Monitoring food and health news

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

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

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

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


31 January, 2009

Nutritionist sceptical of sausage-leukaemia link

Some cautious journalism for a change

Children who regularly eat cured and processed meat may be at a greater risk of leukaemia, a study suggests, but an Australian nutritionist says parents need not panic if their children have been tucking into hot dogs and salami.

Scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health surveyed 515 children and teenagers from Taiwan, some of whom had leukaemia, and found that those who ate cured meat or fish regularly were 74 per cent more likely to develop the disease. Those who ate vegetables and soy-based foods regularly were 50 per cent less likely than their meat-eating counterparts to develop leukaemia.

However, the study, published in the online journal BMC Cancer, did not include a detailed examination of why the foods caused the higher incidence of cancer, and Australian researchers have questioned the findings. The Cancer Council NSW nutritionist Kathy Chapman said: "It's a very small sample size to be making these kinds of associations between diet and cancer risk. "Normally when we look at a study like this you would be looking at 20,000 participants.

"Also, the best type of studies are those which follow people up over time rather than asking them what they did in the past. I don't think it's time for parents to be panicking if their kids have been tucking into the hot dogs over the school holidays." The authors of the study have acknowledged their research is not definitive but recommend that children not eat large amounts of cured meat and fish.


Food packaging chemicals may reduce fertility

And pigs might fly. There have been so many of these scares based on the most tenuous evidence. Proper caution is expressed below, however

Chemicals found in food packaging, pesticides and household items may be linked to lower fertility among women, new research has suggested. A study of 1,240 women has found that those with higher levels of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in their bloodstreams tend to take longer to become pregnant than those with lower levels. The findings, from scientists at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), raise the prospect that exposure to the chemicals could be contributing to infertility. The study is published in the journal Human Reproduction.

The research, however, is preliminary and needs to be repeated. There is not yet any evidence that the association between the chemicals and lower conception rates is causative. It remains possible that higher blood concentration of the chemicals are the result of another factor that affects fertility, such as obesity. Women who eat more packaged food and thus consume more PFCs, for example, may be more likely to be obese and to have lower fertility as a result. Professor Jorn Olsen, of UCLA, who led the research, said: “We are waiting for further studies to replicate our findings in order to discover whether PFCs should be added to the list of risk factors for infertility.”

Professor Tony Rutherford, chairman of the British Fertility Society, described the link as tenuous, but interesting and worth following up. “This is an important finding and certainly warrants further detailed research, particularly in those trying for a family,” he said. David Coggon, Professor of Occupational and Environmental Medicine at the University of Southampton, said: “This is an interesting preliminary finding that may or may not turn out to be important. “We first need to see whether it can be confirmed in other studies. It would also be helpful to establish the main determinants of exposure to the chemicals in the general population.”


30 January, 2009

Active sex life supposedly 'cuts prostate cancer risk' - once you're over fifty

This is all self-report and self-report is maximally unreliable in sexual matters. It is probably more a study of attributions than of behaviour

Having an active sex life in their 50s could protect men against prostate cancer, say researchers. But greater levels of sexual activity among men in their 20s could increase their chances of developing the disease in later life, they warn. Men who are `very' sexually active in their 20s and 30s are more at risk, a study shows. Researchers at Nottingham University conclude that keeping up a regular sex life - rather than excessive activity in younger years followed by a fallow period - is best for men's health.

Dr Polyxeni Dimitropoulou, now at the University of Cambridge, said: `We were keen to look at the links between sexual activity and younger men as a lot of prostate cancer studies focus on older men as the disease is more prevalent in men over 50. Hormones appear to play a key role in prostate cancer and it is very common to treat men with therapy to reduce the hormones thought to stimulate the cancer cells. `A man's sex drive is also regulated by his hormone levels, so this study examined the theory that having a high sex drive affects the risk of prostate cancer.'

Each year 30,000 new cases of prostate cancer are diagnosed in Britain. The disease remains the second most common cause of death for men in the UK, killing 10,000 a year. The study looked at the sexual practices of more than 431 men who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in their 50s, compared with 409 cancer- free men.

Engaging in sexual activity more than 20 times a month between the 20s and 30s increased the risk of prostate cancer, says a report in this month's issue of the British Journal of Urology International. But frequent activity in a man's 40s and later appeared to have little impact on their risk. Men in their 50s who were most sexually active, engaging in sexual activity more than ten times a month, had a `small' level of protection against the disease.

Dr Dimitripolou said: `One theory is that during the early years the prostate gland is more susceptible to hormonal changes and is still developing. `As men age and accumulate toxins from the diet or through their lungs, sexual activity may help release them.'

SOURCE reminder service signs up 100,000 people

My wife once said something very wise to me: "All women hate to be told they are hormonal -- especially when they are!" I have been known to mark a calendar myself

ONE hundred thousand men sick of copping a monthly serve from cranky wives and girlfriends have signed up for an online reminder service that warns when pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) is about to hit., the brainchild of a 28-year-old bloke whose mates were too often in cycle-related strife, is designed for men who have a darling of a partner for three weeks of the month - and a demon for the rest. The reminders include pithy messages of encouragement such as "She's on yellow - tread carefully, fella" - as well as tips for how men can mitigate the damage. It tells men never to ask if a woman has PMS, and if all else fails to buy flowers, deemed to be "kryptonite to PMS."

Championing itself on the catchcry, "saving relationships one month at a time," the website also features a "national alert level" indicator for the US, showing how many women have PMS each day as well as the "overall threat index" on a scale of 1-4. CEO and founder Jordan Eisenberg developed after friends talked about the world-class diplomacy men needed to bring up the topic of PMS with their partners. "It's hard for guys to know if they did something to piss of their lady and hard to remember when PMS is, and always awkward to confront and ask the question without coming off like a jerk," he told "One of the guys actually kept track in his daily planner, and from there we decided to automate this process and offer it to the masses."

He admits that while functionality is first and foremost, some women may find the idea of their cycles being "tracked" a tad offensive. "Certainly some do," says Eisenberg, "but the majority do feel it is helpful, and the remainder at least get a kick and a laugh out of it. "Those in relationships have been overwhelmingly supportive and many have actually signed themselves up to warn their boyfriends (or) husbands. If anything, we feel we can minimise unnecessary fights by allowing men to offer some slack."

PMSBuddy started nine months ago and is now tracking the menstrual cycles of more than 100,000 women worldwide, including 4000 in Australia and 1000 in New Zealand via the site and a Facebook application. Users enter the date and length of a woman's last cycle. Women can sign up to send reminders to up to five men in their life. Anything from one to five days notice can be specified, allowing for warnings of various degrees of danger in the form of yellow, green and red alerts.

Eisenberg has received hundreds of emails of praise from both men and women, he said. And if the online forums are anything to go by, it has certainly stirred some controversy. Both women and men have written in with stories of PMS experiences, including one male who describes the once monthly bus that shows up to take his wife "to crazy town," and another who suggests all males should "just go and play golf" for a week.


29 January, 2009

Cosmetic physicians warn that Botox linked to birth defects

The evidence for this has got more holes than a colander but the caution is not unreasonable. Botulinum toxin is one of the most toxic substances known

WOMEN contemplating injections of the anti-wrinkle treatment Botox have been warned it can cause birth defects in babies - including blindness and deafness. The Cosmetic Physicians Society of Australasia yesterday urged members to stick to national guidelines for the use of Botox. It follows reports last month of a case in 2005 in which a link was made between a child born deaf and blind and its mother's use of an anti-wrinkle treatment during pregnancy.

"Botulinum toxin should not be prescribed to pregnant women and we advise members to strictly follow these guidelines," said the CPSA's Dr Gabrielle Caswell. "Botulinum toxin has a long history of efficacy and a robust safety profile, however there are some circumstances, such as during pregnancy, breastfeeding, glaucoma and neuromuscular disease where it is not an appropriate medication."

The 2005 case did not involve Botox but a rival botulinum type A toxin drug called Dysport. In 2007, Australians spent about $300 million on non-invasive cosmetic treatments including Botox.


Diet pill side-effects

For years I've been searching for the next quick fix - the miracle diet, the revolutionary gym class or the ultimate fat-busting pill. In fact, I'll do anything to lose weight. Anything, that is, except eat less and exercise more. That's why I was so excited when I first heard about the fat-busting pill Alli, which has just been licensed to be sold over-the-counter in Britain.

A year ago the Daily Mail told how this medically proven obesity drug was already on sale in the US. I couldn't wait to try it. It seemed like the answer to my prayers - finally a little pill to take with every meal that would help me lose weight without any effort. But there was one problem - it was then available only in America. So when a friend suggested a long weekend in New York, the tickets were booked before you could say 'obesity epidemic'.

Arriving in Manhattan, Alli tablets weren't hard to find. The first pharmacy I went into had them. I chose the 90-capsule pack - enough for a month - which, with the exchange rate being so good at the time, cost around 25 pounds. The pack was full of little booklets offering advice on diet, exercise, how to take the pills and their side-effects. They explained that Alli is produced from the drug orlistat, which prevents your body absorbing some of the fat in the food you eat. The undigested fat is then flushed out of your body in your bowel movements. It's a half-strength version of the weight-loss drug Xenical, which is available both in the US and Britain and works in the same way but is only available with a doctor's prescription.

Alli, medical tests had proved, helped increase weight loss by about 50 per cent. So if I went on a diet and lost 2lb in a week, it could be increased to 3lb with the drug. Fantastic! Or so I thought until I read about the side-effects both in the leaflets and in all the testimonies online. Flatulence, diarrhoea and stomach pain were quite common. But I was desperate. I've been 2st overweight for as long as I can remember. I've done every diet known to man, from the Cabbage Soup Diet (great for a week but impossible to sustain any longer) to the Atkins (incredibly difficult for a strict vegetarian like myself). And I'm an emotional eater - if I'm feeling a bit low, I use crisps and biscuits to cheer myself up. So nothing short of risk of death was going to stop me taking Alli tablets.

I'm (unsurprisingly) no stranger to diet pills. I've tried lots of natural ones like Hoodia, a plant which claims to suppress your appetite, and LIPObind which, like Alli, reduces the amount of fat your body absorbs, but with no success. Around four years ago I was even so desperate that I bought appetite suppressant, Reductil, a prescription-only drug, online. I filled in a form and a doctor who didn't know my medical history happily prescribed it for me.

I lost 4lb in the first week - and certainly didn't feel as hungry as normal but the side-effects put me off. At first I felt a raging thirst and had a dry mouth. After a few days, I felt tense, ratty and was unable to sleep. I lost a stone but, even so, I didn't want to repeat the experience.

But Alli seemed different. Most of the side-effects seemed tolerable and there was a chance I might not even suffer them. Most importantly, it had been passed by America's Food And Drug Administration as safe to sell over the counter. Plus I'd read countless testimonies on line of women allegedly `achieving the impossible' with this drug. I dared to hope that I too may be one of them and swallowed my first little blue pill - one to be taken with each meal that contained fat.

The 90-capsule tub lasted about five weeks and the pills seemed to work well. Side-effects were minimal - a few stomach cramps, a little flatulence but nothing I couldn't cope with - and I lost 6lb, more than I'd normally expect to lose without going on a really hard-core diet. It seemed I'd finally found the solution to my weight problems. But Alli still wasn't available in Britain and although by now it could be bought off the internet, I couldn't stretch to 100 pounds for 60 tablets. It wasn't until last summer that I managed to get back to America to buy some more. Again I had only mild side-effects to begin with but, as the first month ended, I realised the weight wasn't coming off.

Even though I was eating about the same as last time - typically non-sugary cereal with low-fat milk for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and Quorn and vegetables for supper, with fruit snacks - I lost only a pound or two in four weeks. I would have expected to lose that amount anyway, given the amount I was eating. Yes, I'd have bad days when I'd give in and scoff a muffin, but to be honest, I expected better results.

Towards the end of October the drug's side-effects really began to kick in. Every morning I suffered from diarrhoea and agonising stomach cramps. The advice from Alli is that such problems can be controlled if you reduce the amount of fat you eat to around 15g per meal. I genuinely think I did this most of the time, but I still suffered. It got to the stage that I was so afraid of the side-effects, if I was going to eat something that I knew had a bit too much fat in, I wouldn't take the tablet. But still I was suffering from the side-effects.

By December the diarrhoea had cleared up but by then, I'm mortified to say, flatulence had become a real problem. If it wasn't for the fact I work from home and have no colleagues to worry about, I think I would have thrown the Alli in the bin. Plus there was the chronic discomfort. Each night, my stomach was incredibly bloated, like it was pumped full of gas. And each week it got worse. But last week I got on the scales and finally had to face facts. Since November, I've lost only 4lb. In the meantime I've suffered horrible side-effects and my social life has been totally disrupted. I've been in denial, but the truth is, for me, with Alli the problems far outweigh the benefits. So I've stopped taking them and am waiting for my body to get back to normal. Three days on I'm still getting cramps and wind.

Upset at why Alli didn't work for me I did a bit more research. What I discovered made me wish I'd never taken it in the first place. Judy More, a registered dietician, struggled to mask her exasperation when she told me: `If you're prepared to stick rigidly to a low-fat diet, then Alli (or orlistat as it is also known) might help you. `But if you're not, you have to be prepared for some very disagreeable side-effects. `Now it is going to be available over the counter, I have to assume the company has done the necessary research into the potential long-term health implications. 'I can see how it might help some people, but if someone really wants to lose weight, you need to motivate them to change their habits, giving them a pill isn't going to be the magic bullet that I have no doubt this will be marketed as.'

Dr Sidney Wolfe was even more direct. He says: `The drug works by inhibiting absorption of fats, and as a result the absorption of critical fat-soluble vitamins, such as vitamins A and E. Unless these are replaced, a patient could become vitamin deficient. `And, aside from the really unpleasant side-effects, which mean the company itself advises you to wear dark clothing and carry a change of clothes, we have many concerns about the long-term health implications.

`Not least is the fact that Roche's own data showed a correlation between the drug and the formation of pre-cancerous lesions in the colon. Furthermore, randomised control trials on orlistat also suggested there was a link with breast cancer, something that has still not been resolved.

More here

28 January, 2009

Now you CATCH obesity ...spreading fat cells are linked to a virus

Sounds unlikely. Medicalizing a social problem again, I would think

Obesity can be 'caught' from another individual in the same way as a cold, scientists suggest. The condition has been linked to a highly-infectious virus which causes sniffles and sore throats. Spread by dirty hands, the adenovirus apparently attacks tissue and causes fat cells to multiply - leading to massive weight gain. Previous studies have shown that chickens and mice infected with the bug put on weight more quickly than uninfected animals - even when they do not eat more. Now human studies show that almost a third of obese adults carry the virus compared with 11 per cent of lean men and women.

Professor Nikhil Dhurandhar, who led the research, said the bug continues to add weight gain long after those infected recover from their cough or cold. He told BBC2's Horizon programme, to be shown at 9pm tonight: 'This virus goes to the lungs and spreads through the body. 'It goes to various organs and tissues such as the liver, kidney, brain and fat tissue. 'When this virus goes to fat tissue it replicates, making more copies of itself and in the process increases the number of new fat cells [why and how?], which may explain why the fat tissue expands and why people get fat when they are infected with this virus.'

The professor, from Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana, said victims could remain infectious for up to three months. 'But people could be fat for reasons other than viral infections so it's really pointless to try to avoid fat people to avoid infection,' he said.

Learning more about adenovirus's role in weight gain could speed the development of an antiobesity vaccine, or drugs to tackle the condition. British obesity experts, however, dismissed evidence of a link with adenovirus as 'sparse'. Tam Fry, of the Child Growth Foundation, said: 'You are much more likely to pick up the flu than obesity. In general, obesity is down to eating more than you need and not exercising as much as you should.'

Dr Ian Campbell, a GP and medical director of the charity Weight Concern, said: 'A virus will never be the reason for why we have an obesity epidemic. 'There are far too many other factors, starting with our calorie intake exceeding our expenditure, and that's because we live such sedentary lives. 'Our dietary habits have changed beyond belief and I don't believe that's the effect of a viral infection - it is the fault of the commercial expansion of companies making unhealthy foods.'

Professor Colin Waine, past president of the National Obesity Forum, said: 'What we don't want to lose sight of is that if people can lose 5 to 10 per cent of their weight, the benefits on health are disproportionately good.'

Tonight's documentary also features research which could explain why dieters feel permanently hungry and often regain the weight they have lost. Dr Rudy Leibel, from Columbia University in New York, said individuals have a ' natural body weight' to which they are programmed to return after dieting. So naturally overweight people who diet will always suffer hunger pangs, even if they become lean and healthy. 'Individuals have a biology which determines how tall or short they will be and how skinny or fat they will be, and wishing it one way or the other really cannot change it that much.'


IVF advance promises leap in success rates

Success rates for IVF could be improved dramatically by a pioneering new IVF test that promises to help thousands of infertile couples to start a family. The new procedure, developed by British scientists, selects the most viable eggs for use in fertility treatment, by screening out those with genetic defects that would cause them to fail. A British woman was today announced as the first in the world to have benefited from the test.

The technique, developed by researchers at Care Fertility in Nottingham, has enabled the unnamed 41-year-old woman to conceive after 13 failed cycles of IVF treatment. She is due to give birth in two months time. The screening procedure could transform the prospects of motherhood for older infertile women and those with a history of miscarriage or IVF failure. It should also improve success rates among younger patients with a good chance of conceiving by IVF. While previous egg and embryo quality tests have been licensed only for women with a poor prognosis, the new one has been approved for any patient.

Simon Fishel, managing director of Care Fertility, who led the development team, estimates that as many as half of all couples having fertility treatment could benefit from the technique, known as Array Comparative Genomic Hybridisation (Array CGH). "IVF success rates are around 30 per cent, and reach 40 per cent only in the best clinics, which means at least 60 per cent of cycles still fail," he said. "One of the holy grails is to get to one embryo, one baby, but the great stumbling block is that only 25 to 30 per cent of eggs are actually viable. By being able to select the normal ones, we should have an impact on success rates. How great that might be we don't yet know."

Array CGH would be especially useful when only a single embryo is transferred to the womb, to prevent the multiple pregnancies that are by far the greatest hazard of IVF, Dr Fishel said. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) is seeking to reduce IVF twin and triplet births from one in four to one in ten, which will require many more patients than at present to have a single embryo transfer. "Converting IVF to single embryos is going to hit some patients very hard in terms of success rates, but if we can select those eggs and embryos with the highest chance of being chromosomally normal, I am hopeful we can mitigate that," Dr Fishel said. "I think this technology will lead towards this goal."

More here

27 January, 2009

Please keep your babies safe - with vaccines

Below is an excerpt from the heroic Sandy Szwarc (I can even spell her surname without looking it up now!). I second every word of her appeal. It is so tragic that people have been misled by attention-seeking scaremongers into abandoning the greatest ally for good health that we have

For those of us healthcare professionals who were practicing as recently as the 1970s and early 1980s, the latest news from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) went right through our hearts. The CDC just reported that a 7-month old infant died, and another four became seriously ill from Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) last year in Minnesota (which tracks illnesses more closely than many states).

The baby had not received any of his Hib immunizations, nor had two of the other children. The remaining two had only received two of their primary Hib series and none had had their 1-year booster shot. The CDC report, which was published in the January 23 issue of MMMR-Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, also found that fewer than half of the 7-month olds (46.5%) in the state had received their Hib series, a significant drop. That means we could be losing the herd immunity protection - that comes when high numbers are immunized to help protect others whose immune systems make them more vulnerable to getting sick, even when vaccinated, or protect babies too young to have yet received the full immunization series. And, in fact, one of the afflicted children was especially defenseless: a 3-year old who had an immunodeficiency.

With considerable relief, we thought Hib had been pretty much eradicated here, thanks to the Hib vaccine that became available in 1987, and most children were routinely getting the vaccine by the early 1990s. Before then, about one in every 200 babies and children under age five came down with invasive Hib infections and it seemed like we cared for a child terribly sick with meningitis or pneumonia nearly every week.

