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


28 February, 2009

Angry people have more heartbeat irregularity

It has been known for years that hostility (chronic anger) is weakly associated with a higher incidence of coronary heart disease but I suppose that the wheel needs continual re-invention

Anger really can kill, doctors have warned. Feelings of rage can trigger potentially deadly irregular heart rhythms, research shows. The finding, from a study of patients with cardiac problems, could explain other studies which have linked the anger sparked by world events - from the loss of a World Cup match to a war - with heart attacks. 'When you put a whole population under a stress factor, sudden death will increase,' said researcher Dr Rachel Lampert. 'Our study starts to look at how does this really affect the electrical system of the heart.'

Dr Lampert, of Yale University in the U.S., studied 62 adults being treated for an irregular heartbeat - a common condition which raises the risk of heart attack. She said: 'We found in the lab setting that yes, anger did increase this electrical instability in these patients.'

Patients in the study took part in an exercise in which they recounted a recent angry episode while Dr Lampert's team did a test called T-Wave Alternans that measures electrical instability in the heart. The men and women, who all had defibrillators implanted in their chests to monitor their heartbeat and shock it back into rhythm when necessary, were then tracked for three years. Those who were rated as the angriest were more than ten times more likely to need a shock from the device, the Journal of the American College of Cardiology reports.

However, Dr Lampert cautioned against applying the results to people with healthy hearts. She is now studying whether anger management classes can help those with the conditions studied - ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation.

Sudden cardiac death accounts for more than 400,000 deaths each year in the United States, according to the American College of Cardiology.


Cure for peanut allergy closer

This again shows that exposure to peanuts has a major role in preventing peanut allergy

A group of children with severe peanut allergies have had their conditions successfully treated, allowing them to eat nuts without suffering any reaction for the first time. The success of the preliminary clinical trial, conducted by Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, eastern England, shows the possibilty of modifying an allergy by desensitising the sufferer. Scientists say that the development brings them one step closer to curing nut allergies.

Researchers gave small daily doses of peanut flour to children with severe peanut allergy to help them to build tolerance to the nuts over a six-month period. By the end of the trial, the children could eat up to 12 nuts a day without suffering a life-threatening reaction in the form of anaphylaxis.

Peanut allergy is increasingly common, affecting an estimated 2 per cent of British schoolchildren. Reactions can range from itching, rashes and swelling to breathing difficulties caused by a narrowing of the airways, and severe asthma. It is the most common serious allergic reaction but, unlike other childhood food allergies, it rarely recedes over time.

Pamela Ewan, a consultant allergist and lead researcher, said that the trial offered hope for sufferers. "Until now there has been no treatment that has modified the disease," she told The Times. "There has only been effective management of the problems. "We do not like to talk of cures, but that is what we are aiming for. If you can switch off the allergy, you can claim you have cured the person." Andrew Clark, a consultant in paediatric allergy who worked on the trial, said that further studies were planned into different types of nuts, as well as other foods, including kiwi fruit.

In the study, published in the journal Allergy, four children were given daily doses of peanut flour, starting with 5mg mixed into yoghurt. Over six months the dose was increased every two weeks until the children could tolerate 800mg of the protein. This was 160 times the starting dose and equivalent to five peanuts. A larger study by Addenbrooke's, involving 20 children aged 7 to 17, is showing similar results. A total of 12 patients have completed treatment and none has shown signs of reaction to peanuts. Some of them were showing tolerance reaching 12 peanuts a day. The original four children are keeping up their tolerance with a "maintenance" dose of five peanuts a day.

Mr Clark said: "If they were to stop there is some evidence that tolerance would be lost and they may have a reaction." He said that the children's tolerance levels would be monitored and future studies would assess whether the dose could be given as a daily pill. After three or four years, the body may have adjusted and there could be a more "permanent cure" to the allergy, he said. "Every time people with a peanut allergy eat something, they're frightened that it might kill them. Our motivation was to find a treatment that would change that and give them the confidence to eat what they like. "All of these children say it has improved their quality of life and they've lost that fear of having an acute reaction if they accidentally eat a peanut."

Mr Clark warned families not to try to replicate the study at home. Previous trials in the 1990s, which used injections rather than oral doses, produced serious side-effects. The Addenbrooke's study was sponsored by the Evelyn Trust, a Cambridge charity supporting medical research.


27 February, 2009

HRT 'could double the threat of skin cancer'

Epidemiological rubbish. Maybe the women on HRT were more active so got more sun exposure

Women who undergo hormone replacement therapy for the menopause could be dramatically increasing their risk of skin cancer. Those on HRT for more than six months at a time are twice as likely to develop a malignant melanoma, researchers discovered. They also found taking the Pill for more than six months makes it 28 per cent more likely that a cancerous mole will develop.

The study, published in the journal Annals of Oncology, compared nearly 800 Dutch women diagnosed with a melanoma between 1991 and 2004 with a group of 4,000 cancer-free women. It is thought the higher risk may be due to the way oestrogen in the HRT stimulates the growth of skin cells, called melanocytes. The study, by experts at Leiden University in the Netherlands, is the latest to highlight the health risks associated with taking HRT. It is already linked with breast cancer and an increased risk of potentially fatal blood clots.

Malignant melanomas kill around 1,700 people a year in the UK. Over-exposure to the sun's rays is the major cause and since the mid-1990s there has been a 24 per cent increase in cases. Dr Joanna Owens, from Cancer Research UK, said UV radiation was still the biggest danger. She said: 'Without knowing how much sun exposure these women had, this study tells us nothing new.'


Three daily cups of tea can reduce risk of stroke

As a regular tea drinker, I am much inclined to applaud this report but, as far as I can see, any beneficial effects are very small in absolute magnitude and benefits have been claimed for coffee too

The great British cuppa can protect against stroke, a study suggests. Drinking three cups of tea a day cuts the risk of brain clots by 21 per cent, say scientists from the American Heart Association who analysed 10 studies in China, Japan, Finland, Holland, Australia and the U.S. It is thought that tea may help by reducing blood pressure.

Other possibilities are that chemicals present in tea - catechins and theanins - contribute to improved blood vessel function. 'Tea drinking may be one of the most actionable lifestyle changes to significantly reduce the risk of stroke,' said the study.

Dr Catherine Hood of the Tea Advisory Panel said: 'These latest health findings are really exciting for all of us tea drinkers. 'Despite different countries studied and the different tea drinking customs represented across the studies, the meta-analysis showed that tea consumption was associated with reduced risk for stroke and reduced risk of death from stroke.' The study found that the risk of a fatal or non-fatal stroke in people drinking three or more cups a day was reduced by 21 per cent compared to those who did not drink tea.

Dr Hood said there were three key mechanisms in which tea could prevent stroke. 'Firstly, tea has been shown to reduce blood pressure in stroke-prone rats and blood pressure control is the key strategy to reduce risk of stroke in humans. 'Secondly, tea and the catechins it contains can improve blood vessel function. Thirdly, through the effects of theanin, tea has a positive effect on brain function and may reduce blood vessel damage in the brain. 'In the research, the beneficial effect was not specific to green or black tea. Black tea was as effective as green tea in reducing stroke.'

But the Stroke Association warned that 'excess caffeine intake is believed to contribute to high blood pressure'. 'Therefore we recommend moderate consumption of tea.'


26 February, 2009

Now eggs are GOOD for you

And fried eggs are best of all, would you believe? In the '90s eggs were of course very bad for you. It shows you how slapdash much "research" is and how unwise it is to take official pronouncements seriously

Starting the day on an egg could keep your blood pressure in check, research suggests. Scientists have shown that eggs produce proteins that mimic the action of powerful blood pressure-lowering drugs.

The finding comes a few days after a study exploded the myth that they can increase the danger of heart attacks. It now appears that eggs may be good for the heart, lowering blood pressure in the same way as Ace inhibitors, prescription-only pills taken by millions around the world. The drugs lower blood pressure by stopping the hormone angiotensin narrowing the body's blood vessels.

The researchers, from the University of Alberta in Canada, showed that when eggs come in contact with stomach enzymes they produce a protein that acts in the same way. Fried eggs proved particularly successful at blocking angiotensin, lab-based tests showed, the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry reports. But the researchers, whose study was funded by the poultry industry, said more work was needed to show the effects outside a lab and in the human body.

Earlier this month, British researchers proclaimed that, contrary to popular perception, it is healthy to go to work on an egg. Researchers for the British Nutrition Foundation - part-funded by the poultry industry - concluded that the type of cholesterol found in eggs has minimal effect on raising heart disease risks. It is saturated fat, rather than the cholesterol found in eggs, that is the main dietary culprit in raising cholesterol levels. Smoking, being overweight and lack of exercise also influence blood fat and cholesterol levels and heart disease risk.

Researcher Professor Bruce Griffin, of the University of Surrey, said: 'The ingrained misconception linking egg consumption to high blood cholesterol and heart disease must be corrected. 'The amount of saturated fat in our diet exerts an effect on blood cholesterol that is several times greater than the relatively small amounts of dietary cholesterol. The UK public do not need to be limiting the number of eggs they eat. 'They can be encouraged to include them in a healthy diet as they are one of nature's most nutritionally dense foods.'

The British Heart Foundation dropped its three-egg-a-week limit in 2005. However, almost half of Britons believe the limit still applies, a poll found.


One-shot jab for every type of flu `ready in 5 years'

A universal therapy or vaccine for every type of flu is "within our grasp", according to scientists who have identified proteins that can neutralise most strains of the virus that affect humans. The discovery of three immune proteins that are effective against a broad range of influenza viruses promises to provide a new line of defence against a pandemic, and could prevent many of the 250,000 deaths from seasonal flu that occur worldwide every year. A treatment based on the research is expected to begin patient trials during the winter of 2010-11, and could be ready for widespread use within five years.

At present, vaccines against one sub-type of the virus do not protect against others, meaning that three kinds must be incorporated in the seasonal flu jab. "I certainly believe that a pan-therapy for all kinds of inluenza may be within our grasp," Robert Liddington, of the Burnham Institute in La Jolla, California, who led the research, said.

In the new research, published in the journal Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, Dr Liddington's team identified three monoclonal antibodies that are effective against flu viruses belonging to 10 of the 16 H subtypes. Both the H5N1 avian flu virus, which has so far infected 408 people and killed 254, and the Spanish flu virus, were neutralised by the antibodies.


25 February, 2009

Greenfield shoots her mouth off again

"Social websites harm children's brains". She said much the same nearly a year ago -- with a similar lack of proof. She does have a research background in brain function but she is primarily a science popularizer and can be relied on to support the wisdom of the day -- which is why she has been much honoured in various ways.

Not long ago she was selling a "brain training program" called "Mindfit" but such programs have subsequently been found to be of very questionable use and may do more harm than good. She appears unaware of the contradiction of promoting a computer-based brain training program while otherwise warning of the harm that computer use does.

She has also bad-mouthed Larry Summers for his truth telling about mathematical ability and mocks Christians. So wait for the double-blind studies of social networking websites rather than trust the mere "fears" of this attention-seeker.

Social networking websites are causing alarming changes in the brains of young users, an eminent scientist has warned. Sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Bebo are said to shorten attention spans, encourage instant gratification and make young people more self-centred. The claims from neuroscientist Susan Greenfield will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day. But they will strike a chord with parents and teachers who complain that many youngsters lack the ability to communicate or concentrate away from their screens. [Given the dumbed-down education they get today, that has to be expected]

More than 150million use Facebook to keep in touch with friends, share photographs and videos and post regular updates of their movements and thoughts. A further six million have signed up to Twitter, the 'micro-blogging' service that lets users circulate text messages about themselves. But while the sites are popular - and extremely profitable - a growing number of psychologists and neuroscientists believe they may be doing more harm than good. Baroness Greenfield, an Oxford University neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, believes repeated exposure could effectively 'rewire' the brain.

Computer games and fast-paced TV shows were also a factor, she said. 'We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist,' she told the Mail yesterday. 'My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'

Her comments echoed those she made during a House of Lords debate earlier this month. Then she argued that exposure to computer games, instant messaging, chat rooms and social networking sites could leave a generation with poor attention spans. 'I often wonder whether real conversation in real time may eventually give way to these sanitised and easier screen dialogues, in much the same way as killing, skinning and butchering an animal to eat has been replaced by the convenience of packages of meat on the supermarket shelf,' she said.

Lady Greenfield told the Lords a teacher of 30 years had told her she had noticed a sharp decline in the ability of her pupils to understand others. 'It is hard to see how living this way on a daily basis will not result in brains, or rather minds, different from those of previous generations,' she said. She pointed out that autistic people, who usually find it hard to communicate, were particularly comfortable using computers.

'Of course, we do not know whether the current increase in autism is due more to increased awareness and diagnosis of autism, or whether it can - if there is a true increase - be in any way linked to an increased prevalence among people of spending time in screen relationships. Surely it is a point worth considering,' she added.

Psychologists have also argued that digital technology is changing the way we think. They point out that students no longer need to plan essays before starting to write - thanks to word processors they can edit as they go along. Satellite navigation systems have negated the need to decipher maps.

A study by the Broadcaster Audience Research Board found teenagers now spend seven-and-a-half hours a day in front of a screen.

Educational psychologist Jane Healy believes children should be kept away from computer games until they are seven. Most games only trigger the 'flight or fight' region of the brain, rather than the vital areas responsible for reasoning.

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, said: 'We are seeing children's brain development damaged because they don't engage in the activity they have engaged in for millennia. 'I'm not against technology and computers. But before they start social networking, they need to learn to make real relationships with people.'


HIV gene therapy trial results seen as positive

Results from the first clinical trial of gene therapy in patients infected with HIV are reported online in the research journal Nature Medicine this week. The treatment appeared to safely increase the number of immune system cells normally attacked by the virus, said researchers. But the therapy wasn't found to significantly reduce the number of HIV viruses themselves in patients' bodies.

Gene therapy is a strategy involving introducing genes into patients through various means in order to replace defective genes or otherwise help the body fight illness. Gene therapy is an appealing option to treat AIDS and the virus responsible for it, HIV, the scientists who conducted the new study propose. That's because the therapy is seen as potentially a onceonly treatment that fights the virus, preserves the immune system and avoids lifetime antiretroviral therapy.

Ronald Mitsuyasu of the University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues completed the first randomized, controlled gene transfer clinical trial in 74 HIVinfected adults. About half the patients received blood stem cells carrying a a molecule called OZ1. The molecule contains a gene previously found to prevent viral replication by targeting two key HIV proteins.

OZ1 caused no adverse effects, the investigators said. Counts of CD4+ lymphocytesthe cell population that is depleted by HIVwent higher in the treated patients than in those who had received a placebo treatment with no actual therapy, the scientists said. The differences were found by 100 weeks into the trial. "This study indicates that celldelivered gene transfer is safe and biologically active in individuals with HIV and can be developed as a conventional therapeutic product," Mitsuyasu and colleagues wrote.


24 February, 2009

foie gras: More PETA lies unmasked

When Village Voice reporter Sarah DiGregorio set out to investigate foie gras production at Hudson Valley, activists prepped her for a conspiracy. "With 150 people living on-site," warned anti-foie gras campaigner Holly Cheever, "they can cherry-pick out the disastrously sick ducks" to hide animal abuse from the media. Armed with a list of criteria from an animal welfare expert, DiGregorio spent a day at the farm examining ducks at every stage of the production process. This week, she revealed her findings: Someone is cherry-picking evidence in the "foie gras wars." But the farmers aren't the culprits.

Despite the fact that there are only four farms in the U.S. that produce the fatty liver delicacy, activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) have put a great deal of effort into stigmatizing the tiny industry and its customers. And as DiGregorio writes in the first sentence of her article, shock videos depicting sick and struggling birds are a crucial part of their campaigns.
It's very hard to watch the video about foie gras from PETA and not conclude that you should lay off fatty liver.
But like Anthony Bourdain and others who have visited the farms for themselves, the scene at Hudson Valley was nothing like what PETA's torture video had led her to expect:
[T]he sights could not have been more different from the horrifying images I'd seen on the Internet. I was at the farm for five hours, all told. I saw thousands of ducks, but not a drop of duck vomit. I didn't see an animal that was having a hard time breathing or walking, or a duck with a bloodied beak or blown-open esophagus. So where are the terrible images coming from?
DiGregorio explained that the PETA footage must have been shot at an industrial farm abroad, probably in France. The cages shown in activist shock videos don't even exist on any of the four farms in the U.S. However, as the owner of Hudson Valley explained, the "cage free" facilities haven't deterred HSUS and other groups from trying to sue them out of business. Hudson Valley's legal costs were $50,000 this month alone.

It's no secret why PETA and HSUS have spent so much time, money, and energy trying to demonize producers and consumers of foie gras: It's a gateway to vilifying pork, cheese, veal, and the long list of other foods they want Americans to stop eating. But fortunately for culinary enthusiasts who enjoy the delicacy and other animal products, DiGregorio and others are routinely more convinced by reality than by vegan propaganda films:
If I had seen with my own eyes that Hudson Valley produced foie gras by abusing ducks, this article would have turned out very differently. But that just wasn't the case.

