Monitoring food and health news

-- with particular attention to fads, fallacies and the "obesity" war

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A major cause of increasing obesity is certainly the campaign against it -- as dieting usually makes people FATTER. If there were any sincerity to the obesity warriors, they would ban all diet advertising and otherwise shut up about it. Re-authorizing now-banned school playground activities and school outings would help too. But it is so much easier to blame obesity on the evil "multinationals" than it is to blame it on your own restrictions on the natural activities of kids

NOTE: "No trial has ever demonstrated benefits from reducing dietary saturated fat".

A brief summary of the last 50 years' of research into diet: Everything you can possibly eat or drink is both bad and good for you


31 December, 2008

Empty-headed health advice from celebs

The expertise of actors lies in speaking words written by others. When they have to come up with some words of their own they are lost

From Madonna's quest to "neutralise radiation" to Tom Cruise's dismissals of psychiatry, celebrities are seldom shy about expressing their views on health and science - even when they appear not to know what they are talking about. A roll call of public figures such as Cruise and Delia Smith have offered bogus advice or "quackery" this year, according to scientists and doctors. The charity Sense About Science is concerned that celebrities mislead the public when they endorse theories, diets or health products while misrepresenting the science involved.

Some - such as Oprah Winfrey and Kate Moss - espouse "detox" regimes, while others, such as Sharon and Kelly Osbourne, believe (mistakenly) that the Pill can cause cancer. Nor are politicians exempt from lending credence to health myths. The US President-elect is among several American public figures who continue to suggest that the MMR vaccination is a potential cause of autism, despite an overwhelming weight of scientific evidence to the contrary.

Smith's suggestion that obesity is caused by sugar addiction is another of the assertions under scrutiny. In March, the cookery writer and broadcaster told The Times: "That's what causes obesity. It's addiction. You need to have six weeks without sugar or sweetener . . . After six weeks, everything will taste sweet . . . because you will have got your palate back to what nature created. We could cure the nation if we cut down sugar addiction." Lisa Miles, of the British Nutrition Foundation, counters: "Delia, you'll never get rid of sugar from the diet, nor would you want to, as you consume sugars naturally in foods such as fruit and milk, which provide us with important nutrients . . . the causes of obesity are much more complex."

Demi Moore, the actress, surprises the experts with her use of "highly trained medical leeches" to "detoxify" her blood.

Kate Moss, the model, is reported to be on a strict "detox" diet of fruit and vegetables at a health spa in Thailand. But nutritionists note that such regimes exclude important food groups such as protein.

Moss's friend Stella McCartney, the designer, was criticised last year for saying that a chemical found in skin creams was also found in antifreeze. Gary Moss, a pharmacologist, said that the chemical, propylene glycol, was versatile and its use in cosmetics was not "scary", as claimed.

Both Mr Obama and his rival for the presidency, John McCain, responded to stories about vaccines by highlighting the rise in diagnoses in children of autism. Mr Obama told a campaign rally in April: "We've seen a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it." In February Mr McCain had remarked on the rise in autism cases, saying that there was "strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines".

The suggestion that the MMR jab is linked to the developmental disorder dates back to a study of 12 children published in The Lancet in 1997. The research, led by Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist at the Royal Free Hospital, has since been discredited. Yet fears about the vaccine - for measles, mumps and rubella - have resulted in many parents refusing to have their children inoculated, and there has been a resurgence of measles. Dr Wakefield and colleagues have been appearing before the General Medical Council on charges of serious professional misconduct, relating to their original study, which they deny. Studies in several countries involving millions of children have shown no correlation between MMR and autism rates.

Michael Fitzpatrick, author of MMR: What Parents Need to Know, said that Mr Obama and Mr McCain were correct in noting a rise in cases of autism. "However, authoritative studies confirm that the apparent rise is attributable to increased public and professional awareness of the condition and to widening definitions of autistic spectrum disorders," he said. "Though the causes of autism remain obscure, exhaustive researches have failed to substantiate any link to vaccines or any preservatives in it."

The Sense About Science initiative is an update of a leaflet encouraging celebrities to avoid making claims until they have checked the facts. While there has been "considerable improvement" in the way British celebrities approach medicine, the charity says its files are still too full of pseudo-scientific claims. "We don't expect people to know everything about science; the problem comes when they don't consider checking it or asking questions."


Cancer drug Bortezomib effective in reversing transplant rejection

A new study has revealed that bortezomib, a drug used in the treatment of cancer, can also stop the body from discarding a transplanted organ. The study has been conducted by the University of Cincinnati (U-C) in the U.S. Traditionally bortezomib has been used to cure multiple myeloma, which affects the plasma of white blood cells. The present research has divulged that Bortezomib aims B-lymphocytes, the WBCs that manufacture antibodies, and thwarts the immune system's antibodies from attacking transplanted organs.

Lead author of the study and the chief of transplant surgery at the University of Cincinnati, Dr Steve Woodle, said, "We found a body of literature demonstrating that bortezomib works well in suppressing transplant rejection in the laboratory. Moreover, it worked well in models of auto-immune disease." He opined that plasma cells and the antibodies produced by them played a far bigger role in rejection than was previously thought. He further added that little progress was made in the development of therapies that aimed to target these cells.

The study was conducted on six patients whose immune systems had rejected the transplanted kidneys and were not responding to the conventional anti-rejection cures. All the six patients responded well to bortezomib. Not only did the organ function improve when bortezomib was administered, the recurring occurrence of rejection was also seen missing for a good five months after the treatment.

Steve Woodle added, "This has significant implications for transplantation and auto immune disease." His team is currently working on four more clinical trials to enhance learnings from the first round of findings. The icing on the cake is that the side effects of bortezomib were both predictable and controllable. Moreover the toxicity levels were handy and lesser than other allied anti-cancerdefine agents.

A contented Jason Everly, an oncology pharmacist at the University of Cincinnati and co-author of the study, said, "We are pleased to see its toxicities are similar in transplant recipients suffering from treatment-resistant mixed organ rejection. We hope it will be a viable therapeutic treatment option in this patient group." The study features in the latest edition of the journal Transplantation


30 December, 2008

A new twist on the free-radical craze

Trying to quash free radicals with vitamins turned out to be more counter-productive than anything else so I think the whole theory is flawed. This application of it should therefore fail

In a back room of New Scientist's offices in London, I sit down at a table with the Russian biochemist Mikhail Shchepinov. In front of us are two teaspoons and a brown glass bottle. Shchepinov opens the bottle, pours out a teaspoon of clear liquid and drinks it down. He smiles. It's my turn. I put a spoonful of the liquid in my mouth and swallow. It tastes slightly sweet, which is a surprise. I was expecting it to be exactly like water since that, in fact, is what it is - heavy water to be precise, chemical formula D2O. The D stands for deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen with an atomic mass of 2 instead of 1. Deuterium is what puts the heavy in heavy water. An ice cube made out of it would sink in normal water.

My sip of heavy water is the culmination of a long journey trying to get to the bottom of a remarkable claim that Shchepinov first made around 18 months ago. He believes he has discovered an elixir of youth, a way to drink (or more likely eat) your way to a longer life. You may think that makes Shchepinov sound like a snake-oil salesman. I thought so too, but the more I found out about his idea, the more it began to make sense.

The story began two years ago, while Shchepinov was working at a biotechology company in Oxford, UK, and using his spare time to read up on the latest ideas about what causes us to age. The most widely accepted idea is the free-radical theory. This holds that our slide into decrepitude is the result of irreversible damage to the biomolecules that make up our bodies. The main agents of this destruction are oxygen free radicals, aggressive chemical compounds that are an unavoidable by-product of metabolism.

The reason oxygen radicals are so dangerous is that they have a voracious appetite for electrons, which they rip out of anything they can lay their hands on - water, proteins, fats, DNA - leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. This damage gradually builds up over a lifetime and eventually leads the body's basic biochemical processes to fail.

One of the worst types of damage is something called protein carbonylation, in which an oxygen radical attacks vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds in a protein (see diagram). This has been linked to many of the worst diseases of old age, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, chronic renal failure and diabetes (The EMBO Journal, vol 24, p 1311). Other important targets of free-radical attack are DNA and the fatty acids in cell membranes. The human body produces legions of antioxidants, including vitamins and enzymes, that quench free radicals before they can do any harm. But over a lifetime these defence systems eventually fall victim to oxidative attack too, leading to an inevitable decline. Many anti-ageing medications are based on supplementing the body's own defences with antioxidant compounds such as vitamin C and beta-carotene, though there is scant evidence that this does any good (New Scientist, 5 August 2006, p 40).

Shchepinov realised there was another way to defeat free radicals. While he was familiarising himself with research on ageing, his day job involved a well-established - if slightly obscure - bit of chemistry called the isotope effect. On Christmas day 2006, it dawned on him that putting the two together could lead to a new way of postponing the ravages of time. The basic concept of the isotope effect is that the presence of heavy isotopes in a molecule can slow down its chemical reactions. This is because heavy isotopes form stronger covalent bonds than their lighter counterparts; for example, a carbon-deuterium bond is stronger than a carbon-hydrogen bond. While the effect applies to all heavy isotopes, including carbon-13, nitrogen-15 and oxygen-18 (see chart), it is most marked with deuterium as it is proportionally so much heavier than hydrogen. Deuterated bonds can be up to 80 times stronger than those containing hydrogen.

All of this is conventional chemistry: the isotope effect was discovered back in the 1930s and its mechanism explained in the 1940s. The effect has a long pedigree as a research tool in basic chemistry for probing the mechanisms of complex reactions.

Shchepinov, however, is the first researcher to link the effect with ageing. It dawned on him that if ageing is caused by free radicals trashing covalent bonds, and if those same bonds can be strengthened using the isotope effect, why not use it to make vulnerable biomolecules more resistant to attack? All you would have to do is judiciously place deuterium or carbon-13 in the bonds that are most vulnerable to attack, and chemistry should take care of the rest.

In early 2007 Shchepinov wrote up his idea and submitted it to a journal called Rejuvenation Research. Unbeknown to him, the journal's editor is controversial gerontologist Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation in Lorton, Virginia, who is well known for supporting ideas other gerontologists consider outlandish. De Grey sent the paper out for review and eventually accepted it (Rejuvenation Research, vol 10, p 47).

In the paper, Shchepinov points out that there is masses of existing science backing up his ideas. Dozens of experiments have proved that proteins, fatty acids and DNA can be helped to resist oxidative damage using the isotope effect. Shchepinov's paper brought the idea to a wider audience, including successful biotechnology entrepreneurs Charles Cantor and Robert Molinari. Impressed, they teamed up with Shchepinov to set up a company called Retrotope, with de Grey as a scientific advisor.

It was around this time that I first got in touch with Shchepinov. I'd never heard of the isotope effect, and de Grey's involvement made me cautious. But there was something in the idea that intrigued me, and I kept on coming back to it. There were obvious objections to the idea. For one, how do you get the isotopes to exactly the sites where you want them? After all, the human body contains trillions upon trillions of chemical bonds, but relatively few are vulnerable to free-radical damage. And what about safety - swallowing mouthfuls of heavy isotopes surely can't be good for you, can it? That, of course, is how I ended up sharing a teaspoon of heavy water with Shchepinov.

Neither, it turns out, is a big problem. Some heavy isotopes are radioactive so are obviously ruled out on safety grounds - hydrogen-3 (tritium) and carbon-14, for example. Others, notably deuterium and carbon-13, are just as stable as hydrogen and carbon-12. Both occur in small amounts in nature and are a natural component of some biomolecules in our bodies (see "Heavy babies"). Deuterium and carbon-13 also appear to be essentially non-toxic. Baby mice weaned on a highly enriched carbon-13 diet are completely normal, even when 60 per cent of the carbon atoms in their body are carbon-13. Deuterium also has a clean bill of health as long as you don't go overboard. Decades of experiments in which animals were fed heavy water suggest that up to a fifth of the water in your body can be replaced with heavy water with no ill effects.

Similar experiments have been done on humans, albeit with lower levels of deuterium. One recent experiment kept humans on a low-level heavy-water diet for 10 weeks, during which their heavy-water levels were raised to around 2.5 per cent of body water, with no adverse effects (Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, vol 1760, p 730). The researchers also found that some deuterium became incorporated into proteins.

Heavy water, however, isn't completely safe. In mammals, toxic effects start to kick in around the 20 per cent mark, and at 35 per cent it is lethal. This is largely down to the isotope effect itself: any protein in your body has the potential to take up deuterium atoms from heavy water, and eventually this radically alters your entire biochemistry. You'd have to drink a vast amount to suffer any ill effects - my 5 millilitres did me no harm whatsoever - but even so, Retrotope is not advocating heavy water as an elixir of youth.

Instead, it wants to package up heavy isotopes in what Shchepinov calls "iFood". This method has huge advantages, not least because it allows the heavy isotopes to be targeted to the most vulnerable carbon-hydrogen bonds. Of the 20 amino acids used by humans, 10 cannot be made by the body and must be present in the diet. That means if you supplement your diet with essential amino acids that have already had their vulnerable bonds strengthened, your body's proteins will have these reinforced amino acids incorporated into them. Some of the building blocks of fats and DNA can also only be acquired via your diet, which means they too can be targeted using the iFood approach.

What's more, this approach ought to be completely safe, says Shchepinov. Deuterium atoms bound to carbon in amino acids are "non-exchangeable" and so don't leak into body water. Another possibility is to produce meat, eggs or milk enriched with deuterium or carbon-13 by feeding deuterated water or isotope-enriched amino acids to farm animals. For now, though, iFood remains on the drawing board as nobody manufactures the right compounds. To solve that problem, Retrotope has signed up the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry in Moscow, Russia and Minsk State University in Belarus to make customised amino acids and fatty acids. "There are a lot of good isotope chemists in Russia," says Cantor.

Another hurdle Retrotope will have to overcome is cost. At current prices, a litre of heavy water will set you back $300. "Isotopes are expensive," says Shchepinov. "But there's no need for them to be. Methods are there to extract them, but nobody wants them." Unless demand rises, there is no incentive to produce them in bulk, and this keeps the price high.

These obstacles haven't stopped Retrotope launching a research programme to test Shchepinov's big idea. A team at the Institute for the Biology of Ageing in Moscow recently fed various amounts of heavy water to fruit flies to see if it had any effect on longevity. Though large amounts were deadly, smaller quantities increased lifespans by up to 30 per cent. It's a promising start, but it's too early to say whether the human lifespan can also be extended in this way, or how much deuterium-enriched food you would have to eat to get a beneficial effect. "This is preliminary and needs to be reproduced under a variety of conditions," says Shchepinov. "It's possible that the flies don't like the diet, and what we're seeing is the effects of caloric restriction [the only proven strategy for extending lifespan in experimental animals]. We need to do a lot more experiments. But still..."

Retrotope has signed up some heavyweight gerontologists to join de Grey as scientific advisors, including Jan Vijg of the Albert Einstein College Of Medicine in New York and Cynthia Kenyon of the University of California, San Francisco. Kenyon recently started work on Retrotope's second round of experiments, giving a deuterium-enriched diet to nematode worms. "It's a beautiful idea," says Vijg. "It gives us a serious chance of retarding ageing." He cautions, however, that Shchepinov's ideas hinge on free radicals being at the root of ageing. While this is still the leading theory in the field, many researchers argue that free-radical damage alone cannot account for all the biological changes that happen as we get old (Nature, vol 451, p 644).


Baby born deaf and blind after mother took Botox-like drug

How do they know that the Botox did it? They don't. It's just speculation. And since the stuff is widely used but no other similar cases have been reported, this is just a do-gooder scare

An anti-wrinkle treatment virtually identical to the booming Botox has been linked to serious birth defects. An Australian baby was born deaf and blind in November 2005 after the mother was given facial cosmetic injections of the drug Dysport in the first week of pregnancy. Documents from the Federal Health and Ageing Department, released under Freedom of Information, have revealed the "serious and unexpected pregnancy outcome".

Dysport and Botox are both botulinum type A toxin drugs rapidly growing in popularity as muscle-relaxant cosmetic treatments. The birth defect link was among 46 different adverse reactions to botulinum type A toxin reported to the Therapeutic Goods Administration since July 1, 1994. The most common are temporary facial paralysis, visual disturbances, fatigue, dizziness, difficulty swallowing, hallucinations and anxiety. The European Medicines Agency has recorded more than 600 negative effects from the use of drugs made from botulinum type A toxin, including 28 deaths. And in the US, the Food and Drug Administration has warned of side-effects including death, but stopped short of a ban.

A 2006 report on the Australian birth defect case, written by the medical services manager for Dysport manufacturer Ipsen, admits a "possible" link with the drug's use. "A female subject was injected with Dysport at about one week of gestation. The infant was born deaf and blind," the report states. Another report, however, claimed there was no such link.

A Health and Ageing Department spokeswoman said she was unaware if there were any further findings. "It absolutely would have been investigated, but it does not appear it warranted further action," she said.

Both Botox and Dysport are schedule three drugs that can only be used on prescription. Consumer information for both recommends against treatment when pregnant. An Ipsen spokesman said Dysport, unlike Botox, was more commonly used for purposes other than smoothing treatments, such as by neurologists for movement disorders. "When the drug is administered according to specifications, it's one of the safest drugs out there," he said.

A spokeswoman for Australian Botox distributor Allergan said its safety had been established over 40 years. "More than 2000 clinical studies and review articles have been published on the effectiveness and safety of Botox," she said. Cosmetic Physicians of Australia spokeswoman Dr Mary Dingley said she administered up to 10 treatments a day using either Botox or Dysport without serious reactions. She said most adverse reactions she experienced were trauma around the injection site, while in other cases the problems related to the drug affecting nearby muscles


29 December, 2008

List Of Holiday "Health Myths" Comes Up Short. Here's A Better One

The holiday season is as saturated with lists as it is with candy canes and mistletoe. Gift wish lists, top holiday songs, best seasonal dessert recipes. Today, health reporters across the country have been buzzing with yet another festive rundown: "5 Holiday Health Myths." And as much as we hate to be a holiday humbug, this latest list just doesn't pass muster. The Washington Post reports on the debunked myths, including:

Suicide rates are higher during the holidays. Poinsettias are toxic if eaten. Hangovers are curable. Sugar makes children hyperactive. You lose most of your body heat through your head. Eating at night makes you fat. "We really don't know why some myths become so embedded," said one of the article's co-authors, Dr. Rachel Vreeman, an assistant professor of pediatrics. "Sometimes you hear these myths from people you consider to be experts," suggested Vreeman's co-author, Dr. Aaron Carroll, director of the Center for Health Policy and Professionalism Research.

True, we do hear a lot of health myths from pseudo-experts. But it's not so surprising that midnight snacks aren't to blame for the "obesity epidemic," nor are we shocked that children aren't getting their energy from candy or sugary drinks. The rest of the list is equally un-earth shattering. Do you care where your body heat escapes as long as you manage to stay warm? Is anyone you know really craving a poinsettia salad?

We didn't think so. So we put our heads together and whipped up a new one for you. In the spirit of "making a list and checking it twice," here's a list of holiday health myths you might actually find useful this holiday season:

Myth #1: Your Christmas beef tenderloin is causing global warming.

PETA may never admit it, but it turns out that eating meat isn't so eco-unfriendly after all-at least if it's American meat. Back in October, we took a closer look at that 2006 United Nations report everyone's talking about, Livestock's Long Shadow, and found that greenhouse gas sources directly related to livestock production in the U.S. only account for 2.58 percent-not 18 percent-of the total.