By around 1994, Hib had become so rare - the CDC has found fewer than ten Hib-related deaths a year since then - that we didn't have to worry about it much anymore. Neither did parents. And that's a very good thing because, as Dr. Lance Chilton, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico and co-chair of the Clinical Prevention Initiative Immunization group, explained, back in the 70s, about one in every 20 of those sick children died, and one in five was left with severe disability. We don't want to go back to those days.

Today, most younger doctors and nurses have never even seen a case of Hib and few parents have watched babies get sick or die from Hib. So, Hib might not seem a big deal. We can only hope that we can reach young parents and help them understand why it is a big deal and why it is important to get their babies vaccinated

It might have been tempting to disregard these cases in Minnesota as possibly as statistical fluke - except for another troubling finding in the CDC report. The children who hadn't been vaccinated weren't because of a vaccine shortage, but because the parents or guardians had refused to have their children vaccinated.....


European Fascism snaps into action again

I personally loathe smoking but I am also aware that the harm done by "secondhand" smoking is a myth. Like "obesity", it is just another example of medicalizing a social problem. The EU is doing its best to prevent the myth being punctured

The 1st international conference against prohibition which was scheduled for the 27/28th January in the EU parliament, Brussels, was blocked on the 15th January following a letter to the EU president from the anti smoking organisation, The Smokefree Partnership.

The conference had gathered a great deal of interest and support due to the fact that eminent scientists from around the world, including some from within tobacco control, were attending to give speeches regarding the passive smoke fraud.

Fortunately the organisers of the event, TICAP, anticipated underhand tactics by the anti smoking industry to prevent the conference from happening, and a contingency within a separate venue right opposite the EU parliament has now been put into place. All scientists and other participants along with live satellite links for those unable to attend in person are available in the alternate building.

In the letter that resulted in the EU venue being withdrawn Florence Berteletti Kemp, Director of the Smoke Free Partnership, falsely claims a commercial interest for financial sponsors of the conference offering no factual evidence to back up her allegation. She also states that - the event goes "against all of Parliament's adopted reports and the European Community's legislation and commitments on this topic", and that "it violates the spirit of the International Framework Convention on Tobacco Control."

This is clearly a demand to prevent the freedom of speech of some of the most highly recognised scientists in the field; a demand that was upheld by the EU Bureau and hidden from the parliamentary sponsor of the conference, Godfrey Bloom MEP.

Kemp also stated that - "The TICAP conference purports to develop methods and strategies to end "the use of pseudo-science" in relation to tobacco control, in contrast the WHO FCTC recognizes "that scientific evidence has unequivocally established that tobacco consumption and exposure to tobacco smoke cause death, disease and disability".

In other words, no debate will be allowed, no scientist will be allowed a platform to disagree, only those who do agree with the policies have the right to freedom of speech on this subject in the EU building.

In an unprecedented move, the EU Bureau cancelled the conference with no record on their meeting agenda and without communication or right of reply to the sponsoring MEP, who was left to discover the truth by rumours almost a week later. These astonishingly undemocratic revelations were based upon unsubstantiated false claims and a demand that no debate should be allowed, and were submitted by an anti smoking group opposed to the content of the event.

For decades the anti smoking industry has grossly perverted science for their own ideology; it comes as no surprise to us whatsoever that they are now perverting democracy and freedom in the very heart of the EU.


26 January, 2009

Want better sex, fellas? Have a stiff drink

IT gives the phrase "a stiff drink" a whole new meaning: Australian researchers have made the surprise discovery that alcohol improves, rather than damages, men's performance in the bedroom. They hope the finding, which flies in the face of conventional belief, will reassure men who worry about the affects of drinking on their sex lives. Until now, it has been widely believed alcohol consumption could cause erectile dysfunction, commonly called "brewer's droop''.

But a study of 1580 Australian men has shown the reverse may be true, with drinkers reporting as many as 30 per cent fewer problems than teetotallers. Even binge drinkers had lower rates of erectile dysfunction than those who never drank, although this type of drinking can cause other health problems. Lead study author Dr Kew-Kim Chew, of Western Australia's Keogh Institute for Medical Research, told The Sunday Telegraph men who drank within safe guidelines appeared to have the best erectile function. "We found that, compared to those who have never touched alcohol, many people do benefit from some alcohol, including some people who drink outside the guidelines,'' Dr Chew said. Dr Chew said he had patients with erectile dysfunction who had been told to stop drinking completely.

The latest finding should prevent them compounding the problem by feeling "guilty and stressed'' about present or past drinking, he said. After other risk factors were excluded, weekend drinkers, high-risk drinkers and those who exceeded alcohol-intake guidelines had lower rates of erectile dysfunction than those who drank one day a week or less. Ex-drinkers, however, had the highest risk.


Drinking apple juice could help prevent Alzheimer's disease, particularly if you are a mouse

Mouse studies do not always transfer well to humans and the result below occurred only under very restricted and abnormal circumstances. Popular article below followed by journal abstract

Research has found that consuming two glasses of apple juice a day could delay the onset of the brain disorder, which affects more than 400,000 people in the UK. Scientists made the discovery through laboratory tests on mice, which showed that those fed apple juice performed better in maze trials. Experts observed that the drink prevented the decline in the rodents' performance in the tests, which they normally suffer as they get older.

The experiments found that apple juice stemmed the production of a small protein fragment called beta amyloid, commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer's sufferers. The effect was most pronounced when mice were given the equivalent of two glasses of apple juice per day for one month, researchers at the University of Massachusetts Lowell found. Professor Thomas Shea, from the university's Centre for Neurobiology, who led the research, said: "These findings provide further evidence linking nutritional and genetic risk factors for age-related neurodegeneration. "They suggest that regular consumption of apple juice can not only help to keep one's mind functioning at its best, but may also be able to delay key aspects of Alzheimer's disease and augment therapeutic approaches."

The study is published in this month's issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. More than 700,000 people in Britain suffer from dementia, an estimated 417,000 of whom have Alzheimer's, the most common form.


Dietary Supplementation with Apple Juice Decreases Endogenous Amyloid-? Levels in Murine Brain

By Amy Chan and Thomas B. Shea

Folate deficiency has been associated with age-related neurodegeneration. We demonstrate herein that dietary deficiency in folate and vitamin E, coupled pro-oxidant stress induced by dietary iron, increased amyloid-beta (Abeta) levels in normal adult mice. This increase was potentiated by apolipoprotein E (ApoE) deficiency as shown by treatment of transgenic mice homozygously lacking murine ApoE. Dietary supplementation with apple juice concentrate in drinking water alleviated the increase in Abeta for both mouse genotypes. These findings provide further evidence linking nutritional and genetic risk factors for age-related neurodegeneration, and underscore that dietary supplementation may be useful to augment therapeutic approaches.

Journal of Alzheimer's Disease. Volume 16, Number 1, January 2009, Pages 167-171

25 January, 2009

Authoritarian British teachers scanning children's lunchboxes and censuring families for anything they see there that they dislike -- even if there is no evidence of harm

There is actually some evidence that chocolate is beneficial to health but Britain's many mini-Hitlers just KNOW what is good and bad. Evidence be damned!

Lydia has contacted me to express her anger at being "named and shamed" because of what she put in her child's lunch box. She, horror of horrors, packed her son off to school today with chocolate spread sandwiches and received a telling off from the teacher in return. "It is our school's policy to encourage healthy eating," said the letter her son brought home. "We would prefer it if your son would bring in a nutritious, healthy sandwich for his lunch."

Lydia is not happy, for two reasons. One is that today is her son's birthday and the chocolate spread was a "special treat." Two is that she considers peanut butter a "healthy nutritious" option, but her son isn't allowed it because of what she calls the "nut obsession" (all nut products are banned at her son's school). And he has told her that he is sick of cheese and tuna!

There is clearly a big problem with packed lunches. Even if you make them healthy, it's hard to make them interesting. But should treats be banned, and should teachers be getting involved with what a parent packs in her child's lunch each day? The whole issue, bizarrely, is reminiscent of a thread I was reading on mumsnet last week. It was from a mother whose child had his jam sandwiches banned! She wasn't too thrilled either.

So, have we gone healthy eating mad, is this actually sensible advice, or is it, as Lydia grumpily points out "teachers just flexing their muscles and showing us that in school, they're the boss!"


New Pill 'eases women's pain'

A NEW contraceptive pill is set to revolutionise the lives of two million Australian women after a landmark clinical trial being launched in Sydney. Doctors are hoping the new type of pill will bring relief to women who suffer debilitating pain and discomfort each month. It comes as researchers believe women on the Pill suffer "hormone withdrawals" when they stop taking it during the seven-day break. Causing addiction-like reactions, women suffer pelvic pain, headaches, mood swings and breast soreness.

The Royal Hospital for Women at Randwick is recruiting women to take part in a worldwide trial for the new pill. Sexual health physician Terri Foran said the new pill would change the way women take the Pill in Australia. "There is no reason why women have to have a seven-day pill-free interval," Dr Foran said. "A lot of women suffer these symptoms and believe they are normal or its PMT, but they don't have to (suffer). "We believe it will work but before we put our hand on our heart and declare that, we have to test its effectiveness."

At least 70 per cent of all women who take the Pill suffer symptoms that can be mistaken for premenstrual tension. The new pill shortens the hormone-free interval from seven to two days and aims to end the withdrawals. Introduced in 1961, the contraceptive uses a combination of oestrogen and progestogen. Dr Foran said that by reducing the pill-free interval to two days, the body would not have enough time to experience the "withdrawals". "The difference with this pill to others on the market is that it alters the amount of hormone given and alters when it is given in the cycle," she said. "There is a suggestion that if you can manipulate that pill-free week, you might be able to lessen the symptoms. "The shortened break might well mean they don't get the symptoms."

More than two million Australian women take the Pill, making it the most common form of contraception. Unlike other types on the market that aim to reduce the symptoms, this new pill contains a natural form of oestrogen, estradiol, which could hold the key to ending the monthly suffering. Dr Foran yesterday urged women who suffer from withdrawal symptoms to take part in the trial. At least 880 women are needed worldwide to be part of the six month trial.


24 January, 2009

Is curing your headache with acupuncture all in the mind?

Many swear it is as powerful as any headache pill – but the benefits of acupuncture could be all in the mind. Researchers have found a fake treatment is as good as the real thing at relieving the pain of headaches. An analysis of dozens of studies involving almost 7,000 men and women showed the ancient Chinese art to be better than tablets at warding off migraines.

However, fake treatments, in which the needles were placed randomly on the skin, were just as effective at stopping migraines – and almost as good at preventing tension headaches. The findings suggest many of the benefits of acupuncture are in the mind. Researchers say it is likely patients benefit from the 'placebo effect', in which care, attention and the simple belief the treatment will work, lead to improvements in health.

The analysis, published in the respected Cochrane Library's science review, is far from the first to cast doubts on the validity of the multi million-pound acupuncture industry. For instance, recent research has shown that acupuncture does nothing to boost a woman's chances of having a baby through IVF – and may even cut her odds of becoming a mother. However, other studies have proclaimed it to be effective.

In order to establish whether acupuncture helps prevent headaches, the German researchers combined the results of 33 clinical trials involving 6,736 patients. The men and women were treated for at least eight weeks in order to evaluate acupuncture's ability to ease tension headaches or the more severe but less frequent migraines. Some were treated with normal acupuncture, in which needles are inserted at specific 'energy points' in the skin. Others had a sham procedure, with the needles inserted at other points. The analysis showed the fake acupuncture to be just as good as the real thing at preventing migraines and almost as good at stopping tension headaches.

Researcher Dr Klaus Linde, from the Centre for Complementary Medicine Research at the Technical University of Munich, said: 'The studies suggest that migraine patients benefit from acupuncture, although the correct placement of needles seems to be less relevant than is usually thought by acupuncturists. 'Much of the clinical benefit of acupuncture might be due to nonspecific needling effects and powerful placebo effects, meaning the selection of specific needle points may be less important than many practitioners have traditionally argued.'

But, with the studies also showing acupuncture to be better than drugs at controlling migraines, the researchers said patients should have access to the treatment. Dr Linde said: 'Doctors need to know how long improvements associated with acupuncture will last and whether better-trained acupuncturists really achieve better results than those with basic training only.' Dr Mike Cummings, medical director off the British Medical Acupuncture Society, said: 'We certainly don't call what we do a "sham" procedure, as we believe there is growing evidence for a mechanism behind what we do. 'However, we still don't fully understand what is happening when needles are inserted, although these reviews suggest that for certain conditions, it is effective.'


$2-a-day anti-obesity pill is going on sale in Britain without prescription

A one pound-a-day pill that can help a woman rapidly drop a dress size could be sold over the counter within months. The drug, called alli, prevents the body from absorbing fat in food and helped slimmers lose an average of 10lb over six months in trials. It has been given the seal of approval by Europe's medicines watchdog and is expected to be available in pharmacies before the summer. Manufacturer GlaxoSmithKline last night described the licensing of the drug, the first of its kind to be available without prescription, as 'a significant milestone'.

In trials, slimmers who took a tablet with every meal typically lost 50 per cent more weight than those who relied on willpower. The 10lb average weight loss after six months is the equivalent of a dress size. But some dieters lost more than five stone.

However the pills do have side-effects. The undigested fat which can't be absorbed passes through the body rather than being stored, making slimmers prone to wind and diarrhoea. Alli can also interfere with the absorption of some vitamins and slimmers are advised to supplement their diet with a daily multi-vitamin pill. The drug, a half-strength version of the prescription-only diet pill Xenical, will be available to those with a body mass index of 28 and over. A BMI of 25 to 29.9 signals that someone is overweight, while those over 30 are classified as obese.

Sales of the drug, which is likely to be displayed behind chemists' counters, totalled œ400million in the U.S. in its first year. Its price is yet to be fixed, but in the U.S., where it has been on sale for over a year, it costs around œ1 a day. Glaxo has stressed that the pill, taken three times a day, is designed to enhance rather than replace the benefits of diet and exercise.

Dr David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said: 'Consumers are spending millions of pounds each year on fad diets, unproven "miracle pills" and potentially unsafe weight loss supplements. 'Medically proven licensed products give consumers the option of something which can genuinely support meaningful weight loss.'

Some, however, have questioned how well the drug will work away from trial conditions. Gareth Williams, editor of the book Obesity: Science to Practice, suggests that a healthier lifestyle would be just as effective. He said: 'Don't eat between meals, leave out food that's obviously full of fat or sugar and get half an hour's walking exercise a day. That's all you need to do.'


23 January, 2009

Scientists unravel why women love make-up

"Why" is a bit of an overstatement. "How", maybe

Women anticipate a rush of anticipation and optimism as they prepare to apply make-up, according to brain function research by Japanese scientists. The findings are the result of more than two years of research by cosmetics giant Kanebo but came as a surprise to the team, headed by brain scientist Dr Ken Mogi. The researchers had expected to find that women experience positive emotions after they had applied the make-up.

The company's "Cosmetics, Beauty and Brain Science" project determined that there are distinct cognitive activities involved in a woman's perception of her face with and without make-up. Using a brain scanner, the scientists were able to monitor activity in the caudate nucleus of the brain and confirm that when a woman sees her own face without make-up, she anticipates how she will eventually appear to others and a "reward system" is activated, releasing dopamine to give sensations of pleasure. "We know from previous research that when this area of the brain is activated we can derive pleasure from certain activities," said Keishi Saruwatari, of Kanebo's laboratories. "We interpret that as meaning that when a woman looks at her face she is imagining how she will look when she has applied her make-up. "There is a mixture of expectation, encouragement and ambition," he said. "Make-up contributes to building relationships with others and feelings of pleasure in women."

The research focused on female responses, but the team believes similar feelings may be at work when a man shaves or puts on cologne of a morning. "We can now not only put a functional value on a product now, but also measure the emotional appeal," said scientist Yasuhiko Tanaka. "By using quantifiable research, we will be able to strengthen the emotional value of a product and enable us to develop more appealing versions."


Thalidomide 'offers new hope for prostate cancer patients'

It's good for leprosy too

Treating prostate cancer patients with thalidomide and hormone-blocking drugs in alternate doses can delay the recurrence of the cancer after surgery, a study has found. The findings will help up to one third of the 31,000 men diagnosed with prostate cancer each year where the disease has spread outside the prostate gland.

Increasingly, oncologists in the UK are prescribing drugs after surgery to reduce levels of the male hormone testosterone, thereby stopping the cancer growing. In the latest U.S. study 159 men in two groups were given hormone-blockers for six months after surgery, followed by either thalidomide or a dummy drug (placebo). The average time until the cancer showed signs of recurring was 15 to 17 months for thalidomide patients compared with just 6.6 to 9.6 months for placebo patients.

Originally prescribed for pregnant women suffering morning sickness, thalidomide was withdrawn in the UK in 1961 after it was shown to cause stunted or missing limbs in babies. But researchers in several countries have now started cautiously using the drug's growth-restricting properties to slow the development of tumours, although care is taken to ensure it is never used on women who could become pregnant.


22 January, 2009

You don't have to diet to lose weight... just relax instead, say experts

I lead a very relaxed life so I wish this were true

Women who want to lose weight should ditch their diets and learn to relax instead, research shows. At the end of a two-year study, women who followed a programme of yoga and meditation had lost weight and kept it off, while those who focused purely on exercise and nutrition had not. The 'relaxed' women were also generally happier and healthier at the end of the study. Experts believe that reducing stress stops cravings for fatty foods and sweets.

The team at the University of Otago in New Zealand divided 225 overweight women into three groups, according to the paper in the journal Preventive Medicine. The first group took part in yoga, meditation, and positive visualisation. The second group focused on physical exercise and nutrition, while the third received nutrition information in the post.

Study co-author Dr Caroline Horwath said all three groups of women had successfully prevented any weight gain. But 'the most striking results' were in the first group --they had an average weight loss of five and a half pounds (2.5kg).

Dr Horwath added: 'At the two-year mark, these women were the only ones to maintain the psychological and medical symptom improvements. 'The positive results are exciting, given the limited long-term success of traditional dieting approaches. 'By learning and practising relaxation techniques as part of a wider lifestyle change programme, women have effective tools to manage stress and emotions without resorting to unhealthy eating.'

The study suggests dieting may not be the best way to lose weight. And Dr Horwath said that helping women 'break free from chronic dieting' is the key to better long-term health.

The researchers also found that the volunteers with a 'weight-focused mindset' were more likely to lose interest in the study and drop out early.


Why hungry women can't say 'no'

Oh no! Not "gender" differences. They are not supposed to exist!

Faced with their favorite foods, women are less able than men to suppress their hunger, a discovery that may help explain the higher obesity rate for females, a new study suggests. US researchers trying to understand the brain's mechanisms for controlling food intake were surprised at the difference between the sexes in brain response.

Gene-Jack Wang of Brookhaven National Laboratory and colleagues were trying to figure out why some people overeat and gain weight while others don't. They performed brain scans on 13 women and 10 men, who had fasted overnight, to determine how their brains responded to the sight of their favorite foods. They report their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "There is something going on in the female," Wang said, "the signal is so much different."

In the study, participants were quizzed about their favorite foods, which ranged from pizza to cinnamon buns and burgers to chocolate cake, and then were asked to fast overnight. The next day they underwent brain scans while being presented with their favorite foods. In addition, they used a technique called cognitive inhibition, which they had been taught, to suppress thoughts of hunger and eating.

While both men and women said the inhibition technique decreased their hunger, the brain scans showed that men's brain activity actually decreased, while the part of women's brains that responds to food remained active. "Even though the women said they were less hungry when trying to inhibit their response to the food, their brains were still firing away in the regions that control the drive to eat," Wang said.

Nora Volkow, director of the American Institute on Drug Addiction and a co-author of the paper, said the gender difference was a surprise and may be because of different nutritional needs for men and women, although she stressed that idea is speculative. Because the traditional role of the female is to provide nutrition to children, the female brain may be hard-wired to eat when foods are available, she said. The next step is to see if female hormones are reacting directly with those specific parts of the brain. "In our society we are being constantly being bombarded by food stimulus," she said in a telephone interview, so understanding the brain's response can help in developing ways to resist that stimulus.