Gender gap closes in on life expectancy

This sounds reasonable. I seem to recollect that male and female life expectancies have already roughly equalized in Israel

The final gender gap is closing. Men, who usually die many years earlier than women, will live as long as their wives within two generations, scientists believe. As long as men continue to improve lifestyles that are far healthier than in previous decades, and gains in women's health level off, the tipping point will arrive in about 2035, an American government statistician predicted last week. That year will mark the birth of the first generation of westerners who can expect to live well into their late eighties, regardless of their gender.

In the past, western men died earlier than women because they went to war or took on jobs such as mining or deep sea fishing with chronic health consequences. The dominance of macho cultures also meant they tended to eschew improved medical and dietary advice which, since the 1940s, has helped women add 2« months a year to their lifespan. Yet the latest survey released last week by the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that the gap is shrinking fast. "Men born in 2006 could expect to live 3.6 years longer, and women 1.9 years longer, than those born in 1990," scientists reported in their annual survey of 300m Americans. Male life expectancy is now 75.1 and women's 80.9.

A CDC statistician, who did not wish to be named, said that the data applied across western nations where gender gaps were closing at varying rates. "Unless patterns change dramatically, maybe by war or epidemic, there will be a convergence point in around 25 years' time or so. That will benefit the children of children born over the past couple of years," he said.

There will still be great global disparities, however. The twins born to the Hollywood actress Julia Roberts in 2004, for example, are likely to live up to 50 years longer than twins born on the same day in Swaziland, where current life expectancy barely hovers above 30.

Yet in the West the benefits of the fight against conditions such as heart disease and cancer, albeit counterbalanced by the recent growth of "lifestyle-related" problems such as diabetes, were already showing themselves. A Briton in his twenties today is likely to live at least five years longer than a man now in his fifties.

There are, however, wide disparities across the UK. According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), a man dining amid the sushi restaurants of the west London borough of Kensington and Chelsea can expect to live until he is 83, but one living in Glasgow, with its poor diet typified by the notorious deep-fried Mars bar, can only expect to reach 71. On average in Britain, men live to 77.2 and women to 81.5, compared with 70.8 and 76.8 respectively in 1981.

Today the only countries with very narrow gaps between the genders are where both tend to die young. This is changing, but scientists are unsure why. Professor Tom Kirkwood, director of the Institute for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University, said that only a quarter of the factors that dictate how long we live are inherited, with the remainder shaped by the environment. "The trouble is we don't know what the secret is in the balance of nutrition and life-style responsible for the narrowing life-expectancy gap, only that we're all going to live a lot longer - together," he said.

Tony Warnes, professor of gerontology at the Sheffield Institute for Studies on Ageing, said the one widely agreed factor was the change in smoking habits. "Men have reduced their smoking a lot and women, particularly young women, have been more resistant," he said. The ONS said that in 2004 10% of girls aged between 11 and 15 smoked compared with 7% of boys, a trend blamed on the desire to control their weight and look "cool". Their futures are not bright: lung cancer rates are falling sharply among men but rising steadily among women. Warnes also said that some advances in medicine, such as heart treatments, could be more beneficial to men.

As long as greater life expectancy is combined with health advances, everyone should be happy. However, experts warn of the nightmare corollary: that we get the extra years but remain blighted by debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.


23 February, 2009

Blood pressure drugs can curb Alzheimer's

This seems a rather striking finding and certainly warrants follow-up with a better sample and more controls

Blood-pressure drugs taken by thousands could reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease. Patients on medication for hypertension - the medical term for high blood pressure - are less likely to develop dementia than those who are healthy and do not use the drugs, scientists found. Doctors had previously found lowering blood pressure can reduce the risk of dementia later in life. But this study suggests hypertension drugs may have a protective effect because of something they contain rather than because of their effect on blood pressure. Further research is set to establish whether they could help reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer's or even prevent it.

Around 400,000 people in Britain suffer from Alzheimer's with a further one million diagnoses expected over the next ten years. Doctors at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, carried out post-mortem examinations on 300 patients for the study, published in Neurology magazine. They identified which patients had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and which were taking drugs to ease their condition. Analysis found `substantially' fewer symptoms of Alzheimer's in those who had been taking medication for their hypertension than among normal, healthy people.

Neil Hunt, of the Alzheimer's Society, said: `We know high blood pressure doubles the risk of developing Alzheimer's so treating hypertension is vital. It is becoming increasingly important to investigate whether anti-hypertensive medication may also be a potential treatment for Alzheimer's.'


Journal abstract:

Less Alzheimer disease neuropathology in medicated hypertensive than nonhypertensive persons

By L. B. Hoffman et al.

Objective: To test the hypothesis that use of antihypertensive medication is associated with lower Alzheimer disease (AD) neuropathology.

Methods: This was a postmortem study of 291 brains limited to those with normal neuropathology or with uncomplicated AD neuropathology (i.e., without other dementia-associated neuropathology) in persons with or without hypertension (HTN) who were and were not treated with antihypertensive medications. Neuritic plaque (NP) and neurofibrillary tangle (NFT) densities, quantified in selected brain regions according to the Consortium to Establish a Registry for Alzheimer's Disease (CERAD) neuropathologic criteria, with additional cortical NP counts, yielded 24 neuropathologic regional measures or summaries. Medicated hypertension (HTN-med; n = 77), nonmedicated HTN (HTN-nomed; n = 42), and non-HTN (no-HTN; n = 172) groups were compared by analyses of variance.

Results: The HTN-med group had significantly less neuropathology than the no-HTN group. The no-HTN group averaged over 50% higher mean NP and NFT ratings, and double the mean NP count, of the HTN-med group. The HTN-nomed group had significantly more neuropathology than the HTN-med group, but not significantly less than the no-HTN group.

Conclusions: There was substantially less Alzheimer disease (AD) neuropathology in the medicated hypertension group than the nonhypertensive group, which may reflect a salutary effect of antihypertensive medication against AD-associated neuropathology.

Neurology 2009. Published online February 18

Frozen human egg system improved

THE first "frozen egg" baby born in Australia through a revolutionary technique will give single women and couples greater choice for having children later in life. Lucy was born last October to a Sydney couple, and the success is expected to spark huge interest in the technique.

Freezing has been relatively unsuccessful until now because human eggs are so fragile. It has grown out of a demand from mainly single women in their 30s who want to delay childbirth. The $10,000 process is also suitable for cancer patients who store eggs before radiation or chemotherapy, which often damage the reproductive system. The technique would also be used by women who have a family history of early menopause. Because of low success rates in the traditional method of slow egg freezing, women have had to take their chances by relying on IVF, sometimes leaving it too late.

Since July 2006, Sydney IVF has been testing the process, which boasts almost a 100 per cent success rate in freezing and thawing eggs. The IVF breakthrough works by snap-freezing the egg, which avoids ice crystals forming in the cell and damaging genetic material. Vitrification is used around the world to freeze embryos, but has never been successfully used in Australia for eggs.

Dr Kylie de Boer, general manager of Sydney IVF, said she expected numbers of women and couples wanting to freeze their eggs to soar. "Women want to have their eggs frozen for social reasons, such as they are not ready to have children, or for medical reasons," she said. "We get about 5-10 inquiries a month now for egg freezing for social reasons." Only 25 couples so far have used the process, which involves up to 10 eggs being collected and stored in liquid nitrogen vapour. The pregnancy rate is about 63 per cent.

Lucy's parents, who do not wish to be identified, used the process as part of their IVF treatment. Her mother was 37 when she had her eggs frozen. They were stored for six months before being fertilised and the embryo implanted. Now with a healthy girl, the 38-year-old mother said she would recommend it to other women. "My husband and I are so happy with our beautiful little girl," she said. "My pregnancy was textbook and the birth was a natural one, and occurred at full term. "We would love to have more children and will opt for IVF treatment once again."


22 February, 2009

Dangerous nervous Nellies

What the Australian writer below says is perfectly correct but she omits to name the chief guilty parties: Grant-seeking university researchers who put out an unending stream of health scares that in the end promote skepticism about all mainstream medical advice. When everything you like is bad for you and everything unpleasant is good for you, nobody but obsessionals is going to take any notice of it. Medical journal editors need to take the lead and follow the conclusions of all epidemiological articles with a prominent warning saying: "WARNING: The conclusions of this article are speculative". Wakefield was, after all, a mainstream medical researcher. I personally would burn him at the stake for all the harm he has done in pursuit of his own selfish gain but then I would pulp a lot of medical journals too.

Living in a suburb with lots of white, middle-class, educated mothers may be putting your child's health at risk. In such salubrious surroundings can be found dangerous concentrations of vaccine-resisters. These are women who spend too many hours on wacky internet health sites and become convinced immunisation is a giant conspiracy. The educated mother who thinks she knows better than the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists and doctors partly explains why some of Sydney's richest suburbs have the state's lowest child immunisation rates.

It is hardly surprising that North Coast NSW, home to alternative life-stylers and the "natural" wellness set, should rate lowly on coverage. But it was astounding - at first - to see that Sydney's eastern, south-eastern and northern suburbs rate near, or at, the bottom of a list compiled by the Division of General Practice, based on Medicare figures for child immunisation rates. In the November 2008 quarter, Sydney's eastern suburbs - including the city, Vaucluse, Double Bay, Rose Bay and Kings Cross - were ranked last among the state's 34 divisions of general practice and last among 118 divisions nationally. Just above that lot was the Northern Rivers, then north Sydney, south-east Sydney and the Blue Mountains. A similar story emerged from data published in 2005 by the National Centre for Immunisation Research when Mosman had about the same child immunisation rate as Bellingen.

It is possible doctors in these establishment suburbs are too old to be computer-literate or too lazy to record immunisation data as they are meant to do, with consequent under-estimates of the coverage in their areas. Also, parts of the eastern suburbs, such as Kings Cross, have their share of poor and transient families. But as Ray Seidler, medical director of the Eastern Sydney Division of General Practice, told me, these areas are home to "an older demographic of mothers who are conscientious objectors".

Around the world, resistance to vaccination is strongest among the affluent and educated, leading Arthur Allen, author of the book Vaccine, a history of immunisation, to observe that "living in a place with a high percentage of PhDs is a risk factor for whooping cough".

Vaccine-resisters have a range of motivations. Some believe immunisation is unnatural. Others resent the nanny state telling them how to raise their children. Some distrust the medical establishment. But the movement got a big boost in the late 1990s from a bogus health scare that linked autism with a preservative, thimerosal, in the measles/mumps/rubella jab. At least 16 epidemiological studies have disproved the link. And the British doctor responsible for the scare, Andrew Wakefield, stands accused of having doctored the results of his study, according to an investigation by The Times published earlier this month. Wakefield's theory was based on 12 cases, and now even that evidence is questionable.

But for the vaccine-resisters, facts can't be allowed to get in the way of feeling. The sceptics have a lot going for them. For the last two decades medical consumers have rightly learned to question authority; the doctor is no longer god; and consumer choice has extended to patient treatment. Aided by the internet, anyone can bone up on their diseases and ask intelligent questions. And so they should - just as independent scientists should be properly funded to monitor a vaccination's side effects.

But these dummy mummies don't differentiate between fact and hocus-pocus; between a bona fide scientific study and pseudo science. Just as some people still think fluoride is dangerous, others cling to their anti-vaccine stand as a matter of faith, regardless of the evidence. They don't distinguish between the expert view of, say, the pediatrician Paul Offit, author of Autism's False Prophets, and co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills tens of thousands in poor countries; and the view of former Playmate of the Year and anti-vaccine campaigner Jenny McCarthy, who has an autistic son, and brings her partner, the actor Jim Carrey, on her rallies. Offit has had death threats; McCarthy has been on Oprah.

What is indisputable is that vaccines have saved countless lives. Smallpox has been eradicated, polio almost defeated, and diphtheria confined to pockets of poor countries. Children are mostly spared debilitating illnesses such as measles and mumps.

But 8000 children in NSW got whooping cough last year, starting with an outbreak on the North Coast, a big increase on previous years. Many were babies exposed to the virus in the months before they could be vaccinated. Babies cough and cough, go blue or red, some stop breathing and need oxygen. Tetanus is just a rusty nail away, and cases of measles are still recorded in Australia.

Ultimately it's selfish not to vaccinate your child. It's relying on everyone else to do so in order to maintain "herd" immunity, which means at least 90 per cent of the community needs to be vaccinated to protect the most vulnerable from disease. It's bad enough that ill-educated, chaotic, itinerant families fail to get their children immunised because they forget, don't know, or don't get round to it. But when smart parents deliberately desist, it's wicked. So intent on not being duped by the "medical establishment", they allow themselves to be duped instead by the likes of Jim Carrey, Jennifer McCarthy, and garbage science.


DNA left at crime scene could be used to create picture of criminal's FACE, say scientists

I guess it will come to that in time

Forensic experts will soon be able to reconstruct facial features and skin just by reading DNA, U.S. scientists said. 'Forensic molecular photofitting' maps the genes that are linked to skin pigmentation and facial structure which means a person's face could emerge from the analysis, Dr Mark Shriver from Pennsylvania State University said.

The process has already been used to help identify and convict serial killer Derek Todd Lee who murdered seven women in Louisiana. Witness statements said the offender was white but genetic testing of DNA at the crime scenes showed he was African American - which helped lead to his arrest. He was convicted in 2004.

Dr Shriver said he has now linked DNA that mark a person's ethnic origin with the gene mix of fixed points on the face, e.g. corners of the mouth and tip of the nose. This allows the computer to build up an image of a face based on the gene mix found in the DNA. Speaking to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago at the weekend, Dr Shriver said 'maybe 500 facial markers and 500 ancestry markers' would be enough to build an accurate and complete face.


21 February, 2009

Cancer screening 'blights ten lives for every one saved'

More official wisdom of yesteryear down the plughole. Will they ever think to pretest the effects of health advice?

Thousands of women have had unnecessary surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy as a result of routine breast cancer screening, doctors have warned. For each woman whose life is saved, ten healthy ones needlessly receive mastectomies and other treatment, a study found. Experts said the NHS should do more to warn women of the high risk of a false positive.

But cancer groups fear the news may lead to more deaths by putting women off the screenings, which are estimated to save more than 1,400 lives a year in England alone. All women from 50 to 70 are invited for the checks every three years. Around 1.7million had them last year out of the 2.2million who were offered appointments.

But some experts say they are not sensitive enough to show which cases will lead to fatal tumours, and those that pose no threat. More than 45,500 women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year and around 12,300 die. Twenty-three doctors, surgeons, academics and health specialists claimed yesterday: 'There are harms associated with early detection of breast cancer by screening that are not widely acknowledged. 'There is evidence to show that up to half of all cancers and their precursor lesions that are found by screening might not lead to any harm to the woman during her lifespan.

'Yet, if found at screening, they potentially label the woman as a cancer patient: She may then be subjected to the unnecessary traumas of surgery, radiotherapy and perhaps chemotherapy, as well as suffer the potential for serious social and psychological problems. 'The stigma may continue into the next generation as her daughters can face higher health insurance premiums when their mother's over-diagnosis is misinterpreted as high risk. 'We believe that women should be clearly informed of these harms to make their own choice about screening.'

Dr Paul Pharoah, Cancer Research UK Senior Clinical Research Fellow, University of Cambridge, and Professor Michael Baum, Emeritus Professor of Surgery at University College London, were among the experts who wrote to The Times. They criticise information sent to women eligible for the checks for not being honest, adding: 'None of the invitations for screening come close to telling the truth. As a result, women are being manipulated, albeit unintentionally, into attending.'

Jeremy Hughes, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: 'Screening allows early diagnosis and potentially less invasive treatment for breast cancer.'


Office laser printers could be making you sick

There must be a lot of sick people around. That people cough up foreign matter seems not to have been considered

Almost one-third of popular laser printers emit large numbers of ultra-fine particles that could lead to cardio-vascular problems, Australian research has found. Study leader Lidia Morawska, of Queensland Univeristy of Technology's International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health, found harmful tiny particles were formed when toner was fused to the paper.

Professor Morawska said yesterday that these particles, which were about the same size as smoke and vehicle-emission particles, were potentially dangerous. "These particles deposit very deeply in the human respiratory system and can cause irritation which could lead to cardio-vascular problems," she said. "It depends on the concentrations."

Professor Morawska said there was no way for users to know which printers were high emitters. "The driving force is the temperature of the system," she said. She advised office workers to sit as far as possible from laser printers and to make sure the machines were well-ventilated.


20 February, 2009

Drinking just one glass of wine a day can INCREASE risk of cancer by 168%, say the French

Hey! Where did that wonderful Mediterranean diet go? Isn't France one of the beneficiaries of it? And is not wine an integral part of it? Now I am really confused (NOT)

Drinking just a small glass of wine a day can more than double the risk of cancer, a study claims. It says that consuming just one 125ml glass of wine increases the chance of developing mouth and throat cancer by 168 per cent. Other cancers are also more likely to strike regular drinkers, the study by France's National Cancer Institute (INCA) reports.