Myth #2: Watch out! Those potato latkes are full of acrylamide!

Don't believe the hype: According to the British Journal of Cancer, the link between acrylamide (a substance that forms when potatoes are fried) and cancer is actually an inverse trend. You could eat your weight in latkes or French fries every week for the rest of your life without ever incurring any real danger.

Myth #3: Grandma's tuna casserole will give you mercury poisoning.

Passing on the ocean-caught fish this month-or any other month-will probably cause more damage than eating the tiny traces of naturally occurring toxins that are in all fish. Just ask the Food and Drug Administration.

Myth #4: Lay off the cheese balls and pecan pie unless you want to look like a fat Santa.

As the American Dietetic Association has said, food is not the enemy. Rather than fixate on one food or the other, try and focus on the big picture: your total diet and exercise regimen. Enjoy your holiday feast. Just walk it off.

Myth #5: Your holiday turkey is laced with harmful antibiotics.

Despite the claims of environmental and animal-rights activists, medicines given to livestock are required to improve the health of farm animals, and pose no health risk to meat-eaters. Banning them would backfire, harming the health of people like you.


Final Christmas for Artisan Toymakers? New Safety Rules Threaten Mom-and-Pop Handicrafters and Retailers

Worries over lead paint in mass-market toys made the holidays a little brighter for handcrafted toy makers last year, but now the federal government's response to the scare has some workshops fearful that this Christmas might be their last. Without changes to strict new safety rules, they say, mom-and-pop toy makers and retailers could be forced to conduct testing and labeling they can't afford, even if they use materials as benign as unfinished wood, organic cotton and beeswax, the AP reports.

"It's ironic that the companies who never violated the public trust, who have already operated with integrity, are the ones being threatened," Julia Chen, owner of The Playstore in Palo Alto, which specializes in wooden and organic playthings, told the AP. A spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission said the agency is working to set up some exemptions, reports AP writer Marcus Wohlsen.

Lead paint spurred the recall of 45 million toys last year, mostly made in China for larger manufacturers. Parents flocked to stores like The Playstore in the recall's aftermath searching for safer alternatives. Lawmakers also responded. In August, President Bush imposed the world's strictest lead ban in products for children 12 or younger by signing the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Small toy makers strongly back the restrictions in the bill, which they say reflect voluntary standards they have long observed to keep harmful substances out of toys. But they never thought their products would also be considered a threat.

Under the law, all children's products must be tested for lead and other harmful substances. Toy makers are required to pay a third-party lab for the testing and to put tracking labels on all toys to show when and where they were made. Those requirements make sense for a multinational toy manufacturer churning out thousands of plastic toys on an overseas assembly line, Dan Marshall, co-owner of Peapods Natural Toys and Baby Care in St. Paul, Minn., told the AP. But a business that makes, for example, a few hundred handcrafted wooden baby rattles each year cannot afford to pay up to $4,000 per product for testing, a price some toy makers have been quoted, he said.

Marshall and nearly 100 other toy stores and makers have formed the Handmade Toy Alliance to ask Congress and the federal agency that enforces the law to exempt small toy companies or those that make toys entirely within the U.S. from testing and labeling rules. Failing that, they want the Consumer Product Safety Commission to preemptively declare unfinished wood, wool and cotton and food-grade wood finishes such as beeswax, mineral oil and walnut oil to be lead-free.

U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., lead sponsor of the legislation, says toy makers should not worry. Rush points out that the law already exempts products and materials that do not threaten public safety or health. "This exemption should be sufficient to affect most companies," Rush told the AP. Determining what materials fall under that exemption falls to the safety commission, however, which has yet to issue specific guidelines. With a Feb. 10 deadline for complying with the law, small toy makers say they have no choice but to act as if its rules apply to them or risk facing fines of $100,000 per violation.

"The agency is diligently working on providing rules that would define some exclusions and some exemptions," Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the product safety commission, told the AP.


28 December, 2008

A Fish Story You'll Only Find On Broadway

For those of you who haven't been following "Sushigate," let's review: News broke last week that television star Jeremy Piven (of "Entourage" fame) had pulled out of his role in the Broadway production of David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow." According to Piven and celebrity doctor/diet pill enthusiast Carlon Colker, a nasty case of mercury poisoning rendered the actor " paralytic" and unable to perform until February or March (when, conveniently, Piven will begin filming the new season of his TV show). Rumors are now swirling around the New York theatre scene that Piven was complaining about being " bored out of his mind" on Broadway, and that he'd been shopping around for a replacement actor. Sound fishy? You bet it does.

Given his reputation as an avid sushi fan, Piven's creative excuse may seem plausible -- if you don't know the facts about mercury and other naturally occurring toxins. But David Mamet is in the know. When reached for comment by Variety last week, the legendary playwright said:
"I talked to Jeremy on the phone, and he told me that he discovered that he had a very high level of mercury. So my understanding is that he is leaving show business to pursue a career as a thermometer."
Mamet was definitely on to something: If Piven's story were true, he would go down in American history as the first documented sufferer of sushi-induced mercury poisoning. Ever.

But will he? That depends: Exactly, how big a sushi fan is Jeremy Piven? As readers of the Philadelphia Daily News, Washington Post, and Chicago-Sun Times are learning today, Piven would have to eat 108 pieces of tuna sushi roll every week, for his entire lifetime, to introduce any new health risks from the traces of mercury that have always been in ocean fish.

And Piven's reckless claims are playing games with public health. Our latest report on mercury and seafood, "Tuna Meltdown," showed that seafood scare stories come at a shocking price to the health of America's poorest children. Anyone steering Americans away from the fish counter, whether it's an attention-starved actor or the usual gaggle of green group activists, is depriving them of proven health benefits from omega-3 fatty acids in fish.

As we've been telling the media, someone should send Piven the memo if he hasn't gotten it already: The next time he's bored at a job, he ought to try renegotiating his contract instead of making outlandish health claims. Like other (less whiny) actors do all the time.

Source (See the original for links etc.)

The pendulum swings again: Single pint of beer a day ‘poses liver and bowel cancer risk’

Drinking only one pint of beer a day increases the risk of liver and bowel cancer by a fifth, a health expert warned yesterday. A large glass of wine or a couple of spirits can have the same damaging effect, she said.

Rachel Thompson, science programme manager for the World Cancer Research Fund, warned that just two units of alcohol a day increased the risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent and that of liver cancer by a fifth. More than 36,500 people have bowel cancer diagnosed every year and about 16,000 die from it. Liver cancer claims the lives of more than 3,000 people annually.


The causal link asserted above is undoubtedly mere epidemiological speculation but even if it is true, what is the effect on lifespan? Benefits to the heart may well cancel out other risks

27 December, 2008

Colombo the Asbestos Sleuth

A judge exposes more phony claims

Good legal news for a change: The courts keep making progress against phony asbestos lawsuits, this time in Michigan, where Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Robert Colombo, Jr., has risen to the challenge of a case we wrote about in November.

Judge Colombo has been overseeing asbestos cases in which defendants were trying to disqualify Michael Kelly, a physician who had diagnosed thousands of people with asbestos-related disease on dubious grounds. The judge made clear in court that he didn't appreciate the national attention of our editorial, to put it mildly. But in the end he did the right thing by granting a hearing into Dr. Kelly's diagnoses. Tellingly, the plaintiff attorneys immediately withdrew all but one of their suits.

The judge plowed ahead anyway, helping to expose another asbestos scam. Defendants presented evidence that Dr. Kelly was neither a radiologist nor a pulmonologist and had failed the test that certifies doctors to read X-rays for lung disease. They also showed that the overwhelming majority of hospital radiologists who had reviewed Dr. Kelly's patients found no evidence of disease. An outside panel of radiologists who looked at Dr. Kelly's work found abnormalities in only 6 of 68 patients; Dr. Kelly had found abnormalities in 60 of those 68.

More than 90% of the lung function tests Dr. Kelly performed failed to meet basic standards. The defendants also showed that Dr. Kelly submitted nearly identical reports for every patient he saw, yet he failed to note that some of his patients also had heart disease or renal failure. Asbestos attorneys apparently don't pay for doctors to observe the Hippocratic Oath.

In his ruling, Judge Colombo laid out the facts and found that "the only conclusion in the face of such overwhelming medical evidence is that the opinions of Dr. Kelly are not reliable." He then disqualified him from the case. The effects will be dramatic -- and salutary to the cause of justice. According to Michigan records, Dr. Kelly has been responsible for reporting more than 7,300 cases of asbestos disease. It is unclear how many of those cases have already been adjudicated, but what is clear is that no new suits bearing the doctor's name will see the legal light of day. Some 95% of Michigan asbestos cases are filed in Wayne County and come to Judge Colombo.

The plaintiffs firm -- Greenberg, Persky and White -- has already requested a delay in another 180 cases that were due to be heard in January and May -- and which presumably also relied on Dr. Kelly. Judge Colombo denied that request, which means the plaintiffs will either have to dismiss or find some other doctor to replicate Dr. Kelly's miraculously consistent diagnoses.

Asbestos tort litigation is one of the great rackets of the age, with bogus claims tying up courts in ways that deny justice to the genuinely sick. Too many judges have tried to clear their dockets by running an assembly line that failed to look at the actual evidence, letting plaintiffs and their pliant doctors pass through phony claims. Congratulations to Judge Colombo for cleaning up his own court. If more judges did the same, the asbestos shakedown would end and our legal system would have a better reputation.


Genetic screening ends fears of breast cancer for British couple

A baby genetically screened to be breast cancer free is due to be born within days. In what is believed to be the first publicised case in the world, a British couple underwent pre-implantation genetic testing to free their children from the disease. At the same time, IVF Australia has announced it will start the genetic testing for the aggressive breast cancer gene BRACA 1 next year.

Testing for the breast cancer gene has been available in Australia for about five years. Very few IVF clinics offer it due to the ethical dilemma involved. Pre-implantation genetic testing is used to screen for hereditary diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But screening for breast cancer is considered controversial by pro-life groups because there is a chance not all embryos will develop the gene mutation and could have led a healthy life.

The British couple, who do not wish to be identified, are one of two in the UK who have publicly decided to undergo the test after their families had been afflicted with breast cancer. Without screening, any daughter of the couples would have an 80 per cent chance of developing the fast-spreading form of breast cancer. "I thought this was something I had to try because if we had a daughter with this gene, and she was ill, I couldn't look her in the face and say I didn't try," the 27-year-old expectant mum said.

Men can be carriers of the rogue gene. Had the couple conceived naturally, any child would have a 50 per cent chance of also carrying the gene. "We had been through his sister being ill, so it was something we had seen first hand," the woman said.

Another couple, known as Matthew and Helen, have also undergone the screening to try to eradicate the hereditary breast cancer gene. "I've lived much of my life with cancer and death, and fear that I might have to face it and might pass on the risk to my children," Helen said. "This gives us the chance to make sure our daughters won't have the same experience."

Genetic testing involves using IVF to create a selection of embyros. Scientists then select the ones without the rogue gene and implant them in the woman. Several clinics, including Sydney IVF, offer screening for BRACA 1 and 2 genes. "What is significant about this case is that normally genetic testing is done for things that affect the baby, not adult diseases," said Peter Illingworth, IVF Australia's medical director.

Breast cancer survivor Ayda Soydash, 29, may never be able to have children after her treatment, using Herceptin, brought on early menopause. But yesterday Miss Soydash said she supported genetic testing for hereditary breast cancer. "Definitely, definitely it is something I would do," she said.


26 December, 2008

Big Beverage Makers Win Approval on Natural Sweetener

I wonder how long it will take for the food freaks to invent a problem with this stuff? That sugar is a completely natural substance must not be mentioned, of course

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo said this week that they received U.S. regulatory clearance for natural, calorie-free sweeteners derived from the stevia plant and planned to launch new soft drinks in the coming weeks. Both beverage makers have long searched for a natural alternative to chemical sweeteners such as Equal, Sweet'N Low and Splenda to help reinvigorate U.S. soft drink sales, which have slipped as consumers opt for other drinks that are viewed as healthier, Reuters reports.

Coke, the world's largest soft-drink maker said the sweetener it co-developed with Cargill, known as Truvia, will make its U.S. debut this month in two Odwalla juice drinks and a version of its Sprite soft drink. The drinks have 50 calories per serving, which is 8.5 ounces for Sprite and 8 ounces for the juices. Pepsi, the No. 2 maker of soft drinks, said it will launch zero-calorie versions of its SoBe Lifewater and "Trop 50," a light orange juice product with 50 percent less sugar and calories than regular Tropicana orange juice, reports Reuters writer Martinne Geller.

Both drinks will feature PureVia, the sweetener Pepsi developed with Merisant. The new SoBe Lifewater will be on shelves as early as next week, with full distribution by mid-January. Trop 50 will make its retail debut in March. Truvia and PureVia are made from the leaves of the stevia, a shrub native to South America.

Stevia was not approved as a food additive by U.S. regulators, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued letters to the companies this week saying it had no objections to their sweeteners, which are derived from the plant.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of industry trade publication Beverage Digest, said that the impact of the sweetener depends on consumers. "It's all about taste," Sicher told Reuters. "If this sweetener helps produce lower-calorie beverages that taste good, it would be a big deal for the industry. If the beverages don't taste good, then it will not be a major moment."


New Research Shows Why Every Week of Pregnancy Counts

This time of year, some hospitals see a small uptick in baby deliveries thanks to families eager to fit the blessed event in around holiday plans or in time to claim a tax deduction. Conventional wisdom has long held that inducing labor or having a Caesarean section a bit early posed little risk, since after 34 weeks gestation, all the baby has to do was grow. But new research shows that those last weeks of pregnancy are more important than once thought for brain, lung and liver development. And there may be lasting consequences for babies born at 34 to 36 weeks, now called "late preterm."

A study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in October calculated that for each week a baby stayed in the womb between 32 and 39 weeks, there is a 23% decrease in problems such as respiratory distress, jaundice, seizures, temperature instability and brain hemorrhages. A study of nearly 15,000 children in the Journal of Pediatrics in July found that those born between 32 and 36 weeks had lower reading and math scores in first grade than babies who went to full term. New research also suggests that late preterm infants are at higher risk for mild cognitive and behavioral problems and may have lower I.Q.s than those who go full term. What's more, experts warn that a fetus's estimated age may be off by as much as two weeks either way, meaning that a baby thought to be 36 weeks along might be only 34.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes are now urging obstetricians not to deliver babies before 39 weeks unless there is a medical reason to do so. "It's very important for people to realize that every week counts," says Lucky E. Jain, a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

It's unclear how many deliveries are performed early for nonmedical reasons. Preterm births (before 37 weeks) have risen 31% in the U.S. since 1981 -- to one in every eight births. The most serious problems are seen in the tiniest babies. But nearly 75% of preterm babies are born between 34 and 36 weeks, and much of the increase has come in C-sections, which now account for a third of all U.S. births. An additional one-fifth of all births are via induced labor, up 125% since 1989. Many of those elective deliveries are done for medical reasons such as fetal distress or pre-eclampsia, a sudden spike in the mother's blood pressure. Those that aren't can be hard to distinguish. "Obstetricians know the rules and they are very creative about some of their indications -- like 'impending pre-eclampsia,'" says Alan Fleischman, medical director for the March of Dimes.

Why do doctors agree to deliver a baby early when there's no medical reason? Some cite pressure from parents. "'I'm tired of being pregnant. My fingers are swollen. My mother-in-law is coming' -- we hear that all the time," says Laura E. Riley, medical director of labor and delivery at Massachusetts General Hospital. "But there are 25 other patients waiting, and saying 'no' can take 45 minutes, so sometimes we cave." There's also a perception that delivering early by c-section is safer for the baby, even though it means major surgery for the mom. "The idea is that somehow, if you're in complete control of the delivery, then only good things will happen. But that's categorically wrong. The baby and the uterus know best," says F. Sessions Cole, director of newborn medicine at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

He explains that a complex series of events occurs in late pregnancy to prepare the baby to survive outside the womb: The fetus acquires fat needed to maintain body temperature; the liver matures enough to eliminate a toxin called bilirubin from the body; and the lungs get ready to exchange oxygen as soon as the umbilical cord is clamped. Disrupting any of those steps can result in brain damage and other problems. In addition, the squeezing of the uterus during labor stimulates the baby and the placenta to make steroid hormones that help this last phase of lung maturation -- and that's missed if the mother never goes into labor.

"We don't have a magic ball to predict which babies might have problems," says Dr. Cole. "But we can say that the more before 39 weeks a baby is delivered, the more likely that one or more complications will occur."

In cases where there are medical reasons to deliver a baby early, lung maturation can be determined with amniocentesis -- using a long needle to withdraw fluid from inside the uterus. But that can cause infection, bleeding or a leak or fetal distress, which could require an emergency c-section. Trying to determine maturity by the size of the fetus can also be problematic. Babies of mothers with gestational diabetes are often very large for their age, but even less developed for their age than normal-size babies.

Growing beyond 42 weeks can also pose problems, since the placenta deteriorates and can't sustain the growing baby.

Making families aware of the risks of delivering early makes a big difference. In Utah, where 27% of elective deliveries in 1999 took place before the 39th week, a major awareness campaign has reduced that to less than 5%. At two St. Louis hospitals that send premature babies to Dr. Cole's neonatal intensive-care unit, obstetricians now ask couples who want to schedule a delivery before 39 weeks to sign a consent form acknowledging the risks. At that point, many wait for nature to take its course, says Dr. Cole.


25 December, 2008

Smart kids are more likely to be heavy drinkers

There's a link between a high IQ and developing alcohol problems. Being highly intelligent in a world built around average people can be frustrating and alcohol is one solvent for frustration

The Colony Club in Soho has been a watering hole for hard-drinking creative types since it was founded by Muriel Belcher in the late 1940s. It is a reasonable bet that her confidants - Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Jeffrey and Bruce Bernard, Michael Andrews, Eduardo Paolozzi and other regulars from the art and entertainment world - would have had high IQs. Some members may have been nightmare clients for their bank managers, exasperating husbands, wives or lovers, but no one would doubt their talents, originality and intellectual ability. Research has now shown a link between high childhood IQ and an adult enthusiasm for alcohol that leads in some cases to problem drinking.

Parents may be aware that the easiest children to have around the house, and those who are also the most likely to have a predictable, comfortable lifestyle when adults, are those with a slightly aboveaverage intelligence, neither too clever, nor stupid. Most parents would be proud to be told by a teacher that their child has a higher IQ than his or her peers. It would not occur to anybody that there might be an association between that high IQ at the age of 10 and an enthusiasm for the drinking culture, leading occasionally to a problematic excessive alcohol intake.

This association is even stronger among women than among men. Research by Dr G. David Batty and colleagues at the University of Glasgow, published in the American Journal of Public Health, compared the mental ability scores of 8,170 British boys and girls at the age of 10 with their alcohol intake and any alcohol problems when they were 30.

Whereas most of the clever children grew up to drink as most people do, reasonably and moderately, the likelihood of developing a drinking problem if one were unusually bright increased 1.38 times in women and 1.17 times in men. Could this account for the importance of Oxford wine cellars in college life and, possibly, the tendency of intelligent heavy drinkers to start the habit while at university?

