Going behind the Headlines

While Scanning the Headlines

For me, scanning the headlines of health news is like walking in a different candy store everyday. I just never know if any goodies have been delivered today, how many, and if I will uncover something useful health-wise, either for myself or others. Like anything created by us, humans, the quality of the merchandises will vary from dreadful to sublime with everything in between.

There was nothing sublime that day, but an article in PsychCentral relating a study about a noted increase in precursors of CD34+ cells in subjects practicing Tai Chi caught my attention.

Why is that interesting? CD34+ cells express the surface protein CD-34; these are characteristic of blood stem cells…Yes! the same stem cells that regenerates and can transform themselves in various tissues in the body.

We’re talking potential rejuvenating and anti-aging effects here!

What’s the scoop?

The article in question reported a study comparing Tai Chi with brisk walking or no exercise in a group of young people, and measured whether or not there was changes in CD34+ cells in the groups under study.

The money quote was:

“Compared with the no exercise group, the Tai Chi group had a significantly higher number of CD 34+ stem cells,” wrote the authors. “We found that the CD34+ cell count of the Tai Chi group was significantly higher than the brisk walking group.”

This are interesting practical implications here: Tai Chi takes less time than brisk walking, can be practiced anytime, anywhere, has several centuries of accumulated knowledge and wisdom behind it. Very appealing, but I want to see the study! Research data, as well as personal experience have taught me that when it comes to the media reporting on health and science, the “trust but verify” adage must be Standard Operating Procedure.

So, heading over PubMed, I found the abstract…and a big surprise! In the conclusion one can read:

No significant difference was found between the TCC [Tai Chi Chuan] group and the BW [Brisk Walking] group. TCC practice sustained for more than 1 year may be an intervention against aging as effective as BW in terms of its benefits on the improvement of CD34(+) number. ”

Did I read this correctly?

Wait…what? The PsychCentral article state there is a difference in favor of the Tai Chi group, yet the official abstract clearly state there was no difference between the Tai chi group and the brisk walking group. What is going on here?

Two truths and a faulty message

After reading the full paper, two things became obvious. First, the abstract is the same in the full paper as the one posted on PubMed; so, we’re not dealing with an editing mistake. Second the quote “We found that the CD34+ cell count of the Tai Chi group was significantly higher than the brisk walking group.” is textually correct, but it was NOT the final conclusion of the study. It turns out to be a discussion about a statistical test the investigators ran after excluding the oldest participants.

The problem here is obvious: without this further digging into the data, the clear message left by the article is that Tai Chi may provide anti-aging benefits on top of its already well-known health benefits, whereas brisk walking (and by extension, “ordinary” exercise) does not.

Bottom Line for the health conscious person

If for whatever reason, we need to incorporate a gentle exercise routine into her/his life, we want to know about all the options available. If there are no physical limitations, we like to go outside, and the anti-aging feature exerts its appeal, we may well prefer brisk walking. Nothing to learn, it’s free and can be done pretty much anywhere. If Tai Chi is more appealing, more power.

But who would have known without looking behind the curtain? This is why looking behind the headline or accessing trusted expert sources that can do it for us is crucial. Otherwise, we can be misguided by bad reporting, stealth product placement, free articles accepted without journalistic or expert vetting are now becoming a distressingly common feature in the media.

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  1. Heather Michet Sunday, 29 November, 2015
    • Francois Tuesday, 1 December, 2015