Dominique Maraninchi, INCA's president, said: 'Small daily doses of alcohol are the most harmful. There is no amount, however small, which is good for you.' The findings go against previous research, which has found that the antioxidants in red wine can actually reduce the risk of cancer.

The INCA study warned: 'The consumption of alcohol is associated with an increase in the risk of cancers - mouth, larynx, oesophagus, colon-rectum, and breast cancer. 'The cause is above all the transformation of ethanol in alcohol to acetaldehyde, which damages DNA in healthy cells.' This is particularly likely to happen if alcohol is introduced into the body daily - even in small measures, it added.

Official figures show that alcohol is responsible for around 6 per cent - or 9,000 cases - of all cancer deaths in the UK each year, including 5,000 cases of mouth and oesophagus cancer and 2,000 cases of breast cancer. Dr Jodie Moffat, of charity Cancer Research UK, said: 'We know that drinking just small amounts of alcohol, in the form of beer, wine or spirits, increases the risk of several different types of cancer. 'So the more you cut down on alcohol, the more you can reduce your cancer risk.'

Judy O'Sullivan, of the British Heart Foundation, added: 'Between one and two units of alcohol a day may offer some protection against coronary heart disease. 'But there are much healthier ways to look after your heart. 'There is very little evidence that red wine has any specific benefits over other alcoholic drinks.'

The INCA study said alcohol was now the second most avoidable cause of death after tobacco. The findings contradict numerous other studies which have found that the antioxidants in red wine actually reduced the risk of cancer, and that a single glass a day was also good for the liver. A separate study last year published in the medical journal Neurology said those who drank modest amounts of alcohol developed dementia, including Alzheimer's disease, at an 85 per cent slower rate than those who did not drink.

Britain is the tenth biggest drinking nation in the world, consuming around 12 litres of pure alcohol per person per year - the equivalent of three glasses of wine every day. Luxembourg consumes the world's most, at 16 litres per year, ahead of Ireland, Hungary and Moldova, all on around 14 litres. France is in 17th place, on around 11 litres of pure alcohol per year, according to World Health Organisation figures.

The same study also found that eating more than 500g (1.2lbs) of red meat can also raise the risks of colonic cancer, and that excessive levels of salt raise the risk of stomach cancer. The report added: 'Cancer is dependent on many factors, and there is no miracle diet that remove the risks. 'But eating plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and doing regular physical exercise has been proven to reduce the risks dramatically.'


The story above seems to have originated from a newly issued advisory brochure here (in French). It claims to be a summary of research but no details of any are given. More epidemiological rubbish, I expect

Some skepticism about the firstborn "advantage"

What does surprise me, though, about the findings of the researchers at University College, London, is their conclusion that first-born children are privileged on account of the fuss that besotted parents make of them. David Lawson and Professor Ruth Mace, who conducted a study of 14,000 families, liken the process to primogeniture, the aristocratic inheritance policy whereby the winner takes all, leaving the younger siblings with a choice of Army, Church, marriage and black-sheepdom as career options.

Lawson and Mace talk of "later-born disadvantage", and a "deficit" in parental care. But I doubt if many first-borns would share the conviction that they have drawn the long straw. Most would gladly swap the extra violin lessons and help with their viking longboat model for a dose of the benign neglect enjoyed by their younger siblings.

Eldest children score higher in IQ tests because they spend more time having precociously grown-up conversations with parents. As a result, they are often high achievers, but they are made anxious, burdened with the weight of parental expectation. Depression, adherence to convention and feelings of failure are a high price to pay for an unfair share of attention.

Early on, the eldest of my five children spotted that it was a drag being the first past every milestone. He developed a cunning way to deal with it: he didn't play ball. He loathed school and resisted all organised activity - we are talking here about a child who managed to "forget" to sit one of his GCSEs - until my husband and I accepted that he was going to do what he wanted, regardless of what we had dreamed up for him. In doing so, he passed the baton to his younger sister, who has responded more enthusiastically to the pressure.

When I told him of yesterday's report, he was adamant that he would rather be a younger member of a family. "Parents get better at being parents with later children," he said. And are middle-class parents worse at it than working-class? "Yes, because they aren't so used to having children around. They've spent more years in offices."

There I go, proving the researchers' point by asking the first-born's opinion and ignoring the rest of the family. But I fear he's right. My younger children have it easy. I've long since stopped worrying about whether they are making the most of their talents. So long as they appear happy, and their school reports aren't too dismal, they can pretty much do what they please. That isn't "disadvantage".


19 February, 2009

Row erupts over oral cancer paper authorship

These ad hominem accusations are childish. I said at the time (scroll down) that I thought the paper was rubbish and these accusations certainly don't redeem it. If we are getting into ad hominem arguments we might as well argue that all scientists working for governments are influenced by that connection. We might as well argue that they constantly throw up findings that lead to government intervention because it will put them into positions of power enforcing the interventions. And then there is the research-grant hunger that clearly motivates a lot of scientific scaremongering. The only really disinterested scientists these days might be retired ones -- as I am

An international expert on oral cancer withdrew from joint authorship of a paper that drew a link between the disease and theListerine mouthwash made by his university laboratory's corporate sponsors, it has been claimed. The research paper's co-authors say Newell Johnson, whose Griffith University laboratory was funded by pharmaceutical firm Pfizer, Listerine's recent owner, decided not to put his name to the research paper, which made headlines across the world with its finding that alcohol-based mouthwashes were implicated in oral cancer. Professor Johnson says he was never an author.

The claim about his involvement and withdrawal, made by Australian co-authors Michael McCullough of the University of Melbourne and Camile Farah of the University of Queensland, adds a new dimension to the controversy ignited by the paper, published in the Australian Dental Journal last December.

In January UQ's head of dentistry Laurence Walsh came to the defence of mouthwashes, arguing they might prevent oral cancer, but later conceded that Listerine's present owner, Johnson & Johnson, had sponsored some of his workshops. The paper found the risk of oral cancer was increased by prolonged use of alcohol-based mouthwashes and highlighted six Listerine products.

Professor McCullough said the research paper or literature review sprang from a 2007 meeting of the three researchers at a conference in Amsterdam. "After a session on the role of alcohol in oral cancer, we ended up deciding that we would formally write this article and review it between the three of us," hesaid. "We (Farah and I) were pleased. He (Johnson) is an internationally recognised expert in oral cancer."

Professor Johnson, a former head of oral health research at London's prestigious King's College, was involved in the initial discussion, the concept of the review and several drafts of the paper but ultimately decided to withdraw his name as author, Professor McCullough said.

In May 2006 Professor Johnson had announced a ground-breaking sponsorship deal with Pfizer, allowing his dentistry school to "equip its newest research laboratories" at Southport on the Gold Coast. The deal also founded the Listerine chair in periodontology. In June 2006 Johnson & Johnson bought Pfizer's healthcare business.

The HES put to Professor Johnson the account of his involvement in the literature review before it was accepted for publication. He responded: "I was never an author on this paper." Professor Johnson said the value of the Pfizer sponsorship to his laboratories was "commercial-in-confidence". Asked about any commercial restrictions on his research, he said: "Unless you have questions about the science, no comment."


Nuclear Nonsense

Green/Left deception again

In a February 12 press release about the relicensing process for the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County, New York, two anti-nuclear activist groups claimed that they were "not convinced" by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's preliminary determination of the plant's safety.

The Radiation and Public Health Project and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater pointed to data indicating that thyroid cancer rates in three nearby counties were higher than the national average and that strontium-90 was detected in breast milk samples taken from within 50 miles of Indian Point, with the highest results occurring in samples taken closest to the power plant. Not surprisingly, the activists concluded that, "This suggests that emissions from Indian Point may be compromising the health of local residents."

First, Indian Point's radiation emissions are well within long-established safety levels. According to stringent standards set long ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the maximum allowable amount of radiation from Indian Point that could be absorbed by someone is 25 millirem per year. But according to the NRC, the hypothetical maximum dose that anyone could possibly have absorbed from Indian Point is only about 7 millirem per year - a dose dwarfed by what is typically absorbed from unavoidable natural and other manmade radiation sources.

The average person in the U.S. receives a dose of about 360 millirem per year, according to the EPA. About 80 percent of this dose comes from rocks and soils, mostly in the form of radon, and cosmic radiation from space. These natural doses can vary greatly depending on where you live. People who live in Denver, for example, receive an extra 50 millirem per year of cosmic radiation simply because of the city's mile-high altitude.

The other 20 percent of the typical annual radiation dose comes from man made sources - mostly mammograms and diagnostic x-rays.

Living near a nuclear power plant typically adds less than 1 millirem to annual radiation doses, according to the EPA. The 7 millirem figure calculated by the NRC for Indian Point doesn't represent an actual dose received by anyone. It is calculated as a maximum possible absorbed dose if someone were to be exposed to maximum emissions at the plant's boundary line for a year. Such exposures are obviously unlikely ever to occur.

Further, the 25 millirem regulatory level set by the EPA is more of an arbitrary standard than a true safety level. There is great debate in the scientific community as to whether such low-level doses of radiation are at all dangerous. Kerala, India, for example, has a relatively high-level of natural background radiation and many residents absorb as much of 2,000 millirem of radiation annually with no reports of increased cancer incidence. once measured the radiation emanating from granite statues in the U.S. Capitol Building and discovered that a person standing in statuary hall near the Senate Chamber would absorb 5 times more radiation than would be absorbed by standing at the fence line of a nuclear power plant.

So the radiation that someone could be hypothetically exposed to from Indian Point isn't worrisome. So what's the explanation for the higher thyroid cancer rates in the counties surrounding Indian Point? There isn't one.

First, given the southerly direction of the region's prevailing winds, two of the three counties (Orange and Putnam) are actually upwind of Indian Point. If plant emissions were increasing cancer rates, you would expect to find those cancers downwind of the plant. Although Rockland County, which lies to the south and west of Indian Point, has an elevated incidence of thyroid cancer, that rate is lower than in upwind Putnam. Next, the cancer rate in Westchester County - where Indian Point is located and where maximum radiation exposures would be expected as it is south and east of the plant - is lower than those in Rockland, Orange and Putnam. Also, there are several other New York counties, upstate and far away from Indian Point, that have thyroid cancer rates similar to the three counties near Indian Point. This geography, however, is largely academic since the maximum exposures to which the public could possibly be exposed are at the plant's fence line and there is no evidence of a cancer cluster among those who live and work closest to the plant.

As to the strontium-90 allegedly found in breast milk samples, the NRC says that the low levels detected in the environment surrounding Indian Point "are consistent with decayed quantities of activity from historic atmospheric weapons testing."

While thyroid cancer seems to be on the rise in the U.S. and New York State, no one really knows what exactly causes the disease. The New York State Health Department speculates that part of the reason for the increase may be the expanded use of radiation to diagnose and treat medical conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that at least part of the reported increase in thyroid cancer rates is likely explained by improvements in detection and diagnosis. The good news is that deaths from thyroid cancer are not increasing.

What's left, then, is a bunch of celebrity anti-nuclear power activists at the Radiation and Public Health Project - including the likes of Alec Baldwin and Christie Brinkley - seemingly bent on scaring people about nuclear power for no good reason.

Since they believe that man made carbon dioxide emissions drive climate change, you'd think that they would embrace nuclear power as a carbon-free form of generating electricity. Brinkley says that: "unless we stop global warming in the next 10 to 20 years, our children face a future so bleak and frightening, it brings tears to my eyes just to think of it." Baldwin narrated a National Geographic documentary that likened global warming to "doomsday."

If Baldwin and Brinkley really believe that humans are causing catastrophic global warming, it would seem that they ought to be scaring up, not scaring off support for nuclear power.


18 February, 2009

Some people are born emotionally cooler

I know all about this. I myself am calm under stress. I am almost always calm in fact. Using a term going back to Galen, it would once have been described as "Anglo-Saxon phlegm", and that usage does still sometimes occur. Google it. Anyway, it is a very helpful trait. Since conservatives generally seem to be less emotional than the Left, it would be interesting to see how the syndrome described below correlated with political attitudes. Since military people are overwhelmingly conservative, I think I know the answer. I do myself of course have a small army background and look back at that time in my life with pleasure

Professor Deane Aikins, a psychiatrist at Yale University, said a small minority of individuals remain cool even in the most stressful circumstances. His findings, based on research with the military, found that some individuals did not panic because their body naturally protected them. Unlike the majority of people who were flooded with a stress hormone, they had much lower levels and also showed signs of another hormone that actually calmed them down.

He referred to Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot of the aeroplane that was successfully landed on the Hudson River in New York last month, as an example. "There are some individuals who when confronted with extreme stress their hormone profile is rather unique," he said. "It doesn't reach the same peak as the rest of us. So we're all ready to scream in our chairs, but there are certain individuals who just don't get as stressed. "Their stress hormones are lower and the peptides that down-regulate that stress are higher, so you can see in action the hormonal regular system really hitting overdrive. "Certain people are cooler under pressure and they perform very, very well during these periods of time."

Professor Aikins, who outlined his findings at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, studied hormone stress levels during extreme training exercises like mock survival or combat swimming. He said that while there was no such thing as a "man without fear" certain people were better equipped to deal with it. "I think they were born with it," he said. "We started figuring out we can start predicting who are these individuals who are going to have this cooler hormonal profile under high stress."

He said the research could lead to new training programmes - mental therapies or "push-ups" or medications to make others just as good at dealing with extreme stress. "So much so we're now getting to the point where we might be able to train people to do better under high stress and there might be ways to augment their hormonal system, mental health push ups might help to better deal with that stress."

He said that it was not that the "heroes" were not scared but they just did not exhibit signs of panic. "They say wow that was a really miserable day," he said. "But when you say to them did your heart pound or your palm sweat they just say mm well, it was ok."

He said US special forces as a group tend to "run cooler" than non-special forces. He said it was too early to say what percentage of men were born heroes.


Severe migraine sufferers 'more at risk of heart attack or stroke'

This does rather reinforce the view that migraine is not a single illness but rather a variety of disorders with similar symptoms. The authors correctly note, however, that the connection mentioned is a weak one

Suffering from severe migraines makes women significantly more likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke, a new study suggests. Scientists found that those who experienced blurred or difficult vision during the painful headaches and carried certain genes were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke. The findings could indicate that doctors should monitor patients with the condition more closely.

Around nine million people Britain regularly suffer from migraines, with an estimated 80 per cent thought to have an attack at least once a month. Around one in four are thought to have migraine with aura, whose symptoms can include flashing lights, black spots or zig-zag patterns in front of their eyes, as well as debilitating head pain. The researchers found that migraine with aura sufferers who also carried certain genes were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke as women who never got migraines.

Migraine with aura sufferers who did not have the genes had no increased risk and neither did those who experienced no visual problems. "The complex relationship among this gene variant, migraine, stroke and heart disease has been the focus of many studies and the results have been controversial," said Dr Markus Schuerks, from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. "Getting to the bottom of whether there is a connection and why may help to develop ways to prevent issues like stroke and heart disease, which are leading causes of death." He called for more studies to back up the findings.

The research looked at 25,000 women, aged over 45, almost a fifth who suffered from migraine, including 1,275 who had migraine with aura. Over 12 years, 625 of the women had a stroke, heart attack or both, according to the study, published in the journal Neurology.

Prof Peter Goadsby, from the University of California, San Francisco, and the Institute of Neurology, London, emphasised that the paper confirmed previous studies that there was no increased risk for stroke or cardiovascular disease in migraine without aura patients. "(This is) good news, as this represents about three-quarters of those affected by the disorder," he said. "Although the risk of cardiovascular disease is doubled in patients with active migraine with aura, it's important to realise the risk is already small, and when you double a small risk you still have a small risk. "The authors rightly note that there were few heart attacks and that the study needs repeating; the margin for error here is wide and it might be that the link isn't there at all. We will only know when we see the results of more research."

Migraine is listed as one of the top 20 most debilitating conditions by the World Health Organisation because of the impact it can have on quality of life.


17 February, 2009

Fearful memories 'can be erased by blood pressure drug'

Fearful memories can be erased using propranolol, a drug commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, research has shown. The discovery could lead to new ways of treating people suffering from the emotional after-effects of traumatic experiences such as terrorist attacks or natural disasters.

Previous research on animals had shown fear memories are susceptible to being altered at the time they are recalled, as they are "reconsolidated" in the brain. Studies suggested beta-blockers, a family of drugs normally used to treat high blood pressure, may interfere with the reconsolidation process. Now a trial involving human volunteers has given strong support to the theory.