Eric Stice, an expert on eating disorders at the Oregon Research Institute, called the findings provocative. "I think it is very possible that the differences in hunger suppression may contribute to gender differences in eating disorders and that they are likely linked to gender differences in estrogen and related hormones," said Stice, who was not part of Wang's research team.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.3 percent of American women and 33.3 percent of men were considered obese in 2006.

Rosalyn Weller, a professor of psychology at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, said she was surprised by the results and "thought the dissociation between subjective reports of hunger and brain activation in women but not men was very interesting." The results suggest that training in reducing food desires or in reacting to food cues could be effective treatments to combat obesity, said Weller, who was not part of the research team.

Weller was a co-author of a recent paper in the journal NeuroImage that studied women's brains when participants were shown pictures of food. They found that obese women had a much stronger reaction than normal-weight women in brain regions related to reward.

Wang noted that behavioral studies have shown that women have a higher tendency than men to overeat when presented with tasty food or under emotional distress. This may result from differences in sex hormones, he said, and further research is planned to see if that is the case.

Alice H. Lichtenstein, an expert in eating behavior at Tufts University, called Wang's research "very interesting ... I hope to see more like it." But, she added, a lot of different factors figure in what and when we eat. "As we learn more about the different factors that go into making that decision we'll be better at helping people regulate" their eating, said Lichtenstein, who was not part of the research team.

Obesity has been increasing and Wang also suggested that another part of the reason is changes in society. While food choices were seasonal and more limited for our ancestors, choices today are wider and the food is so tempting, he said. "You go to the buffet, you see the food, you want it," Wang went on. "Some people go to the buffet, they don't eat so much, some do. There is something different in the people."

The study was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and by the General Clinical Research Centre of Stony Brook University.


21 January, 2009

Different bacteria in the gut 'could cause obesity'

Bacteria in the gut which are crucial to the body's ability to turn food into energy could explain why some people become obese, scientists believe.

Energy is released from food by bacteria in the stomach and the body then stores the energy as fat until it is needed. But researchers say new findings suggest that some people's guts process too much energy, and store too much fat. Over time this can cause weight gain and eventually obesity.

The finding could help scientists better understand why some people are more prone to weight problems than others. Official figures show that almost one in four British adults is now obese, while many more are classed as overweight.

Billions of microbes live in the human gut, thousands of which are linked or could be considered from the same "family". They help the body to digest food, although some of their other functions are not entirely understood by scientists. Scientists looked at the guts of obese patients, those who had recently undergone a gastric band operation and thin people. They found that obese people had different types of bacteria in their stomach than those who were naturally slender. But they also found that a gastric bypass appeared to radically change the composition of bacteria in the gut.

This difference could be one of the reasons why gastric band operations are so effective, according to the scientists, from Arizona State University, the Mayo Clinic, Arizona, and the University of Arizona. Dr Bruce Rittmann, from Arizona State University, said that the combination of different bacteria found in obese patients created a situation of energy release akin to "cars flooding onto (a motorway)". He called for further research into the findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, which he said could open up new ways to tackle the growing obesity crisis.

Obesity is calculated using the Body Mass Index (BMI). Experts class a BMI of more than 30 as obese, while more than 25 is overweight and between 19 and 25 considered normal. A person's BMI score is calculated by taking their weight in kilograms and dividing it by the square of their height in metres.


Ignorance and poverty is mainly what kills snakebite victims

Ken Winkler knows his snakes, from rattlesnakes, brown snakes, death adders and taipans to little green tree snakes and even faux snakes like Australia's legless lizards, evolutionary oddballs that just look like snakes. He's treated snakebite victims, studied snake venom, heads the Australian Venom Research Unit at the University of Melbourne and is adamant that the world needs to pay as much attention to snakes as he does.

But has the physician and toxinologist ever been bitten? "Never. I take a low-risk approach. Get your collaborators to handle the snakes," he confesses, pointing to one such collaborator, doctoral student David Williams. A former reptile-keeper and now a researcher at the AVRU's Papua New Guinea Snakebite Research Project in Port Moresby, Williams says it's true he takes the bites for science -- and head office. "I've had four very serious snakebites that could have killed me. It's not the snake's fault. It comes with the (professional) turf."

Few Australians will ever share Williams's experience at the fang end of a serpent. Australia is home to the 11 most venomous snakes in the world and the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare statistics show just 1750 people were hospitalised for a dangerous snakebite in 2002-05. That's 2.9 bites per 100,000 Australians. Winkel estimates that just a handful -- perhaps two, three or four -- Australians die each year from snakebite. That's not so elsewhere. Winkel wrote the snakebite section of the World Report on Child Injury Prevention, released last year by the World Health Organisation and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). He found PNG's annual incidence of snakebite was 561.9 cases per 100,000 people. Nearly 26 per cent of the victims died. Globally, about 5 million people are bitten each year, of whom up to 200,000 will die. Others will be maimed for life, suffering amputated arms and legs.

Most of the victims live in poor tropical countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas. For them snakebite is as serious as malaria or dengue fever. As Williams notes of their predicament, "snakebite is the one illness where you can get out of bed in the morning, go out to work in the garden and be dead by nightfall. It doesn't have to be that way". Winkler agrees. Together they co-convened a clinical toxinology conference last November in Melbourne that attracted diverse international experts, also keen to alleviate the burden of suffering and deaths caused by untreated snakebites.

The result was the Global Snake Bite Initiative. The idea is to borrow from successful international collaborations like the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI). The goal is to create and implement strategies to tackle snakebite, what Winkler and Williams call a "neglected tropical disease", one not even on the radar of WHO, UNICEF and other global players. At the meeting a steering committee was formed and is busy setting up a global network of governments, antivenom producers, scientists, medical experts, agencies like WHO and UNICEF, non-governmental organisations like World Vision and philanthropists. Winkler says they're talking to the Bill and Melinda Gates and Clinton Foundations. He also has his sites trained on major antivenom manufacturers like Melbourne's CSL Ltd. "We hope to have official involvement money on the table and not just for the short-term," he says, noting that CSL supported the November conference.

To help regional experts quickly and cheaply tap into their international colleagues' expertise, the committee created an online resource, a bit like Wikipedia. People can access information and chat with one another, getting and giving advice about local problems in places as diverse as Nigeria, PNG, Mexico, Nepal, India or Bangladesh.

Sometimes the solutions can be astonishingly cheap, says Paul Scuffham, a health economist at Brisbane's Griffith University. "For example, an Australian mining company in PNG used to have about three (staff) deaths per year. They were spending about $3 million per year on antivenom. "Then they spent about $30,000 on boots for staff walking to and from work and nothing on antivenom. They've had no deaths since. That's smart."

According to Scuffham, the new initiative promises to help people on the ground get tips on other cost-effective tactics that can help prevent snakebites, improve the ability of local clinics to identify and treat snakebites and make sure the right antivenom gets to the right place at the right time.

Antivenoms, particularly, are a critical problem for cash-strapped nations, often struggling with internal corruption as well as fraudulent antivenom supplies. Williams recounts incidents of adulterated or out-of-date black-market antivenoms, water sold as antivenom and unscrupulous manufacturers knowingly selling drugs to nations that don't have the snakes for which they were designed. He says a single antivenom that counters the venom of all -- or even many -- snakes is the "holy grail" of toxicologists, specialists in animal venom.

That's where foundations with deep pockets can help make a difference, says Scuffham. Despite the huge unmet need for antivenom, demand has dropped. They're just too expensive. Manufacturers won't, or can't afford to, produce drugs for niche markets at an affordable price. "The idea being floated is that if there's a large injection of funds from an international community like the World Bank to subsidise antivenoms where places can't afford them, that would improve demand, so companies would produce more and stimulate the market," Scuffham explains.

He adds such an approach must be matched with projects to develop local technical, intellectual, administrative and manufacturing skills such that poor nations could develop "country-specific" manufacturing plants that work to international standards. "Whatever happens, it's got to be sustainable and not a windfall to manufacturers that just pushes up the price," Scuffham claims.

Meanwhile, Williams is heading to Geneva in a few weeks to help the WHO expert committee on biological standardisation to put new production guidelines online. Based on his PNG experience, he's also developed a "toxinology toolkit" that regional health officials can use to rapidly assess and tackle their snakebite problem. "Cambodia is the first cab off the rank," Williams says. His work reflects the potential Australia has to help less fortunate neighbours help themselves with a neglected public health issue. "We already have a cure on the shelf," says Williams, pointing to antivenoms. "What we're on about (with the global initiative) is getting that cure into the hands of people who can use it to save lives."


20 January, 2009

Wealthy men give women more orgasms -- in China

This has been a hugely hyped study -- presumably because people want to believe it -- but the fact that it is based on Chinese data is never stressed. That there may be genetic and cultural differences among the Chinese seems never to be considered. There is a trailing reference to Western research showing body symmetry and attractiveness also to be linked with orgasm but that is a different finding altogether. It is however an important finding. Body symmetry is integral to attractiveness and attractiveness is a sign of good health -- and rich men mostly get attractive and hence healthy women. And healthy women have more orgasms! Big non-surprise. So even the Chinese data were probably misinterpreted. It is good health that confers more orgasms, not the partner's wallet

Scientists have found that the pleasure women get from making love is directly linked to the size of their partner's bank balance. They found that the wealthier a man is, the more frequently his partner has orgasms. "Women's orgasm frequency increases with the income of their partner," said Dr Thomas Pollet, the Newcastle University psychologist behind the research. He believes the phenomenon is an "evolutionary adaptation" that is hard-wired into women, driving them to select men on the basis of their perceived quality.

The study is certain to prove controversial, suggesting that women are inherently programmed to be gold-diggers. However, it fits into a wider body of research known as evolutionary psychology which suggests that both men and women are genetically predisposed to ruthlessly exploit each other to achieve the best chances of survival for their genes. The female orgasm is the focus of much research because it appears to have no reproductive purpose. Women can become pregnant whatever their pleasure levels.

Pollet, and Professor Daniel Nettle, his co-author, believed, however, that the female orgasm is an evolutionary adaptation that drives women to choose and retain high-quality partners. He and Nettle tested that idea using data gathered in one of the world's biggest lifestyle studies. The Chinese Health and Family Life Survey targeted 5,000 people across China for in-depth interviews about their personal lives, including questions about their sex lives, income and other factors. Among these were 1,534 women with male partners whose data was the basis for the study. They found that 121 of these women always had orgasms during sex, while 408 more had them "often". Another 762 "sometimes" orgasmed while 243 had them rarely or never. Such figures are similar to those for western countries.

There were of course, several factors involved in such differences but, said Pollet, money was one of the main ones. He said: "Increasing partner income had a highly positive effect on women's self-reported frequency of orgasm. More desirable mates cause women to experience more orgasms."

This is not an effect limited to Chinese women. Previous research in Germany and America has looked at attributes such as body symmetry and attractiveness, finding that these are also linked with orgasm frequency. Money, however, seems even more important.

David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who raised this question in his book The Evolution of Desire believes female orgasms have several possible purposes. "They could promote emotional bonding with a high-quality male or they could serve as a signal that women are highly sexually satisfied, and hence unlikely to seek sex with other men," he said. "What those orgasms are saying is `I'm extremely loyal, so you should invest in me and my children'."


Early intervention works for stutter

You wouldn't guess from watching her performances in the hit TV drama Underbelly, but 28-year-old actress Petra Kalive started stuttering as a young child. "Basically as soon I was talking I started stuttering," says Kalive, who played Antonella Moran, wife of the gang member Mark Moran, in eight episodes of the award-winning crime series. "It was very frustrating, because I couldn't explain myself. People would always finish my sentences. And I thought I wasn't as intelligent because I couldn't finish sentences. That just made things worse." After an unsuccessful attempt to seek treatment in childhood, Kalive eventually mastered her speech issue as an adult.

And in the last few years, treatment techniques for this debilitating disorder have been refined. Once thought caused by parenting practices and anxiety about speaking, scientists now believe that stuttering is caused by problems in the brain, and is not associated with intelligence, parenting styles, or psychological trauma. Professor Mark Onslow, the foundation Director of the Australian Stuttering Research Centre (ASRC) at the University of Sydney, says people who stutter "process language in a different way to those who don't". This is because the brains of those who stutter both look and act differently to the brains of those who don't. "Reports show both structural and functional anomalies in the brains of people who stutter," explains Onslow. "Reports have shown that those who stutter have larger brain matter and more ridges, or gyri, in speech-related areas."

On a functional level, a study published last year in the Journal of Neurolinguistics showed that neurons in a part of the brain involved in producing sentences in speech do not connect as efficiently in people who stutter (2007;20:353-62). Following from this research, a study from the US last year in the journal NeuroImage suggests that this problem is a cause of stuttering, and not an effect (2008;39:1333-44).

Understanding these physical differences has allowed scientists to explain many, once unexplainable, stuttering phenomena. "By zeroing in on what is going wrong in a person who stutters, a lot of things are making sense that didn't before," says Onslow. "There are many reports of people that stutter having trouble playing wind instruments at concerts, and, as a group, people who stutter find it more difficult to imitate rapid finger-tapping sequences. "The part of the brain that controls fingers is close to the part that controls muscles required for speech, such as the lip, jaw and tongue."

About 1 to 2 per cent of adult Australians stutter, but a recent report in Paediatrics (2009;123;270-277) showed that more than 8 per cent of three-year-olds exhibit signs of the condition. "Stuttering starts to appear in children as soon as they begin putting words together," explains Onslow.

While irregularities in the brain cause stuttering, the condition is triggered once children begin speaking and stressing syllables -- the building blocks of speech. "Stuttering is triggered when children start learning to put different stresses when producing syllables," says Onslow. "In fact, the best treatments for adults who stutter involve reducing syllabic stress a little." It is generally thought that around three quarters of children recover naturally from stuttering within two years of its onset, without the need for treatment.

Brenda Carey, a Melbourne-based speech pathologist who is finalising a PhD on stuttering at the ASRC, says that with current practices, stuttering in pre-school is eminently treatable, and children who stutter "should not go untreated into school". Children have brains that are more plastic and adaptable than adult brains, Carey says. As a result, a child's brain can adjust and respond to stuttering treatment better than an adult. "While many children do grow out of stuttering, there is a small window before entry to school when we can treat the problem," Carey says. "If parents are waiting for too long they may miss the boat."

Kalive is one of many stutterers whose speech issue did not go away naturally. "My parents were really concerned about my stuttering -- they thought I would grow out of it, and I nearly did until I was in my early 20s when it started coming back," she recalls. Kalive visited a speech pathologist when she was six but was misdiagnosed and continued stuttering until she sought further treatment when she was 23.

Once children start kindergarten, teasing and bullying about their speech problem may begin. This intensifies the condition, making it harder to treat. "Anxiety affects speech control," explains Carey. "And if you don't have positive feelings about communication, it creates a negative cycle. You stop talking, or seeing people -- making the stuttering worse when you do speak." For some people, the effect of stuttering has been catastrophic. A study to be published in the Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, published online in July, by Onslow and his team at the ASRC found that 60 per cent of stutterers enrolled in a clinical trial suffered from social phobia.

Kalive described the difficulty of stuttering in daily life. "Stutterers are very easy to make fun of -- it's an easy joke and that is what we battle against," she says. "As a consequence of the joking you stop wanting to participate in conversations. I would only speak when people asked me a question, because I didn't want to embarrass myself. The only way to avoid embarrassment was to not talk."

Unlike the growing public awareness towards mental diseases such as depression, Carey says people generally "still feel that it's okay to laugh at people who stutter". "People view it as a weakness rather than an organic process that needs fixing. Those who don't stutter take communication for granted. It's a basic human need, and for those who risk humiliation when trying to communicate, it can be incredibly disempowering."

While treating adults for stuttering is more difficult than treating children, it is possible. The process, called speech restructuring, teaches those who stutter how to co-ordinate elements involved in speech, such as mouth muscle movements and breathing. This process is akin to learning how to speak all over again, says Carey. At the age of 23, Kalive relearned how to control her breathing and co-ordinate her speech. As a result, her stutter was impossible to detect while she spoke to Weekend Health. "Now it only resurfaces when I am incredibly tired or nervous," says Kalive. This is common in stuttering rehabilitation.

Carey explains that when people are tired and anxious, they are less able to deal with the stutter when it happens. She warns against any instant treatment solutions that claim to fix stuttering in the long term. "We know that for adults, getting a change in the short-term is very easy, but whether they will be fluent in a year is the test."

The short-term gains from some treatments are attributed to the boost in confidence and mood that a person who stutters will feel after treatment. "There is no new and glamorous treatment. Right now, we are fine-tuning the delivery of treatments that have been shown to be most effective," says Carey. Research at the ASRC is focusing on delivering treatment to sufferers more efficiently and conveniently than before. "We can now give constructive treatment in fewer hours, making it less inconvenient for the patient and less costly to the community," says Carey. Trials have just been completed into providing treatment for stuttering over the phone, and results, says Carey, "are very exciting".

While stuttering still holds a stigma that other disorders have left behind, research into its causes and available treatments are out in front. Although it is more difficult to overcome the disorder in adulthood than childhood, Australian research is working hard to provide treatment for all ages.


19 January, 2009

Open-plan offices making you sick

That firms with open plan offices might differ in other ways than their offices seems not to have been considered

The evidence is overwhelming - working in an open plan office is bad for your health. Australian scientists have reviewed the global pool of research into the effect of modern office design, concluding the switch to open-plan has led to lower productivity and higher worker stress. "The evidence we found was absolutely shocking,'' said researcher Dr Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation. "In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover. "The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.''

Dr Oommen said there was also a higher chance of workplace conflict caused by "sitting so close to someone that each time their phone rings you can get irritated''. "I think most of us, including myself, can relate to that,'' he said.

Working in an open-plan office could contribute to higher blood pressure, Dr Oommen said, and an increased risk of illnesses as bugs such as the influenza virus were more swiftly passed around. "Based on these findings, I think employers around the country need to rethink the open-plan environment in their offices,'' he said. "The research found that the traditional design was better - small, private closed offices. "The problem is that employers are always looking for ways to cut costs, and using open-plan designs can save 20 per cent on construction.''

Dr Oommen's study has been published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management.


Addictive foods?

I have bacon and eggs for breakfast nearly every morning. Am I addicted to it? This is just another attempt to medicalize a social problem

Cornflakes, biscuits and soft drinks may be as addictive as cigarettes and are in danger of advertising bans, strict regulations, high taxes and health warning labels, scientists say. These and other heavily processed foods with a high glycaemic index (GI) trigger an addictive sugar rush that can be hard to resist and leads to obesity.

New Zealand scientists reviewed evidence showing compulsive food consumption has similar underlying brain mechanisms that result in drug dependence, and argue that heavily processed carbohydrates have the most potential to cause addiction. Lead researcher Simon Thornley, from Auckland Regional Public Health Service, said foods with a high GI caused blood-sugar levels to spike suddenly, and this sugar rush stimulates the same areas of the brain associated with addiction to nicotine and other drugs. Low-GI foods produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and a feeling of contentment and satiety.He said the theory, if proven, had important public health implications.

Nicole Wigan from Maroubra said she makes sure her two children eat a balanced diet, but her son, Jack, 4, "could eat junk food all day long if I let him".

Having a school holiday treat of fish and chips at La Perouse beach yesterday, Ms Wigan said while she's heard of the glycaemic index, she doesn't do the weekly grocery shop based on high- or low-GI foods. "I don't pay attention to it, but generally we eat quite a balanced diet and if they've eaten well, they can have a treat at night," she said.

This is the first time GI has been implicated as the predictor of the addictive potential of foods. Dr Thornley said evidence showed people who binged on high-carb foods experienced symptoms of addiction - loss of control, a compulsion to keep taking higher amounts to get the same buzz - and suffered withdrawal if they went cold turkey. And like those addicted to cocaine and alcohol, people with a higher body mass index had fewer brain pleasure receptors.

