EDITORIAL: No, you won’t get dementia from one night of lost sleep

A sleep forensics case file for the ages

Are you sick of sensational medical and healthcare headlines? We are, too…

fake news headlines scientific research clickbait health literacy

Credit: Many thanks to the NHS website for providing reportage used in this news brief.

The NHS recently published an article on its website, NHS Choices, which criticized two headlines from national newspapers in the UK. Both gave readers the impression that one night of sleep deprivation would lead to dementia and the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

From NHS Choices:

“‘Just one bad night’s sleep ‘increases your chances of Alzheimer’s’,’ is the misleading headline in The Sun, which the Mail Online more than matches with the baseless claim that ‘Just one sleepless night could spark Alzheimer’s.'”

SHC commends the NHS for calling out these two poorly written and inaccurate headlines. The NHS does a fine job of explaining why the headlines and the articles are incorrect. We could not do a better job, so why not read the full article here? 

Why curation sites exist

There’s so much healthcare information for people to access on the web that curation by healthcare and journalism professionals can provide a very necessary filtering service.

Even in our own little corner of healthcare journalism, so much of the information about sleep health (diagnostics, therapeutics, research, etc.) is inaccurate or outdated, serving a hidden agenda (like selling apps or supplements), or even downright dangerous (no, smoking marijuana will not get rid of your sleep apnea).

And sometimes research can be both incomplete and legitimate, or “not ready for prime time”; their populations of subjects might not be big enough, or extensive enough, or the efforts may be biased and without peer review, or they could simply be products of preliminary fact-finding missions that are only meant to reach out into the void to uncover something new.

That is the way science works, but that doesn’t mean that science journalists have carte blanche to rewrite research facts into stunning (or frightening or misleading) new realities, or to brand their articles with sensationalized clickbait headlines like these from two of the UK’s biggest newspapers… just for the hits.

The SHC pledge: we filter out the bad information so you don’t have to

Here at SHC, we strive to give you a full range of solid information about sleep-related health topics. We vet sleep health news on a daily basis to find the best links. We curate them so you get only the very best content on the topics of greatest interest and relevance to you.

Remember, not every research study is legitimate or can be replicated. We know how to check for that when we read content on the web. Science writers who don’t look more closely at the nuts and bolts of a research study do readers a disservice when making sweeping claims in their reportage. So do the editors and writers responsible for penning headlines which are intentionally misleading and downright fear mongering.

Certainly we run into this kind of useless content every single day—I’m guessing at a ratio of 10:1, where “1” equals the legitimate content we do end up sharingbut by and large, it never makes it into the posts and pages of our website.

As curator, I personally strive to weed out the bad seeds. Even then, I can’t guarantee that I haven’t allowed, at some point, some hack work through my filter. There is so much content to sort through, and I’m only human. (It’s one of the reasons I literally can’t write it all myself… or I would!)

Still, it’s my prime goal to hold such content to the highest standard, and the more I do this work, the more content I ultimately refuse on my daily searches on the Internet.

Beware sensationalism in healthcare journalism

Frankly, I’m incensed by science journalism that misses the mark or tenders alarm among readers. The Sun and Mail Online should be ashamed of themselves for making the leap between extreme sleep deprivation and diseases of dementia. Unlike legitimate healthcare reporting, this extreme level of healthcare-related “fake news” on the web (and they are not the only ones) does nothing to help ordinary people with their sleep problems.

From the SHC perspective, curation or reportage of sleep health news is, first and foremost, about providing patients and their loved ones with legitimate, easy-to-understand, accessible, and scientifically sound information so they can be empowered to make healthcare decisions that serve their needs best.

I promise to continue this effort and hope that, by reading the NHS Choices piece on the sleep deprivation-Alzheimer’s “connection,” you’re also better able to understand that not all news is legitimate. Please read past the headlines, and consider the source, always. ~TKS, curator

RelatedDementia: Sleeping and the broken brain (4.18.2017)

About Tamara Kaye Sellman (621 Articles)

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