A team of Dutch researchers artificially created a fearful memory by associating pictures of spiders with a mild electric shock delivered to the wrists of the 60 participants. When the volunteers were shown the spider pictures 24 hours later their "startle" response - a measure of fear - was assessed by testing eyeblink reactions. Administering the beta-blocker drug propranolol before reactivation of the fearful memory led to a marked reduction in the startle response. After taking the drug, volunteers were much less disturbed by the spider pictures. The effect appeared to be permanent, as the spider fear seen in the initial experiment did not return to treated participants.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience, raise the possibility of a new approach to tackling emotional problems and post-traumatic stress disorder. The study leader, Professor Merel Kindt, and colleagues from the University of Amsterdam, wrote: "Millions of people suffer from emotional disorders and the relapse of fear, even after successful treatment. "Our findings may have important implications for the understanding and treatment of persistent and self-perpetuating memories in individuals suffering from emotional disorders."

However Dr Daniel Sokol, lecturer in Medical Ethics at St George's, University of London, sounded a word of caution. He said: "Removing bad memories is not like removing a wart or a mole. It will change our personal identity since who we are is linked to our memories. It may perhaps be beneficial in some cases, but before eradicating memories, we must reflect on the knock-on effects that this will have on individuals, society and our sense of humanity."

John Harris, Professor of Bioethics at the University of Manchester, said: "It is obviously up to the individual whether or not she wishes to risk the possible effects, including psychological discontinuity, of erasing unpleasant memories. "An interesting complexity is the possibility that victims, say of violence, might wish to erase the painful memory and with it their ability to give evidence against assailants. "Similarly, criminals and witnesses to crime may, under the guise of erasing a painful memory (perhaps of another sort), render themselves unable (with a good excuse for being unable) to give evidence."


Decoys drive cancer cells to suicide

French specialists overnight unveiled a new weapon against cancer - a molecular "decoy" that mimics DNA damage and prompts cancerous cells to kill themselves. The research, published in a US journal, Clinical Cancer Research, opens up fresh avenues for attacking tumours that are resistant to conventional therapy, they said. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy aim at inflicting sufficient damage to a cancer cell to unleash a process of programmed cell death, also called apoptosis. But sometimes the onslaught does not cause enough damage to activate the apoptosis trigger, and surviving cancer cells are able to repair themselves.

A team led by Marie Dutreix of the Curie Institute in Paris, developed tiny fragments of DNA that mimic the two broken ends of the double-helix genetic code. The trick prompts these holdout cells into believing they are far more damaged than they really are, and commit suicide. The tricksters - appropriately called "Dbaits" - have been successfully tested on mice, Ms Dutreix said. By injecting lab rodents with Dbaits a few hours before radiotherapy, the team were able to wipe out 75-100 per cent of cancer cells on lab rodents, compared with 30-50 per cent using only radiotherapy, and there was no collateral damage to healthy tissue.

If all goes well, clinical trials on volunteers could start by the end of next year, said Ms Dutreix. The technique is especially promising for treating brain tumours and skin cancer, which are notorious for resistance to radiotherapy. If it works, it could also lead to big reductions in dosage of radiotherapy, which can often be toxic to healthy cells surrounding the tumour.


16 February, 2009

Is chocolate good for you?

Opinion see-saws on this but it seems that dark chocolate in particular might be beneficial. One summary below:

Scientists from around the world have studied chocolate's effect on people's health. For example:

* Antioxidant activity - Scientists from Italy and Scotland fed dark chocolate, milk chocolate, or dark chocolate and a glass of whole milk to healthy volunteers. Dark chocolate boosted the volunteers' blood antioxidant activity. But milk, either in the chocolate or a glass, prevented the effect.

* Vascular function - The inner layer of arteries makes a tiny chemical that widens blood vessels and keeps their linings smooth. Doctors in Greece think chocolate may help keep vessels open. They fed 100 grams (about 3« ounces) of dark chocolate to 17 healthy volunteers. Their vascular function improved rapidly. Swiss investigators found similar effects from dark chocolate but no benefit from white chocolate.

* Blood pressure - Because good vascular function widens blood vessels, it's logical that chocolate might help lower blood pressure. Studies from Italy, Argentina, Germany and the United States have shown that dark chocolate can lower blood pressure in healthy adults and in patients with hypertension. But the benefit is modest and it wears off within a few days of stopping "treatment" with a daily "dose" of dark chocolate.

* Insulin sensitivity - People with diabetes have good reason to avoid chocolate. It's got lots of sugar and calories. But an Italian study suggested that dark, not white, chocolate can improve insulin sensitivity. However, a 2008 investigation of flavanol-enriched cocoa found no improvement in blood sugar or blood pressure.

* Blood clotting - Most heart attacks and many strokes are caused by fatty deposits called plaques that contain cholesterol. The build-up of plaque can cause a blood clot to form. Researchers in Switzerland and the United States found that dark chocolate reduces blood cell activity that can lead to clot formation.

Given this evidence, chocolate could reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke. But all of these hopeful results are based on short-term experiments in a small number of volunteers. Do these bits and pieces of data apply to real life?

Perhaps. The strongest support for chocolate as a health food comes from a 2006 report from the widely respected Zutphen Elderly Study. Researchers evaluated 470 Dutch men between the ages of 65 and 84. All subjects were free of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer when the study began in 1985. Each volunteer provided comprehensive dietary information, and had his blood pressure, cholesterol, body fat, and other cardiovascular risk factors evaluated.

Researchers tracked the men for 15 years. They found that the men who ate the most cocoa-containing products had lower blood pressures than those who ate the least. The average difference was 3.7 mm Hg in systolic pressure and 2.1 mm Hg in diastolic. These differences may not seen substantial, but even after taking other risk factors into account, the chocolate lovers also enjoyed a 47% lower death rate. Most of the benefit was due to a sharply decreased risk of heart disease. And the largest single source of cocoa was dark chocolate.

More here

The Zutphen study is of course epidemiological but there are no obvious confounding factors

Fat fanaticism very dangerous for anorexics

Excerpt from a story about office life by an anorexic -- passed on by Sandy Szwarc

For several months (until I quit in protest), I lived with calories, fat grams and sugar grams labeled on the coffee creamers, having the bowl of chocolates I kept on my desk forcibly removed (by vote, no less! And might I add that I did not get to vote in this Survivor-esque "election"), and as much food/weight chatter going on outside my head as there was inside.

Why won't anyone say how dangerous this is? No one appeared remotely concerned that this man lost too much weight, just that they might lose their bet. Raise your hand if this makes you proud of humanity... I can't tell you how many stories I've heard from men and women with eating disorders whose illness was triggered by a pact to lose weight or eat healthier. Yet dieting and exercise are treated as if they are fail safe and no ill can possibly come from a group of people trying to see who can lose the most weight. People on pro-anorexia sites do this, and people judge these "silly girls" who are no different from anyone else. It's not healthy, period.

"It makes life easier if everyone around you is cutting calories, and the amicable competition keeps people driven. You are less likely to eat bad things from the candy jar," says nutritionist Joy Bauer.

Yeah, except if you're the person who realizes that dieting is a) futile, b) stupid, and c) not likely to increase your health in the long run and then you realize you are completely shut out of this. To me, that was the worst part of the workplace diet bonanza: I had nothing to discuss with my co-workers. All they would talk about was food, weight, and exercise, and I couldn't or wouldn't participate. I was totally isolated and desperately lonely in a time when I really needed the support.

More here

15 February, 2009

U.S. court rules vaccines “don’t cause autism”

Vaccines aren't to blame for autism, a special federal court declared Thursday in a blow to thousands of families hoping to win compensation and to many more who are convinced of a connection. The special masters who decided the case expressed sympathy for the families, some of whom have made emotional pleas describing their children's conditions, but the rulings were blunt: There's little if any evidence to support claims of a vaccine-autism link.

The evidence "is weak, contradictory and unpersuasive," concluded Special Master Denise Vowell. "Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding" of autism.

Science years ago reached the conclusion that there's no connection, but Thursday's rulings in a trio of cases still have far-reaching implications — offering reassurance to parents scared about vaccinating their babies because of a small but vocal anti-vaccine movement. Some vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, are on the rise, and last fall a Minnesota baby who hadn't been vaccinated against meningitis died of that disease.

The special court represented a chance for vindication for families who blame vaccines for their children's autism. Known as "the people's court," the U.S. Court of Claims is different from many other courts: The families involved didn't have to prove the inoculations definitely caused the complex neurological disorder, just that they probably did. More than 5,500 claims have been filed by families seeking compensation through the government's Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, and Thursday's rulings dealt with the first three test cases to settle which if any claims had merit. The first cases argued that a combination of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine plus other shots triggered autism.

"I must decide this case not on sentiment but by analyzing the evidence," said Special Master George Hastings Jr., writing specifically about Michelle Cedillo of Yuma, Ariz., who is disabled with autism, inflammatory bowel disease and other disorders that her parents blame on a measles vaccine given at 15 months. "Unfortunately, the Cedillos have been misled by physicians who are guilty, in my view, of gross medical misjudgment," Hastings concluded.

Attorneys for the families said they were disappointed and may appeal.... Worry about a vaccine link first arose in 1998 when a British physician, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published a medical journal article linking a particular type of autism and bowel disease to the measles vaccine. The study was soon discredited, and British medical authorities now are investigating professional misconduct charges against Wakefield. Then came questions about thimerosal, a preservative that manufacturers began removing from all vaccines given to infants in 2001. Today it is present only in certain formulations of the flu shot.

More here

FDA approves medicine from engineered goats

Potentially opening a new era in farming and pharmaceuticals, the U.S. government has approved the first drug produced by genetically engineered livestock. The drug, meant to prevent fatal blood clots in people with a rare condition, is a protein extracted from the milk of goats that have been given a human gene. The same drug, which was approved in Europe in 2006 but has not been widely adopted, is the first to have been cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under guidelines the agency adopted only last month to regulate the use of transgenic animals in the nation's drug and food supply.

Made by GTC Biotherapeutics, the drug is produced by a herd of 200 goats that live under quarantine on a high-security farm in central Massachusetts. The animals have been bred to contain a human gene that causes their milk to produce a human blood protein that can be extracted and processed into the anti-clotting drug. Proponents say such animals could become a way of producing biotechnology drugs at lower cost or in greater quantities than with the existing methods, which involve extracting the drugs from donated human blood or growing genetically engineered cells in steel tanks. The protein in the goat milk, antithrombin, is sometimes in short supply or unavailable for pharmaceutical use because of a shortage of human plasma donations.

GTC Biotherapeutics said one of its goats can produce as much antithrombin in a year as can be derived from 90,000 blood donations. And if more drug is needed, the herd can be expanded. "If you need more, you breed more," said Thomas Newberry, a spokesman for GTC, which is based in Framingham, Massachusetts.

Other drugs produced in animals are under development. One company, Pharming, based in the Netherlands, plans to apply this year for U.S. approval of a drug produced in the milk of transgenic rabbits to treat hereditary angioedema, a protein deficiency that can lead to dangerous swelling of tissues.

Another company, PharmAthene, working under a U.S. Defense Department contract, is developing a treatment for nerve-gas poisoning in the milk of transgenic goats.

But turning animals into walking pharmaceutical factories does not sit well with some environmental advocates and animal rights activists. "It is a mechanistic use of animals that seems to perpetuate the notion of their being merely tools for human use rather than sentient creatures," the Humane Society of the United States says in its position paper on the practice.

There are also more concrete concerns - that the animals could be harmed, that animal germs might contaminate the drug, and that the milk or meat from genetically engineered drug-producing animals might enter the food supply. There is also a concern that such animals might escape and breed with other animals, spreading the gene, with unpredictable consequences.

Still, it is not clear to what extent the use of the animals will catch on. Established manufacturers might stick with the tried-and-true methods. "I think we have very good ways of making therapeutic proteins today," said Norbert Riedel, chief scientific officer at Baxter International, which makes proteins both from human plasma and in cell culture. One risk of using animals is that drug production can be lost if a disease wipes out the herd.

Still, the government's stance on the GTC drug, which was issued Friday, eliminates one barrier to producing drugs in animals: companies' uncertainty over whether the Food and Drug Administration would ever approve such a drug. "It really takes away one of the biggest issues that have always been on the table, which is how do regulatory agencies view this kind of technology," said Samir Singh, president of the U.S. operations of Pharming.

Indeed, showing that approval could be obtained is a major reason GTC developed its drug, ATryn. Sales of the drug are expected to be modest. It was approved in Europe in 2006, and sales there have been small. ATryn will be sold in the United States by Ovation Pharmaceuticals. It is not clear what the price will be and how that price will compare to that of the product from human plasma. The drug was approved for people born with a rare hereditary deficiency of antithrombin to prevent blood clots while they undergo surgery or childbirth.

People with the deficiency are vulnerable to blood clots. They can reduce that risk by taking blood thinners like warfarin. But during surgery or childbirth, blood thinners are usually not used because they increase the risk of excessive bleeding. The FDA determined ATryn was as effective as antithrombin derived from human plasma in preventing clots. However, the protein derived from plasma lasts longer in the body than the one from goats, probably because the sugars coating the protein are different.

More here

14 February, 2009

Another flawed attack on passive smoking

Before I comment on this, let me say that I loathe and detest tobacco smoke and consider those who light up in the presence of non-smokers to be pathetic and offensive addicts. So it would suit me if I could endorse the conclusions of the article below. But I cannot. It is one of a long line of attempts to portray secondhand smoke as harmful but the best research on the topic indicates that it is not . Existing research, however, has mainly looked at passive smoking as a cause of heart and lung disease. The study below takes a new tack. It tries to show that passive smoking makes you stupid.

The research below appears to have been done with unusual care but is still incapable of supporting its conclusions. It found that those who associated with smokers a lot had lower mental alertness. They were slower to process instructions that they were given. But we have known for years that smoking correlates with all indices of social disadvantage, including low IQ. I am delighted to note however that the researchers took extensive account of that and controlled for a whole range of social class indicators. That is rare sophistication in epidemiological research. They did NOT however control for IQ -- which was arguably the most important thing to control for in the circumstances. IQ correlates strongly with mental speed.

So what was in fact found was that low IQ people tend to flock together. It was shown that people who associate with dummies (i.e. smokers) a lot also tend to be dummies (as measured by the tests used in the study below). The study tells us nothing about passive smoking.

Exposure to second-hand smoke boosts the risk of dementia and other cognitive problems, even among people who have never smoked, the largest study of its kind said. Ill effects on non-smokers of constant exposure to tobacco smoke include an increased risk of lung cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke and death, earlier research has shown. As for the impact on brain function, active smoking has been found to impair the mind but the evidence for passive smoking has until now been sketchy.

Using new methods in the largest clinical trial to date, a team led by Cambridge University professor David Llewellyn found that even people who had never smoked but kept constant company with smokers performed less well in cognitive tests. The investigation focused on nearly 5000 adults over the age of 50 who were former smokers or who had never smoked.

The volunteers were divided into four groups according to their exposure to passive smoking. This was determined by saliva samples, which were tested for a by-product of nicotine called cotinine. Cotinine lingers in the saliva for about 25 days. The higher the levels of cotinine, the higher the exposure to recent second-hand smoke.

The volunteers then took neuro-psychological tests that assessed brain function and cognitive abilities, focusing on memory and the ability to work with numbers and words. Using the lowest cotinine group as a benchmark, the researchers found a clear and progressively stronger link between impairment in brain function and exposure to second-hand smoke. In the most-exposed group, the risk of cognitive impairment was 44 per cent higher than the benchmark group.

Factors such as age and medical condition, including a history of heart disease, that could have skewed the outcome were all taken into account. "A similar pattern of associations was observed for never smokers and former smokers," said the study, published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ). "Given the ongoing international policy debate on exposure to second-hand smoke, this is a topic of major public health significance."

Governments in North America, Australia and Europe have progressively enacted "smoke-free" legislation for the workplaces, bars, restaurants and other public places over the last 15 years.

SOURCE. The original academic journal article is: Llewellyn, D.J. et al. (2009) "Exposure to secondhand smoke and cognitive impairment in non-smokers: national cross sectional study with cotinine measurement" BMJ 338:b462

Sleep could help prevent the common cold

That bed rest is the ONLY cure for most viral infections has long been accepted but it is good to see some confirmation of that

FLUFF up the pillows and pull up the covers. Preventing the common cold may be as easy as getting more sleep, a study in the United States has revealed. Researchers paid healthy adults $US800 to have cold viruses sprayed up their noses, then wait five days in a hotel to see if they became sick. Habitual eight-hour sleepers were much less likely to get sick than those who slept less than seven hours or slept fitfully. "The longer you sleep, the better off you are, the less susceptible you are to colds," said lead author Sheldon Cohen, who studies the effects of stress on health at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. Prior research has suggested that sleep boosts the immune system at the cell level.

This is the first study to show small sleep disturbances increasing the risk of getting sick, said Michael Irwin, a doctor who researches immune response at the University of California, Los Angeles, and was not involved in the study. "The message is to maintain regular sleep habits because those are really critical for health," Irwin said. During cold season, staying out of range of sneezing relatives and co-workers may be impossible.

The study, which appeared in the Archives of Internal Medicine, mimicked those conditions by exposing participants to a common cold virus - rhinovirus - and most became infected with it. But not everyone suffered cold symptoms. The people who slept less than seven hours a night in the weeks before they were exposed to the virus were three times more likely to catch a cold than those who slept eight hours or more.