As most of us begin to look forward to and prepare for a convivial Christmas, it is as well to review thinking on alcohol. Nobody denies that excessive or binge drinking presents a danger to the drinker and those around them, but modest drinking is still life-preserving rather than life-limiting.

More women than ever are drinking to excess, and it is hard to know who will suffer liver damage and what level of alcohol consumption is liable to cause it. Nor can anyone condone Friday or Saturday night binge drinking. This represents a hazard to a young drinker's liver, even if most get away with it. It is also true that problem drinking by clubbers causes a considerable nuisance in the neighbourhood and contributes to petty crime.

The evidence that alcohol is a possible cause of breast cancer in women is now accepted, as alcohol increases the level of oestrogen and this is known to be carcinogenic. However, women can comfort themselves as they enjoy a glass of wine at Christmas that, statistically, those who drink in moderation are likely to live rather longer than their teetotal contemporaries.

Only 6 per cent of women and 8 per cent of men drink at what even the strict Department of Health considers a hazardous level. For the other 90 per cent-plus of the population, moderate drinkers as well as teetotallers, alcohol doesn't represent a health problem. Moderate drinkers even have a small but significant advantage over the teetotallers in the longevity stakes.

A surprising statistic is that, in the majority of the population, damaging patterns of drinking are falling. However, alcohol-related hospital admissions still show an increase. This may be because more medical conditions are now included under this category, and because more women are now drinking more than 20 years ago.

Although many common forms of heart disease are less likely in moderate drinkers, there is one adverse effect of alcohol on the heart. Up to 10 per cent of patients over 75 suffer from atrial fibrillation, an irregularity of the heart's rhythm. In 45 per cent of the cases in which a patient has suffered the most common form of stroke, it has been preceded by atrial fibrillation. Recent research, reviewed this month in the British Journal of Cardiology, suggests a strong association between atrial fibrillation and alcohol intake.


Blind man demonstrates 'blindsight' phenomenon by navigating obstacle course

A man who completely lost his sight after brain damage has astonished scientists by negotiating an obstacle course without his cane, in a powerful demonstration of an eerie phenomenon known as "blindsight". The man, known only as TN, was blinded by strokes on both sides of his brain which left him unable to see and devoid of any activity in the brain regions that control vision. He uses a stick to detect obstacles, and has to be guided around buildings. However, TN was known to exhibit blindsight, a strange ability some blind people have to detect things that they cannot see. He reacts to the facial expressions of other people, for example, and scans of his brain have confirmed that it registers facial emotions such as joy, anger and fear.

He has now shown evidence of an even more remarkable skill - the ability to navigate without being able to see. In an experiment, scientists arranged a series of boxes and chairs in an obstacle course and asked TN to move through it from one side of the room to the other without using his cane. To their amazement, he completed the course without hitting anything, earning applause from on-lookers.

Professor Beatrice de Gelder, of the University of Tilburg in the Netherlands, who led the study, said: "This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans. We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world."

TN's blindsight is likely to be explained by these alternative visual paths in the brain, which allow him to process information received through his eyes, which are still functional. He can then use this information to navigate even though he is unaware that he has the ability to see.

Professor de Gelder said: "It's a part of our vision that's for orienting and doing in the world rather than for understanding. All the time, we are using hidden resources of our brain, doing things we think we are unable to do." The research could have implications for treating patients with brain damage.


24 December, 2008

Quack medicine making inroads

Below is an excerpt, without links, from a recent Sandy Szwarc article. Sandy is too polite to use the term "quack medicine" but that is what it is. Read the whole article for the full depressing story. I suppose quack medicine could be regarded as a self-administered placebo, though

This month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new Guidance for the Clinician in Rendering Pediatric Care on using alternative modalities. This professional society supported pediatricians complementing their medical practices and the advice they give with alternative modalities (called CAM, holistic or integrative), incorrectly claiming that CAM use is increasing and more than a third of adults have used alternative modalities.

CAM was described as caring for the whole patient and considering their biological, psychological, family and social needs - all of which has been part of medical assessments and nursing care plans as long as I can remember. The real "distinction between CAM and mainstream medicine," said the AAP guideline, is that mainstream medicine includes practices that have undergone rigorous research. It reported that many alternative modalities have proven effective, lessening "the distinction between CAM and mainstream medicine," and that clinicians have an ethical responsibility to know about evidence-based CAM, and be open and respectful of CAM use.

This is an example of a term no longer meaning what we think it does: `evidence-based' no longer means sound and scientific evidence.

Readers who weren't reading the AAP guideline closely might have come away believing that CAM had been soundly shown to be effective in clinical research. "More than 1400 randomized clinical trials and 47 systematic reviews of pediatric CAM [have been identified]. Formal evaluation has suggested that the quality of RCTs of CAM is as good as that of RCTs of conventional medicine," it said - neglecting to report that the findings of those reviews have been notably negative.

The AAP guidance, published in its journal Pediatrics, presented the Kemper Model of Holistic Care and uncritically reviewed the efficacy and popularity of everything from biofield modalities "intended to affect energy fields," to acupuncture, therapeutic touch ("healing is promoted when the body's energies are in balance"), reiki, spiritual healing, healing massage, supplements, functional foods, magnets, and homeopathy (used by an estimated 3,000 clinicians in the U.S.) for babies and children.

Medscape offered an accompanying continuing medical education course, giving doctors and nurses credit for answering (incorrectly) just two questions - the most popular CAM used in children and how doctors should address the use of CAM in children.

How did we go from treatments that would once have been deemed patent medicines and been treated to careful scientific analyses of effectiveness and safety in medical literature - to these same practices being advocated by a professional medical society using innuendos and ad populum?

This isn't a trivial concern, nor is it just about what is traditionally considered alternative modalities. We've increasingly been seeing unsound medical information being unquestionably accepted by healthcare professionals, and published in peer-reviewed journals, that neglects basic principles of research, fact checking, or statistics - surrounding everything from weight management, preventive health, lifestyle and anti-aging medicine, misuse of risk factors and epidemiology, and food as medicine dietary ideologies. What explains the growing departure of science and the scientific process from medicine? As major academic medical and nursing schools across the country adopt core CAM curriculums, are medical professionals who are trained to believe in alternative modalities losing the ability to recognize sound scientific research and evidence-based medicine?

More here

'Sex chip' will have us wired, Oxford University researcher says

Forget Viagra: scientists are working on an electronic "sex chip" that will be able to stimulate pleasure centres in the brain, The Australian reports. The prospect of the chip is emerging from progress in deep brain stimulation, in which tiny shocks from implanted electrodes are given to the brain. It has already been used to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

In recent months, scientists have been focusing on an area of the brain just behind the eyes known as the orbitofrontal cortex. This is associated with feelings of pleasure derived from eating and sex. A research survey conducted by Morten Kringelbach, senior fellow at Oxford University's department of psychiatry, and reported in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience journal, found the orbitofrontal cortex could be a "new stimulation target" to help people suffering from anhedonia, an inability to experience pleasure from such activities. Stimulating this area can produce pleasure as intense as "devouring a delicious pastry", he said.

His colleague Tipu Aziz, a professor of neurosurgery at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, predicted a significant breakthrough in the science behind a "sex chip" within 10 years. "There is evidence that this chip will work," Dr Aziz said. "A few years ago, a scientist implanted such a device into the brain of a woman with a low sex drive and turned her into a very sexually active woman. She didn't like the sudden change, so the wiring in her head was removed."

The wiring remains a hurdle: Dr Aziz says current technology, which requires surgery to connect a wire from a heart pacemaker into the brain, causes bleeding in some patients and is "intrusive and crude". By 2015, he predicts, micro-computers in the brain with a range of applications could be self-powered and controlled by hand-held transmitters.


23 December, 2008

Faddists invent imaginary health dangers and ignore real ones

One in three toys was found to have "significant levels of toxic chemicals, including lead, flame retardants and arsenic," according to a new report from the anti-chemical industry. But don't let the report's political agenda distract you from very real toy safety issues.

In what is pitched as its second annual "consumer guide to toxic chemicals in toys," the Michigan-based Ecology Center reported that, among the 1,500 toys that it tested: 20 percent contained lead, with 3.5 percent exceeding the current recall threshold for lead-based paint; 2.9 percent contained bromine at levels greater than 1,000 parts per million (ppm), indicating the use of brominated flame-retardants; 18.9 percent contained detectable levels of arsenic, with 1.4 percent containing greater than 100 ppm; 2.4 percent contained detectable levels of cadmium; 4.2 percent contained detectable levels of mercury, with 1 percent containing levels greater than 100 ppm; and 27 percent of toys were made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic.

All these chemicals and ppm-levels may sound scary, but what's the reality? First, it's important to keep in mind that there are no reports of any children being harmed by toys containing brominated flame retardants, arsenic, cadmium, mercury or PVC. Brominated flame retardants, in fact, help keep children safe by slowing the burn rate in case of a fire.

That no documented harm has been caused by these chemicals in toys comes as little surprise since, as the basic principle of toxicology goes, "it is the dose that makes the poison." All substances even air, water, sugar and salt, are "toxic" at sufficiently high exposures. All of us come into contact with potentially toxic substances every day in our air, water, food, clothes, jewelry, and personal care products, for example, but not at levels that cause harm. The Ecology Center made no effort to explore whether and to what extent children are actually exposed to the chemicals detected -- much less did it establish that any such exposure is harmful.

The Ecology Center aims to scare parents merely based on the mere detection of these chemicals in toys, which is nothing less than classic junk science. But what's more interesting -- and revealing about the Ecology Center's motives in fomenting the toy scare -- is that it entirely missed warning parents about a very real and deadly threat posed by some of the toys it tested.

Of the top ten lead-containing toys, six were jewelry (necklaces, charm bracelets and a pin) containing from 0.2 percent to about 41 percent lead, according to the Ecology Center. If you then go to the group's web page to find out why you should be scared about lead in toys, you first, and foremost, get the old environmentalist myths about how there is no safe exposure to lead and that lead causes lower IQ scores and other development problems. While the Ecology Center does mention some real health effects of lead poisoning, including muscle weakness, anemia, and kidney damage, it omitted the big one, death, and then fails to mention a real death that parents might find instructive.

In February 2006, a 4-year old Minnesota boy was taken to the hospital because of vomiting. He was diagnosed with gastroenteritis and released. Two days later, he returned and was admitted to the hospital. Ten hours later he was placed on a mechanical ventilator. The next day, blood work revealed that the boy had an extraordinarily high blood lead level of 180 micrograms per deciliter, and studies indicated that his brain was receiving no blood flow. He was removed from life support and died.

An autopsy retrieved from his stomach a heart-shaped charmed imprinted with "Reebok." His mother recognized the object as a charm that came with a pair of shoes belonging to another child whose home her son had visited, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She was not aware that her son had ingested it, since he had no history of ingesting non-food substances. When tested, the charm was found to consist of 99.1 percent lead. Reebok voluntarily recalled the charms shortly thereafter and instructed parents to "immediately take the charm bracelets away from children and dispose of the entire bracelet."

Did the Ecology Center spotlight this incident and its outcome on its lead information page? No -- even though its "most dangerous" lead-containing toy is a Disney-brand Hannah Montana necklace with heart-shaped charms that are 40 percent lead. Study leader Jeff Gearhart told me that he had heard of the Minnesota poisoning case, but couldn't explain why mention of it was omitted.

Blinded by its anti-chemical agenda -- Gearhart told me that he was glad to see that companies were responding to the unwelcome spotlight of his research by reformulating their toys -- the Ecology Center apparently can't see the true dangers in the forest because it's focused on the politically incorrect "chemical" trees. If a public interest group, which is what the Ecology Center holds itself out to be, is really concerned about toy safety, how about alerting parents to real and specific dangers -- like swallowing small lead trinkets? But that's not all.

In 2007, there were 232,900 toy-related injuries among all ages, including 18 toy-related deaths among children under age 15, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Riding toys, including non-motorized scooters, and small toy balls were associated with most of the deaths. Most of the 232,900 injuries were lacerations, contusions and abrasions, most frequently to the face and head. Notably, there were no reports of injuries from chemicals in toys.

The Ecology Center seems to be worried about toy safety only to the extent that it helps the anti-chemical political agenda. But there are plenty of genuine toy safety concerns for consumers to consider. They ought not to be distracted from those realities by trumped-up, bogus scares.


Public Health Triumphs Over Fishy Activism

Napoleon Bonaparte famously told his army to never wake him for good news, "because with good news nothing presses." Napoleon never met the United States government, whose rare good-news day is usually cause for serious celebration. Today is a great example. The Washington Post reports that the Food and Drug Administration favors rolling back the government's ill-advised seafood warnings, which are aggressively promoted by the Environmental Protection Agency and a variety of activist fear mongers. If the plan becomes policy, the next FDA/EPA seafood advisory you see just might read: "We were all wrong. You should eat more fish."

We haven't seen the FDA's report yet, but the Post has. Apparently, it argues for an immediate reversal of a reckless 2004 advisory that urged limiting (or avoiding entirely) the consumption of certain seafood because of trace levels of mercury. This, of course, turned out to be a colossal error. Our recent investigative report, titled "Tuna Meltdown," found that more than a quarter-million underprivileged children were born at risk of having abnormally low IQs because of this wrong-headed government advice and the activist group warnings that followed.

The entire medical literature contains absolutely zero mercury-poisoning cases related to Americans eating commercially sold fish. Not one. And the neurological and cardiovascular benefits of eating large amounts of fish are well known, especially for pregnant women and their unborn children. The FDA's new report, writes the Post, argues "that nutrients in fish, including omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and other minerals could boost a child's IQ by three points." We're telling the media today that FDA's about-face is both long overdue and a huge public-health victory: "This just might be the best Christmas present health-conscious Americans could hope for."

Predictably, some activists are disoriented by the triumph of science over their fringe agendas. The Environmental Working Group, for example, called the report "astonishing" before resorting to playground name-calling. Why is good news for consumers bad news for activists? Simple: When the only thing you sell is food fear, consumers who understand that their lunch is safe are simply bad for business.

We shouldn't let scare campaigns obscure the truth about seafood. We'd like to think that Napoleon, who loved fish so much he ate them with his hands, would make an exception to his "good news" rule today


22 December, 2008

Does a younger dad mean a healthier child?

New studies from Tel Aviv University suggest that waiting until a man can give his son "all the advantages" may have a disadvantage, too

Tel Aviv University researchers found in several consecutive studies that older dads are more likely to have boys with autism and lower IQs. Most recently, they found that the older a father's age, the greater the chance that his son will display poor social abilities as a teen. Dr. Mark Weiser from TAU's Sackler School of Medicine and his team of researchers are now studying what causes this phenomenon. "There is a growing body of data showing that an advanced age of parents puts their kids at risk for various illnesses," says Dr. Weiser. "Some illnesses, such as schizophrenia, appear to be more common the older parents get. Doctors and psychologists are fascinated by this, but don't really understand it. We want to know how it works."

To explore this important question, Dr. Weiser looked at data collected by the Israeli army. Subjects included more than 450,000 male teens, aged 16 and 17. The teens were asked these questions: How many good friends do you have? Do you have a girlfriend? Do you generally prefer to be with or without a group of friends? How often do you go out on Friday evenings? Do you tend to be at the center of a party? Controlling for the variables of IQ, mother's age, socioeconomic status and birth order, the researchers found that the prevalence of poor social functioning increased by 50% in boys with fathers 45 years old and up.

Dr. Weiser, who also works at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer hospital, cautions that the results are far from conclusive. "It could be that men with poorer social skills get married later in life, and therefore transmit this characteristic to their boys. But our studies attempted to control for this variable by looking at brothers from the same father," he explains.

He also suggests that older men shouldn't change their minds about having children since the statistical risk is relatively minor. "The effects of a father's age on the health of his son are quite small, and many of the most dramatic effects in this study are driven by dads in their 50s," says Dr. Weiser. "The difference in risk between someone who is 35 or 45 is so small that it's irrelevant."

Dr. Weiser continues, "But the findings are interesting for clinicians who are looking at the bigger picture of how parental age affects the mental functioning of offspring and what mechanisms are at play in that functioning." And Dr. Weiser doesn't rule out the possibility that older fathers may have better resources for getting their boys tested for autism when symptoms arise. Published in Oxford Journal's Schizophrenia Bulletin, the study builds on Dr. Weiser's previous research on parental age, autism and IQ scores.


New study shows that a cough medicine ingredient could effectively treat prostate cancer

A study published today in the December issue of the European medical journal Anticancer Research demonstrates that an ingredient used in a common cough suppressant may be useful in treating advanced prostate cancer. Researchers found that noscapine, which has been used in cough medication for nearly 50 years, reduced tumor growth in mice by 60% and limited the spread of tumors by 65% without causing harmful side effects.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer among men in the United States. The American Cancer Society estimates that 186,320 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008 and 28,660 will die from it. One man in 6 will get prostate cancer during his lifetime. Although slow-growing in most men, the cancer is considered advanced when it spreads beyond the prostate. There is no known cure.

The laboratory study was a joint effort by Dr. Israel Barken of the Prostate Cancer Research and Educational Foundation, Moshe Rogosnitzky of MedInsight Research Institute, and Dr. Jack Geller of The University of California San Diego. Noscapine has previously been studied as a treatment for breast, ovarian, colon, lung and brain cancer and for various lymphomas, chronic lymphocytic leukemia and melanoma. This study, however, is the first to demonstrate its effectiveness in treating prostate cancer.

Noscapine is a naturally-occurring substance, a non-addictive derivative of opium. As a natural substance, noscapine cannot be patented, which has limited the potential for clinical trials. Rogosnitzky notes that drug companies are generally unwilling to underwrite expensive clinical trials without being able to recoup their investment. A synthetic derivative of noscapine has been patented but has not yet reached the clinical testing phase.

Since noscapine is approved for use in many countries as a cough suppressant, however, it is available to doctors to prescribe for other uses as well. This common practice is known as "off-label" prescription. Noscapine is increasingly being used off-label to treat a variety of cancers. Dr. Barken used noscapine to treat a handful of prostate cancer patients before retiring from clinical practice. Encouraged by the success of these treatments, his foundation funded the laboratory study being reported in the December 2008 edition of Anticancer Research.

As founder and medical director of the Prostate Cancer Research and Educational Foundation in San Diego, Dr. Barken is encouraging academic institutions to follow up this successful laboratory research with a human clinical trial. He has pioneered a web-based patient tracking system that will greatly reduce the cost of the trial while cutting the time necessary to complete the study. Using the web-based tracking system will also allow doctors outside the U.S. to enroll patients in the research.

Rogosnitzky, director of research at MedInsight Research Institute, points out the significant advantages that noscapine could present as a treatment for prostate cancer. "Noscapine is effective without the unpleasant side effects associated with other common prostate cancer treatments. Because noscapine has been used as a cough-suppressant for nearly half a century, it already has an extensive safety record. This pre-clinical study shows that the dose used to effectively treat prostate cancer in the animal model was also safe."

Hormone therapy and chemotherapy, along with radiation and surgery, are currently used to slow the progression of advanced prostate cancer. Side effects resulting from these treatments include impotence, incontinence, fatigue, anemia, brittle bones, hair loss, reduced appetite, nausea and diarrhea. No toxic side effects were observed in the laboratory study of noscapine.


