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 July, 2008

Spanking 'causes mental illness'

What rubbish! More likely the lack of it causes psychological problems. But the study noted below allows no causal inferences either way. It says that children who are smacked more are more badly behaved. It does not seem to have entered the addled heads of the do-gooders who wrote the report that maybe the kids who are smacked more are smacked BECAUSE they are badly behaved. Ignoring the obvious is no problem if you have ideological blinkers on

Smacking and yelling at children is causing a rise in mental health problems, with three-year-olds suffering from depression and anxiety. At least one in seven children are affected by a mental illness. Some psychologists are reporting a 60 per cent increase in the number of youngsters displaying anxiety and social issues.

A study from the Murdoch Children's Research Institute has found that harsh discipline and parental stress is increasing the risk of mental health troubles in young children. Stressed parents lashing out at their kids are behind the growing problem. Study author and child psychologist Dr Jordana Bayer said constant smacking and yelling at a child was fuelling abusive behaviour. "We are not talking about a parent who smacks just once," she said. "Remember when parents smack or hit their child, they might learn to do that as well. When parents are stressed, it's more challenging to be relaxed and respond to their children in ways they would like to respond to them."

Researchers have been following more than 700 toddlers, aged between seven months and three years, to reveal the risks of parenting practices. Children subjected to physical punishment are more likely to kick, hit and bite others and become socially withdrawn. Parents who continue to smack their abusive children could be setting them on a path of alcohol and drug abuse, crime, unemployment and suicide.

Dr Kimberley O'Brien, of the Quirky Kids Clinic at Woollahra, Sydney, said stressed parents were placing too much pressure on their children. "We have seen a 60 per cent increase in demand for our child anxiety classes in the past six months," she said.

Mental health has become one of the nation's biggest health issues. Psychologists are seeing toddlers biting their nails, while older children are wetting the bed and pulling out their eyelashes as a result of anxiety. Despite a push by experts to ban smacking, some adults are still using the "traditional" method to discipline children. Childhood Foundation CEO Joe Tucci said hitting youngsters had become outdated.


Alzheimer's sufferers given hope by new generation of drugs

Millions of Alzheimer's sufferers have been given fresh hope after a new generation of drugs were shown to reverse the symptoms of the disease

The treatment can bring the "worst affected parts of the brain back to life" and scientists say it is twice as effective as any medication currently available. They even suggested the drug works so well it might be given to patients in the future to prevent the onset of the illness. The results of the human trials were hailed a "major new development" in the fight against the disease, which threatens to overwhelm the NHS within decades. Alzheimer's currently affects more than 400,000 people in Britain and the number of sufferers is expected to rise rapidly as the population ages. The cost of treating the condition will double from $34billion to $70billion by 2026.

The researchers say that if further tests of the drug, called rember, are successful it could be available within four to five years. "We appear to be bringing the worst affected parts of the brain functionally back to life," said Prof Claude Wischik of Aberdeen University, who carried out the trials on 321 people with the illness. He added: "It's an aspiration for us to develop a drug that we could give preventatively from a certain stage."

Jimmy Hardie, 72, from Aberdeenshire, was one of the patients who took part in the trials. He used to put sugar in the fridge and suffered mood swings caused by his disease. But his wife Dorothy, 69, believes that his condition has improved enormously since he started taking rember in 2006. "Two years ago if Jimmy had gone to his shed he may have forgotten what he was about to do," she said. "Now he is able to plan what he wants to do, go and get the tools he needs and do the task. It is encouraging."

Helen Carle, 68, of Cove, near Aberdeen, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003 after becoming forgetful and panicky. She says that she has seen a great difference since she began taking rember three years ago. "I still have the same personality and I think I am more alert," she said.

Those involved in the human trial and were divided into four groups - three were given a different dosage of the drug, called rember, while the fourth group took a placebo. Even after 19 months, patients receiving the highest dose had not experienced significant decline from original position.

"This is a major new development in the fight against dementia," said Prof Clive Ballard, head of research at the Alzheimer's Society. The results were the "first realistic evidence" that a new drug can improve cognition in people with Alzheimer's by targeting a leading cause of brain cell death and suggested that it could be "over twice as effective as any treatment that is currently available," he said.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, said, "This is an encouraging development in the fight against a devastating disease. In this exploratory trial, rember reduced the decline in blood flow to parts of the brain that are important for memory. She added: "We need more human trials to assess the treatment's possible side-effects."

