about $10, and many doctors believe it could save thousands of lives a year by identifying those at highest risk for America's number one killer. Robert Bazell, NBC News, New York.

Yet he failed to mention that the journal that published the study, the New England Journal of Medicine, also published a skeptical editorial by Dr. Lori Mosca of Columbia University, who pointed out that even 20 years ago, there were over 200 known correlates to coronary heart disease (CHD). She argued that widespread use of the test may be premature, pointing out that the similarly hyped beta-carotene therapy failed to predict CHD adequately and was associated with increased risk of cancer. It might therefore be premature to introduce this test without further validation.

But there are other questions that NBC could have investigated. Although the paper claims that those with high levels of CRP are twice as likely as those with high cholesterol to die from heart attacks and strokes, it never reveals the absolute numbers. It makes a difference if the rate of high-cholesterol patients who die is two percent or twenty percent. Moreover, it appears that the lead author of the paper has a patent on a CRP test. Although it is not a reason to worry if the data are reliable, clearly he stands to gain financially from the best possible light being placed on these findings.

If the journal that published the study thought a skeptical voice was needed, NBC News should have also provided a platform for one. Instead, news consumers are left with the idea that there is a new panacea in CHD testing. NBC was irresponsible in conveying that impression. Demonstrating that web-based news is often more informative than broadcast news, the skeptical editorial is mentioned in the MSNBC version of the story, which incorporates extra analysis from the Associated Press.

Then there was another case where the analysis went far beyond the story that the data supported. The Associated Press reported that a new study had found no benefits to older women who already have heart disease from hormone or vitamin therapy. So far so good. It is useful to know when hyped treatments do not do what they are supposed to do.

But they went on to claim that the treatments might be risky, perhaps accelerating heart disease. Yet there is no evidence for this in the study itself, which contains only one statistically significant finding in the entire report, and that is very close to being insignificant itself.

Both the AP and the researchers they quote were irresponsible in suggesting that the treatments are dangerous. They had no basis for saying so. Was the finding that hormone and vitamin therapy don't provide the benefits claimed for them so not newsworthy that they had to mention risk of death to receive attention?

Finally, perhaps the most significant heart-related news of the past couple of weeks failed to attract any mainstream media attention. A forty year-long longitudinal study of 800 men discovered that hostility levels were a better predicator of heart disease than cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking or weight. While the researchers concede that their cohort is in better health than a random selection of 800 men would be, simply due to the fact that they have been alerted to health problems earlier than other men, the findings do support the theory that hostility promotes heart problems. The physiological reaction to anger - higher blood pressure, faster heart rate - is obvious.

So if the media's failures in reporting these heart studies have gotten you angry, please, try to calm down.



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