21 December, 2008

Direct attack on tumour works

Spontaneous remissions are not uncommon with some cancers so the recovery below proves nothing. It is however an interesting straw in the wind. There have been some controlled trials that have indicated substantial benefit from the procedure

A woman given just months to live after developing cancer two years ago is looking forward to a 'miracle' Christmas with her family. Debbie Brewer was diagnosed in November 2006 with mesothelioma, a lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos, but has beaten the odds thank to pioneering treatment in Germany.

The 49-year-old was awarded a six-figure compensation payment by the Ministry of Defence after she said the illness was caused by hugging her father, Phillip Northmore, when he worked as an asbestos lagger at Devonport Dockyard in Plymouth in the 1960s.

She was told by doctors that she had between six and nine months to live but refused chemotherapy and instead travelled to The University Clinic in Frankfurt. A doctor had told her of an experimental treatment being carried out by Professor Thomas Vogl and Mrs Brewer used her compensation to pay for six sessions at the clinic. Now specialists have told her the tumour has shrunk by more than half, is in remission and will not come back. Mrs Brewer, who has three children - Siobhan, 22, Richard, 19, and Kieran, 11 - said it is a 'miracle'.

Now Mrs Brewer, from Plymouth, has started a campaign to have the treatment, which costs 3,500 pounds a session, brought to the UK for trials. She said: 'I want to give people hope. 'I was told for mesothelioma there is little out there but the results in Germany are fantastic - it's about a 60 per cent success rate. 'I didn't think I would see my youngest go to senior school, now I'm going to be enjoying Christmas with them.'

The treatment is known as chemoembolisation and is more commonly used to fight liver cancer. It introduces chemotherapy drugs directly to the tumour area through a catheter into the lung. Mrs Brewer said: 'They are able to directly attack the tumour through an artery so it targets just the tumour and not the nervous system as well.' She started the treatment in May and had her last of six chemoembolisation sessions this week. Mrs Brewer now hopes she has beaten the cancer for good and said if it does start to come back 'there is help available'.


Fatties to use elevators in fire evacuation

THE rising number of fat Australians has forced engineers to revise the policy of not using lifts during building evacuations because of fire. Fire Protection Association spokesman Peter Johnson said the rising number of obese Australians was slowing down fire drill times. There is a danger of larger people falling in stairwells and slowing the progress of other evacuees.

"For more than 30 years we have been told that we should not use lifts when a fire alarm sounds," Johnson said. "Now we have to change people's attitudes so they think of both lifts and stairs as being suitable for evacuation." Lifts are traditionally not used in evacuations due to the risk of breakdowns and exposure to heat and smoke.

Johnson said tests had shown using both stairs and lifts had reduced evacuation times by up to 40 per cent. Well-designed lift wells could also provide good access for firefighters. A study found workers on higher levels were more likely to consider using lifts during emergencies.

Johnson said fire escape standards should also include wider stairwells. More than half of Australians are either overweight or obese according to the latest Bureau of Statistics figures.


20 December, 2008

Oliver Twist's life not so gruelling

DOCTORS say they have uncovered the gruel truth of the Victorian workhouse. Charles Dickens, they contend, was exaggerating when he portrayed Oliver Twist and other orphans driven to the brink of starvation by a miserly diet of watery porridge. In fact, food provided under 1834 Poor Law Act, which set up workhouses for the destitute in mid-19th-century Britain, was dreary but there was plenty of it and the diet was nutritious enough for children of Oliver's age, their British Medical Journal paper says.

In Oliver Twist, Dickens wrote that the orphans were given "three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week and half a roll on Sunday". On feast days, they received an extra 2 1/4 ounces (64 grams) of bread.

Four medical experts say in the report such a diet would have killed or crippled children, inflicting anaemia, scurvy, rickets and other diseases linked to vitamin deficiency. They sifted through contemporary documents and even replicated the gruel that workhouse children most likely had. Using a recipe for water gruel taken from a 17th-century English cookbook, the authors calculate Oliver would have had around three pints (1.76 litres) of gruel per day, comprising 3.75 ounces (106 grams) of top-quality oatmeal from Berwick, Scotland. Far from being thin, the gruel would have been "substantial", the authors say.

"Considerable amounts" of beef and mutton also went to London workhouses. The authors added a caveat, saying that their assumptions were made on the basis that inmates actually received the quantity and quality of food prescribed.


The diet aid delusion: Low-fat labels and pills don't deliver, says British watchdog

Those who over-indulge this Christmas may think the solution is to add some weight-loss products to their shopping basket. The idea that the festive flab can be banished by switching to `lite' versions of favourite brands or by taking a supplement certainly sounds tempting. But research by the consumer group Which? claims that the only pounds that many diet aids help you shed are the ones in your wallet.

The report, published today in the group's magazine, raises questions about the slimming claims of some leading brands and weightloss supplements. It points out that Kellogg's Special K, marketed as a low-fat cereal, has the same calories (171 per 30g) as Kellogg's Corn Flakes and more than Kellogg's Bran Flakes (157 per 30g). Weight Watchers thick-sliced white bread (68 calories per 29g slice) is nutritionally so similar to Warburtons Toastie sliced white (69 per 29g slice) and Asda Danish white bread (63 per 25g slice) that Which? recommends buying the one you think tastes best.

McVitie's light digestive biscuits have less fat than McVitie's original digestives, but more sugar (2.9g rather than 2.5g per 15g biscuit), meaning the difference between the biscuits is only four calories. M&S's Count On Us lasagne has 440 calories, far less than the M&S standard range, which has 620, but only a little less than the standard Morrisons lasagne which has 464. None of the seven over-the-counter weight-loss supplements examined could prove they offer long lasting beneficial effects, Which? experts said.

The consumer group's head of services research, Nikki Ratcliff, said: `If you're looking for a New Year quick fix to shed a few pounds, weight-loss products aren't the answer. The harsh reality is that exercise coupled with a healthy balanced diet is the only effective way to lose weight. `Just because foods are labelled as light or advertised as diet brands, it doesn't mean they're the lowest calorie option. Look at other similar products on the shelf - you might find some that don't brand themselves as light actually have fewer calories or less fat or less sugar, so you'd be better off buying them instead.'

But Dr Pamela Mason, an expert in herbal remedies and spokesman for the Health Supplements Information Service, insisted such products can help dieters lose weight. `Once someone has decided they need to lose weight, these products can play a good supportive role. Of course, anybody looking to lose weight needs to focus on diet and exercise,' she said.

The Food & Drink Federation, which represents food manufacturers, said: `The improved labelling that now appears on all major brands is helping consumers to quickly spot whether or not a particular product meets their needs.'

A spokesman for Kellogg's defended Special K, saying: `There are very few products that offer you really tasty food and help you manage your shape and Special K absolutely delivers on both counts. `Consumers aren't stupid. The reason Special K is one of the UK's biggest selling cereals is because it works.'


19 December, 2008

Obesity is determined 'by the time a child is five'

So the tots are now in line for harassment. The results are ENTIRELY in line with genetically-determined overeating. That the kids were the same as earlier at birth means nothing. They had not by the time of birth had any influence on their nutritional intake

Child obesity is determined before the age of five, ministers were told yesterday. Scientists found that the majority of weight gain in children happens before they have started school, raising doubts over Government policies which target fatter children only when they start primary education. They urged ministers to launch more pre-school obesity initiatives. A quarter of children aged four and five in England are overweight, and around 10 per cent are classified as obese - so fat that their health is in danger.

Experts blame diets rich in fat, salt, sugar and processed foods, and say that bad dietary examples set by their parents could also be to blame. The findings, published in the journal Paediatrics, came from the EarlyBird study of 233 children from birth to puberty which were presented to ministers today. At birth, children in the study were the same weight as children born 25 years ago, the study found.

But by puberty they had gained more fat compared to children of the same age in the 1980s. Most of the excess weight gain was put on before the age of five, they found. Although the weight of a five-year-old bore no relation to his or her weight at birth, it closely predicted the weight the child would be at nine, indicating that the child's path to obesity began before school age but was not connected with birth weight. They found that before a girl gets to school, she will have gained 90 per cent of the excess weight she will have at puberty. Boys will have piled on an extra 70 per cent.

Lead researcher Professor Terry Wilkin, of Plymouth's Peninsula Medical School, said: 'When they reach five, the die seems to be cast, at least until the age of puberty.' He said he believed a poor diet probably had more effect than lack of physical exercise. 'It is entirely possible that the calorie density of food and portion sizes could be higher,' he said.

Professor Wilkin criticised Government policy which focuses on school age children, with initiatives to make school meals healthier and get children to play fewer computer games. Professor Liam Donaldson, England's chief medical officer, said soaring rates of obesity amounted to an 'impending crisis'. He told the BBC: 'It is never too late. Obesity is one of the few serious medical problems that can be reversed very, very quickly.'

The Department of Health said: 'We have made obesity prevention, nutrition and physical activity a priority in the updated Child Health Promotion Programme. 'In addition, the Healthy Start scheme provides vouchers to put towards the cost of milk, fresh fruit and vegetables or infant formula to around half a million pregnant women and children under four in low income and disadvantaged families.'


Wonder wine 'cleans blood vessels'

Just the old resveratrol religion again. When properly tested, resveratrol does NOT do many of the things claimed for it -- such as prolong life

An Australian doctor says he has created the world's healthiest wine, which cleans your blood vessels and reduces the risk of heart attack as you drink it. Each bottle contained up to 100 times the amount of resveratrol - a naturally occurring anti-oxidant found in grapes - than a standard drop, says Sydney's Dr Philip Norrie.

Resveratrol helped to maintain blood flow by keeping arteries free of fatty deposits called atherosclerotic plaque, Dr Norrie said, and a wine infused with high levels of the odourless, tasteless anti-oxidant would act as a "vascular pipe-cleaner''.

"While the positive effects of moderate wine consumption have long been documented, the inclusion of such large quantities of this beneficial anti-oxidant is very good news for wine drinkers,'' says Dr Norrie. "What we've been able to do is boost the amount of resveratrol in wine and you wont even know its there ... you're effectively clearing your arteries while you drink.'' Dr Norrie is producing both a chardonnay and a shiraz with each having 100mg/L of resveratrol per bottle. He said this was as much as is contained in 70 to 100 bottles of standard white wine or 15 to 20 bottles of standard red.

"I stress that these benefits are best realised with moderate drinking,'' Dr Norrie also said in a warning to any connoisseurs planning a wine-based health kick. University of Queensland cardiologist Associate Professor David Colquhoun also stressed the need for "moderate'' consumption as he said the benefits of resveratrol were well known. "Studies have strongly suggested that consumption of wine rich in resveratrol can lessen cardio-vascular disease, heart attack and stroke, he said. [Whisky and beer are pretty good too so could it just be the alcohol?]


18 December, 2008

Sarcasm used to diagnose dementia

I like this. I do use sarcasm on occasions so if ever I get misunderstood as a result, I might tell the thick one that he is demented. It would be as logical as a lot of the medical reasoning that I review on this blog

Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but scientists are using it to diagnose dementia. Researchers at the University of New South Wales found that patients under the age of 65 suffering from frontotemporal dementia (FTD), the second most common form of dementia, cannot detect when someone is being sarcastic.

The study, described by its authors as groundbreaking, helps explain why patients with the condition behave the way they do and why, for example, they are unable to pick up their caregivers' moods, the research showed. "This is significant because if care-givers are angry, sad or depressed, the patient won't pick this up. It is often very upsetting for family members," said John Hodges, the senior author of the paper published in Brain.

''(FTD) patients present changes in personality and behaviour. They find it difficult to interact with people, they don't pick up on social cues, they lack empathy, they make bad judgements,'' he said. "People with FTD become very gullible and they often part with large amounts of money," he said, adding that one in 4000 people around the world are afflicted with the condition.

Researchers began studying the role of sarcasm in detecting FTD because it requires a patient to spot discrepancies between a person's words and the tone of their voice, Mr Hodges said. "One of the things about FTD patients is that they don't detect humour - they are very bad at double meaning and a lot of humour (other than sarcasm) is based on double meaning," he said.

The research, conducted in 2006-07, put 26 sufferers of FTD and 19 Alzheimer's patients through a test in which actors acted out different scenarios using exactly the same words. While in one scenario, the actors would deliver the lines sincerely, in others they would introduce a thick layer of sarcasm. Patients were then asked if they got the joke, Hodges said.

For example, if a couple were discussing a weekend away and the wife suggested bringing her mother, the husband might say: "Well, that's great, you know how much I like your mother, that will really make it a great weekend." When the same words were delivered sarcastically and then in a neutral tone, the joke was lost on FTD patients, while the Alzheimer's patients got it. "The patients with FTD are very literal and they take what is being said as genuine and sincere," Mr Hodges said.


Common mushroom shown to help beat disease in study

I gather that this was an in vitro (laboratory) study so generalizability to live humans cannot be assumed. The abstract is here.

MUSHROOMS could play an important role in the fight against cancer, according to research reported on by the International Journal of Oncology. The study evaluated extracts from edible mushrooms and their impact on human breast cancer and colon cancer cells. "In our study we demonstrate that an edible oyster mushroom inhibits the growth of breast and colon cancer cells without affecting the normal cells," US researcher Daniel Sliva said. "The mushroom inhibits intra-cellular signalling molecules in cancer cells. ''These molecules are over-active in cancer cells and responsible for their 'bad' behaviour."

Dr Sliva and Andrej Jedinak from Indiana University's Cancer Research Laboratory in Indianapolis reported on the potential medical benefits of common mushroom species in the December issue of the International Journal of Oncology. "Mushrooms generally contain a lot of natural compounds, for example polysaccharides, mainly beta-D-glucans, which can boost the positive immune response, and other natural molecules," Dr Sliva said. "We can scientifically demonstrate that, in addition to their culinary value, mushrooms have a natural potential to protect against a variety of diseases."

Dietitian Glenn Cardwell said the findings supported earlier studies, which had pointed to a wide range of potential health benefits, including anti-tumour effects, immune-system benefits and the presence of significant antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. "Consumers already know mushrooms are a delicious part of the balanced diet,'' he said. ''Research highlighting long-term health benefits provides even more good reasons to add mushrooms into their next meal."


17 December, 2008

Handful of nuts a day can help prevent onset of heart disease

And the commentary below is pretty nuts too. Metabolic disorder is a pervasive malfunction so generalizing to normal people from what helps suffers from metabolic disorder is most incautious. Nobody knows what the interaction there was

Eating a handful of nuts a day may help to prevent a number of factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Researchers found combining a mixture of nuts with a Mediterranean diet had a greater impact on health than sticking to an olive oil-rich diet alone. Up to 25 per cent of people in the UK suffer from metabolic syndrome, which includes symptoms such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Scientists tested more than 1,200 volunteers with the syndrome, ranging in age from 55 to 80. They were randomly assigned to follow one of three diets and were monitored for a year by a research team from the University of Rovira i Virgili in Reus, Spain. The participants had no prior history of heart disease, but some had risk factors including Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and abdominal obesity. At the start, 751 people had metabolic syndrome, about 61 per cent, distributed evenly among the three groups.

Researchers found the people who improved most were those told to eat a mixture of walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds each day alongside a Mediterranean diet. They did not lose weight, on average, but more of them succeeded in reducing belly fat and saw improvements in their cholesterol and blood pressure.

A second group was given basic advice about reducing all fat in their diets while a third ate a Mediterranean diet and was told to make sure they ate more than four tablespoons of olive oil a day. [That's lot of oil!]

After one year, all three groups had fewer people with metabolic syndrome, but the group eating nuts led the improvement, now with 52 per cent having those heart risk factors. In the olive oil group, 57 per cent had the syndrome while in the low-fat group, there was very little difference after a year in the percentage of people with the syndrome.

A Mediterranean diet uses olive oil for cooking and includes plenty of fruit, vegetables and fish. White meat is preferred to beef or processed meat as is red wine.


Fixing P53 Gene Kills Cancer But Results in Rapid Aging?

It's a tiny molecule with a nondescript name - "p53" - but it has an awesome responsibility: preventing more than half of all human cancers. Some scientists call it the "guardian angel," "guardian of the genome," or the "dictator of life and death." P53 is a protein, a string of 393 chemical units stored in the DNA of most of the body's cells. Normally, p53 works to suppress malignant tumors. When it's missing or mutated, however, it can't carry out its lifesaving mission and lets cancerous cells run amok.

Scientists are developing drugs to repair or restore damaged p53 in mice, but so far none of those drugs are ready to treat human cancers. Almost 50,000 papers about p53 have been published in scientific journals, but its workings are still not fully understood, and it's little known outside the worlds of biology and medicine.

P53 is "certainly the most studied protein in the whole history of cancer," Magali Olivier , an expert at the World Health Organization's International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyons, France , wrote in the journal Cancer Gene Therapy this fall.

Arnold Levine , a cancer expert at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. , who discovered p53 almost 30 years ago, said "We have uncovered and explored a process central to life - how a cell responds to stress or perturbation in its environment." Here's how it works: A normal p53 protein detects a patch of DNA in the nucleus of a cell that has been damaged by accident, a virus, radiation, smoking or other environmental assaults, raising the chance that the cell will turn cancerous. P53 triggers a complex biochemical program that stops the pre-cancerous cell from dividing until it repairs its DNA or commits suicide.

When p53 itself is flawed, however, it allows other cancer-causing genes (known as oncogenes) to hijack the cell's control machinery and set it free to spread wildly - the hallmark of cancer. "Loss of p53 function in cells leads to uncontrolled proliferation and promotes cancer development," Olivier wrote in a summary of recent p53 research.

The gene that carries the instructions to make p53 is called TP53. Mutations in the gene may be inherited, which is why some cancers run in families. TP53 is "the most mutated gene in human cancer, and these mutations are correlated with more than 50 percent of all human cancer," said Ronen Marmorstein , an expert on gene regulation at the Wistar Institute in West Philadelphia, Pa. According to Gerard Evan , a researcher at the University of California's Comprehensive Cancer Center in San Francisco , p53 mutations are also associated with more aggressive cancers, resistance to treatment by radiation and chemotherapy, and decreased patient survival.

Despite the vast amount of research, work is only beginning on cancer therapies based on fixing damaged p53. Nevertheless, hopes are rising that the immense body of knowledge about p53 will lead to better ways to diagnose, prevent and treat cancer. "The growing number of p53-targeting strategies raises hope for more efficient cancer therapies in the future," reported Swedish researcher Klas Wiman in the journal Cell Death and Differentiation.

In an experiment in his San Francisco lab, for example, Evan restored damaged p53 in mice suffering from lymphoma. "The tumors were completely dead within hours." Evan said. "This result is very good news to the many of us who are thinking about trying to restore p53 function in established human cancers."

Unfortunately, restoring p53 may cause accelerated aging, at least in mouse experiments. "Cancer and senescence may be seen as two alternative fates in aging organisms, the secret of longevity being to find the best possible trade-off between these two options," Olivier reported.

Many questions remain about the workings of p53. "Complete understanding still remains elusive," Antony Braithwaite , a New Zealand researcher, wrote in Cell Death and Differentiation. "How p53 makes decisions to do one thing or another, or turn on one gene or another, is far from clear." To accomplish its job, p53 has scan three billion letters in the human genetic code to decide which genes it's going to activate or repress. "This is a tall order," Braithwaite wrote.


16 December, 2008

Here we go again: Breast cancer from HRT claim

If it all depends on how you analyse the same data -- which it does -- the effect is not one to be relied upon. If you look at any body of data long enough, you can generally find something -- but that does not mean that the observation is generalizable.