Larger trials - phase three trials on around 1,000 people - of the best dose are still needed to establish the benefit and safety of the drug, which means it could be five years before it is available. The drugs are expected to cost the same as current treatments for the illness such as Aricept, which are $5 a day.

However, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) the Government's drugs watchdog, ruled that Aricept, which has been shown to improve the memory and day-to-day life of those in the late stages of the disease, was too expensive for widespread use in Britain. Terry Pratchett, the best selling author who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, disclosed earlier this year that he was being forced to pay for the drug himself.

The latest breakthrough will lead for increased calls for Nice to reconsider its policy on dementia drugs. A spokesman for the Alzheimer's Society said: "NICE remit needs to be take into account the wider benefits of treatments to society and the way the drugs can save money in other areas such as Social Care in order to cater for conditions like dementia."

Previously Alzheimer's treatments have targeted the formation of protein molecules, or plaques, in the brain of patients which clump together to wreck the networks that hold memories, enable us to perform tasks or knit together when we learn something new. The new family of drugs works by preventing the build up of different molecules called tau protein inside brain cells.

Prof Wischik has been working on the link between Alzheimer's and tau protein for more than 20 years. His work was presented today in Chicago to the International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease.


30 July, 2008

The propaganda never stops: Diet changes improve chances of older women giving birth

This is superstition, not science

DRASTIC changes in diet boost a woman's chances of giving birth into her 40s and 50s, according to new claims. Cutting out alcohol and sugar and eating more organic foods allow women to hit the "snooze button" on their biological clocks, maximising their chances of having a baby, a new book on fertility claims.

Sarah Dobbyn, a nutritionist and author of The Fertility Diet, said the influence of diet on fertility was often overlooked in an age in which IVF often seemed the only answer to pregnancy problems. "Huge amounts of money are being spent on assisted conception techniques by hopeful couples who do not know that alcohol and caffeine are liquid contraceptives, sweeteners can prevent ovulation and seemingly innocent foods such as peas, rhubarb and soya all inhibit fertility."

Aimed at those trying to conceive naturally as well as those going through IVF, Ms Dobbyn advised cutting out smoking, artificial sweeteners, alcohol, caffeine and soya in the first month. Peas and rhubarb were also banned following studies linking them to infertility.

By month two, couples should have given up all meat and cut out sugar and dairy. By the third month, consumption of eggs and fruit juices should be reduced. However, it is not all about cutting back, with couples allowed unlimited quantities of beans, pulses, organic herbs, spices and nuts from day one. Fruit and vegetables should be eaten raw to help balance the body's hormones. Would-be parents are also to lose weight if overweight, keep stress to a minimum and try to get a good night's sleep.


Pesky gene

The power of do-gooder propaganda seems unlikely to alter this:

A gene linked to obesity causes people to put on weight by keeping them hungry, scientists say. Previous research had shown that the gene, known as FTO, was strongly associated with obesity. But it was not clear whether this was to do with increasing appetite or burning calories.

The new study of 3,337 children shows that the gene's effects are due to a lack of normal appetite control. Usually the act of eating "switches off" the appetite and creates a feeling of satiety or "fullness". The FTO gene stops this happening, scientists at University College London found. Children with two copies of a high-risk version of the gene were less likely to have their appetite suppressed by eating. FTO is the first common obesity gene to be identified in Caucasian populations.

Jane Wardle, the study leader, said: "People who carry the risky variant of this gene are more vulnerable to the modern environment with big portion sizes."

The new findings are published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.


29 July, 2008

Oral Contraceptives increase risk of arterial plaques?

This study has recently got a bit of play on Christian sites so I infer that it must by now have reached journal publication -- but where I do not know. Anyway, the results are fairly anomalous. Even other epidemiological studies have not found the same and an experimental study in fact found the opposite. Just part of the rich natural diversity that so excites epidemiologists

A team of Belgian researchers has made the surprise discovery that women who have used oral contraceptives (OCs) for some time appear to be at increased risk of atherosclerosis in the carotid and femoral arteries. They also found that those taking the pill had three times higher C-reactive protein (CRP) levels than those not using it.

