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iHealthFacts marks one year of debunking health claims

Researchers at University of Galway have marked one year of a project designed to tackle healthcare myths and help the public to quickly and easily check the reliability of popular health claims through the online resource iHealthFacts.ie.

Using scientific evidence, such as trusted health sources and peer-reviewed studies, the research team analyses information in order to support or refute a healthcare claim.

Over the last year, more than 4,500 users have visited iHealthFacts.ie; more than 150 questions have been submitted; and the researchers have assessed, answered or are analysing 60 claims about things that can improve our health.

Some of the questions analysed include:

  • Do collagen supplements make a difference in skin ageing?
  • Does working long hours help to prevent dementia?
  • Do drinks containing aspartame increase the risk of cancer in the future?
  • Does taking omega 3 or omega 6 fatty acids – either as supplements or through diet – improve brain health or cognitive function? 
  • Do UV lamps in nail bars cause skin cancer?
  • Does lavender improve sleep/does listening to radio, music or podcasts make a difference to sleep?

iHealthFacts.ie is funded by the Health Research Board and the Health Service Executive and supported by University of Galway. Its aim is to help people to think critically about health claims and make well-informed choices.

Professor Declan Devane, Professor of Health Research Methodology, University of Galway and Principal Investigator with iHealthFacts.ie, said: “Some people find themselves overwhelmed with information, particularly information about what they can do to improve or protect their health. Increasingly, health information spreads faster and further thanks to the web, social media, instant messaging, television and radio, but unfortunately much of it is unreliable. This can lead to poorly informed choices, under- or overuse of health interventions, or treatments, and avoidable waste and human suffering. This is what we aim to tackle.”

Dr Philip Crowley, GP and National Director of Strategy and Research with the HSE, said: “Providing trusted health information and advice is one of the HSE’s most important duties. People trust HSE.ie as an online source of health advice, and our healthcare teams are highly trusted by patients to share advice and information. Our work with iHealthFacts.ie aims to explore ways to tackle health misinformation circulating on social media, and to reinforce the value of getting health advice that is evidence-based, from a safe source.”

Dr Paula Byrne, lead researcher with iHealthFacts.ie and post-doctoral researcher with Evidence Synthesis Ireland and Cochrane Ireland, said: “We are delighted with the level of interest from the public in iHealthFacts. Thousands of people have accessed our website and read our reviews. We hope this information helps people make informed health decisions and become more skilled in distinguishing reliable health information from that which is unreliable.”

Deirdre Mac Loughlin, Public and Patient Involvement (PPI) representative on iHealthFacts, said: “PPI, in partnership with iHealthFacts, facilitates informed health decisions through the wealth of lived experience it brings, thus, ensuring a high standard of relevance, rigour, and accountability. This aspect is particularly vital in the realm of publicly funded research, ensuring that the outcomes are not only scientifically robust, but also resonate with and are accountable to the community it serves.”

Initially set up to debunk misinformation surrounding COVID-19, the research and engagement project was relaunched in late 2022 with further suppot from the HSE and HRB to focus on more general health information and to answer some of the myths around health claims scientifically.

The public can submit a question at https://ihealthfacts.ie/ and read through the findings of the research into each health question.

People are urged to consider the questions and all of the analysis in full in order to get the best information in relation to healthcare claims and questions which have been analysed.

Some findings of a sample of questions analysed so far:

  • Do UV lamps in nail bars cause skin cancer?

We found very few studies about skin cancer and UV lamps in nail bars.

Some studies reported a link between UV lamps and skin cancer, but others found that there was no link.

All the studies we found were either of low quality or not based on humans, so we can’t be sure of their findings or how relevant they are to the general public.

  • Does lavender improve sleep/does listening to radio, music or podcasts make a difference to sleep?

Claims have been made that lavender oil, made from the flowers of the lavender plant, is calming and may help people sleep better.

One good quality study suggests that lavender may help women with insomnia fall asleep quicker and stay asleep. However, this study only had a small number of people in it.

Three other studies have observed improvements in sleep in people using lavender, but we are less certain of the findings of these studies.

  • Does cycling damage men’s genitals? 

Research on the relationship between cycling and circulation or nerve damage to men’s genitals is very limited.

One study found some evidence to suggest a possible link between cycling and erectile dysfunction (caused by poor circulation or nerve damage) when age and some diseases were taken into consideration.

The majority of studies in this area are of low quality, so we can’t be sure of this finding.

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