Behind the headlines

The most ridiculous headlines of 2017

There will always be health headlines that are designed to shock you to try to get your attention. As 2017 comes to an end we look at the truth behind some of the silliest headlines about heart conditions.

'Six bars of chocolate a week could cut risk of common heart condition'

A selection box of chocolate

Chocolate lovers, rejoice, as apparently ‘Eating up to six bars of chocolate a week could reduce the risk of a potential heart condition by almost one quarter.’ Perhaps don’t rejoice just yet though, as on closer inspection there are some limitations to the study.

Importantly, the researchers only knew participants’ chocolate intake at the start of the study and (for most participants) after five years, which is a huge limitation. The end result is based on figures after an average of 13.5 years of follow up. We don’t know whether the participants’ chocolate consumption changed during that time. And if you add six bars of chocolate a week to your diet, you’re likely to put on weight, which is linked to negative effects on health.

'Do YOU have two or more children? You're at risk of heart disease - because they are so expensive to look after'

Two young boys playing in cardboard boxes

This idea is in line with previous research, but in all of the studies the explanation was thought to be related to socio-economic factors, not the number of children itself. So these results would not necessarily be generalisable to high income families. It is also not clear whether the study also looked at single parents, or same-sex parents. 

Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the BHF, said: “Many other factors need to be considered when thinking about this, such as where you live and your lifestyle choices, like smoking and diet. Lifestyles are different here in the UK compared to China, where one of these studies was conducted, and so people with more than one child should not be worried. 

“We cannot directly link pregnancy, or the number of children a mother raises, to an increased risk of developing heart and circulatory disease,” he said. 

'CHILLAX ON HOL IS 'DEADLY' Just two weeks lying on a beach on holiday ‘increases the risk of early death’'

Someone relaxing on a sun lounger on holiday

Actually, in the research no one was even on holiday. The researchers, from Liverpool University, looked at just 28 fit young adults, who they asked to reduce their daily steps by 80 per cent from 10,000 (the amount the NHS recommends that we aim for as a minimum) to just 1,500.

After 14 days they had lost muscle and their waistlines were on average 1cm larger. Because putting on weight around your middle is a risk factor for heart problems, the researchers suggested that this two-week reduced step count could be linked to heart problems and diabetes.

While sedentary behaviour is recognised as a risk factor for heart and circulatory disease, don’t let this coverage put you off going on holiday: instead, try to include some fun activities like going for a walk or a swim, to make the most of your break.

Going grey early increases heart attack risk

A close up of a man with grey hair

We know that being older increases your risk of heart disease and also your risk of going grey, but apparently there is a link that is independent of your chronological age.

The study has some big limitations, and only finds an association between grey hair and heart disease risk – it certainly doesn’t prove cause and effect, as the headline suggests. A much larger study is needed before we start using hair colour as a measure of heart disease risk. 

The researchers reported that: “Patients with coronary artery disease had a statistically significant higher hair whitening score”, but we don't know how big an increase in risk this is - “statistically significant” could still be a very small increase in risk, or it could be much larger. 

Another issue with this is that the categories (according to the press release) were: 1 = pure black hair, 2 = black more than white, 3 = black equals white, 4 = white more than black, and 5 = pure white. It’s unclear whether this is because only men with black hair (as opposed to red, brown or blonde) were used, or whether it is a poor categorising system.

SUPERDRUG: Wonder drug that can cut heart attack and cancer risk in HALF is hailed as biggest breakthrough since statins

A selection of medicine on a pharmacy shelf

The coverage of this research suggested that there was a medicine that ‘cures’ a heart attack. It said that this drug is 'being hailed the biggest medical breakthrough since statins', does not explain who has said this. Other newspapers backed this up by quoting Dr Paul Ridker, the lead author of the study, who said he’d seen “three broad eras of preventative cardiology”. “In the first, we recognised the importance of diet, exercise and smoking cessation. In the second, we saw the tremendous value of lipid-lowering drugs such as statins. Now, we're cracking the door open on the third era.” Although a vivid quote, it’s not exactly the same as saying this is “the biggest breakthrough since statins”.

It is also important to note that the drug was not directly compared with statins, and that canakinumab was associated with more fatal infections than the placebo. 

The research found that this drug reduced the risk of a repeat heart attack by 15 per cent, and the risk of lung cancer by 75 per cent. But the Sun’s coverage says that the risk of "dying from heart disease and cancer" was cut by "up to half". The use of the phrase "up to" means this statement isn't particularly clear about the size of the effect, and it doesn't obviously match up to the effects as stated in the research. The study did find a reduction in cancer deaths, but only in a small sample.

Standing all day makes you TWICE as likely to develop heart disease than sitting for hours on end, experts say

A group of office workers standing as they work

We’ve been told that sitting for too long can be associated with heart and circulatory disease, but apparently standing is even worse.

This study, from Canada, looked at 7,300 working men and women, and found that occupations that involve predominantly standing were associated with a two-fold risk of heart disease, compared with predominantly sitting occupations. 

However, the researchers admitted that the job and the work environment are also part of the reason, and didn’t look at the participants' stress levels in each job. 

Some of the results were also very different for men and women. Jobs that involved a combination of sitting, standing, and walking were associated with a decreased risk of heart disease among men, but they were associated with an increased risk of heart disease among women.

Another limitation is that ‘potentially important differences’, such as how many breaks you are allowed to take, are assumed to be similar for all jobs in one classification. But the researchers admitted  ‘this may not be the case’. They also said that they have limited information on the amount of time spent standing or sitting in each occupational group, and this ‘may be important in assessing the relationship between sitting and standing and health outcomes’. 

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