To find willing cold victims, researchers placed ads and recruited 78 men and 75 women, all healthy and willing to go one-on-one against the virus. They ranged in age from 21 to 55. First, their sleep habits were recorded for two weeks. Every evening, researchers interviewed them by phone about their sleep the night before. Subjects were asked what time they went to bed, what time they got up, how much time they spent awake during the night and if they felt rested in the morning.

Then they checked into a hotel where the virus was squirted up their noses. After five days, the virus had done its work, infecting 135 of the 153 volunteers. But only 54 people became sick. Researchers measured their runny noses by weighing their used tissues. They tested for congestion by squirting dye in the subjects' noses to see how long it took to get to the back of their throats.

Sleeping fitfully also was tied to greater risk of catching a cold. Those who tossed and turned more than 8 per cent of their time in bed were five times more likely to get sick than those who were sleepless only 2 per cent of the time. Surprisingly, feeling rested was not linked to staying well. Cohen said he's not sure why that is, other than feeling rested is more subjective than recalling bedtime and wake-up time.

The researchers took into account other factors that make people more susceptible such as stress, smoking and drinking, and lack of exercise, and they still saw a connection between sleep and resisting a cold.

Cold symptoms such as congestion and sore throat are caused by the body's fight against a virus, rather than the virus itself, Cohen said. People whose bodies make the perfect amount of infection-fighting proteins called cytokines will not even know they are fighting a virus. But if their bodies make too many, they feel sick. Sleep may fine-tune the body's immune response, Cohen said, helping regulate the perfect response.

Prior research has tied lack of sleep to greater risk of weight gain, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.

Daniel Buysse, a doctor doing sleep researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, said spending too much time in bed can lead to more interrupted sleep, which in this study "seems to be even worse than short sleep" for increasing the risk of catching a cold. If it takes a long time to fall asleep or if you are restless during the night, "you would probably benefit from spending a little less time in bed", Buysse said. "If you fall asleep instantly, have no wakefulness during the night, and are sleepy during the day, you would probably benefit from spending a little more time in bed." Buysse was not directly involved in the research, although he commented on an early draft of the study. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the MacArthur Foundation.

Harvard sleep researcher Sat Bir Khalsa said people do not need to turn to prescription sleep aids to improve their sleep. Setting a regular bedtime, moving computers and televisions out of the bedroom and, when restless, getting out of bed for a while and doing something soothing can help. His research focuses on treating insomnia with yoga.

As preventive measures, vitamin C and herbal supplements have not lived up to their reputation in rigorous studies. Cohen said research has shown people who get more exercise, drink moderately and have lower stress also get fewer colds.


13 February, 2009

Food Fascists target tots

And where are the controlled studies to support this superstitious nonsense?

Children from the age of 2 should switch from full-fat milk to help to prevent deaths from heart disease in adult life. The advice from Rosemary Hignett, head of nutrition at the Food Standards Agency, is part of a 3.5 million pound campaign to persuade people to cut their intake of saturated fat.

Families are eating too many biscuits, cakes, chocolate, crisps, red meat, cheese and cream, the FSA says. It aims to bring a change of behaviour in families. Most nurseries currently prefer to give children full-fat milk because parents believe it is the best option for the under-5s.

Ms Hignett, however, said that levels of calcium - which is important for growing children and helps to strengthen their bones - were the same in lower-fat as in whole-fat milk. The Schools Food Trust already recommends semi-skimmed for pupils in primary and secondary schools.

Men and women are also being urged by the agency to choose low-fat milk and eat less cheese to reduce the chances of a heart attack. But Gwyn Jones, the chairman of the National Farmers' Union dairy board, said: "What the FSA does not talk about is exercise and the need for people to lead more active lives rather than just cutting intakes."


Brain-training games 'do more harm than good'

Brain-training computer games could do more harm than good, researchers have warned. The popularity of the games, which can be played on hand-held consoles by firms such as Nintendo, are also unlikely to help keep Alzheimer's at bay.

If healthy older users neglect the proven benefits of physical exercise in favour of the games then they could be harming their health, according to a study commissioned by US health organisation Lifespan and published in the health journal Alzheimer's & Dementia. It found "no evidence... brain exercise programmes delay or slow progression of cognitive changes in healthy elderly."

Researchers also concluded that more research was needed into the long-term impact of brain training games, which are advertised in high profile campaigns fronted by Nicole Kidman, Julie Walters and Patrick Stewart among others.

The study looked at trials undertaken since 1992 on the impact of brain exercises, known as cognitive training, on the elderly. Lead researcher Peter Snyder, professor of clinical neurosciences, said a global business had developed in brain training products without robust proof that they worked.

In America the cognitive training industry is worth around 55 million pounds a year, compared to less than 1.5 million in 2005, including sales of over 100 million Nintendo DS consoles which feature number and word puzzles.

Prof Snyder, of Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, said: "Brain ageing products sold today can be a financial drain, decrease participation in more proven effective lifestyle interventions, like exercise." He added that they could also give false hope to the "worried well" about the chances of holding back the onset of mental decline. Some products have actually been marketed as weapons in the fight against Alzheimer's disease, he said, but there is little real proof of this.

Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, told the Daily Mail: "One million people will develop dementia in the next 10 years so there is a desperate need to find ways to prevent dementia. "The idea that 'brain training' may prevent cognitive decline is extremely attractive, but worryingly there is only very limited evidence. "Currently the best evidence is that what is good for your heart is good for your head so eating plenty of fruit and vegetables; taking regular exercise and checking your cholesterol will all help reduce your risk."

French researchers last month found brain training games were no better than a pen and paper at stimulating memory and improving brain power. The study of 67 schoolchildren aged 10 found homework, reading, playing puzzles such as Sudoku and board games such as Scrabble were just as good, if not better than, brain training games.

A spokesman for Nintendo said the games in the "Brain Training" and "More Brain Training" range were inspired by exercises developed by neurologist Dr Kawashima, "who believes the brain needs to be exercised to help stay fit in the same way our bodies need exercise to stay in shape". He added: "Nintendo does not make any claims that 'Brain Training' is scientifically proven to improve cognitive function."



The journal article mentioned above appears to be this one. The conclusion is pure waffle and proves nothing: Our review was limited by a small, heterogeneous, and methodologically limited literature. Within this literature, we found no evidence that structured cognitive intervention programs delay or slow progression to AD in healthy elderly. Further work that accounts for the limitations of past efforts and subsequent clear and unbiased reporting to the public of the state and progress of research on this topic will help the elderly make informed decisions about a range of potential preventive lifestyle measures including cognitive intervention.

12 February, 2009

Eggs back in favour

They are just flailing around but it is certainly true that there is no evidence of harm to your heart from eggs

Going to work on an egg may be good for you after all. Fears that eating one egg a day will lead to high cholesterol and heart disease were challenged yesterday by scientific research. It seems that there is no reason after all for healthy people to limit egg consumption to three a week - even though nearly half of British people believe that this is the maximum recommended number. A paper to be published soon in the British Nutrition Foundation's Nutrition Bulletin has found that cholesterol in eggs has only a small and clinically insignificant effect on blood cholesterol. While people with high blood cholesterol are at increased risk of heart disease, only a third of the cholesterol in the body is attributed to diet.

Other factors linked to high cholesterol levels are smoking, being overweight and lack of exercise, and the main culprit from food is saturated fat, not cholesterol found in eggs. There was some scepticism about the findings when it was confirmed that Juliet Gray, a public health nutritionist, was funded by the egg industry for her research time. The co-author Bruce Griffin, a professor of nutritional metabolism at the University of Surrey, did not receive payment, though in the past he has advised the British Egg Industry Council on scientific issues. However, it also emerged yesterday that the British Heart Foundation (BHF) revised its advice on egg consumption two years ago and no longer suggests a maximum of three eggs a week.

This advice is in line with guidance from the Food Standards Agency, which also says that most people have no reason to worry about the number of eggs they eat a week - though anyone who has inherited a genetic susceptibility to high blood cholesterol linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, about one in 500 people in Britain, is still advised to stick to two or at most three eggs a week.

The study concludes that health chiefs and GPs should demolish the myths about eggs and heart disease and communicate a message that there is no need to limit the number eaten as long as they are part of a healthy low saturated fat diet. Professor Griffin said: "The ingrained misconception linking egg consumption to high blood cholesterol and heart disease must be corrected. "The amount of saturated fat in our diet exerts an effect on blood cholesterol that is several times greater than the relatively small amounts of dietary cholesterol. "The UK public does not need to be limiting the number of eggs they eat."

Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the BHF, confirmed that it no longer recommends a maximum consumption of two, three or four eggs a week. She said: "We recommend that eggs can be eaten as part of a balanced diet. There is cholesterol present in eggs but this does not usually make a great contribution to your level of blood cholesterol. "If you need to reduce your blood cholesterol level it is more important that you cut down on the amount of saturated fat in your diet from foods like fatty meat, full fat dairy products, cakes, biscuits and pastries."


The preposterous prejudice of the anti-MMR lobby

The campaigners were always irrational. Yet the paranoia persists and children's lives are more at risk than ever

Last week there was a bust-up in blogland. I'll explain later why it matters, but for now I'll just give you the bones of it. On one side was the author of the Bad Science blog, Ben Goldacre, who is an invaluable persecutor of the anti-scientific and wilfully inexpert.

On the other side was the warm, friendly broadcaster, Jeni Barnett, whose most substantial incarnation currently takes place on afternoons on LBC, a London local radio station, where she hosts a phone-in. Goldacre was so annoyed about the January 7 edition of Barnett's show, dealing, among other things, with MMR and vaccination, that he posted the whole of it as a clip on his own website, where it acted as a sort of audio chamber of horrors to appal his readers. A few days later the lawyers for LBC contacted Goldacre and told him that he was infringing their copyright and must remove the clip forthwith, or else.

Goldacre was now anger squared. "This is not about LBC or Jeni Barnett," he wrote. "This is about one perfect, instructive, illustrative example of a whole genre of irresponsible journalism that drove the media's anti-vaccine campaign for ten solid years, with serious consequences for public health."

Goldacre's accusation is important. Last week ended with new figures for measles cases in the United Kingdom, showing that over the past decade we have managed the interesting - and almost unprecedented - trick of reintroducing into this country a disease that had more or less disappeared. A few children will have died as a result and some others will suffer serious long-term health problems. These figures correlate to the drop in parents giving their children the MMR vaccination.

And that drop, more controversially, may be seen as the consequence of a panic about MMR that began around 2001, peaked in 2002-03, and still - even after the discrediting of the claims about the supposed link between MMR and autism- affects vaccination rates today. Unable to listen to the withdrawn audio clips, I settled for some of the transcripts of Barnett's phone-in as posted on various websites. The host had begun telling listeners: "Always at the back of it [vaccination] in my head is `hold on a minute, there's a drug company that's making lots of money out of it'." She reminded listeners (in case they had overlooked it) that "if, as a human being you decide you do not want to give your child a vaccination, you should, in a democracy, have that right to say `no'."

Of course they do have that right, which is why we're suffering measles outbreaks now. But it was more than that for Barnett, concerned as she was to bolster the position of those brave parents who refused to vaccinate. "It's a lonely decision, if you're not part of the herd, if you're not mooing with the other cows or baaing with the other sheep..." And so it went on.

The third element to today's argument is provided by a spread in The Sunday Times last weekend, providing new evidence about how the original scare story over MMR was created. It claimed that several of the 12 children who were the subjects of Dr Andrew Wakefield's original research paper in 1998 - the one on which virtually the entire MMR scare was founded - either had symptoms that predated their vaccination, or that developed several months afterwards. It also reminded readers that before the examination of any of these children Wakefield was already employed by a lawyer for the anti-vaccination pressure group, Jabs, to establish a case against the manufacturers of vaccines. One month before the first child in the study arrived at Wakefield's hospital, Wakefield had already filed a confidential document stating that the object of his research was to discover evidence "acceptable in a court of law" of a link between MMR vaccines and "certain conditions" reported by families seeking compensation.

And sure enough Wakefield did "discover" a link (though not one ever "acceptable in a court of law"). That research was never replicated by any other study and no correlation has ever been found between the incidence of autism and the use of MMR, despite Wakefield's constant and confident assertions that such definitive evidence was imminent.

But, oh Lord, who'd have believed it? It was the way in which Wakefield's lone thesis was reported, dramatised and discussed that created the MMR scare and, therefore, the current measles outbreaks.

Last week, justifying herself on her blog, Barnett invoked the spirit of the insurgent ignoramus. Yes, she said, she should have been ready with facts and figures on MMR. "As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared; as a parent, however, I can fight my corner." Then she added: "I don't know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful."

But how did Barnett "know" they were harmful? Wasn't it down to the huge body of evidence showing the correlation between lung cancer and smoking? And didn't she recall the early days of that discussion, when anti-herd people would pause before lighting up and tell of elderly relatives who'd smoked all their lives without coming to harm? The shamefulness of much of the reporting of MMR by some journalists is the subject of much longer studies than I have space for.

What I find just as interesting is the psychology. And here's my fourth element. Last week a relative became involved in a multi-person e-mail exchange concerning vaccination against the virus that causes cervical cancer. The first query had hardly been lodged before one correspondent - a highly educated and intelligent woman - asserted that "girls have died in the US" from the vaccination, and implying that profit-seeking drug companies (with the connivance of governments, presumably) were prepared to kill our kids in order to make money.

This reply, though intended for limited circulation, was so categorical yet so paranoid, that it was easy to imagine a fresh scare, perhaps arriving later in the year, concerning these new vaccinations. Maybe there'd be a maverick doctor, maybe Juliet Stevenson would portray a bereft but instinctual mother in a docudrama, maybe hacks would fill their pages and phone-in hosts their long hours with speculation dressed up as information.

That's why I'm passionately for Goldacre, and why I find myself wondering whether we can file a class action against LBC for permitting a presenter to inflict her preposterous prejudices on her listeners, to the detriment of someone else's kids.


11 February, 2009

Statins cut risk of death even in healthy people, research claims

The study mentioned below is unbelievably stupid. It is a study of therapeutic compliance masquerading as a study of statins. What it found was that people who take their pills regularly are healthier. But we already knew that compliers were different, regardless of what the pills are! Unbelievable! And since the side-effects of statins can be severe and not easily tolerated, the non-compliers were probably less robust to start with. I could go on and note even more problems with the study (use of very extreme groups, for instance) but why try to kill a dead horse? The citation for the new study is: Shalev, V. et al. (2009) "Continuation of Statin Treatment and All-Cause Mortality". Arch. Intern. Med. 169(3):260-268

Millions more people could be put on statins to prevent a heart attack experts said as new research shows they are more effective than previously thought. A study has found the drugs cut deaths by up to 50 per cent in people without heart disease if they took them daily, the study found.

There have been calls for everyone over the age of 50 to be given drugs to lower the risk of a heart attack but this is controversial as many see it as needlessly medicalising healthy people. Prof Roger Boyle, national director for heart disease and stroke, said the public was against a blanket approach to prescribe statins to everyone over 50 and so instead GPs will this year begin to assess the risk of a heart attack for all over 40s this year. He said the only constraint to the programme was how fast the assessments could be carried out and 'whether the public will accept the change from being a person to being a patient and taking medication long-term'. "The research confirms the benefits of statins throughout the stages of heart disease and it is a powerful indicator of the safety of this kind of treatment," he said.

In the latest study data from almost 230,000 adults with an average age of 57 was analysed by a team in Tel Aviv. Pharmacy records were checked to establish how often patients were taking their drugs. The primary prevention group were followed up to four years and 4,259 people died in that period and the secondary prevention group were followed for five years during which time 8,906 people died. The drugs are supposed to be taken every day and the more compliant people were with the regime the greater the reduction in their chances of dying.

Earlier studies had suggested there was a 12 per cent reduction in deaths or had found no affect at all in healthy people, the paper published in the Archives of Internal Medicine said

The effect was more pronounced in those with higher levels of bad cholesterol at the beginning of the trial and in those who were given high potency statins. Dr Varda Shalev, and colleagues at Maccabi Healthcare Services and Sackler Faculty of Medicine, in Tel Aviv, Israel, wrote in the paper: "The present study demonstrates a strong and independent association between statin therapy and the improved survival of patients with and without coronary heart disease. "The observed benefits from statins were greater than expected from randomised clinical trials, emphasising the importance of promoting statin therapy and increasing its continuation over time for both primary and secondary prevention."

More here

Children looked after by grandparents 'are naughtier than those who spend day in nursery'

More junk science. This was not a controlled comparison. The kids who went to nursery probably came from different sorts of homes to start with

Young children looked after by grandparents are more likely to be badly behaved than those sent to nursery, a study claims today. They tended to have wider vocabularies, but were also more likely to show 'problem behaviour' and find it harder to get on with other children, said researchers. They were also less likely to be ready for school, according to the study by the Institute of Education, a University of London research body widely viewed as left-wing. The Institute tracked 4,800 children of working mothers and found those sent to nurseries and playgroups had a better understanding of colours, letters, numbers, sizes, comparisons and shapes.

But other experts said the findings appeared to contradict studies which found that care by grandparents was linked to happiness and security. They said grandparents often developed almost as close a bond with children as parents and were able to give children one-to-one attention. Siobhan Freegard, founder of parenting website, said the emotional benefits to children of being cared for by a grandparent may outweigh any short-term head start at school.

'There is a lot of research saying that children who went to full-time nurseries are ahead of their peers when they start school,' she said. 'But that head start is not sustained. It shouldn't be used so often as justification for putting children in daycare settings from a young age. 'There is plenty of time for education after the age of three. For a very small child, there are massive advantages in terms of brain and emotional development of having one-on-one attention from an adult who loves them.'

One Government-funded study previously found that toddlers put in daycare for long hours are 'significantly' more likely to bully or tease other children, and to demand their own way. Other Government-funded studies have found wide variation in the quality of day nurseries and creches, with the worst linked to slower progress at school and behavioural problems.

The latest research, publicly-funded through the Economic and Social Research Council, surveyed working parents when their children were nine months old and again when they were three. The three-year-olds were given simple assessments of their vocabulary and readiness for school.

Youngsters who were being looked after by grandparents at nine months were considered at the age of three to have more behavioural problems, judging from parental interviews, than those who had been in the care of a nursery, creche, childminder or nanny. This was particularly true of boys, and mainly manifested itself in difficulties getting on with other children. But while youngsters were also judged generally less prepared for formal education, they tended to have wider vocabularies and more accurate speech.

Researchers suggested that while grandparents may struggle to provide physical activities for children, they compensate with plenty of conversation. Dr Kirstine Hansen, research director said: 'Our research shows that grandparent care contributes both positively and negatively to child outcomes and, perhaps with government support, this situation could be improved


Drinking alcohol while pregnant

The retrospective self-report methodology of this study is about as low-quality as it could possibly be but the finding that moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful is in line with other work and helps to defuse the scares that are often put into pregnant women who like a glass of wine or two with dinner

Almost half of all Australian mothers-to-be drink alcohol throughout their pregnancy, and some even admit to bingeing in the final months before giving birth. The women who were prepared to drink on were also more likely to smoke during their pregnancy, according to a study of 4,700 mothers in Western Australia. Doing so placed these women at the most risk of having their baby prematurely, according to the research by WA's Telethon Institute for Child Health Research. "Our research shows pregnant women who drink more than one to two standard drinks per occasion - and more than six standard drinks per week - increase their risk of having a premature baby," says institute researcher Colleen O'Leary.

This was the case even if the women stopped drinking before their second trimester, Ms O'Leary said. "The risk of pre term birth is highest for pregnant women who drink heavily or at binge levels, meaning drinking more than seven standard drinks per week, or more than five drinks on any one occasion."

The study focused on a random selection of non-indigenous women who gave birth between 1995 and 1997, and they were quizzed on their pregnancy and pre-pregnancy drinking habits. Fewer than 20 per cent of women abstained during the pre-pregnancy period, but this increased to 57 per cent in the first two trimesters before settling to 54 per cent in the third trimester. "Low" or "moderate" drinking came in at 44 per cent during the third trimester, while more than two per cent of women admitted to "binge" or "heavy" drinking in the final months before birth.

The study found a low birth weight was more likely to be caused by a mother's smoking rather than drinking.

And, while there was no difference for women who abstained or drank low levels of alcohol, it said abstinence was still the safest option. ""Women should be advised that during pregnancy, drinking alcohol above low levels increases the risk to the baby and that the safest choice is not to drink alcohol," Ms O'Leary said. The study was also conducted jointly by the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford. The results are to be published in BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.


10 February, 2009

Smoking cannabis 'increases the risk of aggressive testicular cancer'

This is just another rubbish retrospective self-report study. There also appears to be an element of data dredging. Given the frequency of marijuana use, there would be an epidemic of rotted balls if it were true. What the study really shows is that men who get testicular cancer tend to blame their own behaviour for it and exaggerate their past risky behaviour

Smoking cannabis puts men at increased risk of the most aggressive type of testicular cancer, say scientists. Men who smoked at least once a week or who had smoked since adolescence were twice as likely to develop the disease as those who didn't use the drug, the U.S. researchers found. Dr Stephen Schwartz, who led the study, said more research was needed to confirm the link - and to show why the drug puts men at risk. `Our study is the first inkling that marijuana use may be associated with testicular cancer, and we still have a lot of unanswered questions,' he said.

`What young men should know is that first, we know very little about the long-term health consequences of marijuana smoking, especially heavy marijuana smoking - and second, our study provides some evidence that testicular cancer could be one adverse consequence. `So in the absence of more certain information, a decision to smoke marijuana recreationally means that one is taking a chance on one's future health.'

Some 2,100 men are diagnosed with testicular cancer in Britain each year. Most are cured - and 98 per cent of those diagnosed are still alive after ten years.

The study, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle, Washington, looked at all types of testicular cancer. Dr Schwartz interviewed 369 men aged 18 to 44 who had been diagnosed with the disease about their cannabis use. They compared the results with interviews from 979 randomly chosen men of the same age. Men who smoked cannabis were 70 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with the disease. Men who smoked at least once a week or who had smoked since adolescence were twice as likely to have testicular cancer, they report in the journal Cancer.

The link seemed strongest with a fast-growing malignancy called nonseminoma, which tends to strike early, between the ages of 20 and 35, and accounts for around 40 per cent of all testicular cancer cases.


Revolutionary drug that can stop Alzheimer's and restore memory

But only in freak mice so far

A revolutionary drug that could stop Alzheimer's disease in its tracks and restore lost memory is being tested by scientists. The drug - a protein naturally produced by the body - can reverse memory loss in brains ravaged by the disease and stop cells from dying. Although existing pills can delay the progress of symptoms, none are capable of repairing the damage to the brain.

With 500 new cases of the disease diagnosed every day as people live longer, and a global epidemic predicted by 2050, there is a desperate need for new treatments. The research, carried out at the University of California in the US, centred on a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which is produced in the brain. BDNF is thought to play a key role in learning and memory, and levels drop in Alzheimer's patients.

When mice genetically-engineered to develop an Alzheimer's-like disease were injected with the gene that makes the protein, memory and learning improved, suggesting brain tissue destroyed by the disease was actually repaired. Tests on rats and monkeys showed that injections of BDNF or of its gene stopped cell death and halted memory loss. The benefits extended to the hippocampus, the brain's memory hub and one of the first regions to suffer damage in Alzheimer's disease, the journal Nature Medicine reports.

Researcher Dr Mark Tuszynski said: 'The effects of BDNF were potent. 'When we administered BDNF to the memory circuits in the brain, we directly stimulated their activity and prevent cell death from the underlying disease.' Several years ago, Dr Tuszynski showed that another naturally-occurring protein, nerve growth factor, or NGF, could treat Alzheimer's in mice. He then started treating patients, injecting pieces of skin genetically modified to make NGF deep into their brains. The trials are ongoing but preliminary results suggested that memory loss may have been slowed.

Dr Tuszynski believes the new drug holds even more potential and is also safe to be tested on people. He said: 'BDNF treatment can potentially provide long-lasting protection by slowing or even stopping disease progression in the regions that receive treatment.' He added that the drug appeared to work despite not tackling amyloid, a sticky protein that clogs the brain in Alzheimer's. Using BDNF with drugs that target amyloid would allow doctors to mount a two-pronged attack on the disease.

However, the research is at the very early stages, with new drugs taking around seven years to reach the market from when they are first tested on people. Neil Hunt, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Society, said: 'Many of the treatments for Alzheimer's disease that are currently in development concentrate on targeting amyloid production, the protein that builds up in the brain in people with Alzheimer's. 'This initial research is interesting as it seems to show that another protein, BDNF, may protect and restore memory. This research offers us insight into the way in which Alzheimer's progresses and alternative avenues of research. 'With one in three people over 65 dying with dementia it is essential that we look for as many ways of tackling the condition as possible. We look forward to further research to explore the potential benefits of BDNF in humans.'

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said: 'This research is very exciting as it suggests a possible new treatment could be developed for Alzheimer's, but more research is needed before it could be available to help people with dementia. 'New treatments are desperately needed for Alzheimer's but research is seriously under-funded. 'We urgently need to fund more research now to offer hope for the future.'


9 February, 2009

The unreason about "obesity" never stops

"Obesity epidemic has spread to babies" And it's all due to them watching fast food commercials on TV, I suppose. What's never mentioned is that lifespan is very little affected by how fat you are and people of MIDDLING weight live longest. What you see in babies is clearly the result of genetics. Weight is highly hereditary. And the constant cries of "epidemic" are just attention-getting nonsense too. In both Australia and the USA, average weight in children has plateaued since 1998

BABIES as young as one are being diagnosed as obese, with a major hospital treating youngsters twice the size they should be. Doctors at the Children's Hospital at Westmead are admitting youngsters with severe weight-related issues such as sleep apnoea and diabetes. The problem is so widespread that there is now a 12-month waiting period at the state's only child weight management clinic at Westmead, The Daily Telegraph reports. The clinic, which also has psychologists, dietitians and physiotherapists, has 150 children aged between one and 16 on its books.

Paediatrician and weight specialist Shirley Alexander, who has called for obese children to be taken into the care of DOCS, said it was a shocking reality that the obesity epidemic sweeping the nation is now claiming toddlers under four. "A one-year-old who should be 10kg is actually 18 to 20kg or a two-year-old who should be 12kg who is 25kg,'' Dr Alexander said. [Which they have genetically inherited from fat parents]

She said over-feeding and large portion sizes are to blame for toddlers being overweight, rather than the consumption of junk food. "We are seeing children who can't walk properly or wipe themselves because they are obese,'' Dr Alexander said. Not backing away from her calls for morbidly obese children to be seized by child protection officers, Dr Alexander said she and her colleagues were at the "coalface'' of the obesity epidemic, dealing with children whose health had become so severe they were developing fatal diseases.

At the same time the hospital is reporting an increase in under-10s being admitted for severe hip and joint problems as a result of being overweight. "We are seeing more children with pre-diabetes or under-eights who have serious insulin resistance,'' she said. "We have pre-adolescents who have sleep apnoea and adolescent girls are also having menstrual problems because they are developing polycystic ovary syndrome. "We are beginning to see children younger and more seriously affected.''

Latest figures reveal that one in four children are overweight or obese. Doctors use a series of tests including the Body Mass Index (BMI), which measures their weight-to-height ratio, as well as measuring the weight circumference and also a Z score - which tests their weight distribution against their peers.

The Government declared obesity a priority health issue last year with the problem estimated to have cost $21 billion annually. Parents have been warned to rein in their children's poor diets or risk a lifetime of serious health problems, including heart and liver disease. [Rubbish!] "We are not blaming the parents but they do have to take parental responsibility,'' Dr Alexander said. [A "complex" statement!]

While BMI is used as a guide by most doctors to test if a child is at risk of being overweight or obese, it is not a diagnostic tool and parents who are worried should visit their doctor. In the UK this week, the Government ordered junk food manufacturers such as Nestle to downsize their portions to tackle the obesity crisis. [Which usually in fact leads to people eating MORE -- but you can't expect governments to look at the medical literature. They just KNOW] A spokesman for Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon yesterday said that the British plan was not being considered for Australia. [Good for Nicola!]


MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield fixed data on autism

The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found. Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients’ data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition.

The research was published in February 1998 in an article in The Lancet medical journal. It claimed that the families of eight out of 12 children attending a routine clinic at the hospital had blamed MMR for their autism, and said that problems came on within days of the jab. The team also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease underlying the children’s conditions.

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.

Despite involving just a dozen children, the 1998 paper’s impact was extraordinary. After its publication, rates of inoculation fell from 92% to below 80%. Populations acquire “herd immunity” from measles when more than 95% of people have been vaccinated. Last week official figures showed that 1,348 confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales were reported last year, compared with 56 in 1998. Two children have died of the disease.

With two professors, John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch, Wakefield is defending himself against allegations of serious professional misconduct brought by the GMC. The charges relate to ethical aspects of the project, not its findings. All three men deny any misconduct. Through his lawyers, Wakefield this weekend denied the issues raised by our investigation, but declined to comment further.


8 February, 2009

The on-again off-again HRT scare

Difficult to take these changes of mind seriously. Somehow there is no mention of long-term BENEFITS from HRT -- like fewer fractures, which can be extremely disabling. The point not mentioned below is that the apparent increases of cancer are off a very low base so the risk of women getting cancer while taking HRT is still very low. All medications have side-effects. If medications have no side-effects they don't have any main effects either. But we accept some risk in return for the benefits we also get

Women who stop taking combined hormone replacement therapy experience a rapid decline in the risk of breast cancer, a study into the menopause treatment has found. Researchers from Stanford University in California say the findings strengthen the hotly debated link between HRT and breast cancer, particularly in women who stay on the treatment for more than five years.

The results of the study, which involved more than 57,000 US women, mirrors the decline in breast cancer rates in Australian women over 50 since 2002. In that year, research showed women taking estrogen and progestin together had higher rates of breast cancer and heart disease. The study led to a sharp drop in HRT prescriptions in Australia, the US and Britain. Karen Canfell, an epidemiologist at the Cancer Council NSW, said breast cancer rates in Australia fell by 7 per cent from 2001 to 2003. "The good news is that this new study adds to the large body of evidence that when women stop taking HRT their risk of breast cancer quickly goes back to normal," Dr Canfell said.

The findings, published in the New England Journal Of Medicine, show that women who stay on the therapy for at least five years double their risk of developing cancer for every year that they are on the treatment. But stopping therapy quickly negated that risk, suggesting that hormone withdrawal led to a regression of preclinical cancers, researchers said.

Twelve months after participants in the women's health initiative trial stopped HRT treatment, breast cancer cases fell by 28 per cent. The percentage of patients who went for mammogram tests during that time remained stable, meaning that the fall in the number of cases was not because they were being missed by doctors, the researchers said.

Last year an international panel of experts said that using HRT was safe for most women going through menopause. Although combined forms of HRT may slightly increase the chances of breast cancer, the effect is dwarfed by other risk factors, such as obesity, diet and alcohol, the review from the First Global Summit on Menopause-Related Issues said.

Associate Professor Emily Banks, of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, said the large drop in HRT use meant about 600 fewer Australian women developed breast cancer every year. Dr Helen Zorbas, the chief executive of the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre, said combined HRT should only be used as a short-term option for the control of severe menopausal symptoms. She said doctors should weigh up the risks before they prescribe HRT, used to ease the often debilitating symptoms of the menopause, which can include hot flushes, nausea and insomnia.


Is 'Green' Food Playing Catch-Me-If-You-Can?

Yesterday, a reader's letter in a Florida newspaper began: "With unemployment, food scares and demands on food banks all up, the time is now for an organic revolution." We've heard plenty of (bogus) claims that organic foods are healthier and better for the environment. But solving unemployment, perfecting our food safety system, and addressing food shortages? Sounds too good to be true… and it is.

It's hard to blame so many shoppers for turning their backs on organic foods in tougher economic times. As last month's California fertilizer scandal revealed, organic consumers can't even can't even be sure that what they're paying for is actually organic. Today in Toronto's National Post, an interview with author and former food inspector Mischa Popoff brought this home again.
"Any organic food comes to the market based completely on a self-regulating, honour-based audit trail," said Popoff. "My question is, how do you know anyone is organic? Even if they are doing the damn paperwork and paying the fee, there's no way of knowing. "
Popoff also highlighted a particular authenticity problem that we've mentioned in the past: Much of the food on our grocery shelves labeled "organic" is imported from China, where few if any organic regulations are enforced with any rigorous guarantees:
"The biggest issue is, if you look at China, only Chinese inspectors inspect the farms. You will never see a North American inspector get over there. Then you really have to wonder what's going on." In addition to more testing, Popoff also suggests that organic farms should introduce surprise inspections. But until those changes are made, the former food inspector calls the organic food industry "a big scam" and doesn't believe it's necessary to buy organic food.
Popoff isn't the first to point out that organic food is "a big scam," but his frank advice to consumers is a very promising sign. As more organic food inspectors join other experts, thrifty shoppers, and even some environmentalists in rejecting organic hype, the only "revolution" happening in this movement is one of transparency.


7 February, 2009

Joint Effects of Sodium and Potassium Intake on Subsequent Cardiovascular Disease

This is a rather strange set of findings. Basically they found that salt intake or potassium intake had no effect on heart disease (How awful for the anti-salt crusaders!) -- but then they tortured the data with all sorts of elaborate statistics until they found that something happened if you looked at salt intake and potassium intake together. The most reasonable conclusion: Eat what you like. If you are the worrying type, eat bananas occasionally. They have a fair bit of potassium in them. Potatoes do too

By Nancy R. Cook et al.

