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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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Finished drafting Social Networking for the Older and Wiser

16 October 2009

Phew! I've finished drafting 'Social Networking for the Older and Wiser' now. It's been a great few months, digging deep into social networks. Some of them are networks that I wouldn't naturally have come across before (such as Saga Zone), and others are networks that I'm a big fan of (including Facebook, Twitter and 43Things).

At times it was confusing dealing with multiple logins, having multiple versions of myself out there in cyberspace, making friends with each other (myself?) and chatting away. But apart from that, it was great fun and wonderful to take on another book-length project and to complete it in a few months. (My previous book was a novel that took two years).

The shape of the book changed during drafting. The original plan was to dedicate a chapter each to 13 social networks, but it became clear during drafting that it would be a more useful book if it focused its attention on leading networks. The book covers 9 different social networking sites in detail now, with an appendix dedicated to introducing the other networks out there.

From now, the book goes through a technical editor, comes back to me to make any final edits, and then goes off for design. I should see the page proofs in December, it should be printed early 2010, and in the shops in February.

I've set up a dedicated page for the book now and will add to this over time, building up a minisite with more information on the book. The plan is to include the table of contents, excerpts, all the links on one page (so you don't have to type them in), reviews, and other goodies. If there's anything you find particularly useful or interesting on book websites, let me know and I'll see if I can add it for you.

The book can be preordered from Amazon now. Amazon guarantees that you will pay the lowest price between when you order and when the book is published.

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Great Dilbert cartoon about Twitter

04 October 2009



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