Hormone replacement therapy could double your risk of breast cancer, scientists say - just months after researchers gave the drugs the all-clear. The new warning follows a study in 2002 that led to a million women coming off HRT when it reported that those taking a particular type had a [minimally] higher risk of breast cancer, heart disease and stroke. Then last year, re-analysis of the data found the risks only applied to those in their sixties and seventies, older than most Britons taking the therapy. And this year, experts said HRT was safe for women in their fifties too. But the latest study, by U.S. scientists, shows the breast cancer threat may be higher than previously thought.

Women who took HRT for as little as two years were at an increased danger, they found. When the patients stopped the therapy, however, their odds quickly improved, returning to a normal risk level two years later. For their research, the team looked again at the 2002 findings of the Women's Health Initiative study and followed women who took part, to find out what happened after they stopped taking 'combined' HRT pills, which contain oestrogen and progestogen. The original study had looked at the risk of breast cancer over five years.

But the most recent research calculated the risk at points before, during and for three years after, the women were taking HRT pills. It rose with the start of use, and peaked when the women had been on HRT for five years. At that stage, the risk for women who had been on HRT for five years, was twice that of those not on the pills. The risk fell again after most stopped taking it.

Researchers said the results were 'worrisome', but Dr Claudine Isaacs, of Georgetown University, in Washington DC, who led the study, said some of the findings were positive. 'You can still diminish the risk by quitting, even if you've been on hormones for a long time. It's not like smoking where you have to wait ten or 15 years for the risk to come down.' However, the average age of the women in the study was 63, much older than the majority taking HRT. So the findings may only apply to older women.

Drug company Wyeth, which manufactures the combined drug, said: 'Hormone therapy remains a good healthcare choice to relieve moderate to severe menopausal symptoms.' British women reach the menopause at 52 on average. HRT is normally prescribed to combat symptoms such as hot flushes and mood changes.

A treatment for women with breast cancer can reduce the chance of the disease spreading to other parts of the body by a fifth, scientists said last night. Women given the hormone exemestane after surgery were 19 per cent less likely to see their cancer spread than those receiving standard chemotherapy with the drug tamoxifen, the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, in Texas, found. It is not licensed for use on breast cancer in the UK.


Compulsion to overeat is mainly in the genes, study shows

The genetic roots of obesity lie mainly in the brain, according to research that implicates inherited eating tendencies as one of the strongest influences over waistlines. The discovery of seven genetic variants linked to obesity has suggested that DNA affects body shape mainly by changing eating behaviour, rather than by regulating fat storage. Of the seven, five seem to be active in the brain, making it likely that work by fine-tuning appetite, the sense of fullness after eating, or even preferences for some foods over others.

The findings indicate that although genetic differences can help to explain why some people are overweight while others are slim, obesity cannot generally be blamed on genes that slow metabolism and allow fat to be laid down more easily. Most of the genetic factors linked to obesity, which were found by two independent research teams, seem rather to work by altering the amount people eat. Some DNA profiles may simply make it easier or harder to control food consumption.

This insight demonstrates how nature and nurture are intertwined in the origins of common biological effects such as obesity. It is also encouraging for therapy, as it means that something people can control - their food intake - is ultimately responsible for weight gain even when genetic predisposition is also involved. "In cases like this, the line between nature and nurture begins to blur," said Kari Stefansson, of deCODE Genetics, an Icelandic company that conducted one of the studies. "Genetic factors seem to be influencing environmental risk factors."

Joel Hirschhorn, of the Children's Hospital, Boston, who led the other study, by the international Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (Giant) consortium, said:"The genes near these variants are all active in the central nervous system, suggesting that inherited variation in appetite regulation may have something to do with predisposition to obesity."

Genetic factors are known to influence obesity risk, as twin studies have shown that 40 to 70 per cent of the variation in body mass index is inherited. But it was only 18 months ago that scientists identified a first genetic variant involved, in a gene called FTO. The discoveries, published in Nature Genetics, bring the total number of variants firmly linked to obesity to nine.

All seven variants were detected by the deCODE study and six were also identified by the Giant consortium. Each of the variants has a modest effect on obesity risk. The 1 per cent of people who have the riskier version of all of them would typically be 2kg (4lb) heavier than an average person, and 4.5kg (10lb) heavier than a person with the least risky genetic profile.


15 December, 2008

Porkie pies about the dioxin threat

The recall of Irish pork products exposes the opportunism and hysteria of Ireland and Britain's food standards bodies. ("Pork pies" is Cockney rhyming slang for "lies")

If there's no problem that panicked authorities cannot turn into a crisis, then there's no crisis that indecision cannot exacerbate. So it was on Saturday afternoon that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) discovered it had just such a problem on its hands. Dioxins - the synthesis of chlorinated organic compounds formed, in this case, as a by-product of a manufacturing process - had been found at 80 to 200 times the safe `maximum level' in Irish pork products. This sounds a lot, but, as countless experts have stated, the risk to the public is virtually nil. Not only that, the culprit - an oil used by a particular animal feed producer in a machine used to dry animal feed - affected just 49 out of the Irish Republic's 400 pig farms. And of the nine linked in Northern Ireland, none currently, it has since emerged, have any pigs.

Such facts were not about to inhibit the FSAI, however. Any pork product, it decided - be it bacon, ham, sausages, white pudding or certain pizzas produced since 1 September - was to be recalled and destroyed. Whatever the response lacked in good sense it more than made up for in haste. And with the cost to the Republic's pig industry likely to be in the region of _100million, it is a decision that is likely to have a disastrous effect on Ireland's already ailing pig industry.

The response of the Food Standards Agency in the UK - a country that is the biggest single importer of Irish pork, taking around 68,000 tonnes a year - has been far more ambiguous. Its knee has certainly jerked with the same alacrity as its Irish counterpart: `The FSA is currently advising consumers not to eat pork, or products where pork is the main ingredient, that are labelled as being from the Irish Republic or Northern Ireland.' (1) But despite that message, it has taken no action, leaving it to the supermarkets themselves to decide whether to keep Irish pork produce on the shelves. So while the FSA echoes FSAI's fears, it then shirks all responsibility.

The result has been sheer confusion. Newspapers have been quick to follow the authorities' panic-stricken suit. `Deadly contaminant found in Irish pork', said The Times. `Shoppers told: don't eat toxic Irish pork', informed the Daily Mail. If bald statements such as these weren't frightening enough, the Guardian went a step further by helpfully highlighting the most famous individual case of dioxin poisoning: `The scarred face of Ukranian president Viktor Yushchenko.' (2) The implication seems to be that everyone is but a string of Irish sausages away from a complexion like the surface of the moon.

But while some sections of the press have been more than happy to stoke toxic nightmares, the FSA's unwillingness to do anything drastic betrays its underlying reticence about the reality of the risks posed. So just last night, Tesco announced that it will continue stocking Irish and Northern Irish pork products regardless of the FSA's advice to consumers. This is not surprising given the FSA's own scientific experts have been at pains to emphasise just how negligible is the health risk. Professor Alan Boobis, a toxicologist at Imperial College London and an adviser to the FSA, said: `Even the levels detected in these pigs are extremely low and present no immediate cause for concern.' (3)

So just what is the health risk? The key thing to emphasise here is that the risk posed depends above all on long-term exposure. Dioxins, getting into our system through our food, are stored in body fat, and, with only a small percentage of this excreted each day, the amount gradually builds up over many, many years. The Tolerable Daily Intake, according to which the maximum level of dioxins is determined, is calculated in terms of the amount of a dioxin that experts recommend can be eaten every day over a whole lifetime without causing harm. Or as Alan Reilly of the FSAI put it, `you'd have to be eating these products containing these levels for 40 years before you'd show any signs of illness' (4). And when you take into account that the average British citizen's dioxin intake has fallen by 85 per cent since 1982, the difference some relatively dioxin-heavy pork will make right now is tiny (5).

It is unhelpful, then, that instead of keeping their heads when the FSAI were culling theirs, the FSA decided it was best to appear similarly vigilant. Far from calming anxieties, the FSA's back-covering advice merely heightened them. And if FSA officials thought the precautionary pose would appease those, like Labour MP Michael Meacher, who are intent on waging war against anything that looks like a chemical in the food chain, their inaction just confirms the food-safety zealots' worst suspicions (6). But that is what happens when you foster a climate in which porkies about Irish pork can appear perfectly plausible.


Turn the heat on a cold: Warmed-up fruit cordial really does ease your sniffles

Granny was right. A nice hot fruit drink really can help you overcome the misery of colds, claim researchers. It turns out the tender loving care traditionally dispensed to relieve sniffles and sore throats has its basis in science. A steaming mug of fruit cordial not only tastes nice but actually helps reduce the symptoms of common colds and flu, compared with a cooler drink.

The common cold strikes 930,000 Britons, on average, on any day in winter, with levels of sickness already starting to climb rapidly as Christmas approaches. Experts at Cardiff University's Common Cold Centre carried out what they believe is the first scientific research of its kind into non-medical remedies. They compared the effects of a commercially produced apple and blackcurrant cordial drunk either hot or at room temperature by 30 volunteers with common cold symptoms. And they found that the hot version provided 'immediate and sustained relief from symptoms of runny nose, cough, sneezing, sore throat, chilliness and tiredness'.

The study was published in the December edition of the clinical journal Rhinology. Centre director Professor Ron Eccles said: 'With temperatures falling, cold viruses love this time of year. A bottle of fruit cordial in the cupboard could help fight off the symptoms. The big advantage of this type of treatment is that it is cheap as well as safe and effective.' He said the advantage of hot fluids is a soothing effect.

Little research has been carried out into 'old wives' remedies' for colds, but research last year showed the herbal remedy echinacea is effective. Taking supplements of the plant also known as purple coneflower cut the chances of catching a cold by more than half and when used as a treatment reduced the length of a cold by one and a half days on average, according to the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. Zinc lozenges can also help shorten the duration of symptoms, says the Common Cold Centre, but most people will not benefit from large doses of vitamin C to ward off colds.

Professor Eccles said it was worth trying to reduce the impact of a cold by eating more fresh fruit and vegetables, taking exercise and smiling to cut stress levels.


14 December, 2008

The junk food gene: DNA flaw means two-thirds of us can't stop eating

Genetics again

Slimmer souls have always maintained that a sweet tooth can be banished with a big helping of will-power. But perhaps those who always succumb to the lure of the biscuit tin and the creamcake shop shouldn't feel so guilty about their weakness. The ability to resist or otherwise, it seems, may be built into your DNA.

Researchers say that almost two-thirds of us carry 'junk food genes' making us crave fatty and sugary foods. Those with this genetic flaw eat 100 calories more per meal - the equivalent of a small Kit Kat or a bag of Wotsits. It may not sound much, but over a week, this amounts to an extra 2,100 calories - an entire day's food. The research helps explain why some men and women find it hard to resist fast food, and why some diets are doomed to fail. But it may also lead to ways of treating obesity, which blights the lives of almost a quarter of us.

The scientists, from Dundee University, pinned down the effect of a rogue version of a gene called FTO, they explained in the respected New England Journal of Medicine. The flaw, carried by almost twothirds of Britons, was first linked to obesity last year. Up to 14 per cent of Britons carry two rogue copies of the gene, increasing their risk of obesity by 70 per cent and diabetes by 50 per cent. These people are on average almost half a stone heavier. The 49 per cent who have inherited just one flawed FTO gene are 30 per cent more likely to be obese than those with two normal copies of the gene and 25 per cent more likely to develop diabetes.

It wasn't clear if the flaw led to weight gain by increasing appetite, slowing down metabolism, cutting exercise levels or by making men and women take longer to feel full. But the latest research shows that it drives us to eat calorie-laden foods. Scientists tested the DNA of 100 primary pupils and looked at what they ate for lunch. Although those with the rogue gene didn't eat more, they were drawn to fatty and sugary foods, so took in 100 calories more per meal. The gene did not affect their metabolic rate, exercise levels or how full they felt.

Researcher Professor Colin Palmer said: 'The increase in obesity-seen in children may be largely attributable to the widespread availability of inexpensive and energy-dense foods.' These may be more attractive to those with the genetic variant, he explained. 'One hundred calories in a single sitting is half a Mars Bar. It doesn't seem like a lot but in terms of an increased risk of obesity, it is enough.'

But the effects of the gene are not overpowering, he added. So the 63 per cent of us with the 'junk food gene' should not feel that losing weight is out of our control. 'The advice is the same - you will not become overweight if you do not overeat.'

In an accompanying editorial, Dr Rudolph Leibel, of Columbia University in New York, predicted the advent of genetic tests to give early warning of those at risk of putting on weight.


Found: The hormone that makes teens unbearable

A `Kevin and Perry' hormone that turns angelic children into foul-tempered teenagers has been pinpointed by scientists. Neurokinin B switches on puberty causing the hormonal surge behind the angst and anger of adolescence, the Cambridge University study found.

A better understanding of the hormone could lead to new contraceptives, as well as treatments for sex hormone-fuelled diseases such as prostate cancer. Researcher Professor Steve O'Rahilly said: `This unexpected finding puts one more important piece in the unfinished jigsaw puzzle that is our understanding of puberty. It could also open up new ways of treating certain sex hormone related diseases.'

Analysis of the DNA of Turkish families with members who did not go through puberty, published in the journal Nature Genetics, flagged up neurokinin B's key role in the process. Neurokinin B has been linked to puberty in a handful of animal studies but it had been assumed its main role lay elsewhere. Now it appears it is key to the awkwardness of adolescence epitomised by the Harry Enfield characters Kevin and Perry.

Researcher Dr Robert Semple said: `I am excited by this discovery as it helps to understand the problem in rare patients with inherited defects in sexual maturation and suggests a potential target for their treatment. `However, identifying single genetic defects in patients with rare disorders also has implications for understanding normal regulation of key bodily functions.' He added that a better understanding of neurokinin B's role in puberty could lead to the development of new drugs.

Other research has shown that the teenage brain works differently to its adult counterpart. The result is they do not have the ability to consider how their actions will affect others - leading to them being perceived as sullen, selfish and thoughtless. They also find it harder to put themselves in someone else's shoes and imagine how they might feel in a given situation. The moodiness of adolescence might also be partly explained by differences in teenagers' biological clocks which leave them in a permanent state of `jetlag'.


13 December, 2008

Confusion as British watchdog U-turns and says you CAN eat nuts during pregnancy

Once again the official wisdom goes into reverse. It did more harm than good. What a surprise! (NOT)

Advice to parents worried about children developing a peanut allergy is to be withdrawn by food safety chiefs. Women have been advised to avoid eating peanuts during pregnancy and while breast-feeding if they or the father had a family history of allergic conditions. Parents were also recommended not to give peanuts to children until they are at least three years old to avoid sensitisation. The advice has been in place since 1998 and has been partly blamed for the rise of 'nut hysteria', with parents and children becoming increasingly anxious about exposure to peanuts.

But the Food Safety Agency says it is no longer backing the advice because 'current evidence' does not support it. It is recommending to government ministers that the advice is dropped. However, it will not be replaced by any guidance on what parents should do to reduce the risk of their children developing a peanut allergy. Instead the FSA is saying those at higher risk should not change their diets while emphasising that this is not a green light for peanuts to be included in meals for young children and pregnant women.

The change comes amid a growing change of view among scientists, medics and policy-makers, who believe avoiding peanuts in early life may be making the problem worse. In the past 20 years the number of British children.with a peanut allergy has nearly doubled, with one in 55 being diagnosed with it.

A spokesman for the FSA said the existing advice had been reviewed by the independent Committee on Toxicity. She said: 'Previously, there were concerns that children could develop a peanut allergy as a result of their mother eating peanuts during pregnancy or while breast-feeding. 'When COT last reviewed this subject there was some evidence to support this concern and this was the basis of their precautionary advice issued in 1998. 'The new review by the COT does not suggest this current advice is harmful. 'However, the FSA board has agreed that the balance of evidence now available does not support continuing to follow this current advice.'

But she said this did not mean 'higher-risk' parents should start feeding their children peanuts. 'Where there is a family history of allergy, parents might want to discuss their individual case with their GP or health professional if they are concerned,' she added.

An influential House of Lords committee last year recommended that pregnant women no longer be warned to avoid peanuts, saying there is scant evidence it helps their children avoid nut allergies and may even be 'counter productive'. Some doctors believe exposure to peanuts early in life could save children from developing an allergy by priming their immune system.

Among studies suggesting this could work was research into the eating habits of 8,000 children in Britain and Israel, where the incidence of peanut allergy is less than two in 1,000. From eight months old the average Israeli child eats seven grams of peanuts a month - most British children eat none.


The little-known dangers of heavy water-drinking kill slimmer

A mother of five died after drinking too much water three weeks after she had begun a water-based diet in an attempt to lose weight, an inquest was told. Jacqueline Henson, 40, was determined to slim down from 14st (89kg) and was "over the moon" after losing nearly 12lb (5.4kg) in one week after starting the LighterLife diet plan, Huddersfield Coroner's Court was told yesterday.

The LighterLife diet, which has been linked with water poisoning, hair loss and disrupting the menstrual cycle, suggests that only 530 calories should be consumed a day - a quarter of a woman's recommended daily intake - for a period of 12 weeks, and drinking four litres of water per day.

Mrs Henson drank four litres of water in less than two hours on November 14, which caused her brain to swell. She collapsed in the bathroom of her home in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, and was pronounced dead the next day. Her husband, Brian, 40, said that he was devastated, and told the inquest how she had been "over the moon at losing weight". He said: "The more water she drank, the more weight she would lose." Mrs Henson had arrived home at 5pm and had drunk two large bottles of water before settling in front of the television, drinking from a pint glass of water she had poured herself.

Mr Henson said: "At 11pm she stood up and said her stomach was solid. She was walking across the room and was sick. "At 11.15pm she said she had a headache and went upstairs to the toilet. My 18-year-old daughter Chantelle went upstairs and I heard her saying, `Mum, mum'. I knew something was wrong. Her eyes were closed and she didn't appear to be breathing."

Joanna Neville, of LighterLife, was asked by the coroner, Roger Whittaker, about the potentially dangerous regime, but she explained that the diet, which is aimed at people who are 3st or more overweight, recommended drinking four litres of water over the course of a day in small amounts. Asked if the company conveyed that message to dieters, Ms Neville said: "We are doing that quite clearly and will continue to do so."

The court was told that on October 18 Mrs Henson had visited her GP, who had given her a check-up before allowing her to go on the diet. Recording a verdict of accidental death, the coroner said: "No one should drink water in the quantity that Mrs Henson did over that short a period. Little and often."

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence recommends that very low-calorie diets should be followed for a maximum of 12 weeks, and states that any diet of less than 600 calories should be used only under medical supervision.

LighterLife, which has an annual turnover of 18 million pounds and charges 66 per week for its specially tailored "food packs", claims to have helped 60,000 people to lose weight, despite the controversy surrounding its recommendations. The diet sets a target of losing 3st over 14 weeks. A spokesman for LighterLife said: "Our programme gives clear guidance that water should be consumed regularly over the course of the day, and the coroner confirmed the events were a tragic accident."


12 December, 2008

Happiness is contagious: study

More stupid data dredging. The most it proves is that happy people tend to have more friends. Hardly surprising

Happiness is contagious, researchers reported on Thursday. The same team that demonstrated obesity and smoking spread in networks has shown that the more happy people you know, the more likely you are yourself to be happy. And getting connected to happy people improves a person's own happiness, they reported in the British Medical Journal. "What we are dealing with is an emotional stampede," Nicholas Christakis, a professor of medical sociology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, said in a telephone interview.