Carb addicts may benefit from getting their hit of blood sugar more slowly by eating low-GI foods or even using a food version of the nicotine patch. "Just as slow release forms of nicotine help smokers recover from addiction, low GI foods may reduce cravings in obese or overweight populations," Dr Thornley and his colleagues at the University of Auckland wrote in the journal Medical Hypotheses.

GI pioneer Jennie Brand-Miller, from the University of Sydney, welcomed the study but said the assertion high-GI foods have a shorter time to peak concentration in the bloodstream is incorrect. All foods take about 30 minutes to peak, but high-GI foods peak and fall at substantially greater levels, Professor Brand-Miller said. "It's a novel idea that draws on strong evidence that glucose consumption influences levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin in the brain."

An editorial in The American Journal of Psychiatry last year proposed some forms of obesity are driven by an excessive motivation for food and should be classified as a mental disorder, or "food addiction" in the upcoming Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, Nora Volkow, wrote that the symptoms of obesity - compulsive consumption of food and inability to restrain from eating - are remarkably parallel to those described for drug dependence.

The professor of population health at Deakin University, Boyd Swinburn, said while there were commonalities between drug-seeking behaviour and the extreme measures a starving person will go to for food, labelling obesity an addiction was "far-fetched".


18 January, 2009

Left-handers not right in the head?

There is a longer summary of the findings below here. There are plenty of studies showing Left-handedness as a brain abnormality but the story below seems to go beyond what the journal article actually shows. Just the fact that it concerns females only is, for instance, not mentioned. The study is Wright, L., Hardie, S.M., & Wilson, K. (2009). "Handedness and Behavioural Inhibition: Left-handed females show most inhibition as measured by BIS/BAS self-report". Personality and Individual Differences, 46, 20 - 24.. One would think that self-reports were a rather poor substitute for direct measurement in this case too. I have probably grumbled enough about the study already but I feel a slight personal involvement with it because I too have had lots of articles published in the selfsame journal. So let me go on to make the further rather obvious point that attributing the effects to brain differences may be correct but the findingds do not show that. The results could equally well be attributed to socialization effects. Leftists might be more hesitant simply because they know they are different

LEFT-handed people make up only 10 per cent of the population, but they are more likely to be inhibited, anxious, shy and embarrassed than right-handed ones. This is according to researchers at the University of Abertay in Dundee, Scotland who compared lefties and right-handers.

The participants were given a behavioral test that assesses personal restraint and impulsiveness. The results showed that left-handers are more likely to feel anxiety, shyness or embarrassment about doing or saying what they want. Left-handers were more likely to agree with statements such as "I worry about making mistakes" and "Criticism or scolding hurts me quite a bit."

The findings could be due to wiring differences between the brains of left- and right-handers, said study leader Dr Lynn Wright. "Left-handers are more likely to hesitate, whereas right-handers tend to jump in a bit more," Wright said. "In left-handers, the right half of the brain is dominant, and it is this side that seems to control negative aspects of emotion. In right-handers, the left brain dominates."


'Marilyn Monroe' hormone discovered

The sample is a very limited one for such large generalizations and the possibility of other things mediating a hormone/behaviour correlation seems not to have been considered

SCIENTISTS have identified the Marilyn Monroe hormone that is linked to an hour-glass body shape in women, and also an increased desire to trade-up to new men. Women who have high levels of oestradoil also show elevated confidence and a greater inclination to have sex outside of their current relationship, according to the US-based research. The ovarian steroid hormone is also associated with having a symmetrical face, large breasts and a low waist-to-hip ratio.

"Marilyn Monroe is actually a really good example of a woman who was almost certainly high in oestradoil," Australian sexologist Dr Frances Quirk said in response to the research. "She was a classic hour-glass figure and because of her relationship pattern - she was a serial monogamist. "Her relationships last three or four years or slightly longer, and if you look at the men she had relationships with, they increased in status."

The University of Texas study took in 52 young women, aged 17 to 30, and checked their oestradoil levels using a saliva swab. They were asked to rate themselves on perceived desirability, quizzed on their sexual motivations and also their inclinations relating to their current relationship. An independent group also assessed photographs of the women to provide an external assessment of their attractiveness. "High-oestradiol women were considered significantly more physically attractive by themselves and others," the study, published in the journal Biology Letters, concluded. "These women reported somewhat lower levels of satisfaction with and commitment to their primary partners, and a significantly greater likelihood ... of becoming acquainted with new potential mates."

The study found while high-oestradiol women reported being "significantly more likely" to have a serious affair, they did not indicate a greater likelihood of having "brief sexual encounters". They favour long-term relationships but are "not easily satisfied by their long-term partners and are especially motivated to become acquainted with other, presumably more desirable, men".

Dr Quirk, Associate Professor at James Cook University, said because of these traits, high-oestradoil women "may also be the sort of women that other women don't like too much".


17 January, 2009

Evolutionary curveball for curvy?

Anthropological reports can be very subjective and biased, as the Maragaret Mead debacle showed. I would not put much weight on the summary below at all. The conclusions are entirely to be expected from the known anti-Western biases of anthropologists. Any fault may lie with the data she uses rather than with the author herself, however. In one of her papers she quotes one of my papers and agrees with its conclusions! The original article is Waist-to-Hip Ratio across Cultures: Trade-Offs between Androgen- and Estrogen-Dependent Traits" by Elizabeth Cashdan

Having something less than the classic "hourglass" figure may have its benefits after all. While women with curvy figures might enjoy more attention from men in Western culture, and find it easier to become pregnant, new research suggests they may also face some evolutionary disadvantages compared to women with thicker waists.

That's because the same hormones that increase fat around the waist can also make women stronger, more assertive, and more resistant to stress, according to a new study published in the December issue of Current Anthropology. Given those findings, it makes sense that the slim-waisted body has not evolved to become the universal norm, said the study's author, Elizabeth Cashdan, an anthropologist at the University of Utah.

Her study takes aim at a theory popular in evolutionary psychology and medicine: that men universally prefer women with narrow waists and larger hips because their higher levels of estrogen make them more likely to conceive a child, and less vulnerable to chronic diseases. These preferences, the theory goes, have defined women's ideal body shape over time.

The idea took root in the 1990s when psychologists showed men drawings of women's silhouettes and asked them which were most sexy. Researchers found that men gravitated toward images with a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7 - in other words, with a waist about a third narrower than the hips. Those same hourglass proportions are reportedly shared by stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Jessica Alba, and linked in medical studies with a lower risk of heart disease.

The findings troubled feminists, and drew criticism from anthropologists who said researchers were generalizing about human evolution based on samples of young, mostly white men in industrialized societies. The debate endured for years. "Many of us anthropologists have been in traditional hunter-gatherer societies and most of the women there don't look like that," said Cashdan. "So the question is, if it is adaptive to have that body shape, what's going on?"

In a review of data gathered from cultures as diverse as East African foragers and Chinese immigrants in Britain, Cashdan found that the average waist-to-hip ratio both within and across populations was higher than 0.7. In more egalitarian societies, where women played a greater role in the economy, they also tended to have thicker waists.

That suggests a genetic trade-off, with nature selecting for factors in addition to fertility and attractiveness. One possibility, Cashdan argues, is that extra doses of the stress hormone cortisol and male hormones known as androgens helped our hunter-gatherer foremothers cope in an environment where they had to sidestep poisonous snakes and went to sleep to the serenade of leopards growling. Those same belly-boosting hormones may even help modern women face stressful situations, she says.

More here

Some health myths

WHAT if someone told you turkey doesn't make you tired, or that your nails really don't keep growing after you die? The answer: Check out the British medical journal BMJ, which last month published a list of health myths. It was the journal's second study into health-related myths that even many doctors believe.

Dr Laura Mosqueda, medical director of the UC Irvine Senior Health Centre in the US, said after reading the myths the most important message was not related to the medical beliefs at all: "We are susceptible to believing unproven concepts if they are repeated often enough by 'experts' - be they real, self-perceived or self-proclaimed."

So here are the seven myths:

Drink eight glasses of water each day: The authors found references as early as 1945 suggesting that healthy people should stay hydrated by drinking eight glasses of water each day. But they say there's no evidence supporting that recommendation. Studies also show that most people consume sufficient fluids through daily consumption of juice, milk and even caffeinated drinks.

People use only 10 per cent of their brain: This myth has been around for more than a century. Some believe it came from Albert Einstein, although the authors found no evidence of that. What they did find were studies that show people use much more than 10 per cent of their brains. For example, when almost any area of the brain is damaged, it has "specific and lasting effects on mental, vegetative and behavioral capabilities". Also, imaging studies have found no area of the brain is completely inactive.

Hair and fingernails still grow after death: While it's impossible for the body to continue the complex hormone regulation needed to cause hair and nails to grow after death, this myth does have a basis in a biological phenomenon that sometimes occurs after death. When someone dies, dehydration of the body can cause the skin around the hair or nails to retract, creating the appearance of increased length. But the authors say this is an optical illusion.

Shaving causes your hair to grow back faster, darker or thicker: Several studies show that shaving has no effect on the thickness or rate of new hair growth. But because shaved hair is blunt, and doesn't have the finer taper at the ends of unshaven hair, it can give an impression of being coarse. And new hair sometimes appears darker because it has not yet been lightened by the sun.

Reading in dim light ruins your eyesight: While reading in dim light can cause eye strain, dryness and difficulty focusing, it does not cause permanent damage, the authors say.

Eating turkey makes you especially tired: If turkey contains tryptophan, and science has found tryptophan can cause drowsiness, how is this medical belief a myth? The authors say turkey doesn't contain "an exceptional amount of tryptophan". In fact, turkey, chicken and minced beef contain about the same quantity of amino acid. Other proteins, such as pork or cheese, contain more tryptophan per gram. Perhaps the reason turkey has long been accused of making people extra-sleepy is because of all the over-eating we do at Christmas. Studies show that eating any large meal can make you tired because blood flow and oxygenation to the brain decreases. Plus, meals that are high in protein or carbohydrates can cause sleepiness. So can wine.

Mobile phones cause significant electromagnetic interference in hospitals: Hospitals widely banned mobile phone use after a Wall Street Journal report cited an article detailing more than 100 reports of suspected electromagnetic interference with medical devices before 1993. But an internet search by the study's authors could not find any deaths caused by use of a mobile phone in a hospital.


16 January, 2009

Universal Healthcare and the Waistline Police

We Risk a Nanny State Contrary to American Ideals

Imagine a country where the government regularly checks the waistlines of citizens over age 40. Anyone deemed too fat would be required to undergo diet counseling. Those who fail to lose sufficient weight could face further "reeducation" and their communities subject to stiff fines.

Is this some nightmarish dystopia? No, this is contemporary Japan. The Japanese government argues that it must regulate citizens' lifestyles because it is paying their health costs. This highlights one of the greatly underappreciated dangers of "universal healthcare." Any government that attempts to guarantee healthcare must also control its costs. The inevitable next step will be to seek to control citizens' health and their behavior. Hence, Americans should beware that if we adopt universal healthcare, we also risk creating a "nanny state on steroids" antithetical to core American principles.

Other countries with universal healthcare are already restricting individual freedoms in the name of controlling health costs. For example, the British government has banned some television ads for eggs on the grounds that they were promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. This is a blatant infringement of egg sellers' rights to advertise their products.

In 2007, New Zealand banned Richie Trezise, a Welsh submarine cable specialist, from entering the country on the grounds that his obesity would "impose significant costs ... on New Zealand's health or special education services." Richie later lost weight and was allowed to immigrate, but his wife had trouble slimming and was kept home. Germany has mounted an aggressive anti-obesity campaign in workplaces and schools to promote dieting and exercise. Citizens who fail to cooperate are branded as "antisocial" for costing the government billions of euros in medical expenses.

Of course healthy diet and exercise are good. But these are issues of personal - not government - responsibility. So long as they don't harm others, adults should have the right to eat and drink what they wish - and the corresponding responsibility to enjoy (or suffer) the consequences of their choices. Anyone who makes poor lifestyle choices should pay the price himself or rely on voluntary charity, not demand that the government pay for his choices.

Government attempts to regulate individual lifestyles are based on the claim that they must limit medical costs that would otherwise be a burden on "society." But this issue can arise only in "universal healthcare" systems where taxpayers must pay for everyone's medical expenses.

Although American healthcare is only under partial government control in the form of programs such as Medicaid and Medicare, American nanny state regulations have exploded in recent years.

Many American cities ban restaurants from selling foods with trans fats. Los Angeles has imposed a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South L.A. Other California cities ban smoking in some private residences. California has outlawed after-school bake sales as part of a "zero tolerance" ban on selling sugar products on campus. New York Gov. David Paterson has proposed an 18 percent tax on sugary sodas and juice drinks, and state officials have not ruled out additional taxes on cheeseburgers and other foods deemed unhealthy. These ominous trends will only accelerate if the US adopts universal healthcare.

Just as universal healthcare will further fuel the nanny state, the nanny state mind-set helps fuel the drive toward universal healthcare. Individuals aren't regarded as competent to decide how to manage their lives and their health. So the government provides "cradle to grave" coverage of their healthcare.

Nanny state regulations and universal healthcare thus feed a vicious cycle of increasing government control over individuals. Both undermine individual responsibility and habituate citizens to ever-worsening erosions of their individual rights. Both promote dependence on government. Both undermine the virtues of independence and rationality. Both jeopardize the very foundations of a free society.

The American Founding Fathers who fought and died for our freedoms would be appalled to know their descendants were allowing the government to dictate what they could eat and drink. The Founders correctly understood that the proper role of government is to protect individual rights and otherwise leave men free to live - not tell us how many eggs we should eat.

More here

Want a warning label with those fries?

by Jeff Jacoby

THE WORTHIES who govern Massachusetts haven't been able to keep the state's population from dwindling, its property taxes from soaring, its budget from imploding, its Big Dig from leaking, or its politicians from getting arrested. But failure hasn't diminished their ambition -- or their presumption: Now they're going to keep the rest of us from overeating.

On Thursday, Governor Deval Patrick's administration launched Mass in Motion, a new war on obesity that it calls "the most comprehensive effort to date to address the serious problem of overweight and obesity in the Commonwealth." Already up and running is a shiny new website, which appears to consist mostly of trite exhortations to eat sensibly and do more exercise. Needless to say, the administration plans to spend money on its crusade, current budget straits notwithstanding. After all, if the state doesn't pump $750,000 into such "wellness initiatives" as "expanding the availability of farmers' markets" and designing "transportation systems that encourage walking," who will?

But the heart of the new campaign, as with most government initiatives, is coercion. Following the lead of California, New York City, and Seattle, Massachusetts officials plan to compel restaurant chains to conspicuously post the calorie content of all their offerings, either on the menu or at the counter. Obesity warriors want restaurants to be forced to publicize the nutritional content of the foods they sell so that consumers can make a reasoned decision about what to eat. "People often really are not aware of what's sitting on their plate," the director of Boston Medical Center's nutrition and weight management program, Dr. Caroline Apovian, told The Boston Globe. "But if the information is sitting right in front of you . . . it's hard to deny."

Actually, not that hard. When it comes to nutrition as to so much else, human beings are quite adept at denying, ignoring, or discounting information they would rather not deal with. A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Vermont found that the more often one eats in fast-food restaurants, the less likely he is to pay attention to food labels. "These . . . data suggest," they concluded, that "recent legislation advocating for greater labeling of restaurant food may not be particularly effective."

Is it really the job of the state to coerce restaurants into confronting diners with information most of them aren't interested in? The food-service industry is exceptionally competitive and highly sensitive to customer preferences; if enough diners wanted to look at obtrusive calorie charts when eating out, restaurants would already be providing them. Jacob Sullum of Reason magazine puts his finger on it: "A legal requirement is necessary not because diners want conspicuous nutritional information but because, by and large, they don't want it."

Nanny-statists find it easy to disregard consumers' wishes. After all, they reason, it's for their own good -- obesity is a deadly scourge that government must not ignore. Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach warned darkly last week that "unless we make progress" -- that is, unless the government imposes new restrictions on liberty -- "overweight and obesity will overtake smoking as the leading cause of preventable death in Massachusetts." That always seems to be the nannies' bottom line, whether the risk is said to be from tobacco, global warming, or cars without airbags: We must take away some freedom or more people will die.

But what will the government do when mandatory calorie information in chain restaurants doesn't make a dent in obesity rates? Extend the mandate to all restaurants regardless of size? To supermarket display shelves and freezer sections? Will warning labels be required on packages of Oreo cookies and Oscar Mayer hot dogs? Will new regulations prohibit fast-food restaurants and confectioners from running ads on TV or in magazines? And if our collective waistline still doesn't shrink, will the most fattening foods be permitted only to consumers with a government-approved body-mass index? Or simply banned altogether?

For at least 30 years, the food industry has been labeling packaged foods with nutritional information; with the rise of the Internet, Americans have access to more such information today than ever before. Yet Americans are also fatter than ever before. Perhaps that is because hectoring people about calories doesn't usually make them thinner. It doesn't work when family members do it. It won't work any better when regulators do it. Not even in Massachusetts.


15 January, 2009

British politician dumps on dyslexia

This is not as shocking as it seems. Dyslexia is undoubtedly overdiagnosed -- particularly when the kid's problem is no more than an inability to cope with the idiotic Leftist teaching methods that have been in vogue for decades now. But there are real cases of dyslexia too

A Labour MP has provoked anger among literacy campaigners by calling dyslexia a "cruel fiction" that can often lead to criminal behaviour. Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Manchester Blackley, wrote in his column for Manchester Confidential magazine: "Dyslexia is a cruel fiction, it is no more real than the 19th-century scientific construction of `the aether' to explain how light travels through a vacuum."

Mr Stringer, 58, also argued that there is a causal link between illiteracy and criminal activity. He wrote: "Children who cannot read or write find secondary school a humiliating and frustrating experience. Their rational response, with dire consequences, is to play truant. Drugs, burglaries, robberies and worse then often follow."

Kate Griggs, founder of the Xtraordinary People dyslexia charity, said that such comments would increase the struggle that dyslexic children have in coping with their learning difficulty. She said: "It amazes me that people can make comments like that when there is so much evidence about dyslexia. It causes great upset and distress. I think comments like this are so unhelpful for the millions of dyslexic children and their parents who are struggling in schools." Ms Griggs conceded, however, that there was a link between dyslexia and young offenders, but said that the focus needed to be on identifying and supporting dyslexic young people, rather than denying that dyslexia was a problem.

She said: "There is so much scientific evidence both from MRI brain imaging and scanning and genetic evidence across the board that quite conclusively says dyslexia does exist. It's a different wring of the brain in children who are dyslexic. They need to be identified and supported."

Mr Stringer's perceived insensitivity has come as a surprise after his lobbying in the Commons to institute an "early intervention" programme in schools to help children with autism and prevent them falling behind. In the same column, Mr Stringer argued: "The reason that so many children fail to read and write is because the wrong teaching methods are used." He accused Ed Balls, the Education Minister, of wasting nearly 80million pounds in disability benefits given to dyslexic children, when government policy should target an overhaul of the way that children are taught to read.

Mr Stringer pointed to the synthetic phonics method of teaching, whereby children were taught to associate letters with their phonetic pronunciation (reading "ee" for "y", for example). He said: "It is time that the dyslexia industry was killed off and we recognised that there are well known methods for teaching everybody to read and write."

Ms Griggs agreed that synthetic phonics was an effective way of teaching children to read, but argued that problems associated with dyslexia went far beyond reading. She said: "One of the big confusions is that dyslexia is all about reading. Some 60 per cent of dyslexic children struggle with maths, yet 20 per cent are mathematically gifted."

Mr Stringer, who was the first MP openly to call for Gordon Brown's resignation as Prime Minister, pointed to countries, such as South Korea and Nicaragua, that do not recognise dyslexia and where near 100 per cent literacy rates had been achieved. He said: "I am not, for one minute, implying that all functionally illiterate people take illegal drugs and engage in criminal activities, but the huge correlation between illiteracy and criminal activity is striking."


