You don't need to be a scientist to think like one — use these tips to navigate the confusing world of research
A worldwide quest is underway to find methods to stop or slow Alzheimer’s disease. As awareness of the disease grows, so does media attention: You can’t turn on the TV or scroll through social media without stumbling across new claims on how to beat Alzheimer’s or dementia. While these reports often boast promising breakthroughs, how do you know if they’re legitimate?
The key is to review research news with a critical eye, says Alzheimer’s Association Director of Scientific Engagement Rebecca Edelmayer.
“Not all sources contain quality medical information,” she says. “You must be able to spot misleading and even potentially unsubstantiated or unproven claims in order to make the best decisions for yourself and your loved ones.”
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Supplement your awareness
One of the biggest problem areas for unsubstantiated claims are dietary supplements, foods and products that claim to be beneficial for Alzheimer’s or other dementia symptoms. These products are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and little is known about their effectiveness, quality and safety. But that hasn’t stopped some outlets from touting their benefits for cognitive health. In the past five years, the FDA has issued more than 40 warning letters to companies illegally marketing over 80 products claiming to prevent, treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease.
Supplements are particularly appealing because they are often presented as an easy solution. Before taking a dietary supplement or any product as part of your health regimen, make sure you:
- Talk to a doctor. Your physician can help determine the best approach for your health needs. Disclose any substances you’re taking to ensure they’re not interfering with other medications.
- Look for FDA-approved treatments. The FDA ensures that safe and effective drugs are available to the public. Visit fda.gov/drugs to find out if a treatment is approved.
Be your own advocate
Edelmayer notes that the media’s focus on research is vital in advancing the fight against Alzheimer’s. But since research and medical news can sometimes be difficult to decipher, it’s imperative to remain vigilant. “The most important thing you can do is to demand evidence rigorously backed in science,” she says.
Science Hub is a free application that distributes research, spreads awareness and delivers accurate information directly to your phone.
Think like a scientist
You don’t need to be a scientist to think like one. To navigate the often confusing world of research, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is there sufficient evidence? Quality research is data-backed and peer-reviewed, meaning the methods and results were deemed acceptable by outside experts. While testimonials can be convincing, they’re not scientifically credible. To get unfiltered information on some of the research covered by media, visit clinicaltrials.gov. For credible news and viewpoints specific to Alzheimer’s research, download the Alzheimer’s Association Science Hub app at alz.org/sciencehub.
- Who conducted the research? Look for studies from established research institutions. Remember that some studies can be conducted with an agenda, which compromises the integrity of the research. See who funded the study and if there could be a conflict of interest.
- How was the research conducted? Research methods should be reviewed closely. For example, exciting research is being conducted in mice, but until it’s tested in humans, researchers will never know if it is safe and effective.
- Does it sound too good to be true? If the results are declared “groundbreaking” or “first-of-its-kind,” proceed with caution. These are buzz words that are not usually part of a researcher’s scientific report in a medical journal. A true breakthrough is rare, so remain skeptical until you see more evidence.
- Where was the research announced? Even reputable publications can share misleading information. Credible research is usually first shared at scientific meetings or in peer-reviewed journals.
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