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Does Google help avert dementia? Or did the papers make that up?

24 October 2009

I was interested to see a story in The Telegraph (and other newspapers) last week claiming that using Google can help to delay dementia. It's based on research from UCLA, presented at the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, and announced in a press release. I thought this might be a nice piece of trivia to include in my next book Social Networking for the Older and Wiser.

When I studied the press release, though, I was surprised to see that there was no mention of dementia. I asked UCLA whether the dementia angle is something that has come through UCLA interviews, is in the full research report, or is something that the media have added to spin the story. UCLA kindly replied with a copy of the poster (which is what was presented at the event), the abstract and press release. The researchers confirmed that the information presented at the meeting followed the content of those, which make no mention of dementia.

The research is fascinating, and did find first-time internet users experienced more brain activity in the areas associated with working memory and decision making. "The results suggest that searching online may be a simple form of brain exercise that might be employed to enhance cognition in older adults," said Teena D. Moody, the study's first author and a senior research associate at the Semel Institute at UCLA. But there's no speculation regarding dementia in the released materials.

There's a gap here between what the study appeared to discover, and what the headlines screamed (at about 20 publications, including the Daily Mail). I'm no scientist, but if the dementia angle were true, I would have expected to see it in the press release. Apart from how much easier it would make it to promote the research, tapping into a major health concern helps research bodies to attract funding.

If the source isn't UCLA, how did so many outlets get the same angle? It's possible they pulled it from the same syndicated content which is how several newspapers came to quote a fake David Milliband Twitter feed when Michael Jackson died. It's also possible that they're watching each others' websites all day, and one over-eager sub bigged up the story, and all the others followed suit. Maybe they have an alternative source (including other scientific publications), although it's odd they haven't mentioned it. I can't trace a credible source using the dementia angle.

What bothers me most, though, is this: I consume hundreds of news stories a week. When I take the time to actually dig into one of them (I've probably spent about an hour on this), it proves extremely difficult to back it up. None of us has time to check a tiny fraction of the stories out there.

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