Vicks bad for youngsters?

One rare allergic reaction and suddenly we have a general rule!

The popular remedy for snotty kids, Vicks Vaporub, could be bad for young children. Research published by the American College of Chest Physicians has found Vicks may clog a young child's airways by increasing mucus production and slowing its removal. "I recommend never putting Vicks in, or under, the nose of anybody - adult or child," the lead author, Dr Bruce Rubin from the department of pediatrics at Wake Forest University, North Carolina, said He said cough and cold medicines and decongestants were not good for young children. He recommends salt water, warm drinks and chicken soup.

Proctor & Gamble, the maker of Vicks, slammed the study, saying it contradicts previous studies and is based on limited data from tests on ferrets, of unknown relevance to humans. "In the past five years alone in Australia and New Zealand we have had zero respiratory adverse events reported," a spokeswoman for the company said. Dr Rubin began the study after caring for an 18-month-old girl at his local hospital who developed severe respiratory distress after Vaporub was put under her nose.


Ring finger length linked to City stockbrokers' success, claim scientists

Stockbrokers with long ring fingers make far greater profits than their counterparts, claims new research. There are many studies showing significance for long ring-fingers but the effects below seem particularly large

A study of highly pressured London traders, whose jobs requires risk taking and quick responses, found the most successful had long ring fingers in relation to their index fingers. The trait - which is associated with higher exposure to testosterone in the womb - is thought to be linked to attributes such as confidence, risk-taking ability, extra vigilance and quick reactions.

Such qualities could provide traders making snap decisions on high-risk deals with a competitive edge, the research suggests. Not only did traders with long ring fingers make on average six times more money, they survived more years in a cut-throat world which weeded out the weak and unprofitable.

All 44 men taking part in the study, some of whom made upwards of 4 million a year, worked on a City of London trading floor that specialised in "high frequency" business, buying and selling securities worth billions but holding their positions for only minutes or even seconds.

The Cambridge University scientists, led by Dr John Coates, himself a former Wall Street broker, compared the profits of the traders over a period of 20 months with their finger-length. They found that second digit (index finger) to fourth digit (ring finger) ratio predicted a trader's long-term profitability as much as the number of years he remained in the business. Traders with long ring fingers made up to 11 times the earnings of their counterparts. On average they made six times as much, and the legnth of their ring finger was as influential as their experience.

The research mirrored previous studies which link finger ratios with performance in competitive sports such as football, rugby, basketball and skiing. Dr Coates, reporting in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said the findings show that success on the financial markets is influenced by biology as much as mental ability and experience. "We were surprised to find that exposure to hormones in the womb had such a strong influence on future trading performance," he said. "But we should not conclude from this that only people with long ring fingers should be employed in the stockmarket. "That is a bit like only training tennis players who are tall. It may be advantageous for their serve but that would exclude such players as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors,"

Testosterone, a steroid hormone, surges between the 9th and 18th week of gestation in the womb, exerting powerful organising effects on the developing body and brain. According to studies, these effects may include increased confidence, risk-preferences and persistence, as well as heightened vigilance and quickened reaction times.


14 January, 2009

Hormone clue could lead to pre-natal screening for autism

This is ridiculous. Few people would doubt that women are better communicators. Their verbal skills are certainly higher. So all that the report below shows is that the more male-like someone is in terms of hormones, the less good they are as communicators and the more they have male-pattern memories. But that is a long way from pointing to autism. Note that none of the kids were actually autistic!

Babies exposed to high levels of testosterone in the womb have a higher risk of developing autistic traits, research has revealed. The link to the male hormone could provide a way to test unborn babies for the condition and has added a new dimension to the debate about the ethics of screening. The research suggests than abnormally high levels of testosterone in the womb could be one of the triggers for autistic traits to develop up to ten years later.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, one of the world's leading experts on autism, measured the level of testosterone in the amniotic fluid of 235 pregnant women. Their children were later given a series of tests. When they reached eight their mothers filled in questionnaires designed to pick up autistic traits. These included whether the child preferred solitary or social activities and if he or she was good at remembering telephone numbers and number plates.

Those who had been exposed to higher concentrations of the male hormone had higher scores, and high exposure accounted for 20 per cent of the variability in measures of autistic traits. The findings were published yesterday in the British Journal of Psychology.

Prof Baron-Cohen, of Cambridge University, said the children did not have a diagnosis of autism but the research had found a correlation between testosterone produced by the unborn babies and the number of traits displayed. He said the research looked at causal factors which meant it was a long way from a screening test. But he added: `Our ongoing collaboration with the Biobank in Denmark will enable us to test that link in the future.' The prospect of pre-natal testing raised concerns that it could lead to parents feeling pressured to terminate an affected pregnancy.

A spokesman from Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales said: `The debate prompted by the possibility of genetic testing for autism in the womb needs to be channelled creatively. `What our society is contemplating are the first steps of a truly revolutionary and inhuman path. `The only way out is to rediscover the fundamental dignity and value of every human life from its first beginnings. `Without this firm moral bedrock, we are in grave danger of sliding inexorably towards a new eugenics.'

A National Autistic Society spokesman said: `Screening to identify autism at an early stage has the potential to radically improve the quality of life if the right environment, education and support can be put in place as soon as possible. `However, it is crucial that early screening or testing for autism does not lead to increased stigmatisation or discrimination. `Many people with autism and their families are understandably worried about the impact genetic or pre-natal testing may have on their lives and on public perception of the condition in the future.'


Mobile phone radiation has no short-term impact on children - German study

RADIATION from mobile phones has no short-term health impact on children and teenagers, a new study claims. The study - by the German government - measured radiation levels in over 3000 youngsters aged eight to 17 over a 24-hour period. It showed there was no direct link between exposure to radiation and health complaints such as headaches and dizziness.

Nevertheless, radiation may still result in longer-term health risks for children as their nervous and immune systems are not fully developed, the country's Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) said in a statement. "We still do not know what long-term effects the electromagnetic fields from mobile phones have on children and youngsters," a BfS spokesman said.

As a precautionary measure, the BfS urges caution in the use of wireless technology, especially for children. Half of eight to 12-year-olds and 90 per cent of the teenagers said they owned a mobile phone.


Are Restaurants Really Supersizing America? Nope

There are only so many stop-the-presses moments you get in a year, but it's not a week into 2009 and we've already encountered one. U.S. News & World Report tipped us off to a study out of Northwestern University and UC-Berkeley that backs up exactly what we've been saying all along: There is "no evidence of a causal link between restaurants and obesity."

Assistant professors of economics David A. Matsa (Northwestern) and Michael Anderson (Berkeley) released a report titled "Are Restaurants Really Supersizing America?" after looking at whether there is a causal connection between access to restaurants and the prevalence of obesity. In other words: Do people who live near (and eat at) restaurants have a greater risk of being fat than people who don't? Survey says ... Nope. Rather, the evidence suggests that people who overindulge when they go out to eat are taking in too many calories for other reasons, or that they're offsetting those calories by eating less during the rest of the day.

Matsa and Anderson go on to say that while taxing food might change where people eat, it won't change anyone's tendency to overeat. So messing with restaurant menu labeling, outlawing burger joints, and imposing "fat taxes" and other consumer-unfriendly penalties on ordinary people isn't going to dissuade them from eating what they want. And it isn't going to make anyone thin.

Finally, if proponents of the ill-conceived fast food ban in inner-city Los Angeles feel their ears burning, it may be due to this simple assessment of what's going on in public-health circles -- where food activists who love the sound of their own voices may just be wasting their breath: "[P]olicies targeted at restaurants are unlikely to lower the prevalence of obesity. Nevertheless, such policies have recently been put forward in many jurisdictions."

We're still waiting for an econometric study that looks for causal connections between obese Americans and their homes' distance from gyms, bike paths, ski slopes, and swim clubs. Now there's a result that might stop the presses.


13 January, 2009

Autism in California

The article below is a bit amusing. Its conclusions about environmental causes of autism are of course pure speculation but the lack of self-awareness is the amusing part. It overlooks the fact that California is the world headquarters of fads. And illnesses can be very faddish. And autism does seem to be a current fad there. So you have a lot more cases of autism being diagnosed because it is fashionable to attribute any problem to it. Most of the kids concerned would probably once have been simply "naughty" or "shy"

A study by researchers at the UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute has found that the seven- to eight-fold increase in the number children born in California with autism since 1990 cannot be explained by either changes in how the condition is diagnosed or counted — and the trend shows no sign of abating. Published in the January 2009 issue of the journal Epidemiology, results from the study also suggest that research should shift from genetics to the host of chemicals and infectious microbes in the environment that are likely at the root of changes in the neurodevelopment of California’s children.

“It’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism in California,” said UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto, a professor of environmental and occupational health and epidemiology and an internationally respected autism researcher.

Hertz-Picciotto said that many researchers, state officials and advocacy organizations have viewed the rise in autism's incidence in California with skepticism. The incidence of autism by age six in California has increased from fewer than nine in 10,000 for children born in 1990 to more than 44 in 10,000 for children born in 2000. Some have argued that this change could have been due to migration into California of families with autistic children, inclusion of children with milder forms of autism in the counting and earlier ages of diagnosis as consequences of improved surveillance or greater awareness.

Hertz-Picciotto and her co-author, Lora Delwiche of the UC Davis Department of Public Health Sciences, initiated the study to address these beliefs, analyzing data collected by the state of California Department of Developmental Services (DDS) from 1990 to 2006, as well as the United States Census Bureau and state of California Department of Public Health Office of Vital Records, which compiles and maintains birth statistics.

Hertz-Picciotto and Delwiche correlated the number of cases of autism reported between 1990 and 2006 with birth records and excluded children not born in California. They used Census Bureau data to calculate the rate of incidence in the population over time and examined the age at diagnosis of all children ages two to 10 years old.

The methodology eliminated migration as a potential cause of the increase in the number of autism cases. It also revealed that no more than 56 percent of the estimated 600-to-700 percent increase, that is, less than one-tenth of the increased number of reported autism cases, could be attributed to the inclusion of milder cases of autism. Only 24 percent of the increase could be attributed to earlier age at diagnosis. “These are fairly small percentages compared to the size of the increase that we’ve seen in the state,” Hertz-Picciotto said.

Hertz-Picciotto said that the study is a clarion call to researchers and policy makers who have focused attention and money on understanding the genetic components of autism. She said that the rise in cases of autism in California cannot be attributed to the state’s increasingly diverse population because the disorder affects ethnic groups at fairly similar rates.

More here

Mouthwash cancer link not proven

If the scare were well-founded, Scotland should have an epidemic of oral cancer as it is a tradition there to drink spirits (whisky) neat and spirits also have a high concentration of alcohol

THERE is no definite proof that alcohol contained in mouthwash products can cause cancer, Australia's peak body representing dentists says. Concerns about excessive use of mouthwash exposing people to an elevated risk of oral cancer has been highlighted in an article in the current issue of the Dental Journal of Australia. The article concludes there is "sufficient evidence" that alcohol-contained mouthwashes contribute to an increased risk of development of oral cancer.

Neil Hewson from the Australian Dental Association said the study was "very interesting" but it "indicates there should be more research." "There's a link between drinking, heavy drinking, and cancer, so (there is) the possible link with long term multiple uses of alcohol contained in mouthwashes," Dr Hewson told ABC Television. "But it's not proven and you can't definitely say it is."

However, most people don't actually need mouthwash if they practise good brushing and flossing, he said. "So consult your dentist to see whether you are a high-risk group and (whether) you do need a mouthwash."


12 January, 2009

Strongest drugs `double risk of death' for dementia sufferers

This is pretty disturbing stuff. Unwitting iatrogenic illness is bad enough but we seem to be looking at deliberate iatrogenic harm here

Alzheimer's patients who are given powerful drugs to calm them down are almost twice as likely to die prematurely as those not given the medication, a study has found. It is estimated that more than 100,000 elderly people are given antipsychotic drugs each year, despite warnings that they should not be given to people with dementia.

The latest research found that, after three years, fewer than a third of people on antipsychotics were alive compared with nearly two thirds given an inactive placebo, suggesting that up to 23,500 dementia patients are dying prematurely each year. The sedative drugs are normally given to people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and are not licensed to treat Alzheimer's. Campaigners say that the treatments are commonly prescribed unofficially as a "chemical cosh" to control agitation, delusions, sleep disturbance and aggression in difficult patients. Previous research has shown that the pills can accelerate mental decline and increase the risk of having a fatal stroke or developing symptoms of Parkinson's disease, prompting charities to call for their use to be curtailed.

In many nursing homes in Europe and North America, between 30 per cent and 60 per cent of residents with dementia are often prescribed antipsychotics for more than a year, the researchers write. The study, in the journal Lancet Neurology, is the first to look at the effect of giving the drugs to Alzheimer's patients over long periods. It involved 128 Alzheimer's patients in care homes, half of whom continued to take antipsychotic medications, such as risperidone or haloperi-dol, while the other half were switched to a placebo. The researchers found that the difference in survival rates between the two groups increased with time. After two years survival was 71 per cent for the placebo group and 46 per cent for the antipsychotics group. After three years 59 per cent of the placebo group were still alive compared with 30 per cent of those being treated with antipsychotics.

Clive Ballard, who led the study at King's College London, said that the research presented serious safety concerns. He added: "It is essential to reduce the widespread long-term prescription of these drugs by using more nondrug treatments, such as psychological therapies, and more research is urgently needed to establish more effective and safer drug treatments."

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the medicines watchdog, says that antipsychotic drugs should be used only in severe cases for short periods. Evidence suggests, however, that they are commonly prescribed for Alzheimer's patients for between one and two years in Britain. A report from the all-party parliamentary group on dementia stated last year that almost three quarters of those taking the drugs were given them inappropriately - at a cost of more than 60 million a year.

The study was funded by the Alzheimer's Research Trust. Its chief executive, Rebecca Wood, said: "The findings are a real wake-up call." Phil Hope, the Care Services Minister, said: "The inappropriate administration of medication is entirely unacceptable and this will be examined in the National Dementia Strategy which is due to be published shortly."


New nasal spray that could stop the flu virus from laying you low

A spray that might stop flu in its tracks is being developed by scientists. It would fight off all strains of the virus, including those behind bird flu and winter flu. Researchers at St Andrews University are developing a nasal spray that would stop people from being infected when the bug is circulating.

Flu kills up to 22,000 Britons a year. A pandemic of the human form of bird flu - which many believe is inevitable - could claim 700,000 lives in the UK alone. The current flu jab protects only three-quarters of those vaccinated and needs to be reformulated each year to keep on top of changes in the virus's appearance.

Anti-flu drugs that attack the bug are available. But they are mainly used to treat the infection and the virus can mutate to become resistant to treatment. The one-size-fits-all spray works in a different way. Instead of attacking the bug directly, it latches on to the cells it infects, stopping the virus from taking hold. Usually, the flu virus enters the cells of our nose, throat and lungs by locking on to a sugar sticking out from their surface. Once inside, the virus rapidly multiplies, before bursting its way out, killing the cells in the process.

Scientists at St Andrews have created a range of proteins that bind to the sugar, stopping the flu bug in its tracks. Targeting the sugar rather than the virus itself means the bug is unlikely to become resistant to the drug, say the researchers. And as all strains of flu use the same sugar - sialic acid - when infecting cells, the protein-based drug should ward off all types of the disease.

Following promising initial lab tests, the researchers have received funding to move on to animal tests. If these prove successful, the technology could be sold to a drugs firm and a nasal spray could be on the market in less than ten years.

Researcher Professor Garry Taylor-said: 'There are two drugs currently used for the treatment of influenza but the virus has become resistant to one of these. We think we can mask the sugars long enough for the virus not to be able to get a foothold. 'We envisage it would be given as an aerosol, a bit like an asthma inhaler because you want to get it into the respiratory tract quickly. But there is a long way to go.'

Professor Malcolm McCrae, a Warwick University virologist, advised caution. He said: 'I would ask them how long this is going to work for and how much people are going to have to take.' But John Oxford, Britain's leading flu expert, said the spray could potentially stop people from catching flu all together. Professor Oxford, of Queen Mary's School of Medicine in London, said: 'If you could cover all the sugars like a blanket and they remain covered, it would stop you from catching flu.'


11 January, 2009

Badly behaved schoolchildren 'more likely to suffer health problems in adulthood'

I have no doubt that good discipline in schools improves subsequent behaviour and life experiences generally but this study does not show it. The people examined below were schooled at a time when there was good discipline so the results are almost certainly yet another demonstration of the wide-ranging effects of IQ. It is known that low IQ people are less healthy and low IQ kids are also more likely to have problems at school. Once again high IQ is shown to be a sign of general biological good function

Badly behaved schoolchildren are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, teen pregnancy or to experience divorce, as their classmates, a 40-year study has found. Dr Ian Colman, from the University of Alberta's School of Public Health in Canada, said: "Adolescents who engaged in (disruptive) behaviour had poorer mental health, less successful family lives, and poorer social and economic outcomes in adulthood. "Given the long term costs to society, and the distressing impact on the adolescents themselves, our results might have considerable implications for public health policy."

The study looked at more than 3,500 British people born in the 1940s who were aged between 13 and 15 at the start of the study. Dr Colman's team found that teenagers who were deemed to be badly behaved at school "experienced multiple impairments that persist throughout adult life". Severe behavioural problems in schools affect about 7 per cent of nine to 15-year-olds.

Participants were rated by their teachers as having severe, mild or no problems with their conduct and were followed up between the ages of 36 and 53, when researchers asked them about their mental health and social and economic status.

Unlike previous studies, the findings, published online by the British Medical Journal, show most of the participants who were badly behaved while they were at school did not go on to develop alcohol problems as they got older.


Surge in measles blamed on MMR vaccine scare

This is a terrible condemnation of the fraud who started the scare. As soon as some kid dies of measles Andrew Wakefield should be charged with murder

The resurgence of measles in Britain is expected to be confirmed by Health Protection Agency figures showing up to 1,200 cases in 2008. There were 1,049 cases of measles, caused by a paramyxovirus, left, in England and Wales by the end of October, almost ten times the 1996 total. A slump in vaccination is blamed on unfounded fears about side-effects of the MMR jab for measles, mumps and rubella. In England one child in four has not had two doses, leaving take-up well below the level needed to prevent an epidemic. Figures to November 30 will be released today.


Australian professor identifies danger genes for deadly Kawasaki disease

Those genes again

An Australian researcher says he has made a breakthrough which could lead to a diagnostic test and better treatment for the potentially fatal Kawasaki disease. The illness is an inflammatory condition in young children that can damage blood vessels. There are up to 200 cases in Australia each year. A team of researchers led by University of Western Australia Professor David Burgner studied almost 900 cases around the world and has identified genes which could make some children more susceptible.

Lily Allen was diagnosed with Kawasaki disease before she was two months old. She is now fully recovered, but Lily's mother Amanda says they had to wait several agonising days before a diagnosis could be made. "That was the hard thing, we knew nothing of it and it just took so long to actually diagnose it, which was hard," she said. "It emotionally and physically takes its toll on you. You wonder why your baby's so sick and her heart rate was at 180 at rest, so she was constantly in pain and having trouble breathing."

Named after the professor who first described it, Kawasaki disease usually affects children aged from six months to four years. The symptoms include fever, rash, swollen hands and feet, and peeling skin. Kawasaki disease also inflames blood vessels and can cause permanent damage to the heart.

Professor Burgner says the disease can be difficult to diagnose. "It's often mistaken for Measles or severe infections, scarlet fever or even sometimes meningitis," he said. "So this is a mysterious but very serious disease of young children. "Like many diseases we think that genetics plays a major role in deciding or determining who actually develops Kawasaki disease. "And we think this because if Japanese children move to America which has a relatively low rate, their risk remains as high as it would be if they were in Japan. "And the risk of brothers and sisters who have had Kawasaki disease is about 10 times the risk of the general population. "So we think that genes are going to be important in determining who actually develops Kawasaki disease when they're exposed to whatever it is that's triggering this illness," he added.