Christakis and James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, have been using data from 4,700 children of volunteers in the Framingham Heart Study, a giant health study begun in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1948. They have been analyzing a trove of facts from tracking sheets dating back to 1971, following births, marriages, death, and divorces. Volunteers also listed contact information for their closest friends, co-workers, and neighbors.

They assessed happiness using a simple, four-question test. "People are asked how often during the past week, one, I enjoyed life, two, I was happy, three, I felt hopeful about the future, and four, I felt that I was just as good as other people," Fowler said. The 60 percent of people who scored highly on all four questions were rated as happy, while the rest were designated unhappy. [Rather crass!]

People with the most social connections -- friends, spouses, neighbors, relatives -- were also the happiest, the data showed. "Each additional happy person makes you happier," Christakis said. "Imagine that I am connected to you and you are connected to others and others are connected to still others. It is this fabric of humanity, like an American patch quilt."

Each person sits on a different-colored patch. "Imagine that these patches are happy and unhappy patches. Your happiness depends on what is going on in the patch around you," Christakis said. "It is not just happy people connecting with happy people, which they do. Above and beyond, there is this contagious process going on."

And happiness is more contagious than unhappiness, they discovered. "If a social contact is happy, it increases the likelihood that you are happy by 15 percent," Fowler said. "A friend of a friend, or the friend of a spouse or a sibling, if they are happy, increases your chances by 10 percent," he added. A happy third-degree friend -- the friend or a friend of a friend -- increases a person's chances of being happy by 6 percent. "But every extra unhappy friend increases the likelihood that you'll be unhappy by 7 percent," Fowler said.

The finding is interesting but it is useful, too Fowler said. "Among other benefits, happiness has been shown to have an important effect on reduced mortality, pain reduction, and improved cardiac function. So better understanding of how happiness spreads can help us learn how to promote a healthier society," he said. The study also fits in with other data that suggested -- in 1984 -- that having $5,000 extra increased a person's chances of becoming happier by about 2 percent. "A happy friend is worth about $20,000," Christakis said.

His team also is examining the spread of depression, loneliness, and drinking behavior.


An "obese" baby??

Olivia Villella is a healthy, thriving baby girl, according to her mother and the experts. But staff at an ABC childcare centre have branded her "fat" and "obese". Now upset mum Belinda Moss-Villella, 32, has pulled the 10-month-old out of the centre, fearing staff won't feed her enough. Olivia, who weighs 9.3kg, comes within the healthy weight range on official charts used to measure babies' growth and development.

"She's no 'boomba'. She's just a baby," Ms Moss-Villella told the Herald Sun. "Yes, she's very chubby. Yes, she's got rolls on her arms and her legs and her tummy. But she's a baby. They're meant to have rolls." The curly-haired tot with the chubby cheeks is around the 75th percentile for weight and the 25th percentile for height (70cm) for her age - all within normal ranges.

Baby Olivia was given a big tick at a weigh-in with a council maternal and child health nurse last week. "The nurse has never, ever told me Olivia is too fat. "She did say last week, 'Belinda, she's certainly not lacking.' But too fat? Never," Ms Moss-Villella said. She said people often stopped her in the street or while shopping to comment on her daughter's curls, but none had mentioned her size.

The Dandenong North mum said she was stunned when her four-year-old son, Lucca, told her staff at the childcare centre called his baby sister a "fat beast". When she complained, a staff member explained Lucca had got it wrong - the words used were "fat and obese". "I couldn't believe it. It's not like I'm sitting here feeding her chips and McDonald's every day," the mother-of-four said. She said bottle-fed Olivia eats a normal diet - usually Weetbix for breakfast, mashed vegetables for lunch, and chicken for dinner, with fruit, cheese or yoghurt for snacks.

Olivia and Lucca attended the ABC Belvedere Learning Centre in Noble Park North three days a week, while Ms Moss-Villella studied. But she withdrew both children yesterday when told that the staff involved would continue to care for Olivia. "I'm just so worried that if they think she's too fat, they just won't give her enough to eat," she said. "I just can't believe the comments and after hearing them, I can't trust that my children are getting appropriate care there. "As a mum who loves my kids, I just can't subject them to that. "In my heart of hearts, my heart says don't do it. "They obviously have a lot to learn about babies."

A staff member at the Princes Highway centre refused to comment yesterday. But Kay Gibbons, head of nutrition at the Royal Children's Hospital, said Olivia appeared "perfectly normal". "At that age, they're meant to be chubby. If growth is regular and steady, there's nothing to worry about," she said. She said babies often slimmed down when they began crawling.


11 December, 2008

Do the dim die young?

Scots psychologist Ian Deary claims that clever people live longer than thickheads. Sure, some bright people die young and many thickheads live into old age but if you measure a large bunch of people the statistics point that way. Dr Deary and his team looked at more than 2000 Scottish children given IQ tests in 1932 when they were 11 years old. He traced most of these people again in 1997 and found that those still living at age 76 had average IQs of 102 but those who had died had average IQs of 98.

Dr Deary says more evidence comes from IQ tests on large numbers of young men recruited into the Australian Army at the time of the Vietnam War and nearly a million 19-year-olds inducted into the Swedish Army. Twenty years after the tests, those who had died in the meantime had lower average IQs than those who remained alive. Several other surveys point in the same direction.

Some critics find Dr Deary's claims insulting. "So, you're saying that the thick die quick?" "Anyway", they challenge, "haven't IQ tests been discredited"? "Well, no," says Dr Deary. IQ tests have a predictive value unequalled in psychology. Hundreds of data sets since 1904 show that IQ remains almost unchanged over a lifetime, can predict educational achievement, occupational success, propensity to sickness and age of death with some confidence. It's a better predictor of life expectancy than body mass index, total cholesterol, blood pressure or blood glucose.

But why IQ should be a good predictor of life expectancy remains a mystery. Some epidemiologists suggest that intelligent people get the easy jobs, leaving the heavier, dangerous, life-threatening work to dumber people. Or, they suggest, most people with high IQs behave better. In early life people with higher IQs are more likely to have better diets, do more exercise, avoid accidents, give up smoking, do less binge drinking and put on less weight in adulthood.

But Dr Deary has checked all that stuff, and finds it does not wash. Rather, he thinks, intelligence causes the association between education, social class and health. He favours the theory that IQ tests in youth reveal a well-wired body better able to respond effectively to environmental insults.

Some supporting evidence comes from the finding that simple reaction speed - the time taken to press a button when a stimulus appears - can replace IQ test scores as an even better predictor of an earlier death. Reaction-time tasks don't demand complex reasoning, so are unlikely to improve by education. Dr Deary hopes his findings will explain the connection between childhood IQ, sickness and earlier deaths and help to tackle problems of health inequalities.

In Christchurch, David Fergusson leads a team studying the behaviour and fates of 1265 children born there in 1977. He has already shown that those with higher IQs did better at school. If his study continues long enough, it may throw light on the connection between IQ and life expectancy of Christchurch kids.


Genetic markers could determine people's drunkeness

A GENETIC marker which makes some people more likely to be hooked on cigarettes could also allow them to drink their friends under the table. A new study shows a person's genetic make-up could dampen their body's response to alcohol. Several previous studies have found that this particular group of chromosomes also makes people more likely to develop lung cancer or become alcoholics. Earlier studies have also found that people with a low response to alcohol are at an increased risk of becoming alcoholics and that both traits are inheritable.

So researchers tested 367 siblings to see if this group of chromosomes also impacted the body's level of response to alcohol. While they were unable to isolate it to a single gene, they found a strong association between genetic mutations in this chromosome group and how many drinks it took for the subjects to begin to sway from the affects of alcohol.

The findings also give "strong support" to the potential use of alcohol response levels to determine whether someone has a genetic susceptibility to alcoholism and "will prove valuable in the identification of other genetic loci conferring susceptibility to alcohol use disorders," wrote lead author Geoff Joslyn of the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Centre.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


10 December, 2008

Males under threat from pollution

More sensation-seeking garbage. I had hoped we had heard the last of this old scare but it is obviously too good at attracting media coverage to be dropped -- and damn the evidence. Read the article and then note in my footnote what they don't tell you.

POLLUTION is damaging the "basic male tool kit", threatening the future of the male gender, according to new research [It's not new research. It is just a selection from old research put together into a new report by an alarmist group]. A report released today by the charity CHEM Trust shows that male fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals have been harmed by man-made chemicals in the environment. "These findings add to mounting worries about the role of hormone-disrupting or so-called `gender-bending' chemicals in the environment and the implications for human health," said charity CHEM Trust.

In mammals, genital disruption in males had been widely reported including: intersex features, small penis and testes, undescended testes; abnormal testes; or ambiguous genitals. The report, which draws on more than 250 scientific studies from around the world, concentrates mainly on wildlife, identifying effects in a range of species. "Males of species from each of the main classes of vertebrate animals (including bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) have been affected by chemicals in the environment. "Feminisation of the males of numerous vertebrate species is now a widespread occurrence. All vertebrates have similar sex hormone receptors, which have been conserved in evolution. Therefore, observations in one species may serve to highlight pollution issues of concern for other vertebrates, including humans," the report concludes.

CHEM Trust director and report author Gwynne Lyons said: "Urgent action is needed to control gender-bending chemicals and more resources are needed for monitoring wildlife. "Man-made chemicals are clearly damaging the basic male tool kit. If wildlife populations crash, it will be too late. Unless enough males contribute to the next generation, there is a real threat to animal populations in the long term."

Wildlife and people have been exposed to more than 100,000 new chemicals in recent years, many identified as "endocrine disrupters" - or gender-benders - because they interfere with hormones. They include phthalates, used in food wrapping, cosmetics and baby powders among other applications; flame retardants in furniture and electrical goods; PCBs, a now banned group of substances still widespread in food and the environment; and many pesticides.

CHEM (Chemicals, Health and Environment Monitoring) Trust was set up in 2007, with a mission to protect humans and wildlife from harmful chemicals.


From Wikipedia: "Evidence is accruing that phytoestrogens may have protective action against diverse health disorders such as prostate, breast, bowel, and other cancers, cardiovascular disease, brain function disorders, menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.

In human beings, phytoestrogens are readily absorbed, circulate in plasma and are excreted in the urine. Metabolic influence is different from that of grazing animals due to the differences between ruminant versus monogastric digestive systems.

The use of phytoestrogens (as soy protein) in fast food meals and other processed foods as a low-cost substitute for meat products may lead to consumption of isoflavonoids by fast food eaters. A research team at the Queen's University in Belfast, in a review article, claims that such intake may lead to a slight decrease in male fertility, including a decrease in reproductive capability if isoflavones are taken in excess during childhood.

In theory, exposure to high levels of phytoestrogens in men could alter their hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis. However, studies have shown that such a hormonal effect is minor. It may have health benefits for men. Isoflavones supplementation has no effect in sperm concentration, count or mobility and show no changes in testicular or ejaculate volume. Researchers are studying if phytoestrogens can prevent prostate cancer."

Media Bombardment Is Linked To Ill Effects During Childhood

Another attempt to find the truth via a majority vote. I could have predicted the result just by knowing the normal biases of intellectuals

In a detailed look at nearly 30 years of research on how television, music, movies and other media affect the lives of children and adolescents, a new study released today found an array of negative health effects linked to greater use. The report found strong connections between media exposure and problems of childhood obesity and tobacco use. Nearly as strong was the link to early sexual behavior.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and Yale University said they were surprised that so many studies pointed in the same direction. In all, 173 research efforts, going back to 1980, were analyzed, rated and brought together in what the researchers said was the first comprehensive view of the topic. About 80 percent of the studies showed a link between a negative health outcome and media hours or content.

"We need to factor that in as we consider our social policies and as parents think about how they raise their kids," said lead researcher Ezekiel J. Emanuel, director of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health, which took on the project with the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media. "We tend not to think of this as a health issue, and it is a health issue."

The average modern child spends nearly 45 hours a week with television, movies, magazines, music, the Internet, cellphones and video games, the study reported. By comparison, children spend 17 hours a week with their parents on average and 30 hours a week in school, the study said. "Our kids are sponges, and we really need to remember they learn from their environment," said coauthor Cary P. Gross, professor at Yale School of Medicine. He said researchers found it notable how much content mattered; it was not only the sheer number of hours of screen time. Children "pick up character traits and behaviors" from those they watch or hear, he said.

Marcella Nunez-Smith, a lead author and also a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, described the project as a "mammoth" undertaking that spanned more than 18 months.

In probing childhood obesity, for example, researchers found 73 studies over the past three decades, with 86 percent showing a negative association with media exposure. The studies most central to the analysis were large high-quality efforts and controlled for other factors.

Researchers are not interested in any sort of censorship, Nunez-Smith said, but rather an increased awareness among parents, teachers and society at large. "It really is a wake-up call," she said.

The study did not touch on issues of violence and media, which researchers said was systematically reviewed by others. Researchers also excluded analysis of advertising or marketing. Most studies used in the analysis, as it turned out, focused on movies, music and television. Researchers said a big gap was the lack of research on the effects of the Internet, cellphones, social-networking sites and video games.

In their study, they rated as above average evidence to support the link between media exposure and drug use, alcohol use and low academic achievement. Evidence was weaker for the association with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. "It does not mean the link is not there, but the research evidence has not gotten there yet," Gross said.

The report's authors hope it will be taken to heart by parents, as well as educators, pediatricians and policymakers. They came up with suggestions for each group, and James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, suggested that parents get involved in what their children see, hear and play -- and for how long. "It's as important as going to their parent-teacher conferences or going over their report cards," Steyer said. "You have to know what Facebook is, and YouTube and MySpace and Twitter are, even though you grew up with 'Gilligan's Island' and 'All in the Family.' "

The new report was a systematic review of every study since 1980 that met set scientific criteria and examined media effects on obesity, tobacco, drug and alcohol use, sexual behavior, low academic achievement and ADHD.

Adam Thierer, a senior fellow at the market-oriented think tank Progress and Freedom Foundation, said it is important to recognize that "correlation does not equal causation" in research studies. He said he looked forward to reading the studies that the report is based on and was glad that there was no call for regulation.

Those involved in the project said they were not opposed to children using media and noted that several studies reached positive conclusions, including one for adolescents who used the Internet more frequently.

The issue, said Steyer, is: "How do we make this the most positive experience it can be? How do we get the most educational value . . . and how do we limit the negative effects?"


9 December, 2008

Brains of low-income children function differently from brains of high-income kids

It has been known for decades that poor people tend to have lower IQs. The research below simply confirms that fact very directly by looking at the actual brain responses of poor kids instead of looking at their test results.

The results below cannot of course settle whether the differences observed are inborn or not. So far, only twin studies have been able to do that. But research similar to that below with very young children might also be persuasive. The authors below of course plump for environmental influences but not very convincingly. They say that the brains of very poor kids react just like the brains of people who have permanent brain damage. Yet they assert -- with no evidence -- that the defect is NOT permanent. They think that kids can be trained out of it! They have to end up admitting in the last paragraph however that such training generally does not work! Even where it does appear to have had some effect -- as in some of the Head Start projects -- the effect wears off after a couple of years.

The journal abstract below is followed by the university press release

Socioeconomic Disparities Affect Prefrontal Function in Children

By Kishiyama MM, Boyce WT, Jimenez AM, Perry LM, Knight RT.

Social inequalities have profound effects on the physical and mental health of children. Children from low socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds perform below children from higher SES backgrounds on tests of intelligence and academic achievement, and recent findings indicate that low SES (LSES) children are impaired on behavioral measures of prefrontal function. However, the influence of socioeconomic disparity on direct measures of neural activity is unknown. Here, we provide electrophysiological evidence indicating that prefrontal function is altered in LSES children. We found that prefrontal-dependent electrophysiological measures of attention were reduced in LSES compared to high SES (HSES) children in a pattern similar to that observed in patients with lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) damage. These findings provide neurophysiological evidence that social inequalities are associated with alterations in PFC function in LSES children. There are a number of factors associated with LSES rearing conditions that may have contributed to these results such as greater levels of stress and lack of access to cognitively stimulating materials and experiences. Targeting specific prefrontal processes affected by socioeconomic disparity could be helpful in developing intervention programs for LSES children.
In a study recently accepted for publication in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience , scientists at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the School of Public Health report that normal 9- and 10-year-olds differing only in socioeconomic status have detectable differences in the response of their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is critical for problem solving and creativity. [IQ is a measure of general problem-solving ability]

Brain function was measured by means of an electroencephalograph (EEG) - basically, a cap fitted with electrodes to measure electrical activity in the brain - like that used to assess epilepsy, sleep disorders and brain tumors. "Kids from lower socioeconomic levels show brain physiology patterns similar to someone who actually had damage in the frontal lobe as an adult," said Robert Knight, director of the institute and a UC Berkeley professor of psychology. "We found that kids are more likely to have a low response if they have low socioeconomic status, though not everyone who is poor has low frontal lobe response."

Previous studies have shown a possible link between frontal lobe function and behavioral differences in children from low and high socioeconomic levels, but according to cognitive psychologist Mark Kishiyama, first author of the new paper, "those studies were only indirect measures of brain function and could not disentangle the effects of intelligence, language proficiency and other factors that tend to be associated with low socioeconomic status. Our study is the first with direct measure of brain activity where there is no issue of task complexity."

Co-author W. Thomas Boyce, UC Berkeley professor emeritus of public health who currently is the British Columbia Leadership Chair of Child Development at the University of British Columbia (UBC), is not surprised by the results. "We know kids growing up in resource-poor environments have more trouble with the kinds of behavioral control that the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulating. But the fact that we see functional differences in prefrontal cortex response in lower socioeconomic status kids is definitive."

Boyce, a pediatrician and developmental psychobiologist, heads a joint UC Berkeley/UBC research program called WINKS - Wellness in Kids - that looks at how the disadvantages of growing up in low socioeconomic circumstances change children's basic neural development over the first several years of life. "This is a wake-up call," Knight said. "It's not just that these kids are poor and more likely to have health problems, but they might actually not be getting full brain development from the stressful and relatively impoverished environment associated with low socioeconomic status: fewer books, less reading, fewer games, fewer visits to museums."

Kishiyama, Knight and Boyce suspect that the brain differences can be eliminated by proper training. They are collaborating with UC Berkeley neuroscientists who use games to improve the prefrontal cortex function, and thus the reasoning ability, of school-age children. "It's not a life sentence," Knight emphasized. "We think that with proper intervention and training, you could get improvement in both behavioral and physiological indices."

Kishiyama, Knight, Boyce and their colleagues selected 26 children ages 9 and 10 from a group of children in the WINKS study. Half were from families with low incomes and half from families with high incomes. For each child, the researchers measured brain activity while he or she was engaged in a simple task: watching a sequence of triangles projected on a screen. The subjects were instructed to click a button when a slightly skewed triangle flashed on the screen.

The researchers were interested in the brain's very early response - within as little as 200 milliseconds, or a fifth of a second - after a novel picture was flashed on the screen, such as a photo of a puppy or of Mickey and Minnie Mouse. "An EEG allows us to measure very fast brain responses with millisecond accuracy," Kishiyama said.