Dr Ernest Rietzschel (Ghent University, Belgium) reported the findings at the American Heart Association (AHA) 2007 Scientific Sessions last week. He told heartwire: "This is the first time that this has been documented. It was an accidental finding. We were stunned by the large elevations in CRP that you see in women taking the pill, so we then performed a safety analysis to see whether there was a link between past pill use and atherosclerosis measured by echo in both the carotid and femoral arteries. Our null hypothesis was that we would see no effect, but in hindsight that was probably naive."

He stressed, however, that this research should not mean that women should cease using oral contraceptives: "I'm certainly not advocating stopping use of the pill," he noted. First, the findings need to be replicated, "that's really important," he said, "and then we need more research. It's staggering that for a drug that is being used by 80% of women, there is so little information about the long-term safety. That's really incredible."

Asked to comment on the study for heartwire, Dr Sharonne N Hayes (Women's Heart Clinic, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN) said: "This study is important and provocative, because it raises new questions about the long-term safety of a widely used class of drugs. However, it is premature to change practice or our advice to patients for a number of reasons." These include the fact that no other studies reported so far have shown any long-term increase in cardiovascular risk with OCs, she says.

Rietzschel and colleagues started out by assessing novel risk factors for atherosclerosis in women participating in the Asklepios study, a blinded sample of men and women volunteers aged 35 to 55 years in the Belgian population who were free from overt cardiovascular disease. Rietzschel said that there has been one prior report of increased CRP in OC users, from the Cardiovascular Risk in Young Finns study.

Of 1301 women (mean age 45.7 years) in Asklepios, 27.4% were taking OCs and 10.0% were taking hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Past OC use was much higher, however, with 81% of women having taken it for at least one year, with a median exposure of 13 years. After multivariate adjustment, women who were not taking OCs or HRT had high-sensitivity CRP of 1.0 mg/L compared with 1.2 for those currently taking HRT and 3.3 for women currently taking OCs. Effects on other inflammatory markers, such as interleukin-6, were far less pronounced, the researchers note.

"Contraceptive therapy is a major cause of CRP rise. The magnitude of CRP rise (threefold) far exceeds other population-prevalent noninfectious stimuli and is much larger than the CRP rise for HRT. Future research should take into account this effect when reporting CRP data in women, aim to qualify its biological significance, and assess the potential of CRP as a tool to select those women at high thrombotic risk under hormonal therapy," Rietzschel et al say.

This finding spurred Rietzschel and his team to look at past OC use, "something we might not have considered a plausible candidate for atherosclerosis," he explained to heartwire. After multivariate adjustment, they found the odds ratios (OR) per 10 years of OC exposure were 1.17 for carotid plaque and 1.28 for femoral plaque. They also looked at prevalence of bilateral disease as a more stringent phenotype of atherosclerosis and found ORs per 10 years of OC exposure of 1.42 for carotid plaque and 1.34 for femoral plaque.

"Use of contraceptive therapy is very common and is associated with an unexpected increase in the prevalence of carotid and femoral atherosclerosis in otherwise young, apparently healthy women. Our data suggest a 20% to 30% increased prevalence of plaque in the carotid and femoral arteries per 10 years of OC exposure. In the light of widespread and usually prolonged OC use, these results suggest OC use could be an important factor in the global atherosclerotic burden," the scientists observe.

Hayes points out, however, "All other studies on long-term OC safety, while mostly observational, have shown no increase in cardiovascular events years after stopping OCs, and these analyses have been done in very large cohorts. The cross-sectional findings of the current study need to be replicated in other populations and by other investigators to confirm the higher level of plaque observed in past OC users. And the higher plaque level must somehow be translated into higher events if it is to be clinically relevant."

Plus, she notes: "This study may not even be relevant to women currently making decisions about contraception. The OC formulations used by the women in the study early on were very different from those prescribed today (higher doses, different estrogens and progestins, different modes of delivery), so these findings, even if confirmed, may not apply to today's lower-dose pills."