Professor Burgner says the findings are an important first step in understanding the disease. "Ultimately we'd like to develop a diagnostic test, that's really what the paediatricians are crying out for - a bedside or a diagnostic test for Kawasaki disease, because it's a very difficult diagnosis to make sometimes," he said. "We need better treatment because our best treatment actually fails in 5 to 10 per cent of cases to prevent damage to the heart. "It's not inconceivable. In the future we may be able to develop a vaccine to prevent Kawasaki disease and maybe that will have some impact on future risk of heart attack and things like that.


10 January, 2009

A falling out among British food freaks

Lancet is taking its usual far-Leftist business-hating role

Ministers hope that the push, which includes participation from food companies such as Pepsi and retailers and an œ8 million television campaign, will ease a growing trend which has left one in four Britons obese. But the Lancet medical journal says that the decision to allow producers of fatty and sugary foods, which it accuses of contributing to the obesity crisis, to take part in the campaign "beggared belief". The Government was party to sponsorship arrangements with supermarkets "that display rows upon rows of sugary snacks, cereals, and soft drinks", it warned. It went on: "So what is the subliminal, or perhaps not so subliminal, take-home message when PepsiCo brings us sports personalities who advocate exercise?

"If you do exercise, it is OK to drink Pepsi and eat crisps?" "Ill-judged partnerships with companies that fuel obesity should have been avoided," it added. PepsiCo, the owner of Pepsi and other brands including Tropicana, has said that it will promote the benefits of an active lifestyle using sports stars, as part of its involvement in the Change4Life campaign.

The Lancet also accused the new adverts of being "simplistic". Launched last weekend, they show a cartoon stone-age family chase a mammoth and hit a dinosaur with a club, suggesting how families used to have to catch their food. This is contrasted with the sedentary lifestyle of a modern-day family shown eating a pizza and playing computer games.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health insisted that there was a strict code of conduct to which companies involved in the campaign were expected to adhere. He said: "We recognise that many organisations have influence with and can reach our target audiences in ways that we cannot. By working with these organisations, we can more effectively tackle the obesity epidemic. "This is not about saying which companies are good or bad but every company has to sign up to strict terms of engagement before they join us. Every company must help people to eat more healthily and be more active. "We have a very clear governance structure and will be very tough on companies to comply."


Childhood obesity epidemic a myth, says research

THE rise in childhood obesity has halted, defying warnings that it is an "epidemic" that is out of control. Obesity rates among children levelled off around 1998 and have remained steady ever since, exploding the myth that children are becoming more overweight than ever before. Research by the University of South Australia found the alarming rise in the percentage of children who were overweight or obese recorded through the 1980s and much of the 1990s had stalled. Timothy Olds from the SA University School of Health Sciences analysed 27 Australian studies of childhood weight status between 1985 and 2007 and found a "clear plateau" in recent obesity data.

The analysis concluded that overweight and obesity prevalence rates among children had settled at 23-24 per cent and 5-6per cent respectively for the past five to 10 years. "These findings directly contradict assertions in the published literature and the popular press that the prevalence of pediatric overweight and obesity in Australia is increasing exponentially," it said. Even in recent years, some researchers have predicted childhood obesity would reach adult prevalence levels within 30 years.

"People are always reluctant to let go a notion which is their life work," Professor Olds said. "I include myself in that because I've written quite a few papers predicting that exponential increase, but we've got to look at the facts and the facts don't bear that out."

Last year, comparative data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and a separate analysis by University of Sydney associate professor Jenny O'Dea also challenged the popular perception that children were becoming fatter by the year. Professor Olds said some still held to that viewpoint because they had a lot invested in childhood obesity. "It's a sensational story for the media, academics have built careers in dealing with and treating childhood obesity and, frankly, the success of their grants depends on a sense that it's a national crisis that's continuing," he said.

In April last year, Australia's governments added obesity to their list of national health priorities, alongside major killers such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Professor Olds said his study results should not detract from efforts to combat obesity, warning it was still too common among Australian children and was still on the rise among adults. The lull in weight gain among children could prove temporary if anti-obesity campaigns ceased, the study warned.

Professor Olds said walk-to-school programs, healthy diets and other improvements could finally be affecting the problem. He said some children could be more resistant to obesity, while others were genetically predisposed to weight gain. The recent lack of movement in childhood obesity rates could be linked to this difference. "(It may be) we've just reached a situation where we're so saturated with opportunity for inactive play, it's so easy to access energy-dense food, high-caloric food, that any child that will become overweight or obese has become overweight and obese."

Public Health Association of Australia's Mike Daube said it was probably too early to say that childhood obesity rates had levelled off, noting it had taken decades to achieve equivalent results in anti-tobacco campaigns.

Obesity Policy Coalition spokesman Craig Sinclair at Cancer Council Victoria said the sedentary, calorie-rich environments that children were growing up in had not changed. Today's children were more likely to carry extra weight, and tomorrow's health system would end up paying for those excesses through extra heart disease, cancer and diabetes admissions.


9 January, 2009

Mobile phones are finally passed fit for use in British hospitals

As one of the golden rules of hospital visits, the mobile phone ban was the most likely to be obeyed: do it, or risk unsettling a pacemaker or shutting down a high-dependency unit. But after years of dogged compliance by patients and visitors, the Government has admitted finally that the ban is based on mythical safety concerns and should be relaxed. Ministers are advising health trusts to let people use mobile phones freely in hospital - as long as they do not carry any specific risk to equipment, compromise privacy or cause a nuisance. The updated Department of Health guidance comes three years after studies found that hospital-wide bans on mobile phones were not justified, as the risk of a signal interfering with medical equipment was low.

Many hospitals have continued to stipulate that mobile phones should not be switched on or used in clinical areas, including in-patient wards, unless there are good reasons to do so. Some argue that patient privacy could be breached by people taking "inappropriate" photos and videos using the latest camera phones. Yesterday NHS managers said that patients' rights to peace and quiet should not be violated by the disturbance of constant ringtones and text alerts.

Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, said that trusts should produce a clear written policy on the use of mobile phones, recognising that they are commonplace and can provide comfort to patients and relatives. Areas where phones should not be used should be clearly identified, the guidance says. It highlights specific risks from the use of camera phones - in particular that they may be used to take inappropriate pictures of children, of patients in private places such as bathrooms or to record confidential or sensitive information about them. It also tells trusts to beware that "an essential medical device may be inadvertently unplugged in order to charge a mobile device".

The British Medical Association said that there were also strong arguments for doctors to have mobile phones, to improve communication and care.

Mobile phones were first banned in hospitals in the early 1990s because of fears that they would interfere with medical equipment, and restrictions are still widespread. But a study by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency in 2006 found that they were no more of a threat than televisions, radios and other electronic devices, and interfered with only 4 per cent of medical devices, such as specialist equipment typically used away from general wards. The agency suggested continued restrictions in areas such as intensive care, chemotherapy treatment wards or special care baby units.

Continuing restrictions on mobile phone use were also criticised in light of the high cost of making and receiving calls using bedside pay phones.

Yesterday's guidelines for hospitals in England follows similar advice to hospitals in Scotland and Wales.

Nigel Edwards, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, which represents health managers, said: "The last thing we want to do is to make hospitals more stressful than they need to be because of the noise of annoying ringtones or the kind of loud phone conversations that already plague much of everyday life."

Mr Bradshaw said: "Close support and comfort from loved ones when you are poorly in hospital is essential. Mobile phones are commonplace in everyday life these days and people have told us that they'd like to be able to use their phones more in hospital to keep in touch."


Children under two 'should live TV free'

That it does no harm is not enough, apparently. That it is of "little benefit" (as judged by this "expert") is enough to ban it. The guy just oozes Fascist arrogance

A visiting international childhood expert says children should watch no television in the first two years of their lives. The director of the Centre on Media and Child Health at the Harvard Medical School, Dr Michael Rich, says there is little benefit in putting a child under the age of two in front of a TV screen. "There is no scientific evidence that children under the age of about 30 months, two-and-a-half years, can learn much of anything other than fairly rote imitation or mimicry from an electronic screen," he told ABC radio's The World Today program.

"What we know is that at least for national data from the United States that children under the age of two on average use electronic games for about an hour, a little over an hour a day," he said. "[We know] that 26 per cent of them have a television in their bedrooms and that it is very much integrated into their daily lives, largely in the format of parents using the television as an electronic babysitter."

Dr Rich says TV screens do not provide the kind of stimuli most optimal for brain development. "The best things are interaction with other human beings face to face, manipulating the physical environment, stacking up blocks, trying to get a raisin in your mouth and open-ended creative problem-solving sort of play," he said. "So a blank piece of paper and a crayon or a piece of clay to play with." [Has this guy ever had kids??]

Dr Rich says television and other media consumption should be restricted to about two hours a day for teenagers. "It is really the school age years where kids start watching television on their own and actually teenagers, the data shows, use television less than school age kids," he said. "They start using more music and online media rather than television. "But frankly there is no reason why young people, who have otherwise rich lives and homework to do and sleep to get, need to get more than an hour or two at most of media time each day."


8 January, 2009

The chance of cutting obesity? A big fat zero

The number of failed British government healthy-eating initiatives is expanding in step with the national waistline

They're not talking about me, are they, in that fatty campaign thingy, the one done by the Wallace & Gromit people? I'm not obese. This new government weight campaign, the one with the Stone Age people modernising and growing flabby, is for the fatties, isn't it, and we all know who they are. It's not going to work either, is it? Because the very people the campaign is aimed at will ignore it, won't they?

Well, yes, probably. Because the people it is aimed at really is you and me. Public-health campaigns such as Change4Life, launched last week, have the greatest effect if a large number of low-risk people change their behaviour; far greater than if the smaller number of high-risk people do. So, yes, it is you and me they are talking to.

That brings its own problems: while the benefit to society as a whole if lots of low-risk people eat slightly better is large in terms of savings for the NHS in future, the benefit to the individual is small. Which is why nearly all public health campaigns fail; and why I suspect that this one, all 75 million pounds of it, will as well.

A man with the marvellous title of Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk, David Spiegelhalter, of Cambridge University, last year analysed for the Royal Statistical Society the effects of a campaign to reduce alcohol consumption. He showed that a 20-year-old man drinking a "hazardous" four units a day who reduced his intake to the recommended safe limit of one per day, will gain 73 extra days of life, or 20 seconds for each pint not drunk - which may seem a poor return for forgoing the pleasure. While ministers and public health officials give advice based on what is good for society, Professor Spiegelhalter concluded, "individuals receiving that advice may, equally reasonably, choose to ignore it".

We're tricky like that, we are - and we hate being told what to do by ministers. As the Government admitted four years ago, after a mammoth consultation exercise to decide what to put in a White Paper on public health, the overwhelming message was: go away. "First, people told us that they want to take responsibility for their own health", wrote John Reid, the Health Secretary at the time, after consulting 150,000 people in one way and another. Mr Reid was never a big fan of the bossy government agenda: "They were clear that many choices they made - such as what to eat or drink, whether to smoke, whether to have sex and what contraception to use - were very personal issues. People do not want government, or anyone else, to make these decisions for them."

Those were the days. Hark at Alan Johnson, the present Health Secretary, last week: "If we do nothing, by 2050 we could be living in a Britain where two thirds of men and half of all women are clinically obese... That is why we are doing something about it NOW."

The reason for the change (4Life) is that ministers have realised - and this happens every few years or so, hence the endless campaigns - that if the Government doesn't actively do something about public health, nobody else does either. The question is, when ministers do try to do something about it, do we listen?

For decades, doctors have been warning of an obesity "time bomb" and ministers have been launching healthy-eating campaigns - remember Virginia Bottomley's "three egg-sized potatoes a day"? Under Labour alone there has been a White Paper on "healthy behaviours", a "food and health action plan", the "5 a day" fruit and veg campaign, a "choosing health" White Paper and last year, "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives; A Cross-Government Strategy".

Result: a great, fat zero. The nation's waistline has swelled with the list of public-health campaigns. When Mrs Bottomley was Health Secretary 13 per cent of men were obese and 15 per cent of women; in 2007 that had risen to 25 per cent of all adults. A third of children today are overweight or obese by the age of 11. It's our lifestyle: too many calories in, not enough exercise to burn them off. If present trends continue, by 2050, ministers expect levels of obesity to rise to 60 per cent in men, 50 per cent in women and 25 per cent in children, costing the economy 50 billion a year. If we cannot improve our public health, the NHS will become unaffordable. Simple as that.

So, what to do? Health ministers claim to be trying something completely new: not just a public health campaign but "a lifestyle revolution", no less, in Mr Johnson's words. Having persuaded food and supermarket companies to sign up, they plan to use "social marketing" techniques to penetrate the public consciousness.

Don't know what a social marketing technique is? Here's the scary thing - nor do they! If I could refer you to the website of National Social Marketing Centre - - you will see that the whole idea gets really boggy. The National Social Marketing Centre, you will learn, is a "strategic partnership" between the former National Consumer Council (NCC) and the Department of Health, set up two years ago after a report into the nation's health commissioned by the NCC, which recommended greater use of health-related social marketing, which is "the systematic application of marketing concepts and techniques, to achieve specific behavioural goals to improve health and reduce health inequalities". Which sounds to me like a public health campaign. And we know how effective those are...

When this campaign fails, and I hope it doesn't but I think that it will, ministers should be ready to legislate to force a change in behaviour. Smoking only dipped sharply when it was banned in public places. Strict food labelling, sugar tax, treadmills... I don't know. The makers of Wallace & Gromit might be able to come up with an idea or two. Gromit doesn't have a mouth.


My War Against Food Nazi Moms

It's not all the government's fault

It's madness: Feeding your child a sandwich made with white bread or a bag of Doritos could cost you custody of your children? I was at a parents' meeting at my boys' school one recent morning, talking to one of the new moms, an attractive, petite, divorced woman in her 40s. She was discussing her relationship with her ex-husband and how challenging it has been. There was a distinct sound of bitterness in her voice, not surprising when she mentioned that he left her for a 24-year-old. She told me that he had crossed a line with her kids on a recent visitation, and she was going to have her lawyer work on getting his joint custody rights revoked. She felt her case was ironclad, he had "obviously acted wrongly" and "anyone would agree with her." "What did he do?" I had to ask, bracing myself for some juicy gossip. Surely this would involve sex and drugs, his babe girlfriend naked, or strippers at the very least.

And then she told me her ex's transgressions. He had packed a non-organic lunch for her sons. Seriously. She went on to describe the brown bags loaded with Cheetos, Go-gurt, and a sandwich that was made with white bread. Because I stood there speechless, looking completely shocked with my mouth hanging open, she continued. She went on and on about the dangers of food additives and how they had exacerbated one of her boys' ADHD. She talked about how each morning when her boys are in her care she takes the time to poach Amish-raised, free-range chicken and then stuffs it into a whole-grain pita with hydroponic tomatoes and micro-greens and that her ex was obviously not fit to spend time with the kids because he was willing to put their health in such grave danger.

Obviously she mistook the look of shock on my face and considered me a kindred spirit when it came to militant healthy eating. I'm all for the benefits of a nutritious diet for kids, and I'm certainly no fan of Go-gurt -- which is essentially a single serving bag of yogurt that becomes a bomb when placed on a table and pounded, producing a dairy projectile capable of nailing a victim at 30 feet. But I couldn't help thinking that perhaps it was her husband who should pursue a custody change. Her reaction was manically disproportionate. It's not like junk food is akin to child abuse.

I just want to let the food Nazi moms in on what happens when your kids come to a house where junk food inhabits the pantry. They have no decision-making skills or sense of moderation when faced with the forbidden fruit roll-up. Like deprived animals, they are determined to consume the lifetime allotment of sugar they have been denied; all before pickup. I have seen one such child eat Swiss Miss Cocoa with a spoon directly out of the family-size container, only to move on to conquer a box of frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts. When faced with not one but three brands of chips, they become apoplectic and run from the kitchen clutching bags of Cool Ranch Doritos and French onion-flavored Sun Chips, later to be found in a corner curled up in the fetal position surrounded by wrappers, unable to state their name.

I get similar reactions from the kids who are denied cartoons, video games, or porn. (Okay, my kids don't exactly have porn, but South Park comes close, and I do have a book of Helmut Newton nudes.) They stand wide-eyed in front of the screen, unable to move as my boys beg them to come and play. And it's not just young children who have had all common sense denied out of them. I grew up in New Orleans when the drinking age was 18, and not strictly enforced. My freshman year at Tulane, it was almost a sport watching the students who came from the Northeast drink themselves into a vomiting stupor, like a bulimic at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Sheltering children from every evil in the world does them a disservice; decision-making is a skill, learned with practice from the time they are small. At some point my boys will go out into the world and have to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. One would hope that by then they have ascertained that Krispy Kreme doughnuts are not really for breakfast -- and there are serious repercussions if you leave the mother of your children for a 24-year-old.


7 January, 2009

Babies may absorb smoke residue in the home

Calling this "third-hand smoke" may seem clever but it demeans the problem. Nicotine is sticky stuff and is NOT easily removed from the environment and could be ingested in the ways suggested. Whether enough is ingested to have much effect is however the next question

As any parent knows, crawling babies explore the world by touching - and tasting - anything they can get their wet little hands on. If their parents use tobacco, that curiosity may expose babies to what some doctors are calling "thirdhand" smoke - particles and gases given off by cigarettes that cling to walls, clothes and even hair and skin. Up to 90% of the nicotine in cigarette smoke sticks to nearby surfaces, says Georg Matt, a professor at San Diego State University.

Preliminary research by Matt and others suggests the same chemicals that leave a stale cigarette odor on clothes and upholstery also can be swallowed, inhaled or absorbed through the skin of non-smokers. Smoke residue may linger for hours, days or months, depending on the ventilation and the level of contamination. In some cases, contaminants may need to be removed by rigorously cleaning or replacing wallpaper, rugs and drapes, Matt says. Matt cautions that his research needs to be confirmed by other studies. But his work suggests that babies may take in nicotine and other chemicals just by hugging their mothers - even if their mothers never light up next to them.

About 43% of children ages 2 months to 11 years live with a smoker, according to research described in Matt's 2004 study in the journal Tobacco Control. In his small study of 49 infants under 13 months old, Matt found nicotine in the air and dust throughout smokers' homes, even when parents smoked only outside. Tests also found a nicotine byproduct, cotinine, in babies' urine and inside shafts of their hair. As expected, babies whose parents smoked around them had the highest cotinine levels - nearly 50 times higher than the babies of non-smokers, according to the study.

Smokers who tried to shield their infants had only partial success, Matt says. The babies of parents who smoked only outside had cotinine levels seven times higher than in the infants of non-smokers, the study showed.

Adults also may be exposed to significant smoke residue if they rent cars, hotel rooms or apartments that have soaked up years of smoke, Matt says. He worries more about youngsters, however, because they may be exposed day and night for years.

Children also may be at greater risk because they breathe faster than adults and inhale more chemicals, says Jonathan Winickoff, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. Crawling babies may take in chemicals through their skin. Though scientists have extensive evidence about the damage caused by secondhand smoke, they know relatively little about the potential risks of thirdhand exposure, says Brett Singer, a scientist at California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. "The million-dollar question is: How dangerous is this?" Singer says. "We can't say for sure this is a health hazard."

Matt agrees that doctors should study children - ideally for 10 or 15 years or more - to see whether low levels of smoke residue worsen asthma or harm the development of a child's lungs.


Keeping a diary can help the body recover from injuries

This sounds like a fairly reasonable study but whether the effect generalized beyond Scottish students is a questioin

Writing a diary may help athletes and people with muscle injuries recover quicker because expressing emotion reduces stress. Writing a diary could help athletes and others with muscle injuries recover more quickly, scientists say. A new study has discovered that sportsmen and women who write about their injuries and associated emotions recover muscle strength three times more quickly than usual. Researchers believe facing up to distress rather than bottling it up reduces stress and inflammation, boosting the body's ability to repair damage.

