Monday, July 6, 2009

Health story of the day -- Java jolt cures Alzheimer's!

Here's a particularly cruel health result of the day, it seems to us. The BBC reports that coffee may reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer's, at least in mice force-fed the equivalent of 5 cups a day (or 2 lattes, 14 cups of tea, or 20 soft drinks -- wait, didn't we recently learn from the BBC that people who drink that much cola are susceptible to hypokalemic periodic paralysis?).

The new story says that caffeine seems to prevent plaques from forming in the brain, the 'hallmark' of the disease, or reduce those already there. Oddly, other researchers have found that these plaques are neither always found in people who had been given a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, nor are they always associated with dementia when they are found. So reporters aren't doing their job and/or researchers enjoying the limelight aren't coming clean (assuming they at least know their job).

This is a perfect example of a story prematurely reported about a scary disease, and thus that will sell. Because it will sell. Everyone fears losing their memory as they age, and quick and easy cures are surely eagerly sought by caretakers and the affected alike. Many have seen the awfulness of close and loved relatives with this disorder.

But mice are not people, and the dementia bred into an inbred strain of mice cannot be assumed to be the dementia any of our grandparents suffer or suffered from. As with all 'simple' diseases, the more researchers learn about dementias in people, the more questions they have--indeed, 'Alzheimer's' has always been a diagnosis of exclusion (that is, impossible to confirm until after death), and the signature amyloid plaques in the brain that were assumed to confirm the diagnosis on autopsy have been shown to be non-confirmatory after all. The idea of Alzheimer's itself as a single definable disease is fading within the research community as more is learned about dementias (unless perhaps your lab is committed to the line of inbred Alzheimeric mice it took you years to breed).

So, once again, scientists prematurely rush to the press with a story that may well cause caretakers to force-feed elderly patients with caffeine at best, and at worse cruelly encourage hope of a cure where in fact there is none. We write often about oversimplifying genetic determinism, but this is a case about oversimplifying environmental determinism--a problem that actually predated genetic determinism in the history of 20th century epidemiology. Surely by now both researcher and media should know better than to hype such claims.

There are many ways to get dementia. There are also many ways to get your morning energy boost even if tea, say, won't help your state of mind without drowining you or making you park all day in the bathroom. And there are many ways to spin a story to the news media.

But don't forget to have your coffee....or you'll forget to have your coffee!


No comments: