Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) have found that many online resources about how to prevent Alzheimer’s disease (AD) are not accurate and can mislead readers. In a survey of online resources, UBC researchers found that a series of websites offered poor advice and one in five was promoting products for sale, which is an obvious conflict of interest.
“The quality of online information about preventing Alzheimer’s disease ranges,” Julie Robillard, assistant professor of neurology at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health and the National Core for Neuroethics, at UBC, said in a press release. “The few websites offering high-quality information can be hard to distinguish from the many low-quality websites offering information that can be potentially harmful.”
Robillard and her undergraduate student, Tanya Feng, looked at almost 300 online articles about preventing AD. They found that the best websites with high-quality information often provided the best advice, suggesting individuals to consider lifestyle changes such as managing their diabetes and exercising on a regular basis.
However, researchers also found a series of common red flags for poor-quality information, like web pages recommending products for sale alongside the content. They found this type of conflict of interest happened in every one out of five websites they analyzed. Other red flags included websites with very specific recommendations and nutritional information.
“Many red flags were not specific to what they were saying, but rather how they were saying it,” Feng said. “For example, using strong language like ‘cure’ or ‘guarantee,’ promoting their own products, and relying on anecdotal evidence instead of empirical research is suggestive of poor-quality information in online dementia information,” she said.
After this study, the researchers are now developing a tool called QUEST – a simple test of six questions everyone can use to recognize high-quality information online – to save people from the potential consequences of following these low-quality websites’ advice.
The products sold in these pages, according to the researchers, are not only costly but they also have very little or no scientific evidence to show their efficacy. Even more concerning, the advice they give can cause anxiety and impact the physician-patient relationship. If people read advice that contradicts their doctor’s recommendations, they may sometimes feel they cannot trust them anymore, or not inform them of changes in their daily routines that they may have implemented because of the misleading information.
QUEST was designed precisely to help people identify what information they should follow and what they should disregard, or ask their physician first.
Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia but there are no certainties about what causes the disease or how to protect yourself from it. Previous research has shown that nearly 80% of people seeking health advice turn to the internet.