Study leader Dr Elaine Duncan of Glasgow Caledonian University recruited 46 students aged 19 to 34 who competed in sports including athletics, basketball and football. All had muscle injuries serious enough to prevent them training. Half were asked to write about how they had hurt themselves and how they felt about it. They saw muscle strength improve by nine per cent over the five weeks of the study, compared with three per cent for the others.


Playing outdoors protects young eyes from myopia

The differences reported below do seem to be quite stark and well controlled so the "safety" freaks who try to stop almost all outdoors childhood play may be damaging the vision of those children

The hours spent in front of the PlayStation or at the computer play no role in ruining a child's sight, with Australian researchers finding that being cooped up indoors is what gives children glasses. Children should spend two to three hours a day outside to prevent them becoming short-sighted, says a study by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence in Vision Science. A comparison of children of Chinese origin in Australia and Singapore, which has the highest rate of myopia in the world, found the only significant difference was the time spent outdoors.

The study, conducted on the centre's behalf by Australian National University and Sydney University researchers, challenges the prevailing assumption that near work, such as watching television, reading a book or playing computer games, ruins vision. Ian Morgan from the ARC Vision Centre yesterday said exposure to daylight appeared to play a critical role in limiting the growth of the eyeball, which is responsible for myopia or short-sightedness.

Professor Morgan said it had been apparent for a couple of hundred years that more educated people were short-sighted, but the research suggested spending some hours a day outdoors could counteract the myopic effects of study. "Video games are as ineffective as reading on vision," he said. "Computers are pretty neutral, watching television doesn't seem to affect vision. The only difference we could find is the amount of time spent outdoors. "As you are involved in intensive education through to studying at university, you ought to be conscious of this well into your mid-20s."

The research says about 30 per cent of six-year-olds in Singapore are short-sighted enough to need glasses, compared with only 3 per cent of Chinese-Australians. Both groups spend the same amount of time studying, playing video games, watching television and reading books. But Singapore children spend an average 30 minutes a day outdoors compared with two hours in Australia.

Professor Morgan said similar trends were seen in India, with 5per cent of rural-dwelling Indians being short-sighted compared with 10 per cent of their urban cousins and 65 per cent of those living in Singapore.

Myopia is increasing in urban areas around the world, and is described as an epidemic in parts of east Asia, with Singapore the world capital. Australia has a level of myopia more commonly found in the Third World, with only 0.8 per cent of six-year-olds of European origin being short-sighted. They spend on average three hours a day outdoors.


6 January, 2009

Destructive quackery about autism

Parents are fighting the wrong battles against the wrong people at the wrong time', Dr Fitzpatrick told me when we met in a caf‚ in Hackney, London, near his GP surgery. He believes parents are held back from doing what is best for their own children by the false promises of biomedical campaigners, whose `rage' is `a divisive and destructive force'. Not only are many of the so-called `cures' for autism that they promote worse than useless - causing discomfort and distress to the children, and even, in very rare cases, death - but the continual drive to `defeat autism' prevents parents from coming to terms with their children's condition, and can cause them to have a rather negative view of their own children. `The unresolved grief of parents of children with autism is a particular problem', writes Fitzpatrick in his book, `because they still have a child though perhaps not the child they anticipated'.

There has been a similar experience in my own family. The firstborn child of my youngest brother, Chris, was diagnosed with a severe form of epilepsy at the age of six months. Although there was a possibility that a combination of anti-epileptic drugs or neurosurgery might cure his epilepsy, in retrospect it was clear that his neurological disorder would very likely result in moderate or severe learning difficulties.

Facing up to the fact that your child may never develop normally or lead an independent life is very hard for any parent, and will inevitably take time. But at some stage acceptance is necessary, not just for the parents' own peace of mind, but also for the good of their children. Otherwise, as Fitzpatrick asks, `what happens to the child, the human being, who is seen only as a "burden"?' Of course, raising a child with severe learning difficulties is difficult, but it is a lot more difficult in the absence of acceptance.

Parents of children with autism who are bombarded with all kinds of promises of wonder treatments are prevented from working through their grief and reaching the stage of acceptance. All of the emphasis on `windows of opportunity' and the importance of `early intervention' puts an immense amount of pressure on parents of children with autism and other learning difficulties, who often end up running around desperately seeking a `cure', and trying one after another; they can become obsessed with `fixing' their child. `At best, [these "wonder cures"] divert and dissipate already over-stretched parental energies; at worst they encourage an enduring rage that is likely to compound family difficulties, to intensify isolation and lead ultimately to demoralisation', writes Fitzpatrick in Defeating Autism.

My brother and his wife spent the first years of their son Magnus' life trying everything they thought would help; and many of the things they tried were empirically tested treatments that had some degree of success. But there was no `cure' for Magnus, and when my brother was forced to face up to this fact, his grief was intense. Soon afterwards, however, he also felt that an enormous weight had been lifted off his shoulders. As he recently told me, it is then that he was able to stop desperately hoping for a `recovery', and concentrate on developing a relationship with Magnus as a son whom he could love and cherish for who he is.

Fitzpatrick touchingly describes the grief he and his wife went through while getting to terms with their son James' autism - a profound grief that eventually led to acceptance: `We have come to accept that James will never lead an independent life and our efforts are devoted to ensuring that he gets the level of support he needs to maintain the highest possible quality of life. And we try to look on the bright side. We relish his enjoyment of simple pleasures, his infectious laugh, his wonderful smile, his curly red hair. We will never have to worry about his exam results or over what time he returns home from a night of clubbing', he writes. Having come to terms with the fact that James, who now attends a residential school, would not `recover' from autism, `we try to do the best we can to strengthen his engagement with the world. seeking mutually enjoyable activities that foster social interaction, such as swimming or trampolining, and trips to restaurants and supermarkets'.

It is understandable that parents will try anything they think may possibly improve their children's condition. That is why Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion is such an important book. Fitzpatrick shows clearly that parents need to channel their energies into strategies that will benefit their autistic child and their families, not spend all of their time and energy on trying untested, time-consuming, expensive and potentially harmful treatments. `I decided to write the book after seeing so many parents go down the rabbit hole, latching on to one idea after another that they believed would offer some hope of a cure', Fitzpatrick told me.

In his book, he painstakingly analyses the available evidence for everything from the `wonder cure' of secretin and detox and immune system treatments to special diets and supplements - and exposes the distinct lack of scientific evidence for their efficacy. There is no evidence that these treatments work, and worse, some of them are potentially harmful.

Fitzpatrick writes: `Here is another paradox thrown up by the biomedical movement. Its supporters are strident in their demands for trials of the safety of vaccines [but] when it comes to biomedical treatments they reject any suggestion that these should be subjected to proper evaluation. They are outraged by the presence of infinitesimal quantities of mercury in vaccines (which prevent bacterial contamination without ever being associated with any adverse effect), yet they seem quite happy to inject children with a product like secretin, a crude extract of pig pancreas that was developed for the purpose of testing pancreatic function but has never been tested in any way for therapeutic use.'

Fitzpatrick warns that `plausible theories and their misguided advocates could deliver desperate parents into the hands of unscrupulous practitioners', adding: `This was confirmed to me one day in [my surgery] when the mother of a boy with autism told me that she had spent the equivalent of his disability living allowance for one year on a course of secretin injections provided by a Harley street clinic. For a single parent reliant on benefits, the outcome of this encounter with a biomedical practitioner was not only disappointment when the miracle cure failed, but financial hardship for the whole family.'

Some may interpret Fitzpatrick's message as one of resignation. But his book is far from pessimistic. Instead - by exposing the charlatans who take advantage of parents and by trying to help prevent parents from diverting their energies - it could make a big difference to families with autistic children. As Fitzpatrick told me: `It is not resignation to accept the current state of science in relation to autism.' There are no `cures' and most of those who claim to be able to defeat autism are preying on the grief of desperate parents. `My aim with this book is to encourage parents to emphasise the positive in relation to their autistic children, to pursue interventions for which there is good evidence of benefit (and some guarantee of safety) and to avoid the diversions and dead-ends offered by the perspective of "defeating autism"', he writes in the introduction.

As Roy Richard Grinker, professor of anthropology at George Washington University and author of Unstrange Minds, says of Fitzpatrick: `He shows us that our children are indeed being helped tremendously, not by unscientific autism treatments that falsely promise cure or recovery, but by educators, scientists, evidence-based therapies, and new understandings of what it means to be human, and different, in the twenty-first century.'

Fitzpatrick also persuasively and eloquently demolishes the key plank of the two main vaccination panics: claims in the UK of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, and in the USA of a link between mercury-based vaccines and autism.

When I met with Fitzpatrick back in 2004 to discuss his previous book, MMR and Autism, he stressed that any risks associated with the MMR vaccine were virtually non-existent: `When 500million doses of a vaccine have been given in 80 countries over more than 30 years, and serious adverse reactions are found to be extremely rare, then it is fair to describe it as "safe"', he said. And he argued that the case for immunisation is indisputable: `Diseases that had caused devastating epidemics in living memory, and had produced a significant toll of death and disability into the postwar period, have virtually disappeared.'

Campaigners argue that there has been a growth in autism cases of `epidemic' proportions in the Western world over the past two decades - due to everything from vaccines and antibiotics to pesticides and diet. But the increased prevalence of autism is better explained by increased awareness and improved diagnosis, along with the broadening of the concept of autism, Fitzpatrick shows.

Instead of trying to fight the `environmental toxicity' of the modern world, parents should concentrate on fighting for the best possible education and social care for their children. But above all, they should interact with them, he says. Fitzpatrick argues: `Sometimes it is more difficult simply to spend time with our children than it is to pursue investigations and treatments.' He explains that children with autism may retreat into their own world. They may pursue obsessional rituals and challenging behaviours. `The very fact that it is so difficult to engage with children with autism underlines the importance of continuing to try', he writes.

`[Acceptance] means parents and others accepting and loving the autistic child as another human being, and it means accepting that the quest for a miracle cure is not likely to be helpful for their autistic child, for any other children they might have, or indeed, for themselves.'


Education May Lessen Impact of Alzheimer's Disease

The usual crass assumptions about cause and effect below. Maybe the effect was not due to education but to something (such as generally better health) associated with people who undertake a lot of education. High IQ people, for instance, seem in general to be more biologically fit

Can people with more active intellectual and social lives delay some of the symptoms of the brain-wasting disease known as Alzheimer's? Perhaps, according to Washington University Alzheimer's researcher Catherine Roe. In looking at brains after death, many researchers have noticed that those taken from Alzheimer's victims are riddled with amyloid plaques - a brain protein associated with cell damage. In fact, that's one of the ways Alzheimer's disease is diagnosed. But many people who did not have symptoms when they died still had plaques in their brains.

New imaging techniques can reveal amyloid plaques in the brain of a living person. Roe did brain scans of a group of older adults with and without Alzheimer's symptoms. She found plaques in the brains of some of them. She also gave her subjects cognitive tests. "The people who did not have plaques in their brain did really well, and, basically, they were showing very few - if any - dementia symptoms at all," she reports. "But for people who did have plaques in their brain, those people as a group were showing dementia symptoms, and the degree to which they showed dementia symptoms depended on how much education they had."

In other words, she explains, people who had more years of education showed fewer dementia symptoms. Although most people with high levels of amyloid plaques did poorly on cognitive tests, those who had done post-graduate work continued to score well in the testing. Their cognitive abilities had not declined as much, and they had not become demented.

"So education is one way of measuring that," Roe points out, "but other ways of measuring that are occupation, how intellectually active someone is: if they read the newspaper, if they read magazines, if they do crossword puzzles. How socially engaged they are: Do they get out? Do they see friends and relatives? Or do they sit around watching TV?"

Roe wants to look at some of those things in future studies, the way she looked at education levels in this study. She says it would be nice to find out whether people could take up intellectual pursuits as a way to fight against Alzheimer's. "We don't know exactly what you can do when you're an older adult, if that will help or not. But we do know that that's just a healthy way to live - to be intellectually active and take care of yourself. So it can't hurt, and I think in the next few years, you'll start to see results from studies that do address that."

Roe says these results support the idea that when it comes to brain function, there may be some truth to the old cliche "use it or lose it." She reported her findings in Archives of Neurology.


5 January, 2009

The antioxidant religion takes another hit

Women who took beta carotene or vitamin C or E or a combination of the supplements had a similar risk of cancer as women who did not take the supplements, according to data from a randomized controlled trial in the December 30 online issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Epidemiological studies have suggested that people whose diets are high in fruits and vegetables, and thus antioxidants, may have a lower risk of cancer. Results from randomized trials that address the issue, however, have been inconsistent and have rarely supported that observation.

In the current study, Jennifer Lin, Ph.D., of the Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues tested the impact of antioxidant supplements on cancer incidence in a randomized controlled trial. A total of 7,627 women who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease were randomly assigned to take vitamin C, vitamin E, or beta-carotene.

With an average of 9.4 years of follow-up time, there was no statistically significant benefit from antioxidant use compared with placebo in terms of disease risk or mortality due to cancer. Overall, 624 women developed cancer and 176 died from cancer during the follow-up time. Compared with placebo, the relative risk of a new cancer diagnosis was 1.11 for women who took vitamin C, 0.93 for women who took vitamin E, and 1.00 for women who took beta carotene. None of these relative risks was statistically significantly different from 1.

"Supplementation with vitamin C, vitamin E, or beta carotene offers no overall benefits in the primary prevention of total cancer incidence or cancer mortality," the authors conclude. "In our trial, neither duration of treatment nor combination of the three antioxidant supplements had effects on overall fatal or nonfatal cancer events. Thus, our results are in agreement with a recent review of randomized trials indicating that total mortality was not affected by duration of supplementation and single or combined antioxidant regimens."

In an accompanying editorial, Demetrius Albanes, M.D., of the National Cancer Institute, reviewed data from previous randomized controlled trials that examined supplement use and cancer incidence. He noted that while the trial data reported by Lin are negative with respect to lowering cancer risk, there is valuable information uncovered that should not be overlooked. There was a trend for a reduction in colon cancer with vitamin E supplementation, which has been observed in other studies. Additionally, beta carotene use was associated with a modest excess of lung cancer, which is consistent with previous reports.

"Null trials or those with unexpected outcomes should not, however, be viewed as failures; they have and will continue to shed light on the causes of cancer and help us discover the means for its prevention," the editorialist concludes.


Too much thinking 'can make you fat'

Wacky though it sounds, I think they have a point below. Students getting frequent attacks of the "munchies" while studying are pretty well-known

Researchers found the stress of thinking caused overeating with heavy thinkers seeking out more calories. The research team, supervised by Dr Angelo Tremblay, measured the spontaneous food intake of 14 students after each of three tasks. The first was relaxing in a sitting position, the second reading and summarizing a text, and finally completing a series of memory, attention, and vigilance tests on the computer. After 45 minutes at each activity, participants were invited to eat as much as they wanted from a buffet.

The researchers had already discovered that each session of intellectual work requires only three calories more than the rest period. However, despite the low energy cost of mental work, the students spontaneously consumed 203 more calories after summarizing a text and 253 more calories after the computer tests. This represents a 23.6 per cent and 29.4 per cent increase, respectively, compared with the rest period.

Blood samples taken before, during, and after each session revealed that intellectual work causes much bigger fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels than rest periods. Jean-Philippe Chaput, the study's main author, said: "These fluctuations may be caused by the stress of intellectual work, or also reflect a biological adaptation during glucose combustion." The body could be reacting to these fluctuations by spurring food intake in order to restore its glucose balance, the only fuel used by the brain.

Mr Chaput added: "Caloric overcompensation following intellectual work, combined with the fact we are less physically active when doing intellectual tasks, could contribute to the obesity epidemic currently observed in industrialised countries. "This is a factor that should not be ignored, considering that more and more people hold jobs of an intellectual nature." The results of the study, carried out at Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada, are published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine.


4 January, 2009

Detox diets are a 'nonsense', dieticians warn

Detox diets championed by celebrities including Carol Vorderman and Gillian McKeith are "nonsense" and a waste of money, dieticians have warned. The British Dietetic Association, which represents 6,000 dieticians across Britain, said that there was no "potion or lotion" which could "magically" rid the body of chemicals. The theory behind detox - that dangerous toxins build up in the body - was dismissed by the health experts, who said the body was constantly cleaning itself.

Thousands of slimmers are expected to try a detox diet in the next few weeks, spurred by guilt over heavy drinking and eating during the festive period. A wide range of different kits, including ready-prepared vitamin drinks and diet plans, are available on the high street and from specialist health shops. Vorderman launched her own range of detox books after losing weight and a detox plan is also sold as part of McKeith's health food range. They are based on the theory that chemicals and other pollutants remain in our bodies over time, causing health problems, and need to be removed. Dieters undergoing a detox are usually advised to cut out a wide range of "unhealthy" foods and supplement their diet with vitamin drinks.

But the BDA insists that there is no such toxic build-up, and branded the industry "pseudo scientific". Dr Frankie Phillips, a spokesperson for the BDA, said: "The whole idea of detox is nonsense. "The body is a well-developed system that has its own built-in mechanisms to detoxify and remove waste from top to toe. "Skin, the gut and liver and kidneys are all chemically-controlled powerhouses that respond to signals in the form of, for example, hormones, to remove waste products - typically detoxifying the body constantly.

"There are no pills or specific drinks, patches or lotions that can do a magic job. "If you have over-indulged on alcohol, for example, the liver works hard to break down the alcohol into products it can remove. "Being well-hydrated is a sensible strategy. "It sounds predicable, but for the vast majority of people, a sensible diet and regular physical activity really are the only ways to properly protect your health for the year ahead."

The BDA warns that only eating sensibly and drinking plenty of fluids can help the bodies' natural cleansing system. The group recommends that New Year's diet resolutions include drinking enough fluids, around six to eight glasses a day is sufficient; keeping a diet diary; making small changes that will last, such as eating one extra portion of fruit or vegetables a day; and planning meals ahead. The BDA represents registered dietitians across Britain and two-thirds of its members are employed by the NHS.

Carol Vorderman, whose books include Detox for Life, said: "I've put everything I think about detoxes in my book and without seeing what the dieticians have written I can't make any further comment."


Gene that predicts risk of heart attack identified by scientists

Thousands of heart attacks could be prevented after a gene associated with early hardening of the arteries was identified by scientists.

Millions of people under 40 across the world suffer without knowing from early coronary artery disease, which in many cases leads to heart attacks in later life. Now researchers believe they have pinpointed a gene or marker that can help predict in advance whether someone is at increased risk.

They believe that this could lead to a test to identify the latent threat of hardened arteries so that patients could be given dietary advice and other treatment before too much damage is done.

"These young patients are a vulnerable population on whom coronary artery disease has a significant long-term impact, but they are particularly hard to identify and therefore to initiate preventive therapies for," said Dr Svati Shah, co-author of the study at Duke University Medical School in North Carolina. "These and other genetic findings may help us in the future to identify these patients prior to development of coronary artery disease or their first heart attack."

For years, scientists have known that the devastating, early-onset form of the disease was inherited, but they knew little about the genes responsible until now.

In a previous study, a region on chromosome 7 was linked to coronary artery disease. More recently, the researchers focused on identifying the gene in this region that leads to the higher risk of early-onset coronary heart disease and identified a variation in the protein known that is linked to the condition. Known as neuropeptide Y (NPY), it is one of the most plentiful and important proteins in the body and is linked to the control of appetite and feeding behaviour, among other things.

The current research, led by Dr Shah and Dr Elizabeth Hauser, found evidence for six related variations in the NPY gene that show evidence of transmission from generation to generation and association across a population of early-onset coronary artery disease patients.

The researchers evaluated 1,000 families for coronary artery disease or evidence of a true heart attack, as part of a larger study put together by Duke University. They found a strong link between the mutant gene and those with actual heart disease or ancestral history of the disease. "If you had 1 or 2 copies of this mutant version of the gene, there could be a change in NPY level," Dr Shah said. "The concept is that small changes over time can promote atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) at a very young age."

Experiments on mice subsequently confirmed that the NPY promotes atherosclerosis, according to the report published in the Public Library of Science journal.