Background: Previous studies of dose-response effects of usual sodium and potassium intake on subsequent cardiovascular disease (CVD) have largely relied on suboptimal measures of intake.

Methods: Two trials of sodium reduction and other interventions collected 24-hour urinary excretions intermittently during 18 months from September 17, 1987, to January 12, 1990 (Trials of Hypertension Prevention [TOHP] I), and during 36 months from December 18, 1990, to April 7, 1995 (TOHP II), among adults with prehypertension aged 30 to 54 years. Among adults not assigned to an active sodium reduction intervention, we assessed the relationship of a mean of 3 to 7 twenty-four-hour urinary excretions of sodium and potassium and their ratio with subsequent CVD (stroke, myocardial infarction, coronary revascularization, or CVD mortality) through 10 to 15 years of posttrial follow-up.

Results: Among 2974 participants, follow-up information was obtained on 2275 participants (76.5%), with 193 CVD events. After adjustment for baseline variables and lifestyle changes, there was a nonsignificant trend in CVD risk across sex-specific quartiles of urinary sodium excretion (rate ratio [RR] from lowest to highest, 1.00, 0.99, 1.16, and 1.20; P = .38 for trend) and potassium excretion (RR, 1.00, 0.94, 0.91, and 0.64; P = .08 for trend) but a significant trend across quartiles of the sodium to potassium excretion ratio (RR, 1.00, 0.84, 1.18, and 1.50; P = .04 for trend). In models containing both measures simultaneously, linear effects were as follows: RR, 1.42; 95% confidence interval (CI), 0.99 to 2.04 per 100 mmol/24 h of urinary sodium excretion (P = .05); and 0.67; 0.41 to 1.10 per 50 mmol/24 h of urinary potassium excretion (P = .12). A model containing the sodium to potassium excretion ratio (RR, 1.24; 95% CI, 1.05-1.46; P = .01) had the lowest Bayes information criterion (best fit).

Conclusion A higher sodium to potassium excretion ratio is associated with increased risk of subsequent CVD, with an effect stronger than that of sodium or potassium alone.

Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):32-40. January 12, 2009

Researchers find way to cut ozone's effects on asthma

Researchers say they may have found a key to treating the ozone-triggered asthma attacks and respiratory problems that plague residents in hot-weather states like Arizona. A study released Tuesday by the National Institutes of Health shows for the first time how ozone irritates the lungs, findings that could ultimately lead to better treatment options for asthma sufferers. The report has particularly wide-reaching implications in this state, which not only has one of the nation's highest rates of asthma but struggles to control ozone pollution during the summer months.

I can't say we found the cause of asthma, but in this instance, we were able to completely get rid of the symptoms," said Stavros Garantziotis, principal investigator with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the NIH. "We were able to stop the irritation (in the lungs)." Any new drugs or therapies that arise from the research are still years away, he cautioned.

The study, done in conjunction with Duke University, found that mice exposed to so-called bad ozone, a key component of urban smog, produced high amounts of a sugar called hyaluronan. The sugar was directly responsible for the narrowing or constriction of the animals' airways, a primary cause of asthma symptoms and attacks in humans. "We found that it is not the ozone itself that causes the body to wheeze but the way the lungs respond to (it)," Garantziotis said.

Hyaluronan is found naturally in many tissues of the body, including skin and cartilage, and has been used to treat such conditions as osteoarthritis of the knee. But researchers found that the mice produced it in a different, more harmful form after being exposed to ozone. They also discovered they were able to neutralize this "bad" hyaluronan and stop the lungs' airways from narrowing by using several proteins and an altered form of the sugar.

As many as 548,000 state residents suffer from asthma, according to the American Lung Association of Arizona, and studies suggest that Valley's year-round pollution problems exacerbate those symptoms. Much of the local attention has focused on links between respiratory problems and particulate pollution, the tiny bits of dust and soot in the air. But ozone is a growing concern for state and local health officials.

In 2008, metro Phoenix exceeded the federal health standard for ozone on 28 days, compared with none in 2007 and nine in 2006. Part of the jump was due to a tightening of federal standards. Nationally, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that ozone-related health problems cost the United States $5 billion a year in premature deaths, hospitalizations and school absences.


6 February, 2009

Breastfed kids much less likely to be abused by their mother

(Popular summary followed by journal abstract. The suggestion seems to be that breastfeeding of itself has some effect. That is almost certainly nonsense. What the results show is that mothers who are concerned and stable enough to breastfeed are also unlikely to be abusers)

So says a large Australian study published online in Pediatrics, involving 7223 pairs of mothers and infants monitored for 15 years. In that time, 512 children had substantiated child protection agency reports of abuse, including neglect, physical abuse, and emotional abuse. After taking social factors into account, such as whether the pregnancy was wanted, substance abuse during pregnancy, and employment after the birth, non-breastfed infants were 2.6 times more likely to have been abused. There was no link between breastfeeding and abuse by other people.

Does Breastfeeding Protect Against Substantiated Child Abuse and Neglect? A 15-Year Cohort Study

Lane Strathearn et al.

OBJECTIVES. We explored whether breastfeeding was protective against maternally perpetrated child maltreatment.

METHODS. A total of 7223 Australian mother-infant pairs were monitored prospectively over 15 years. In 6621 (91.7%) cases, the duration of breastfeeding was analyzed with respect to child maltreatment (including neglect, physical abuse, and emotional abuse), on the basis of substantiated child protection agency reports. Multinomial logistic regression was used to compare no maltreatment with nonmaternal and maternally perpetrated maltreatment and to adjust for confounding in 5890 cases with complete data (81.5%). Potential confounders included sociodemographic factors, pregnancy wantedness, substance abuse during pregnancy, postpartum employment, attitudes regarding infant caregiving, and symptoms of anxiety or depression.

RESULTS. Of 512 children with substantiated maltreatment reports, >60% experienced ~1 episode of maternally perpetrated abuse or neglect (4.3% of the cohort). The odds ratio for maternal maltreatment increased as breastfeeding duration decreased, with the odds of maternal maltreatment for nonbreastfed children being 4.8 times the odds for children breastfed for ~ 4 months. After adjustment for confounding, the odds for nonbreastfed infants remained 2.6 times higher, with no association seen between breastfeeding and nonmaternal maltreatment. Maternal neglect was the only maltreatment subtype associated independently with breastfeeding duration.

CONCLUSION. Among other factors, breastfeeding may help to protect against maternally perpetrated child maltreatment, particularly child neglect.

PEDIATRICS Vol. 123 No. 2 February 2009, pp. 483-493

Taste is hereditary. How amazing!

To anybody who knows how pervasive heredity is in medical matters, the first part of my headline above is the obvious conclusion to be drawn from the matters reported below. But that is not of course the conclusion that the "researcher" below draws in the never-ending but quite futile attempt to get people to be slimmer than is their natural tendency

CHILDREN copy their parents' food choices, University of South Australia scientists have found. Researcher Dorota Zarnowiecki has studied the health and not so healthy habits of more than 200 families. She gave them options ranging from fruit and vegetables to lollies and potato chips and found children's choices tended to echo their parents', despite other influences.

Ms Zarnowiecki, who will now do a PhD looking at the dietary behaviours of older children, said the findings had important implications for obesity prevention programs. "We looked at five and six year olds because we wanted to gauge their parents' influence, as they haven't had that much exposure to the outside world," she said. "(This) shows firstly that young children are able to learn and . . . distinguish between healthy and unhealthy foods. It also shows that parents are really important at that young age, so it could be used even in pre-natal classes." Ms Zarnowiecki said it was much easier to teach children healthy habits than to try to change them when they got older.

Yesterday, a parliamentary inquiry was told an obesity campaign featuring a young man who becomes fatter as he grows older [Most people do] has struck a chord with more than six million Australians. The $30 million Measure Up campaign, which encourages Australians to measure their waists, has been described by Health Department experts as highly successful. Giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the nation's obesity crisis, experts said the campaign had resulted in 6.8 million hits to the website. Overweight Australians have requested almost 300,000 healthy eating plans and tape measures from the site. "It has attracted a great deal of interest," Health Department first assistant secretary Jennifer Bryant said yesterday. The campaign only began in October 2008, with the website averaging 3259 hits a day since then.

Committee chairman Steve Georganas welcomed the success of the promotion, saying it was a "very visual campaign". Ms Bryant said she believed the campaign had been successful as research had shown obese people understood they had to do something to tackle their weight - but did not know where to start. She said simplicity was crucial in obesity campaigns. "Eat smaller serves, drink water and keep the messages as simple and straightforward as you can," she said. [But does all that "success" translate into any weight loss? That question is too hard, apparently]


5 February, 2009

Lying asshole

"Children are eating their way to cancer". Stupid bitch warns of obesity timebomb. So how come moderately overweight people live longer than skinny people? And no mention of course of the various studies which show that fat women get LESS breast cancer (e.g. here). This is at best epidemiological speculation and intellectual fashion about the evils of fat -- parading as science

Children are facing an 'explosion' in obesity-related cancers thanks to junk food and a lack of exercise, an expert warned last night. Professor Kathy Pritchard-Jones says thousands will die if parents and ministers do not take the childhood obesity epidemic more seriously. Obesity is linked to cancers including those of the kidney, breast, colon, liver and prostate. It can also lead to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes, and experts warn the rising tide of these diseases could bankrupt the NHS.

Professor Pritchard-Jones, president of the European Society for Paediatric Oncology, said eating more healthily and taking more exercise would not help stave off cancer in childhood. But it would encourage them to lead a better lifestyle as adults, cutting the risk of having life-threatening diseases later.

Some 17 per cent of British children - 900,000 - are obese, so fat that their health is in danger. Two years ago Government scientists said that without action, this figure would soar to 25 per cent by 2050. Professor Pritchard-Jones said: 'Childhood is when the habits of a lifetime are established. If you want healthy adults you start by making healthy children. 'The chronic risk factors for cancer in adults, such as smoking, obesity and diet, are habits established in childhood. 'If we don't do something about tackling how much exercise our young people take and how concerned they are about what they eat and their weight, we are going to have another explosion of cancers.'

The rates of cancers linked to obesity are already increasing, with prostate up by 38.9 per cent in ten years and liver up by 33.4 per cent. But experts warn the 'explosion' will become apparent in the next couple of decades when those born in the Fifties and Sixties reach old age. Last week, it emerged that Britain's adult obesity rate was 23 per cent, twice that of France. Experts warn that by 2050 more than half of adults will be obese, with disastrous consequences for the NHS and taxpayers.

Other effects of obesity include erectile dysfunction and problems during pregnancy. Recent figures show survival rates for many cancers are far lower than those in western Europe and on a par with Poland.

Dr David Haslam, clinical director of the National Obesity Forum, said: 'Cancer is one of the least recognised consequences of obesity and one of the most serious. 'It won't be just an occasional case - we're going to see a vast increase in the cancer rate. It's serious for the NHS and could push it towards bankruptcy.'

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: 'Whatever their weight, children need to eat well and be active. 'Our Change4Life programme is about helping families change their lifestyles for the better. 'Children who are carrying too much fat are at risk of developing a host of serious illnesses. 'Keeping a healthy body is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of getting cancer.'


Penis abnormality linked to hairspray

Popular summary followed by journal abstract. It's just data dredging. When lots of occupations are considered, some of them will come up as different by chance alone. Even if we take the results seriously we have the old "correlation is causality" fallacy. For instance: Maybe beauticians are especially feminine and that is what affects their sons. The whole thing is utter balderdash driven by intellectual fashion about "bad" chemicals

Women exposed to hairspray at work -- such as hairdressers and beauticians -- are more likely to have boys with a common type of penis birth defect, hypospadias, where the opening of the urethra is abnormal. The cause isn't known; one possibility is that chemicals disrupt hormones in the baby. The study in Environmental Health Perspectives compared 471 cases of hypospadias with 490 randomly selected births. Mothers exposed to hairspray in their job were 2.4 times more likely to have a boy with the problem. Women who took folate supplements in early pregnancy were less likely to have an affected child.

Endocrine Disruptors in the Workplace, Hair Spray, Folate Supplementation, and Risk of Hypospadias: Case-Control Study

By Gillian Ormond et al.

Background: Hypospadias is one of the most common urogenital congenital anomalies affecting baby boys. Prevalence estimates in Europe range from 4 to 24 per 10,000 births, depending on definition, with higher rates reported from the United States. Relatively little is known about potential risk factors, but a role for endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) has been proposed.

Objective: Our goal was to elucidate the risk of hypospadias associated with occupational exposure of the mother to endocrine-disruptor chemicals, use of folate supplementation during pregnancy, and vegetarianism.

Design: We designed a case-control study of 471 hypospadias cases referred to surgeons and 490 randomly selected birth controls, born 1 January 1997-30 September 1998 in southeast England. Telephone interviews of mothers elicited information on folate supplementation during pregnancy and vegetarianism. We used a job exposure matrix to classify occupational exposure.

Results: In multiple logistic regression analysis, there were increased risks for self-reported occupational exposure to hair spray [exposed vs. nonexposed, odds ratio (OR) = 2.39 ; 95% confidence interval (CI) , 1.40-4.17] and phthalate exposure obtained by a job exposure matrix (OR = 3.12 ; 95% CI, 1.04-11.46) . There was a significantly reduced risk of hypospadias associated with of folate use during the first 3 months of pregnancy (OR = 0.64 ; 95% CI, 0.44-0.93) . Vegetarianism was not associated with hypospadias risk.

Conclusions: Excess risks of hypospadias associated with occupational exposures to phthalates and hair spray suggest that antiandrogenic EDCs may play a role in hypospadias. Folate supplementation in early pregnancy may be protective.

Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 117, Number 2, February 2009

4 February, 2009

Wearing thongs leaves feet exposed to skin cancer

This sounds logical but it won't separate many Australians from their favourite footwear

THE nation's thong lovers are putting their lives at risk, an expert has warned, with their exposed feet putting them at greater risk of skin cancer. Queensland dermatologist Catherine Faulkner said thongs left their wearers dangerously exposed to skin cancer. "Often sunscreens are washed off the top of the feet when people walk through water, so we do see quite a lot of skin cancers on the top of the feet," she said.

People should check not only the tops of their feet but also their soles and underneath nails for suspicious signs, she said. "The real danger is under the feet because it's not a place you look. "It's also where you get this dangerous and more aggressive melanoma, which is often diagnosed late."

The other body parts often forgotten when applying sunscreen are the lower lip; scalp; tops of the ears; and the area between the nose and eyes. Cancer Council Queensland statistics show almost half of all Australians will develop some form of skin cancer. Sunscreen sprayers, from corporate skin cancer awareness campaigner Suncorp, will visit South Bank today to give away hats and sunscreen.


Insulin may be key to fighting Alzheimer's disease

This study is still in vitro ("test-tube") so is very early days yet

Insulin, the hormone that regulates levels of sugar in the blood, may slow or prevent memory loss caused by Alzheimer’s disease, a study suggests. Researchers examining the effects of diabetes drugs on the brain have found that the medication appears to protect cells responsible for the formation of memory. The work offers further support for the theory that Alzheimer’s could be caused by a form of diabetes linked to the body’s failure to produce and process insulin effectively. It raises hopes of the development of new treatments for Alzheimer’s, which is incurable and is characterised by progressive memory loss and mental decline. About 700,000 people in Britain have dementia, with most suffering from Alzheimer’s.

The latest study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concludes that insulin may slow or prevent the memory loss caused by toxic proteins which attack the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers. The team of researchers from Northwestern University in Illinois and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil carried out a study that involved treating neurons taken from one of the brain’s memory centres – the hippocampus – with insulin and the diabetes drug rosiglitazone. Cells in the hippocampus are susceptible to damage caused by amyloid beta-derived diffusible ligands (ADDLs), toxic proteins that build up in people with Alzheimer’s.

ADDLs attack the synapses – the junctions between nerve cells through which impulses pass – which help form memory. After the proteins have attached, the synapses lose their capacity to respond to incoming information, resulting in memory loss. The researchers discovered that damage to neurons exposed to ADDLs was blocked by insulin, which stopped the proteins from attaching to the cells. The insulin-sensitising drug rosiglitazone enhanced protection afforded by low levels of insulin, the study showed.

William Klein, a professor of neurobiology and physiology at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and a researcher in Northwestern University’s Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Centre, said: “Therapeutics designed to increase insulin sensitivity in the brain could provide new avenues for treating Alzheimer’s disease. “Sensitivity to insulin can decline with ageing, which presents a novel risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Our results demonstrate that bolstering insulin signalling can protect neurons from harm.”

Fernanda De Felice, lead author and an associate professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, said: “The discovery that anti-diabetic drugs shield synapses against ADDLs offers new hope for fighting memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.” Sergio Ferreira, another member of the research team and a professor of biochemistry in Rio de Janeiro, added: “Recognising that Alzheimer’s disease is a type of brain diabetes points the way to novel discoveries that may finally result in disease-modifying treatments for this devastating disease.”