The researchers discovered a dramatic difference in the response of the prefrontal cortex not only when an unexpected image flashed on the screen, but also when children were merely watching the upright triangles waiting for a skewed triangle to appear. Those from low socioeconomic environments showed a lower response to the unexpected novel stimuli in the prefrontal cortex that was similar, Kishiyama said, to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke.

"When paying attention to the triangles, the prefrontal cortex helps you process the visual stimuli better. And the prefrontal cortex is even more involved in detecting novelty, like the unexpected photographs," he said. But in both cases, "the low socioeconomic kids were not detecting or processing the visual stimuli as well. They were not getting that extra boost from the prefrontal cortex."

"These kids have no neural damage, no prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, no neurological damage," Kishiyama said. "Yet, the prefrontal cortex is not functioning as efficiently as it should be. This difference may manifest itself in problem solving and school performance."

The researchers suspect that stressful environments and cognitive impoverishment are to blame, since in animals, stress and environmental deprivation have been shown to affect the prefrontal cortex. UC Berkeley's Marian Diamond, professor emeritus of integrative biology, showed nearly 20 years ago in rats that enrichment thickens the cerebral cortex as it improves test performance. And as Boyce noted, previous studies have shown that children from poor families hear 30 million fewer words by the time they are four than do kids from middle-class families.

"In work that we and others have done, it really looks like something as simple and easily done as talking to your kids" can boost prefrontal cortex performance, Boyce said. "We are certainly not blaming lower socioeconomic families for not talking to their kids - there are probably a zillion reasons why that happens," he said. "But changing developmental outcomes might involve something as accessible as helping parents to understand that it is important that kids sit down to dinner with their parents, and that over the course of that dinner it would be good for there to be a conversation and people saying things to each other."

"The study is suggestive and a little bit frightening that [presumed] environmental conditions have such a strong impact on brain development," said Silvia Bunge, UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology who is leading the intervention studies on prefrontal cortex development in teenagers by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Boyce's UBC colleague, Adele Diamond, showed last year that 5- and 6-year-olds with impaired executive functioning, that is, poor problem solving and reasoning abilities, can improve their academic performance with the help of special activities, including dramatic play.

Bunge hopes that, with fMRI, she can show improvements in academic performance as a result of these games, actually boosting the activity of the prefrontal cortex. "People have tried for a long time to train reasoning, largely unsuccessfully," Bunge said. "Our question is, 'Can we replicate these initial findings and at the same time give kids the tools to succeed?'"


The Sweet Sound Of Being Right About Soda Bans

Here's some breaking news: High-school students like drinking soda. Normally this would sound the "duh" alarm, but schools in Maine elected in 2005 to abolish the fizzy drinks in a misguided effort to slim down overweight kids. But lawmakers didn't base their ban on scientific evidence, and it turns out the theory that soda bans reduce obesity is groundless.

The University of Southern Maine just released a study tested how well those Maine soda bans actually worked to cut down on students' soda intake. Researchers looked at four schools that eliminated all beverages with sugar (including sodas, juice, and sports drinks) as well as diet sodas. They also examined three schools where vending machines were left alone. The results?
The study found boys decreased sugary drink consumption by 15 percent, girls by 18 percent, and this decrease was similar across both groups. The question of the day. Why did rates go down in the control group, too? Blum says it may have to do with the fact that at the time of the study state officials and lawmakers were heavily promoting messages aimed at reducing obesity. "And there was a slight reduction in the amount of sugar-sweetened beverages available in those controlled schools as well. They weren't supposed to change but sometimes a vendor would come in and fill up the machines without really doing an inventory."
Bottom line: Soda bans have no impact on what kids choose to drink. The only thing that appears to have made a difference is a campaign encouraging -- you guessed it -- moderation. And perhaps Maine schools would have seen a real reduction in student obesity if they made sure phys ed was a part of the school day. Getting kids involved in sports and other forms of exercise fosters healthy habits that will serve them well throughout the rest of their lives, unlike soda bans which simply regulate their drink choices for a few hours a day. Maine Public Radio asked us for our take on the study:
"[It] shows that despite all of the activist groups that have been demonizing soda, and finally having the soda companies in some way or another responding to those groups, that the actual changes they were calling for have had no impact . If you give kids the tools they can use to get active, if you teach them sports, it's something that they're going to do directed on their own. There's no finger-waving involved there. But when you take something away, it's a finger wave, it's a slap on the wrist and it eliminates the personal responsibility."
We always knew that one-off food and drink bans were shortsighted, and the scientific community backs us up. But the question remains: Will Maine schools reverse this silly ban now that it's been exposed as a wrong-headed exercise?


8 December, 2008

Intelligent men have better sperm: research

More evidence that high IQ is usually a sign of greater overall biological fitness. Amusing that this was one piece of research where the small size of the effect was played up

Research has suggested that in our ancestors intelligence and sperm quality were linked so clever men were more likely to reproduce. It is thought that the genes that are linked to intelligence also have a role to play in sperm quality, even if the effect is only small.

But experts said that if couples are having problems conceiving it does not mean the man is not intelligent or that training your brain will improve your chances of becoming a father. In modern society intelligent men actually tend to father fewer children through greater use of contraception and marrying later.

A team at King's College London were testing a theory that single genes can affect a wide range of characteristics that are seemingly unrelated. Ms Rosalind Arden, lead author, said "As an initial proof-of-concept, we took two characteristics that seemed, on the surface, unlikely to be associated with each other- intelligence and sperm quality - and tested whether there was a statistical relationship between them. "We found a small positive relationship: brighter men had better sperm.

"But we are not trying to say that under modern conditions intelligent men are going to have more children. "We wanted to test the idea that intelligence is favoured by natural selection." The effect remained after factors, such as intelligent men being less likely to smoke and more likely to exercise more, were taken into account. The research is published in the Journal Intelligence.

Dr Allan Pacey, Senior Lecturer in Andrology, University of Sheffield, said: "The fact that it's possible to detect a statistical relationship between intelligence and semen quality in adult men probably says more about the co-development of brain and testicles when the man was in his mother's womb, and therefore how well they both function in adult life, rather than suggesting that playing Sudoku can somehow stimulate more sperm to be produced. "The improvement in semen quality with intelligence observed in this paper is small and therefore it is unlikely to have a big impact on the ability of men of different intelligences to conceive." The effect was small so is unlikely to be relevant to individuals, Ms Arden said.

The researchers analysed data from 4,462 former US soldiers who had served during the Vietnam war who took several intelligence tests and underwent a detailed medical examination. Of these, 425 men also provided semen samples. The researchers examined the relationships between intelligence, semen quality which was measured using standard sperm motility, sperm concentration, sperm count tests, age, and the main lifestyle factors known to predict health: obesity body mass index, and use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and hard drugs. The correlations were small but highly statistically significant.

Ms Arden said: "This does not mean that men who prefer Play-Doh to Plato always have poor sperm: the relationship we found was marginal. "We look forward to seeing if the results can be replicated in other data sets, with other measures of intelligence and other measures of physical health that are also strongly related to evolutionary fitness".


Milk a sight for sore eyes

Soon we could be putting milk in our eyes, not just drinking it. Sydney scientists have discovered a protein in milk can help fight drug-resistant bacteria that cause eye infections. It also speeds the healing of wounds to the cornea. And when attached to contact lenses, it prevents bacteria growing on them, reducing the risk of eye disease.

Institute for Eye Research chief scientific officer Mark Willcox said infections of the cornea could lead to blindness within 24 hours if not treated. A common cause of these infections is the pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria, which releases a substance that "basically gets in the eye and starts to eat it", he said. The bug is found widely in the environment, including swimming pools, and is even responsible for lettuce rotting in the fridge.

Institute researchers found that part of the milk protein, lactoferrin, could enhance the ability of antibiotics to kill drug-resistant strains of the bacteria, which cause serious infections in other parts of the body, including the urinary tract and lungs. While it could take more than five years for lactoferrin-based eye drops to become available, contact lenses impregnated with the milk protein could be on the market within two years, Professor Willcox said.

About one in 500 people a year who sleep while wearing contact lenses develop an eye infection.


7 December, 2008

An Alzheimer's virus?

The virus that causes cold sores may be one of the main causes of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research that suggests that existing drugs could be used to treat the most common form of dementia. Compelling new evidence found by British scientists has implicated the cold sore virus, known as herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV1), in up to 60 per cent of Alzheimer’s cases. Though the findings from the University of Manchester remain preliminary, they could transform scientific understanding of a brain disorder that affects more than 400,000 people in Britain, and open an entirely new approach to treating it.

The insight is particularly encouraging because cheap antiviral drugs that can control HSV1 infections, such as acyclovir or Zovirax, have been available for many years, and are sufficiently safe to be sold over the counter. If HSV1’s role is confirmed, and antivirals are proved effective against the virus in the brain, the research would raise the prospect of stopping the progressive damage caused by Alzheimer’s in its tracks. This would allow hundreds of elderly people to avoid progressive cognitive decline that is highly distressing to them and their families, and to lead independent lives.

“One thing that is exciting about our research is that we already have drugs that have been used for a relatively long time against HSV1, which are cheap and well tolerated,” said Professor Ruth Itzhaki, who leads the research group. “If we are right, there is a good chance we could make progress quite quickly.”

Despite this potential, the Manchester team is struggling to obtain funding for the next stage of its research. Grant applications to test the HSV1 hypothesis in animal models have been turned down [How British! The British medical establishment opposed IVF for years too]. Professor Itzhaki said that if she could raise money to start animal studies, these should give preliminary indications of whether HSV1 was genuinely involved in Alzheimer’s within a year or so. The next step would be to test antivirals in early-stage Alzheimer’s patients in a clinical trial, which would take three to five years.

Although HSV1 is very common, infecting most adults and causing cold sores in about 20 to 40 per cent of them, the research does not suggest that everybody or even most people who suffer from cold sores will get Alzheimer’s. If the link is proved, it would be one of several factors, some of which are genetic, and early indications are that HSV1 might contribute to up to 60 per cent of cases.

HSV1’s potential role in Alzheimer’s is in the formation of plaques of beta amyloid protein that build up in the brain cells, which are thought to be its main cause. Professor Itzhaki’s group has been investigating this process for several years, and last year published research showing that HSV1 can promote the formation of beta amyloid plaques in cell cultures grown in the laboratory.

The new research, published in the Journal of Pathology, goes significantly farther, as it has found firm evidence of HSV1 infection in protein plaques in the brain cells of Alzheimer’s patients. The scientists used a sophisticated genetic analysis technique called the in-situ polymerase chain reaction to detect HSV1 DNA in these protein plaques. This shows that the virus is associated with such build-ups, and suggests that it might be a significant cause.

HSV1, a cousin of the HSV2 virus that causes genital herpes, hides in the peripheral nervous system in a latent form, and periodically becomes active to cause cold sores in 20 to 40 per cent of carriers. The Manchester scientists believe that HSV1 may enter the brain and become active as people’s ageing immune systems lose the ability to keep it contained. It may then promote the build-up of beta amyloid and thus the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Professor Itzhaki said: “We suggest that HSV1 enters the brain in the elderly as their immune systems decline and then establishes a dormant infection from which it is repeatedly activated by events such as stress, immuno-suppression and various infections.” Antiviral drugs such as acyclovir, sold under the brand name Zovirax, can control HSV1 during the active phase of its life cycle, during which it causes cold sores.

A critical task for the next stages of research will be to determine whether HSV1 contributes to plaque formation while in its latent or active phase. If active HSV1 is responsible, it should respond to treatment: antivirals are known to be effective in the brain, as they are used to treat a rare and dangerous complication of herpes infections: herpes simplex encephalitis.

Matthew Wozniak, a member of the Manchester team, said that antiviral treatment would have big advantages over other approaches to Alzheimer’s therapy. “Antiviral agents would inhibit the harmful consequences of HSV1 action, in other words, inhibit a likely major cause of the disease irrespective of the damaging processes involved, whereas current treatments at best merely inhibit some of the symptoms.”


Burger handout slammed by health nuts

Clearly, the food extremists would rather have people starve than eat a burger. That type of compassion could kill you

Talk about a taste test: Burger King is literally trekking all over the globe to convince consumers its Whopper sandwich tops McDonald's Big Mac with its new "Whopper Virgins" campaign. The fast feeder has created a set of new of 15-second teaser spots driving people to a website,, in its latest zany marketing ploy hatched by Burger King's agency of record, Crispin Porter & Bogusky, the MDC Partners creative shop credited with campaigns like "Whopper Freakout" and "Subservient Chicken" for Burger King.

"To find out about America's favorite burger, we had to leave America," proclaims the site, which this weekend will premiere a documentary depicting the world's "Whopper Virgins," who apparently include Thai villagers and Transylvanian farmers, taking their first-ever bite of burger.

Burger King calls it the world's "purest taste test" as the judges are folks who have never tasted a Whopper or Big Mac and don't even have a word for burger in their respective languages.

Stacy Peralta, director of award-winning movies like the skateboarding flick "Dogtown and Z-Boys" and the surfing documentary "Riding Giants," has been credited with the making of "Whopper Virgins." The film promises National Geographic-like imagery from remote corners of the globe to which Mr. Peralta's team fanned out via dog sleds and helicopters.

What remains to be seen is how stomachs not accustomed to American fast food will react: Will the documentary show people getting indigestion or asking for more? (Either way, it's a safe assumption that Burger King's flame-broiled Whopper sandwich comes out on top in the taste test.)

The campaign immediately sparked a backlash in the blogosphere and beyond, with critics claiming Burger King is exploiting poverty-stricken regions for marketing. "I don't think indigenous people should be used in that way to amuse a bored public that wants a sensation at any price," a commenter wrote on

"I just dislike the idea of going to some remote place and feeding indigenous tribes or impoverished people burgers that are full of fat, trans-fat and calories," another commented on the blog Walletpop. "While it would be nice to help those around the world who are starving, passing them heart attacks in a bun is not the way to do it!"

Meanwhile, the marketer and its agency seem to be staying mum for now; representatives for Burger King and Crispin both declined to comment.

Source. (H/T Interested Participant)

6 December, 2008

The ultimate peril: Chicken trucks!

For once I am lost for words. Maybe someone can help by leaving a comment

A surprising finding by a team of researchers at The John Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore suggests that chicken trucks carrying live chickens from farms to slaughterhouses can be a source for disease-causing bacteria for the cars traveling behind them. Drivers and motorists stuck behind such a truck should "pass them quickly," study authors say.

Ana M. Rule, Ellen K. Silbergeld and Sean L. Evans collected air and surface samples from cars driving two to three car lengths behind the poultry trucks for a distance of 17 miles along the Delmarva peninsula. Air conditioners and fans were turned off, and the windows were all open. Broiler chickens are transported in open crates on the back of flatbed trucks with no effective barrier to prevent release of pathogens into the environment. The region connecting chicken farms in Maryland to a processing plant to the south in Accomac, Va. has one of the highest concentrations of broiler chickens per acre in the nation.

Researchers found increased concentration of bacteria that have the potential to threaten human health, including antibiotic-resistant strains, in air samples collected from inside the car and on surfaces in the car such as the door handle. Antibiotic resistance to the antibiotics tetracycline, erythromycin and dalfopristin was noted in three strains of bacteria from the chicken trucks. "Our study shows that there is a real exposure potential, especially during the summer months, when people are driving with the windows down; the summer is also a time of very heavy traffic in Delmarva by vacationers driving to the shore resorts," said Ana Rule, a research associate at the Baltimore school’s environmental sciences department and co-author of the study. She said studies to determine if chicken trucks can make you sick are somewhere down the road.

The study is published in the first issue of the Journal of Infection and Public Health, which will publish research on the epidemiology, prevention and control of infectious disease. It is the fist study to look at whether poultry trucking exposes people to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The study authors conclude that transporting chickens in open truck to slaughter could influence human and environmental health.

Poultry producers said the study was an attempt to discredit the poultry industry. They said the results of the study were obtained using "unrealistic" conditions. Other researchers, however, said that getting sick that way was unlikely. None of the scientists who studied this problem got sick. Most healthy people, who are not so vulnerable and have a strong immune system, don’t suffer serious illness from these bacteria even if they are exposed to them in more conventional ways.

The authors say studies are needed to find safer ways to transport chickens from the farm to the slaughterhouse. The study raises new concerns over transportation methods and highlights the idea that we should consider improving these methods. Furthermore, more studies are needed to define how exposure to the antibiotic resistant bacteria affects humans, especially in areas where broiler chickens are raised.

Source. (H/T Panic Watch)

New pill could make jet lag a thing of the past

TRAVELLERS and shift workers could soon be able to pop a pill that adjusts their body clocks, allowing them to avoid jet lag and insomnia. A team of researchers from Monash University, The Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, Harvard Medical School and Vanda Pharmaceuticals conducted trials on more than 300 Americans with an experimental drug that activates sleep hormone melatonin in the body. The trials showed promising results, an article in The Lancet reported yesterday.

"This drug has the potential to improve the quality and quantity of sleep for patients with transient insomnia caused by jet lag," said Dr Shantha Rajaratnam, of Monash University's School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, who was one of the researchers.

During two trials in the US last year, 339 people were given the drug, tasimelteon, when their bedtime was shifted five hours earlier to simulate the time difference between Boston and London. Dr Rajaratnam said on average, those given the drug fell asleep 15 minutes faster and slept between 30 and 100 minutes longer than those who did not take the drug.

The body's sleep-wake cycle is controlled by melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland in response to patterns of light and darkness. But because melatonin is not patentable, drug companies have been keen to develop melatonin mimics, such as tasimelteon, which can be patented.

Dr Rajaratnam said the drug needed to be tested on more people and under more rigorous conditions before it could be marketed.


5 December, 2008

Women who exercise during pregnancy face risk of pre-eclampsia, researchers warn

Delightful to see exercise getting dissed for a change. Nonetheless, this is just more epidemiological speculation. The correlation probably arises because pre-eclampsia is not readily diagnosed -- so middle class women are more likely to get the high-quality attention needed to diagnose it. And middle class women exercise more. It seems not unreasonable, however, that obsessive exercise could be harmful

Women who exercise during pregnancy are at risk from a illness that can be fatal for themselves and their baby, it was claimed yesterday. Researchers have found that they are more likely to suffer from pre-eclampsia, a condition which raises blood pressure leading to strokes and even death. The illness affects one in 14 pregnancies and kills 1,000 babies and ten mothers-to-be each year.

Pregnant women are advised to exercise for at least 30 minutes each day but now scientists claim that there is a distinct link between moderate activity and the condition. In a study involving 85,000 females they found that jogging for more than one hour and 15 minutes a week more than doubled the risk of pre-eclampsia. Women who exercise for between four and a half and seven hours a week are 65 per cent more likely to develop severe pre-eclampsia. Those who did more than seven hours a week were 78 per cent more likely to have the condition. This means that more than three in ten women who do this much exercise will suffer from severe pre-eclampsia.

The research, carried out by Danish and Norwegian scientists and published in the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology looked at the medical data of pregnant women between 1996 and 2002.


Salt 'as bad as cigarettes'

This hysteria is just a grab for attention on the part of a do-gooder working for a do-gooder organization. Smoking definitely is bad for you but salt is an everyday necessity and restricted salt intake can harm you

AUSTRALIANS are consuming too much salt, say nutritionists who blame not only fast food but also healthier alternatives such as canned vegetables and baked beans. Less than 5 per cent of all sausages and beef burgers sold in the nation's supermarkets contained acceptable levels of salt [What double-blind studies do we have to show what an acceptable level is? This is just made-up stuff], a Nutrition Society of Australia conference has also heard.

