Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

media and society

-- media and society -- presenting sex and health topics, or, rampant sexual activity will always be a newspaper's best friend

It's really fascinating sometimes to see how certain scientific topics get presented in the media. Take, for example, a recent study about the relationship between sexual activity and prostate cancer (unfortunately, I have no access to the full text of the article itself):

Wiley InterScience :: JOURNALS :: BJU International

Sexual activity and prostate cancer risk in men diagnosed at a younger age
Polyxeni Dimitropoulou ♯ , Artitaya Lophatananon*♯, Douglas Easton**, Richard Pocock † , David P. Dearnaley et al.
BJU International
Volume 103 Issue 2, Pages 178 - 185
Published Online: 11 Nov 2008

ABSTRACT

To examine, in a case-control study, the association between the frequency of sexual activity (intercourse, masturbation, overall) and prostate cancer risk in younger men diagnosed at ≤60 years old.

PATIENTS, SUBJECTS AND METHODS

In all, 431 prostate cancer cases and 409 controls participated and provided information on their sexual activity. In particular, the frequencies of intercourse and masturbation during the participants' different age decades (20s, 30s, 40s, 50s) were collected.

RESULTS

Whereas frequent overall sexual activity in younger life (20s) increased the disease risk, it appeared to be protective against the disease when older (50s). Alone, frequent masturbation activity was a marker for increased risk in the 20s and 30s but appeared to be associated with a decreased risk in the 50s, while intercourse activity alone was not associated with the disease.

CONCLUSION

These findings could imply different mechanisms by which sexual activity is involved in the aetiology of prostate cancer at different ages. Alternatively, there is a possibility of reverse causation in explaining part of the protective effect seen for men in their 50s.

A relatively straightforward presentation of the topic in both the title and brief description. No attempt to sensationalize, or be anything but informative, because the intended audience is other urologists and physicians.

Now, by contrast, take a look at the headlines for general-interest articles about the study:


Too much sex 'may increase' prostate cancer risk (thisisnottinghmam.co.uk, Monday, January 26, 2009, 12:41): MEN who are very sexually active in their twenties and thirties are more likely to develop prostate cancer, according to research from the University of Nottingham. However the UK research team also found that frequent sexual activity in a man's forties appears to have little effect and even small levels of activity in a man's fifties could offer protection from the disease....

Sex, masturbation linked to higher cancer risk (scienceblog.com): Men who are very sexually active in their twenties and thirties are more likely to develop prostate cancer, especially if they masturbate frequently, according to a study of more than 800 men published in the January issue of BJU International. However the UK research team also found that frequent sexual activity in a man's forties appears to have little effect and even small levels of activity in a man's fifties could offer protection from the disease. Most of the differences were attributed to masturbation rather than sexual intercourse....

Rampant sexual activity linked to prostate risks (International Business Times, ibt.com, 26 January 2009 @ 12:48 pm EST): Men who are sexually active in their twenties and thirties are more likely to develop prostate cancer later in life according to a new study. The study, conducted on more than 800 men, shows men who frequently masturbate are at greater risk, according to the January issue of BJU International....

Solo sex leads to cancer (Daily Sun, thesun.co.uk): YOUNG men who pleasure themselves are at increased risk of prostate cancer in later life, but masturbating in middle-age appears to protect against tumours. [...] Researchers found that 40 per cent of men with prostate cancer reported the highest levels of sexual activity. Just over a third said they indulged in solo sex between two and seven times a week in their twenties, compared with just under a quarter of the control group. The same pattern continued in the thirties. But in middle-age the trend reverses, with men who masturbate the most having a lowest incidence of tumours....

Study: Men Who Have Lots of Sex in 20s and 30s at Higher Risk for Prostate Cancer Later in Life (foxnews.com): Men who have lots of sex in their 20s and 30s may pay a price down the road. A study from Nottingham University in England found these men run a higher risk of prostate cancer, the BBC reported Monday....

Men's Sex Drive Linked to Prostate Cancer (momlogic.com): Men who have more sex in their 20s and 30s may have a higher risk of prostate cancer, according to a new Nottingham University study. The research team said that higher levels of sex hormones lead to a more intense sex drive and increased risk of the cancer....

Masturbation May Increase Risk of Prostate Cancer (news.yahoo.com): A new study finds men who are sexually active in their 20s and 30s are more likely to develop prostate cancer - especially if they masturbate frequently. The message, perhaps: Hold off until middle age. The study also found that frequent sexual activity in a man's 40s appears to have little effect and even small levels of sexual activity in a man's 50s could offer protection from the disease. Most of the differences were attributed to masturbation rather than sexual intercourse....

The fascinating thing to note is how widely the various presentations diverge from the actual study, yet manage to report just enough of it to not be accused of deliberate misinformation. All of the articles say something about the masturbation link, though it varies widely from a sort of low-key approach to something just short of "MASTURBATION WILL MAKE YOUR GENITALS ROT OUT FROM THE CORE!" Only about half the articles manage to get around to noting that masturbation in your 50s is linked with a lower incidence of cancer. It's also interesting to note that most of the articles are reports of reports -- mostly of the BBC News piece. This means that nobody gets around to asking the critical question: "If masturbation provides a protective influence in your later years because it expels hormones and other substances that can be toxic, why wouldn't it be protective in your youth, when you're producing these hormones and substances at a much higher rate?"

As a side note: another fascinating thing about the recent flurry of notice about the Nottingham study is that it went online back in early November. Yet none of these outlets -- many of which are online-only -- actually noticed the article until this month, when it was published in the dead-tree version of BJU International. Apparently, for some things, unless a tree does fall in the forest, get converted into paper, and get printed in bound and widely distributed format, it might as well not make a sound, because nobody will notice that it's there until the dead-tree form arrives.

Posted by iain at 02:44 PM in category media and society