3 January, 2009

Are British children being poisoned by food additives in their sweets?

The poor sap writing below believes what "government scientists" say, quite overlooking that what government scientists say is heavily pressured by the shrieks of food faddists, who are in turn wound up by the irresponsible speculations of epidemiologists and rodent experimenters. And don't get me started on British government crime statistics, on British government global warming pronouncements or British government backtracking on peanut allergies etc. You have to be half mad to trust British government pronouncements. Even the number of alcoholic drinks that you can "safely" have was made up out of thin air. Sadly for his kids, he has been conned. One wonders how he accounts for all the perfectly healthy kids around who eat "dangerous" sweets all the time

My four-year-old daughter and I sit in front of a great heap of sweets. Her eyes are alight, like a pirate's with his treasure: Sweets are her greatest passion. Just back from a friend's party, she thinks she's hit the jackpot. But I'm going to have to tell her she cannot have any of them. Not a wine gum, not a chewy snake, not one Roses chocolate. I've been sitting painstakingly going through the ingredients list on the back of each jazzy-coloured packet - occasionally with a magnifying glass. Amazingly, almost all of them contain some additives that I've had to decide are actively dangerous to her. These are additives that are banned in many countries, ones that our government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) decided over a year ago should not be in our children's sweets. But they are still on sale in every supermarket and sweet shop across Britain.

I'm no health-obsessed 'helicopter parent'. We don't hover above our children, banning sweets and sugar. In fact, I roll my eyes at the army of organic-only fusspots: Children can usually be relied upon to eat what their bodies need. A little pleasure won't hurt them. But what I've discovered about chemical food colourings and preservatives terrifies me, as it should the most happy-go-lucky parent. British sweet manufacturers, I've had to conclude, no longer deserve our trust. Six commonly used colourings in sweets, soft drinks and even children's medicines have now been proven to cause attention disorder and hyperactivity in children - not just those already prone to such problems, but all children.

What that means is that the notorious 'sugar rush' that we've all seen in children on a sweetie or pop binge may not be caused by sugar at all, but by obscure colourings and preservatives. And there are added dangers from these completely unnecessary chemicals. My daughter, like nearly one in 20 British children, is prone to allergies: in her case, severe asthma that means a trip to A & E once a month during winter.

During my investigation, I found dangerous colourings and preservatives in famous names such as Cadbury Roses chocolates, Maynards, Wrigley's gum, Jawbreakers, Jelly Babies, Kiddies Mix, Refreshers, Lovehearts, Hubba Bubba bubble gum and Fizz Bombs, as well as a huge range of corner-shop sweets sold as Nisha's or Family Favourites. Novelty sweets branded on Bratz dolls and cartoon character Scooby-Doo had them too. A build-it-yourself gingerbread house from the John Lewis toy department had more bad dyes than any other item I found.

If it's cheaply made and highly coloured, it seems, it's more likely than not to have an 'azo-dye' (a synthetic nitrogen-based compound dye) in it - and that includes all the children's favourites: the snakes, marshmallows and bootlaces sold loose in corner shops.

The chief villains - the ones everyone agrees are dangerous - are mainly colours derived from coal tar. These are known as the 'Dirty Six' and go under the names sunset yellow (or E number 110), carmoisine (E122), tartrazine (E102), ponceau 4R (E124), quinoline yellow (E104) and allura red (E129). They're reds and yellows, and commonly found in sweets, jellies, ice lollies, fizzy drinks and many obviously coloured foods, such as icing on cakes. Three of them have been linked with asthma and other allergies. Many of them are banned in medicines, or must carry warnings. All of them, government scientists now agree [If government scientists agree, that is cause for skepticism], can cause or exacerbate hyperactivity or attention disorder.

For my daughter - who's pretty busy, not hyperactive - the worry is what's known as the cocktail effect: these colourings combined with commonly used benzoate preservatives (which go under E numbers 210 to 219) may exacerbate other allergic conditions as well as hyperactivity. The benzoates, according to the FSA, are thought to worsen symptoms of asthma and eczema in children who have these conditions - and they're banned in food products for the under-threes. Yet they appear in all sorts of soft drinks, from flavoured waters to Scottish favourite Irn-Bru and many brands of cola. Amazingly, carmoisine colouring is in the best- selling children's pain reliever, Calpol - which we use during our daughter's asthma attacks.

But the most outrageous thing I found on the sweet shelves was in the familiar blue box of family favourite Roses Chocolates. Their ingredients list has been cleaned up: the E numbers have all gone. Now under colour is listed 'sunset yellow'. This pleasant-sounding phrase is the layman's term for the Dirty Six colour E110 - banned in Norway and Finland, linked to all sorts of allergies, banned for use in food here for the under-threes, and supposed to carry a health warning if used in medicines. It is a version of the notorious carcinogenic Sudan 1....

I asked Dr Clair Baynton, head of novel foods, additives and supplements at the Food Standards Agency, why politicians have been so slow to act on these colourings. The evidence, she said, was 'just not strong enough' to ban the Dirty Six colours outright - and sodium benzoate plays a useful health role as a preservative.


Jaw disease panic for women taking popular osteoporosis pills

Women taking tablets to protect their bones from osteoporosis could be at risk of serious jaw damage, claim researchers. A study suggests for the first time that drugs such as Fosamax could be linked to a condition which can lead to long-term infection or even destruction of the jawbone. As many as one in 25 users could be at risk of osteonecrosis of the jaw (ONJ), according to a study published yesterday.

British dentists are calling for doctors to advise women about ONJ when prescribing drugs to prevent bonethinning, and for any major dental work to be carried out first. But they stressed that women should not stop taking the drugs, called bisphosphonates, as the benefits outweigh the risk of possible side effects.

Researchers at the University of Southern California School of Dentistry studied 208 healthy patients who had taken Fosamax tablets. The report in the Journal of the American Dental Association said they found nine patients had ONJ - one in 25 - despite claims from the manufacturer Merck that the risk was largely confined to patients receiving the drugs intravenously.

Parish Sedghizadeh, assistant professor of clinical dentistry, believes the problem is more likely to be triggered by tablets than previously thought, although the study has been dismissed by Merck. 'Here at the School of Dentistry we're getting two or three new patients a week with bisphosphonate-related ONJ, and I know we're not the only ones seeing it,' he said.

Reports emerged in 2003 linking intravenous bisphosphonate treatment with ONJ, in which bone tissue dies, resulting in loss or destruction of the jawbone. The exact cause of the disease is unclear but one theory is that the trauma of major dental work could trigger ONJ.

London implant specialist Eddie Scher said the key message was that patients about to start on the drugs should see their dentist first. He said: 'Doctors prescribing this medication should advise patients to delay taking it until they have had dental treatment, especially implants and extractions. 'We need to get the mouth healthy and keep it that way to minimise the risk.' A spokesman for Merck said the study had 'methodological flaws and scientific limitations, making it unreliable as a source for valid scientific conclusions'.

In a separate development, a drug safety chief warned that bisphosphonates may trigger cancer of the oesophagus, or gullet. In a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine, U.S. Food and Drug Administration official Diane Wysowski said that since Fosamax, also known as alendronate, became available in 1995, the FDA has received 23 reports of patients who developed oesophageal tumours, including eight deaths. Typically, there was two years between the start of the drug treatment and the development of cancer. [So how do we know it was caused by the drug?]

In Europe and Japan, 21 cases involving Fosamax have been logged, as well as six cases involving drugs made by other companies. Six patients died. Inflammation of the lining of the oesophagus is already known to be a side-effect of the drugs. However, the FDA also said it was aware of conflicting findings on cancer risk in other studies. The National Osteoporosis Society does not have an exact figure for the number of British bisphosphonate users, but says it is tens of thousands.


2 January, 2009

The Touch That Doesn't Heal

Feeling a tad listless? Perhaps your DNA is insufficiently activated. You may want to consult the healers at Oughten House Foundation, specializing in "tools and techniques for self-empowerment . . . through DNA Activations." Oughten House recommends regular therapy as part of its DNA Activation Healing Project, at $125 per hour-long session.

The foundation isn't as far from the mainstream as you might think. A survey of 32,000 Americans by the National Center for Health Statistics, released earlier this month, suggests that 38% of adults use some form of "complementary and alternative medicine," or CAM -- now aggressively promoted for everything from Attention Deficit Disorder to the Zoster virus. The survey polled consumers on 10 provider-based therapies -- for example, acupuncture -- and 26 home remedies, such as herbal supplements.

Hundreds of colleges operating in all 50 states offer coursework in sundry CAM disciplines. Many more advertise online. Typical is the Global College of Natural Medicine, which is somewhat more welcoming than traditional medical schools: Its literature cheerfully advises that even "if you do not hold a high school diploma or equivalent you can still enroll online today." A 60% grade on an admission exam puts you on the path to becoming a nutritional consultant, master herbalist or holistic chef for animals.

This should be a laughing matter, but it isn't -- not with the Obama administration about to confront the snarling colossus of health-care reform. Today's ubiquitous celebration of "empowerment," combined with disenchantment over the cost, bureaucracy and possible side effects of conventional care, has spurred an exodus from medical orthodoxy. As a result, what was once a ragtag assortment of New Age nostrums has metastasized into a multibillion-dollar industry championed by dozens of lobbyists and their congressional sympathizers. Among the most popular therapies are acupuncture, at $50 to $100 per session; reflexology, which involves massaging various parts of the hands and feet, starting at $35 an hour; and aromatherapy, which relies on the supposed healing properties of about 40 "essential oils," with treatments at $30 to $90 an hour.

The largest well-documented study of CAM's financial footprint, a decade ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association, estimated that Americans spent $36 billion to $47 billion on CAM in 1997, depending on how one defined the category. Since then, at least 40 states have begun licensing CAM practitioners. Major hospital systems, notably Baltimore's Johns Hopkins and New York's Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, incorporate CAM-based programs like aromatherapy and therapeutic touch, often bracketed as "integrative medicine."

Indeed, one of the great ironies of modern health care is that many of the august medical centers that once went to great lengths to vilify nontraditional methods as quackery now have brought those regimens in-house. "We're all channeling East Indian healers along with doing gall-bladder removal," says Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics. Mr. Caplan harbors no illusions about what's behind the trend: "It's not as noble as, 'I want to be respectful to Chinese healing arts.' It's more, 'People are spending a fortune on this stuff! We could do this plus our regular stuff and bill 'em for all of it!'"

Fees for CAM services are increasingly passed on to insurance through a creative -- some might say fraudulent -- interpretation of the Current Procedural Terminology codes that govern reimbursement for authorized services. (Various tutorials, some online, guide practitioners through the reimbursement maze.) Such creativity may soon be unnecessary if the alternative medicine proponents have their way. For example, ABC Coding Solutions, a medical-software company, has been promulgating a set of 4,000 treatment codes that cover "nearly every healing modality practiced by alternative healthcare providers," to quote one report. If such codes are fully absorbed by the health-care industry, CAM will have been mainstreamed -- while bypassing all the customary peer review, controlled studies and other hallmarks of sound medicine.

Not by coincidence is CAM most avidly touted by a loose alliance of self-help gurus (Andrew Weil, Deepak Chopra, et al.) and veteran hucksters like erstwhile infomercial king Kevin Trudeau. Mr. Trudeau has been sued for deceptive business practices several times by the Federal Trade Commission. In 2004, the agency deemed his sins so egregious that it barred him from "appearing in, producing, or disseminating future infomercials that advertise any type of product, service, or program to the public." Undaunted, Mr. Trudeau reinvented himself as a health-care expert and, the following year, published the runaway best seller "Natural Cures 'They' Don't Want You to Know About." The book continued to sell briskly even after the New York State Consumer Protection Board warned that it "does not contain the 'natural cures' for cancer and other diseases that Trudeau is promising."

Meanwhile, CAM has secured its own beachhead within the National Institutes of Health in the form of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). "Special commercial interests and irrational, wishful thinking created NCCAM," writes Wallace Sampson, a medical doctor and director of the National Council Against Health Fraud, on the Web site And Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), who credited bee pollen with quelling his allergies, was single-handedly responsible for the $2 million earmark that provided seed money for NCCAM, chartered in 1992 as the Office of Alternative Medicine. Despite the $1 billion spent in the interim, the center has failed to affirm a single therapy that can withstand the rigors of science.

Even the center's own fact sheets unfold as unintentionally comical. After noting that echinacea is "traditionally used to treat or prevent colds, the flu and other infections," the center concedes that "most studies to date indicate that echinacea does not appear to prevent colds or other infections." St. John's Wort as a natural antidepressant? "Two large studies, one sponsored by NCCAM, showed that the herb was no more effective than placebo in treating major depression." Evening primrose for hot flashes? "Does not appear to affect menopausal symptoms." And so forth. "It is the only entity in the NIH devoted to an ideological approach to health," writes Dr. Sampson, who has called for the center to be defunded.

Is there anecdotal evidence that unconventional therapies sometimes yield positive outcomes? Yes. There's also anecdotal evidence that athletes who refuse to shave during winning streaks sometimes bring home championships. It was George D. Lundberg, a former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who said: "There's no alternative medicine. There is only scientifically proven, evidence-based medicine supported by solid data." We'd do well to keep that in mind as we plot the future of American health care. It's not like we've got billions to waste.


The FDA Is Killing Crohn's Patients

Science didn't require that I get a placebo

Right now there are millions of individuals whose lives are directly dependent on the rate at which new drugs come to market. I'm one of them. I'm fighting for my life. To date, half of my intestine has been removed to manage Crohn's disease. Last year, at age 23, I enrolled in a clinical trial for a treatment that could save my life: an adult stem-cell therapy that helps damaged intestinal tissue regenerate from the relentless inflammation and scarring caused by Crohn's.

The sponsor, Osiris Therapeutics, reported that Crohn's patients in the therapy's Phase II trial all experienced clinical improvement after receiving the cells. A Phase III trial for the treatment is now nearing completion, but Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval could be years away, despite its FDA "fast track" designation. In accordance with antiquated FDA policies, the Phase III trial is randomized with three groups of patients, and double-blinded, which means neither the doctors nor patients are told what treatment is being administered. One group received full-strength stem cells, another received half-strength, and a third got a placebo (the proverbial "sugar pill"). It appears I got the placebo.

Foregoing all other treatments, I received the four scheduled infusions, and yet my disease progressed with a vengeance. In a matter of weeks, I became dangerously malnourished. I've since been readmitted to the hospital countless times, as my doctors continue to plead with Osiris for information. But Osiris has refused, citing adherence to FDA protocol. I am now a lab rat. I have no right to know what happened to me in the study, nor do I have a right to try the promising treatment as my health deteriorates. It doesn't have to be this way.

Under the Fifth Amendment's guarantee that "No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law," a critically ill patient should have access to a potentially lifesaving drug that has been deemed safe for human consumption, if the patient agrees to bear the risks involved. But earlier this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case on the issue, denying countless patients their right to pursue life.

Thankfully, some members of Congress have stepped in to ensure our rights as patients. In May, Sen. Sam Brownback (R., Kan.) and Rep. Diane Watson (D., Calif.) introduced the Access, Compassion, Care and Ethics for Seriously Ill Patients Act. If passed, this bipartisan legislation will begin to restore the rights of millions of patients by widening access to promising investigational drugs.

Human clinical research is an intricate scientific and moral process, but it does not justify taking immoral advantage of patients. Tragically, FDA and Osiris think it does. Typical approval protocols almost always guarantee patients taking the placebo access to the actual drug -- at the very least -- after the study has ended. But in what appears to me a deliberate act of cruelty, Osiris hung its patients out to dry without any recourse, refusing to confirm which patient got what. The FDA has endorsed Osiris's decision by enabling it to proceed with the study.

Withholding a potential cure is just as bad -- if not worse -- than the potential death sentence of a serious illness. If patients like myself have the audacity to put their lives on the line for the betterment of science and those in their predicament, their decision should not only be embraced, it should be rewarded.

Furthermore, trials without ethical recourse can lead to inadequate and incomplete data, compromising the integrity of the study. If trial patients are treated like lab rats, they won't feel obliged to cooperate unconditionally and report accurate data -- something the FDA and the drug industry rely on heavily, but have failed to consider.

Everyone agrees it is a fundamental right for patients to dictate their course of treatment with FDA-approved drugs. So why do the rules evaporate at the most critical moment, when the only life-preserving options are highly promising investigational drugs?


1 January, 2009

Now it's phosphates

But no need to worry unless you are a mouse especially bred to develop lung cancer

Common food additives known as phosphates may help lung cancer tumors grow faster, at least in mice, South Korean researchers reported on Monday. Their tests in mice suggest the additives -- found in many soft drinks, baked goods and processed meats and cheese -- may also help tumors develop in the first place. "Our study indicates that increased intake of inorganic phosphates strongly stimulates lung cancer development in mice," Myung-Haing Cho of Seoul National University, who led the study, said in a statement.

A diet high in phosphates "significantly increased the lung surface tumor lesions as well as the size," Cho's team wrote in their study. Cho said the research suggests that cutting back on inorganic phosphates "may be critical for lung cancer treatment as well as prevention."

Phosphates are critical to human nutrition and can be used in compounds that enrich calcium and iron content and prevent food from drying out. But Cho said it is possible that some people get too much. "In the 1990s, phosphorous-containing food additives contributed an estimated 470 mg per day to the average daily adult diet," Cho said. Now, he said, people can get up to 1,000 mg a day.

Writing in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, Cho and colleagues said they studied mice bred to develop lung cancer. For a month, half got diets equivalent to a human diet high in phosphates and the other half got a moderate dose. The bred mice do not develop cancer in the same way as humans do and the researchers stressed their study does not show that the food additives contribute to cancer in people. Instead, it points to questions for human cancer researchers to study.

Lung cancer is by far the most common cancer killer around the world, killing 1.2 million people a year. Smoking is the most common cause but a majority of smokers do not develop lung cancer, so scientists are looking for other factors that may help tumors develop and spread. Cho's team found phosphate-rich diets affected the Akt gene, known to be involved in lung cancer, and suppressed another gene that can help slow cancer's development.


What a wonder!

Brilliant surgical thinking brings about a "miracle"

A girl who had almost a third of her heart removed in a desperate attempt to save her life has made a complete recovery, doctors say. Kirsty Collier was not expected to live long. She was born with abnormal blood vessels, which starved her heart of oxygen. Aged 4 months, she had suffered multiple heart attacks and was on the brink of death. Surgeons at John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, had been unable to restart her heart after a heart bypass operation and warned her parents that she was unlikely to survive. But everything changed when they cut away a huge section of muscle to reduce pressure on the heart, in the hope that it would start beating again.

Kirsty is now a sporty, healthy ten-year-old, and to the astonishment of doctors, her heart appears to have returned to a normal size. Professor Stephen Westaby, who operated on her in 1998, called her recovery miraculous. "She was essentially dead and was only resurrected by what I regarded at the time as a completely bizarre operation," he said. "I tried for a full 90 minutes to separate her from the heart-lung machine." With nothing to lose, he cut open Kirsty's heart, removed a third of her muscle wall and stitched it back together. "I have to confess I never thought it would work," he said. "It [the heart] was an awful lot smaller."

Scans show that her heart is now the normal size and shape for a girl of her age. Surgeons believe that this is the first time a human heart has been shown to heal itself in such a dramatic way. Professor Westaby added: "We were astonished. A recent MRI scan has shown the scar on the heart has disappeared. I find that absolutely fascinating because an adult heart wouldn't do that."

Kirsty's mother, Becky Collier, 38, from Cirencester, Gloucestershire, recalled seeing her daughter in the recovery room: "There she was, my tiny baby, with tubes everywhere. But I could tell by looking at her that she would keep going." Kirsty is now fit enough to play in school rugby and football teams.

Mrs Collier added: "It's amazing what she has overcome. She's such a brave little girl and has never let her condition affect her life at all. She's always out playing something. It's hard to imagine that she was ill." But Kirsty doesn't want a fuss over her recovery. "I don't want to be different to anyone else just because I've had a heart operation," she said. "I like to do sport because it keeps me fit and healthy."