Jacqui Webster, a senior project manager based at Sydney's The George Institute for International Health, said Australians were consuming well over the maximum recommended intake of six grams of salt a day. "Despite being aware of the adverse health effects of salt, most Australian consumers are taking little action to reduce their intake,'' Ms Webster told the conference. "Consuming too much salt, or sodium, can lead to serious health problems including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, osteoporosis and stomach cancer. "There is also some evidence that it adds to the severity of asthma symptoms.''

Ms Webster said the 2007 Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey showed boys were consuming around 9g of salt daily, while girls came in at the maximum 6g. She said it was also likely that many adults consumed in excess of the 9g of salt each day. Ms Webster said foods contributing to high salt diet included bread, processed meats, baked beans, canned vegetables, table sauces, some breakfast cereals and fast food.

Research in the UK showed processed foods accounted for 75 per cent of salt in a person's diet, with 10 per cent from natural foods like fish and vegetables. The remaining 15 per cent was salt added at the table or during cooking.

Given the dire health consequences, Ms Webster said reducing salt in the diet should be "considered on the same level of importance as reducing obesity, alcohol and tobacco consumption''. Leading nutritionists from around Australia and the world are attending the conference in Adelaide.


4 December, 2008


The authors below think so and if their controls were as good as they think, that is a reasonable conclusion. Cancers in general do spontaneously regress a lot of the time. My skin cancers certainly do. The finding does tend to strengthen the current advice that random breast-cancer screening in general does more harm than good. Some indications (including family history) should be present before screening

The Natural History of Invasive Breast Cancers Detected by Screening Mammography

By Per-Henrik Zahl et al.

Background: The introduction of screening mammography has been associated with sustained increases in breast cancer incidence. The natural history of these screen-detected cancers is not well understood.

Methods: We compared cumulative breast cancer incidence in age-matched cohorts of women residing in 4 Norwegian counties before and after the initiation of biennial mammography. The screened group included all women who were invited for all 3 rounds of screening during the period 1996 through 2001 (age range in 1996, 50-64 years). The control group included all women who would have been invited for screening had there been a screening program during the period 1992 through 1997 (age range in 1992, 50-64 years). All women in the control group were invited to undergo a 1-time prevalence screen at the end of their observation period. Screening attendance was similar in both groups (screened, 78.3%, and controls, 79.5%). Counts of incident invasive breast cancers were obtained from the Norwegian Cancer Registry (in situ cancers were excluded).

Results: As expected, before the age-matched controls were invited to be screened at the end of their observation period, the cumulative incidence of invasive breast cancer was significantly higher in the screened group than in the controls (4-year cumulative incidence: 1268 vs 810 per 100 000 population; relative rate, 1.57; 95% confidence interval, 1.44-1.70). Even after prevalence screening in controls, however, the cumulative incidence of invasive breast cancer remained 22% higher in the screened group (6-year cumulative incidence: 1909 vs 1564 per 100 000 population; relative rate, 1.22; 95% confidence interval, 1.16-1.30). Higher incidence was observed in screened women at each year of age.

Conclusions: Because the cumulative incidence among controls never reached that of the screened group, it appears that some breast cancers detected by repeated mammographic screening would not persist to be detectable by a single mammogram at the end of 6 years. This raises the possibility that the natural course of some screen-detected invasive breast cancers is to spontaneously regress.

Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 168 No. 21, November 24, 2008.

Delays in radiation therapy lead to increased breast cancer recurrence

The conclusions below are certainly not waterproof but the steadily progressing nature of the adverse outcomes with longer and longer delays makes me inclined to go with them nonetheless. What is omitted is a more searching look at other characteristics associated with not getting prompt treatment. One guess: working class women get poorer treatment. And working class people have poorer prognoses anyway. The authors did have a measure of poverty so they should have partialled it out of the results before any further analyses were attempted. The findings, if accepted as is, have huge implications for socialized medicine systems where there are often long waits for treatment. The abstract is here

A new analysis of the National Cancer Institute's cancer registry has found that as many as one in five older women experience delayed or incomplete radiation treatment following breast-conserving surgery, and that this suboptimal care can lead to worse outcomes.

Dr. Heather Taffet Gold of Weill Cornell Medical College and colleagues found that among a nationally representative sample of nearly 8,000 breast cancer registry patients aged 65 and older, almost 1,300 women experienced delayed radiotherapy and approximately 270 had incomplete radiotherapy. Of these women, those with Stage 1 breast cancer had worse health outcomes associated with this less-than-ideal therapy, while those with a precancerous lesion called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) were not as affected.

"Timeliness of post-surgical radiotherapy is important in reducing the risk of subsequent recurrence or new breast malignancies in patients with early breast cancer. Delaying treatment by eight weeks or more significantly increased the odds for recurrence," says Dr. Gold, the study's lead author and an assistant professor of public health in the Division of Health Policy in the Department of Public Health at Weill Cornell Medical College. "One possible reason for the delays is that the coordination of care can be a challenge as treatment is usually delivered by multiple providers from different specialties, including surgeons, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists."

Stage 1 breast cancer patients with radiation treatment delayed by eight weeks were 1.4 times more likely to have a recurrence or subsequent new primary breast tumor compared with those receiving timely treatment; they also had reduced survival. Patients whose radiotherapy was delayed by 12 weeks or longer were four times more likely to have a recurrence or subsequent new breast tumor. And women who had incomplete radiation treatment for Stage 1 breast cancer -- those who underwent fewer than three weeks of the typical five-to-seven-week regimen -- had a higher rate of overall mortality, with a 32 percent higher likelihood of death.

The researchers also found treatment disparities in subgroups of older women. "Older black women were more likely to delay radiation treatment, whereas women living in areas with a high concentration of radiation oncologists were less likely to delay. Additionally, older women living in high-poverty areas were less likely to complete radiation treatment," says Dr. Gold.

The work appears in the latest online issue of the journal Cancer and the Dec. 1, 2008, print issue. Research collaborators include Huong T. Do, M.A., and Andrew W. Dick, Ph.D., senior economist at the RAND Corporation in Pittsburgh, Pa.

The study is based on an evaluation of women aged 65 and older diagnosed with either DCIS or Stage 1 breast cancer from 1991 to 1999 and followed through 2002 in registries of the Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program sponsored by the National Cancer Institute.

This nationally representative, population-based study of older women provided a unique opportunity to study the effects of suboptimal treatment in the community setting. "Our findings indicate that radiation treatment should be made easier for all patients to ensure completion and that delays should be minimized. To improve health outcomes following treatment for breast cancer, health care facilities and providers should implement supportive services, such as transportation, and provide educational materials to encourage and ease access to optimal radiation treatment, thereby improving disease-free and overall survival," said Dr. Andrew Dick, senior author on the study.


3 December, 2008

Premature babies grow into happier adults

Cheesh! This is pretty dumb. They look at just one event in an individual's life and think that tells them everything. But what is important is ALL the treatment that the individual receives. And when parents nearly lose a child, they are usually going to be more appreciative of it. So premmie babies get more solicitous treatment throughout their lives and feel the love of their parents more clearly and strongly. And it is THAT which makes them less prone to depression

Babies placed in incubators when they are born are up to three times less likely to develop depression as adults. The results came as a shock to researchers, who expected to find infants separated from their mothers at birth would be more at risk of mental health problems later in life. In mammals, separation at birth has always been considered a major source of stress that causes behavioural problems well into adulthood.

The study, by a team including researchers from King's College, London, set out to explore whether the same was true in babies. They studied 1,200 children. The results, published in Psychiatric Research, showed incubator babies were two to three times less likely to be depressed as adults. Researchers said it may be due to the incubator affecting brain cell development, or that sick babies tend to be cared for closely.


Apples reduce the risks of taking aspirin

There could be something in this. Aspirin is a willow-bark extract so that it might interact with other tree products is reasonable enough

Apples could hold the secret to protecting the stomach against damage from aspirin. Research shows the fruit contains chemicals which seem to reduce the risk of the painkiller causing ulcers and bleeding. The findings, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, are so far confined to experiments on rats.

Aspirin is often described as a wonder drug - but there have long been concerns about the risk of potentially fatal gastric bleeding among patients regularly taking large doses. Scientists at the University of Naples fed apple extract to rats before they were given a dose of aspirin. The results showed a 50 per cent drop in lesions - the early stages of a stomach ulcer - after rats were fed the extract.


2 December, 2008

"Dangerous" chemical found in three leading brands of bottled water

This is just the old Greenie pthalate scare again. Too bad that it has been thoroughly debunked. Greenies work on emotion, not reason. See a previous post here on January 16, 2008

Chemicals linked to genital abnormalities in babies have been found in three of Britain's leading bottled water brands. Scientists tested the 10 best-selling types of mineral water that use plastic seals inside aluminium caps on glass bottles. Six were revealed to contain PVC and of those, three - Highland Spring, Hildon and Strathmore - had leached chemicals in PVC known as phthalates into the water.

Phthalates, which are used to soften plastics to make them bendy, have been banned in the EU for toys that children can put in their mouths. Studies have shown a strong correlation between mothers exposed to high levels of phthalates during pregnancy and genital abnormalities known as hypospadias in young boys.

However, there is no legislation in Britain banning the use of phthalates in food or drink packaging. In America the Toy Manufacturers Association has voluntarily stopped the use of phthalates in toys for children under three.

David Santillo, senior scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboratory [Is that a joke?], said: 'On its own you are not going to get a serious dose from bottled water but it is part of the drip, drip of exposure. 'The fact that it can be detected in water at all is remarkable and suggests that very high levels of phthalates are being used in the caps.'

A spokesman for the Food Standards Agency said the levels of phthalates found did not exceed EU safety levels. Brands such as San Pellegrino and Evian do not use PVC in packaging.

A Highland Spring spokesperson said water quality was the company's top priority and all their water was 'perfectly safe to drink'. The company said the caps tested were manufactured under the previous industry standard, but it no longer used PVC.

'Phthalates occur naturally in the environment and are commonly found in food and drink products, household items, medical devices and tap water,' the spokesperson said. 'Trace elements were found in Highland Spring but the miniscule 0.005 mg/l sample was 99.7 per cent lower than the EU safe limit of 1.5 mg/l.'


Not all television is bad for children, study finds

TELEVISION can be good for kids. Even crime-filled shows such as The Sopranos might help some children perform better in the classroom. But not all TV shows are created equal and not all will be good for all children. Some once considered suitable viewing for youngsters might actually not be as helpful as others. A study from the University of Chicago is overturning some common beliefs about the way children learn and the effects of popular culture on learning.

In some ways the study has generated more questions than answers but it does provide some evidence that the way children interact with technology such as computer games and TV shows differs according to their family backgrounds. The complicated, sometimes almost contradictory results, show one thing clearly - TV is not all bad.

Parents trying to teach children to read can still use methods such as flash cards and alphabet books. But they may also want to consider what sort of TV shows might benefit their child. Children from disadvantaged homes, in particular, can gain improvements in their language skills when exposed to the right kind of TV.

Even as it babysits electronically, the TV can be teaching both modes of learning and facts, other studies suggest, and keeping those who watch it from engaging in more destructive behaviours. "We find strong evidence against the view that childhood television viewing harms the cognitive or educational development of preschoolers," write Jesse Shapiro and Matthew Gentzkow in the paper, published this year in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

That's the good news about the tube. There's certainly bad, including the warning that "there's no two-dimensional screen that can equal a three-dimensional caregiver," said Dr Donald Shifrin, the American Academy of Pediatrics spokesman on the impact of media on children.

Some previous studies have suggested that children who watch more TV do less reading. But researchers now think some children learn their language skills from listening and watching rather than just reading and that those children can benefit from television. "I used to laugh and say, 'I did 25 years of research on children in television, and I can summarise it in one sentence: It's the content that matters," says Aletha Huston, a professor of child development at the University of Texas. "If used correctly, television can be a wonderful medium for kids. It can be a way of exposing them to the world. It can be a resource for kids to get to places and times they wouldn't get to," Huston says.

Yet, "it is a message that doesn't get out there somehow," she says, citing the surprisingly intense interest when "we published a study a few years ago showing the positive effects of Sesame Street on early schoolkids' performance." Sesame Street might seem like an obvious nomination as a potentially educational tool. But other shows nominated aren't likely to be the first thing an anxious parent might think of.

One of the key factors to consider is whether a show provides a simple, single-strand storyline or whether it address multiple themes, with overlapping relationship between characters. The more complex, the better. Although the experts do caution that material should be age-appropriate, they specifically name The Sopranos (for older children) and the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants as examples of shows that provide the sort of multi-dimensional structure to look for.

There is even another, highly controversial, school of thought that says watching bad stuff is better than doing bad stuff. Psychological research shows, for example, that violence in media increases aggression. But "violent crime decreases on days with larger theatre audiences for violent movies", another recent study of media effects found. The implication: However aggressive you may feel, you can't do the crime if you don't have the time.

Violent movies aren't the same as children's afternoon television shows. But Shapiro and Gentzkow also found that much of the impact of the medium they were studying seemed to be related to what activities it might be replacing. In their findings, even after controlling for parental income and education levels, TV's "effects are more positive for children from less advantaged families or from families where English isn't the first language", Shapiro says.

Another new study, presented as the popular book Everything Bad Is Good for You by Steven Berlin Johnson, contends that TV now is much better, "more complex and nuanced" than before. "The most debased forms of mass diversion - video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms - turn out to be nutritional after all," Johnson writes, largely because the storytelling and complexity of action demands much more from the viewer.

He's looking at adult TV, comparing the intricate The Sopranos to the simple Starsky & Hutch, for instance, but the argument can also be made for children's television, where the straight-ahead action-hero cartoon story has been replaced by the subtle social interactions and multiple layers of meaning as in SpongeBob SquarePants.

Shapiro's Chicago study came out of the Graduate School of Business, where economists have been looking at media and its effects. Although based on old data, it offers new confirmation of the evolving views of television. The data used came from a 1965 study still considered the best indicator about how the introduction of TV affected the classroom performance of children who watched it. Standardised testing of almost 350,000 Year 6, 9 and 12 students showed the students who had more exposure to television in early childhood did slightly better on the tests than those with less exposure.

It's an open question as to how today's different television would affect the data, says Shapiro, an assistant professor of economics at the business school. But even with more recent data, another University of Chicago economist reached a similar conclusion to that of Shapiro and Gentzkow. "Despite the conventional wisdom, watching television apparently does not turn a child's brain to mush," wrote Steven Levitt, with co-author Stephen Dubner, in the 2005 hit book Freakonomics.

They looked at a huge early childhood study by the US Department of Education in the 1990s and found "no correlation", they wrote, "between a child's test scores and the amount of television he watches".

One of the big questions for economists is not just examining an activity in isolation but considering what activity it replaces. Patricia Greenfield has looked at more contemporary data, too, and concluded television is a mixed educational blessing. It's likely responsible for a rise in verbal IQ scores. But most countries base school language tests on literary vocabulary rather than verbal ability, perhaps accounting for a perception that children's language skills are in decline.

"The real strength of television in teaching vocabulary is the visual context for teaching definitions," says Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA and California State University in Los Angeles. Her 1998 paper, "The Cultural Evolution of IQ", also makes the case for television helping to teach "visual intelligence", the reading of signs, symbols, images so vital in today's culture.

With television and DVDs being used widely in schools and by parents, her reading is that anti-TV forces may actually be "in decline", to the point that "I'm a little bit more concerned about people not understanding the costs, only looking at the benefits".


1 December, 2008

Eating junk food may raise your risk of getting Alzheimer's (?)

Both the Mediterranean diet and antioxidant myths get a run below: A good warning that you are listening to superstition rather than science. Note that there appears to have been no change in behaviour among their mutant mice so the conclusions are vastly overgeneralized on several grounds. Generalizing from mutant mice to people is shaky enough

Eating junk food could increase your risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, research suggests. Scientists found that eating meals rich in fat, sugar and cholesterol triggered changes in the brain associated with the early stages of the debilitating disease. Their study adds to the growing evidence that eating healthily can cut the odds of developing Alzheimer's, a dementia affecting 400,000 Britons. The number is forecast to double within a generation, so any method of cutting the number of cases would have a huge impact on public health.

Researchers in Sweden looked at the effect of a junk food diet on mice genetically altered to be prone to Alzheimer's. The creatures' brains were tested after they were fed a diet laden in fat, sugar and cholesterol for nine months. Researcher Susanne Akterin, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said: `On examining the brains of these mice, we found a chemical change not unlike that found in the Alzheimer brain.'

Her tests showed the food altered the formation of a protein called tau which forms tangles inside the brain of Alzheimer's patients, causing brain cells to shrink and die. The study also suggested that cholesterol cut levels of a brain protein called arc that is key in storing memories. `We suspect that a high intake of fat and cholesterol, in combination with genetic factors, can adversely affect several brain substances, which can be a contributory factor in the development of Alzheimer's,' said Miss Akterin.

`All in all, the results give some indication of how Alzheimer's can be prevented but more research in this field needs to be done before proper advice can be passed on to the public.'

Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said: `Experts increasingly believe eating healthily is key to reducing your risk of dementia. `It's important to eat less fatty food, salt and more fruit and vegetables which are high in antioxidants.

A Mediterranean diet containing lots of fruits, vegetables, cereals, some fish, moderate amounts of alcohol, and little diary and meat has been shown to reduce your risk of dementia by as much as 30 per cent. `This is because it is low in fat, sugar and processed food, and high in protein, fibre and anti-oxidants.'

Weight is also key, with those who are overweight at the age of 60 being more than twice as likely to have dementia by 75. The warnings come as Britain fights rising levels of obesity: almost a quarter of men and women are so overweight that their health is at serious risk.

Research also shows that Britons are the world's biggest junk-food addicts, beating even the Americans in their appetite for fat and sugar-laden snacks. The average Briton will get through 22,000 ready meals, sandwiches and sweet snacks in a lifetime - nearly one a day. But he or she eats only three portions of fruit and vegetables a day, well below the recommended level of five a day.


Democracy defeats the British health Fascists

For now, anyway

MEASURES to help cut smoking and drinking are expected to be shelved this week because of fears they will alienate voters during the recession. Ministers have decided they cannot justify some of the more draconian measures to reduce cigarette and alcohol sales during the economic downturn. A proposed ban on shops displaying tobacco, and steps to force tobacco manufacturers to remove logos from cigarette packs are expected to be abandoned, along with proposals to stop supermarkets discounting alcohol.

The U-turn follows pressure from backbenchers and trade groups, who argued that there was little evidence to show the steps would have health benefits.

Last night the health department was examining whether any part of the proposed tobacco restrictions could be salvaged in time for Wednesday's Queen's speech, which sets out the legislative programme. It is understood, however, that ministers have reluctantly conceded there is not enough evidence to support the tobacco proposals and have concluded it would "not be in the nation's best interests" to press ahead.

Some in the cabinet feared the crackdown, which included packaging cigarettes in plain "vanilla" boxes with no branding, would jar with the key message about shoring up the economy. Senior Labour sources say the legislative programme is designed to appeal to "white van man"; that is, working-class swing voters who are more likely to smoke and drink.

The government is still expected to press ahead with plans to ban so-called "happy hours" in pubs and clubs.