The findings were welcomed by campaigners in the UK. Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust, said it was known that diabetics were at a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s and the study reinforced the link between insulin and brain function. “The study sheds light on how insulin interacts with amyloid, a toxic protein found in Alzheimer’s. The most exciting implications are that some diabetes drugs have the potential to be developed as Alzheimer’s treatments," she said. Ms Wood said that the Alzheimer’s Research Trust was also funding work looking at how insulin acts on the brain, which it hopes will lead to new treatments.


3 February, 2009

Dangerous Astroturf

No demonstrated harm but panic needs no proof. As always, the toxicity is in the dose and official standards are already super-cautious. Note that there is no mention of the soil bacteria in natural fields that can cause illness. At least we KNOW those threats exist, unlike the speculation below

For two decades, state public health officials have waged a massive campaign to eliminate children's exposure to lead, yet some specialists are concerned that the toxic element may have found its way into schools in the form of artificial turf fields. While industry officials maintain the fields are safe, the Globe recently commissioned tests of artificial grass at several city and suburban high schools in Massachusetts and found varying amounts of lead in the artificial surfaces.

The fake green grass rolled out in the fall at Concord-Carlisle High School's football field at a cost of $3.8 million tested positive for lead in the Globe's investigation, as did Boston's Saunders Stadium, Lincoln Sudbury High School, and Charlestown High School. The football field at Concord-Carlisle High contained nearly 300 parts per million lead in the Globe-commissioned test. The US Environmental Protection Agency's standard for bare soil in children's play areas is a maximum of 400 parts per million, though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has long recommended "the elimination of all nonessential uses of lead" because of the potential health hazards it poses.

Stanley Green, the chief executive of Sprinturf, which manufactured the field, said tests his company commissioned on the Concord-Carlisle field by a lab in Tennessee showed it contained .05 parts per million lead, a much lower level than the Globe-commissioned test. "We've never had anything in the field that has caused harm to anyone," Green said. "There's never been any incident of anyone getting sick or having ill effects associated with artificial turf fields."

With the increasing popularity of the fields in the professional and collegiate ranks, cities and towns across the state have been building artificial turf fields at a rapid clip, because they are durable and can accommodate nearly year-round athletic activity. But some communities are concerned about the possible health problems the fields pose.

Constructed of plastic and a simulated dirt made of discarded old tires (as many as 10,000 in a single field), some fields contain lead in levels higher than communities anticipated. An artificial turf field in East Harlem, N.Y., was slated for removal last month when local health officials determined it contained 500 parts per million lead. "There's no safe level of lead; let's be clear on that," said Don Mays, senior director of product safety at the Consumer's Union, publisher of Consumer Reports. The Consumer's Union and the CDC called for additional testing of artificial turf fields after lead levels at two older fields in New Jersey forced their closure in the summer. "What we've seen is lead creeping back into products we assumed didn't have lead in them," Mays said, "like vinyl products and playing fields."

Problems with lead surfaced last year, when public health workers measuring run-off at a landfill in New Jersey found high lead concentrations in two playing fields nearby. Local officials closed both out of fear that athletes were swallowing or inhaling lead dust emanating from worn plastic grass. The CDC issued an official health advisory in June saying the "potentially unhealthy levels of lead dust" found on the New Jersey fields raised concern and warranted additional testing. The Consumers Union has also advocated for additional testing of the fields.

For years, the CDC has called lead dust one of the biggest known health hazards to children and has funneled millions into reducing it in the environment. The agency has said that age, weathering, exposure to sunlight, and wear and tear can cause dust to form on older or well-used fields. "At this time, CDC does not yet understand the potential risks associated with exposure to dust from worn artificial turf," the CDC advisory said. People playing on dusty turf fields should undertake "aggressive hand and body washing" for at least 20 seconds with warm water afterward and launder team uniforms after playing on the fields.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, the national agency with the power to recall products found to be dangerous or unhealthy, evaluated the artificial turf in the New Jersey fields and found that "young children are not at risk from exposure to lead in these fields." The commission asked artificial turf manufacturers to voluntarily reduce lead in their product. The leading manufacturers agreed to lower lead used to color synthetic turf to 300 parts per million by the year 2011 and to 100 parts per million or less by the year 2012. Previously constructed fields, however, would not be affected.

Mary Jean Brown, chief of the CDC's lead poisoning prevention branch in Atlanta, said preschool children are most susceptible to lead poisoning. In recent years, the average lead level in youth blood testing has dropped from 17 micrograms per deciliter in the 1970s to a current level of 1.2 micrograms (The CDC considers a blood lead level of 10 to be of concern.) Brown said high levels of lead in children's blood in the past have been attributed to paint and the use of the element as an additive in gas (which was banned in 1996). Lead in lower levels might exist in artificial turf and could be ingested or inhaled by children, and while not a dire health threat to children or adults alike, precautions should still be taken, she said.

The American Academy of Pediatricians has said there is no safe level of lead exposure and suggests levels no higher than trace amounts - 40 parts per million - in soil. "We always have to be concerned about new lead added into our environment," said Helen Binns, a member of the academy who specializes in child lead poisoning. "We need to look seriously at the choices that are made and what they would introduce." Excessive lead exposure has been linked to severe mental retardation, stunted growth, and death. [In very high doses]

Amato, a member of the Synthetic Turf Council, an industry group, dismissed concerns about lead in an interview. Synthetic turf is an off-shoot of the carpet industry, and carpeting often contains low levels of lead that cause no public health threat. So do other plastics, such as twisting telephone cords. Any lead found in artificial turf grass is inert and encapsulated in plastic, he said. "It's not a health risk for children," Amato said of the fields. "These things get blown out of proportion."

More here

A quite remarkable good news story

For almost 100 years, the ascent of Mount Everest has been a powerful symbol of human endeavour. But for Andrew Hodgkinson, trekking 18,000ft to its base camp was an exquisite expression of how a disabling disease could be conquered - thanks to a remarkable new treatment.

For more than 20 years Andrew has suffered with AS, ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable form of arthritis. It affects the spine, especially the lower back. No one knows what triggers the disease, but as in all arthritis, the soft joint tissues - in this case, those of the spine - become inflamed. This results in the vertebrae being worn down, prompting new bone to be formed. But the growth causes the bones to fuse together, leading to pain and immobility. There are 110,000 sufferers in the UK. 'On some days I couldn't get out of my chair,' says Andrew, who runs a garage business in Gnosall, near Stafford, where he lives with wife Sharn and children Megan, 15, and Joe, 11.

Dr Karl Gaffney, a consultant rheumatologist at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, says: 'Eventually, the vertebrae in the spine, which are normally separated by spongy discs, become fused, causing rigidity, and the sufferer can lose mobility.'

In the past, the main treatment has been with NSAIDs, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and paracetamol, which provide relief from the symptoms but do not halt the progression of the disease. But now the drug entanercept is giving sufferers the chance to lead a normal life. The cause of AS is unknown, though it tends to affect men and to strike first in their early 20s. Due to non-specific symptoms, such as back pain and fatigue, diagnosis is often delayed.

Andrew began suffering with pains in his back and a tightness in his chest as a teenager, but it took several years for doctors to detect the problem. Signs of the disease cannot be seen on X-rays until later stages, once significant damage has already been done. When there was no sign of relief, he was referred to an orthopaedic surgeon. By his mid-20s, he had become so stiff he struggled to get out of bed in the morning. A combination of X-rays and a full assessment of his symptoms confirmed it was AS.

Andrew signed up for a two-week intensive physiotherapy course which taught him stretching exercises. Once the course ended, he swam and walked as much as he could every week, all of which helped alleviate his symptoms. But by his mid-30s, he began to suffer with overwhelming fatigue. 'I was like an old man, stumbling around with a walking stick,' he says.

NSAIDs were the only available treatment at that time, but they had little or no effect. So when Andrew was offered the chance to take part in clinical trials for injectable drug entanercept - also known under the brand name Enbrel - at Cannock Chase Hospital in Staffordshire, he didn't hesitate. Entanercept is one of a group of drugs known as anti-TNFs, which work by blocking the action of a naturally-occurring protein in the body called tumour necrosis factor, the cause of the inflammation that hallmarks AS.

'I had my first injection in October 2007 and the effects were instant,' says Andrew. 'The following morning I got out of bed without any trouble. I started having injections once a week and within two sessions it had made the most dramatic difference. I had no pain and I could move freely.'

Prescription is determined by the severity of symptoms. The drug costs 10,000 pounds per patient per year and at the moment only the severely affected are eligible. Dr Neil Hopkinson, a consultant rheumatologist at Christchurch Hospital, Dorset, estimates that 80 to 90 per cent of patients using anti-TNFs see significant improvement.

Andrew was able to play football with his son and even went on a skiing holiday. He began to set himself challenges, including a 60-mile bike ride last May. Galvanised by this new lease of energy, he and three friends planned a trekking holiday to Mount Everest's base at Gorak Shep, Nepal, last November. On reaching the base he says: 'I really was - and felt - on top of the world. After two decades of struggle, I had my mobility back.'


2 February, 2009

The "Obesity" war is the latest excuse for a Fascist attack on families

People's weight is mostly genetic, tends to rebound after efforts to change it and is rarely harmful. And who draws the line to say when fat is "too fat"?

CHILD protection authorities should be called in to handle "extreme" cases where parents allow their kids to get too fat, an Australian doctor says. Parents should have their children seized if they failed to do enough to address diet problems, says Dr Shirley Alexander from The Children's Hospital at Westmead in Sydney. "We argue that in a sufficiently extreme case, notification of child protection services may be an appropriate professional response," Dr Alexander writes in the Medical Journal of Australia.

She describes the case of an unidentified four-year-old girl, who was 110cm tall and weighed a hefty 40kg. The girl watched TV for six hours a day and had temper tantrums when denied food, according to the report. Dr Alexander said despite the efforts of health workers, a "family-focused" program "failed to stop or reverse the child's weight gain".

She said child protection authorities were then notified, and the child was put on a dietary and physical activity program that soon had her losing weight. Dr Alexander's report concludes that a doctor is duty bound to "report severe cases of inadequately managed paediatric obesity to the authorities".


Looking for a faithful wife? Women with strong jawlines have more affairs, research shows

This might seem a bit absurd but it is certainly true that women tend to have smaller chins than men and that testosterone levels are higher in women with prominent chins

If you think it's obvious why some men don't fancy women with large chins, think again. According to scientists, it may not be simply because they find them unattractive. In fact, they say, a prominent chin can be a telltale sign that a woman will be unfaithful. Their conclusion comes from research conducted by a team of psychologists. They took a group of young women and questioned them on their sexual histories and fantasies. The women were then rated by a group of men on their desirability as a future partner.

The men were not told about the sex questionnaires. However, the results showed that women with larger chins were more sexually active than those with softer chins - and that men found these women unattractive. The scientists, from four universities in North America, concluded that men will shun women with such masculine features when looking for a long-term partner because there is an instinctive fear of being cuckolded.

A large chin is often the product of a high level of the male growth hormone testosterone, which is present in all women in various amounts. But a high level of the hormone increases sexual assertiveness in a woman, a tendency more attributed to males.

Men fear that a woman who is sexually active before a relationship will be unfaithful in the future. Psychologists believe the reaction against women with large chins is due to an evolutionary desire to have a partner who is faithful, so producing children for only one man. The conclusions seem to be confirmed by a look at the celebrity world. For example, the Duchess of Cornwall, who has a strong chin, had an affair with Prince Charles while married to her first husband, Andrew Parker Bowles. But actress Joanne Woodward, who has a small chin, was happily married for 50 years to Hollywood icon Paul Newman until his death aged 83 in September.

An article on the study, published in the respected journal Personality And Individual Differences, said: `The findings are important in demonstrating that perceptions of women as desirable and trustworthy long-term mates can be reliably gleaned by men from viewing only the women's facial features. `Results suggest that information about women's sexual unrestrictedness, which is related to their risk of infidelity, can potentially be conveyed by the masculinity of women's faces.'

Dr Lorne Campbell, one of the research psychologists, wrote: `It is difficult to conceal physical features, such as facial characteristics, that are partly governed by testosterone and reliably correlate with one's sexual history and attitudes. The research is the first to our knowledge to suggest that a more masculine facial appearance in women might convey their sexual unrestrictedness and perhaps their long-term mate quality.'


1 February, 2009

Here we go again: Salty soups can increase cancer risk, says expert

The salt phobia is widespread but groundless.

People who regularly have soup with a high salt content could be increasing their risk of stomach cancer, according to an expert. Soups are one of the 'worst culprits' for hidden salt, she said, and a single serving of some leading brands contains half the recommended daily maximum intake. Dr Rachel Thompson, science programme manager for the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) recommended making low-salt versions at home. She also suggested reducing intake of salt-preserved foods, such as ham and sausages, as well as pizza, some ready meals and breakfast cereals.

Salt is known to increase blood pressure and the risk of stroke and heart disease, but scientists also believe it is a cause of stomach cancer. [They also believe in global warming] The recommended intake of salt for adults is no more than 6g a day although the current average consumption is 8.6g daily.

Dr Thompson said: 'Fresh vegetable-based soups tend to have less salt than tinned cream-based soups which include bacon or ham, but even some of the healthier brands of vegetable soups still contain over a third of our recommended daily intake. 'This should be no more than 6g but we actually need far less. 'It is commonly known that salt increases risk of high blood pressure, but people are less aware that it also probably increases risk of stomach cancer. 'Even taking small steps to reduce your salt intake, such as always checking labels or making your own soup from scratch, is something positive you can do to help reduce your risk of cancer.'

According to the WCRF, the salt levels in Batchelors Soupfulls, for example, vary from 1.9g to 3g per single serving, which is 32 per cent to 50 per cent of the recommended intake, while Heinz Classic Vegetable soup contains 2g of salt per serving (33 per cent). A Batchelors spokesman said the company was committed to providing healthy, nutritious foods and was reformulating its Soupfulls brand to meet the 2010 Food Standards Agency target for levels of sodium.

Heinz said it was working to bring its best-selling soups within the FSA criteria. A spokesman for the Salt Association, which represents the industry, said a report by leading toxicological experts had found no grounds for believing that a reduction in the average daily salt intake in the Western diet would have any effect on the risk of developing any form of cancer.


British universities drop degree courses in alternative medicine

And not a moment too soon

Universities are increasingly turning their backs on homoeopathy and complementary medicine amid opposition from the scientific community to "pseudo-science" degrees. The University of Salford has stopped offering undergraduate degrees in the subjects, and the University of Westminster announced yesterday that it plans to strengthen the "science base" content of its courses after an internal review which examined their scientific credibility. Both universities are following the lead of the University of Central Lancashire, which last year stopped recruiting new students to its undergraduate degree in homoeopathic medicine.

The decisions by Salford and Westminster open a new chapter in the fierce debate about the place of awarding of Bachelor of Science degrees in subjects that are not science. Several universities run degree courses in complementary medicine, which include a range of therapies including homoeopathy, crystal healing and herbal medicine. But academics opposed to such courses regard them as misleading and damaging to the reputation of the universities that offer them.

In a letter to The Times today a group of scientists led by Professor David Colquhoun, a pharmacologist at University College London, say that they are encouraged that such courses are being closed down. However, they add that although some universities are now taking sensible actions in cancelling such courses, government policy on regulation of alternative medicine is in a mess because there is no official view on "which treatments work and which don't".

The University of Salford said it planned to wind down the undergraduate programme in traditional Chinese medicine "for financial and strategic reasons". He acknowledged that the course had been criticised by the scientific establishment, but said that the university would continue "to encourage and promote research into complementary and alternative medicine". He added: "It is not our role to comment on the views of others."

A spokesman for the University of Central Lancashire said that it would not be drawn into a debate about the scientific basis of certain forms of complementary medicine. However, he accepted that some of its courses had attracted "bad publicity" and said the university had commissioned a review of its courses in this area, which would be published at the end of March. "We have had academic debate within the university on whether these courses are scientific or not," he said.

A spokesman for the University of Westminster said the university had recently undertaken a review of its undergraduate Complementary Therapies courses as part of an internal restructure. "The review recommended that the delivery of the courses' distinctive scientific base be reinforced, along with the capacity of the department to conduct high quality research with due academic rigour," he said. He would not say whether the review had been ordered as a direct result of criticism of the courses, adding only that "graduates will continue to receive a grounding in scientific understanding and analysis".

Other universities have got around "pseudo science" accusations by offering such courses as arts degrees. The University Campus Suffolk, for example, offers a two-year foundation degree in holistic therapy as an arts course.

Other universities are more robust in their defence of their courses. Ian Appleyard, principal lecturer in acupuncture at London South Bank University, said that acupuncture should be studied for the very reason that it was not well understood from the standpoint of Western scientific medicine. Acupuncture had been used by a significant proportion of the world's population for thousands of years. "Recent large-scale clinical trials such Haake and meta-analysis from reputable institutions such as The Cochrane Collaboration, have shown that there is evidence to support the therapeutic benefits of acupuncture treatment for back pain and migraine," he said. [That is a barefaced lie. The studies he mentions showed that acupuncture had placebo benefits only]