In addition, she argues that pregnancy itself has many cardiovascular risks, and OCs are highly effective for the prevention of pregnancy. "Any risk/benefit analysis of OCs must be weighed against the outcomes of those who become pregnant because they do not use the therapy. The authors do not report that they compared or controlled for numbers of pregnancies when comparing OC users and nonusers. Might the risk be due not to OCs, but to fewer pregnancies? This would be interesting to explore."

While Rietzschel stresses that women should not stop taking the pill on the basis of this research, he says, "Perhaps women should be wary of taking the pill for longer than they need to. At a certain point, don't prolong it out of habit."

Women seeking oral contraception also present a unique opportunity for doctors to give advice on the prevention of cardiovascular disease at an early age, he notes. "Young women have an idea that they won't succumb to cardiovascular disease, which is entirely wrong, because more women die of cardiovascular disease than men. Maybe this is a good time to start talking with young women. Okay, you want to take the pill, but think about the long-term implications. You should stop smoking, check your weight, and be more physically active. Also, we know the pill has effects on blood pressure and lipid profiles, so these should be checked."

The pharmaceutical industry must also contribute, Rietzschel says: "We would like to ask them to develop safer pills." He says he has been approached by some OC manufacturers following his presentation last week but declined to say which ones.

At this time, it is also impossible to say whether any specific type of pill is more hazardous than any other, he noted. "We know that estrogen has a beneficial effect on lipid profiles and it is probably the progestin component of the pill that has adverse effects on lipids, but with regard to the blood-pressure rises seen, it's not clear what raises BP."

Hayes stressed to heartwire that effective alternatives to OCs are needed. "Until then, we need to have women consider all options for birth control and their associated risks (including the emotional, financial, and health risks of unintended pregnancy) and press for better research on this widely used drug class."


Study Finds Lesbians 50 Times More Likely to Self-Harm than General Population

Hard to know what the causal chain is here but it shows that Lesbians are not the paragons of mental health that feminist theory says they are. I found something similar long ago

The habit of "self-harming" is 50 times more likely to occur in lesbians than in the general population of women, a Scottish study has shown. 20 per cent of lesbian and bisexual women, of a total of 500 women surveyed in Scotland had deliberately harmed themselves in the last year, compared to 0.4 per cent of the general population.

The study, Prescription for Change, was conducted by the homosexual lobby organisation Stonewall. It also showed that five per cent of lesbian and bisexual women have attempted suicide in the last year.

Homosexual activists commonly interpret such statistics as support for the doctrine that it is the lack of "acceptance" from the non-homosexual world that causes the problems. Calum Irving, director of Stonewall Scotland, said, "For lesbian and bisexual women the experiences of prejudice, misunderstanding and at times hostility can damage long-term health and wellbeing."

But other research has shown that approaching homosexuality as a serious mental disorder also explains the severe depression, elevated levels of drug and alcohol abuse and self-destructive behaviour that are common among homosexuals.

Even though homosexuality was removed as a disorder from diagnostic manuals in the early 1970s, many in the psychiatric community maintain that homosexuality causes misery and that homosexual activity is a dangerous and emotionally degrading experience.

Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, a principal contributor to the Catholic Medical Association's statement on "Homosexuality and Hope", told Zenit Catholic news agency that the mental disorder of homosexuality was removed from the diagnostic manuals in 1973 because of political pressure.

The other common assertion of the homosexual political lobby, that Christians hate and fear homosexuals, was refuted last month when a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church expressed his sorrow over their chronic unhappiness. Father Vsevolod Chaplin, said in an interview with newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, "Such people are deeply unhappy".

"I know it from confessions and numerous life stories. It's not by chance that they die earlier and there are more suicides, drug addicts and alcoholics among them," he said. "The Church lovingly accepts everyone, including those who have passion for people of the same sex. But just because she loves them, she says unisexual love is a sin. A destructive sin," said Fr. Chaplin.

The Catholic Church holds that homosexuality, and any sexual activity outside of marriage, has natural consequences, regardless of religious belief. This Natural Law teaching is said to be based on reason and observation of the consequences of human behaviour.


28 July, 2008

More diet nonsense

There is no basis for any of this in the double blind studies. It is all just attention-seeking behaviour based on epidemiological speculation. And the "low-fat=good" assumption underlying most of it is KNOWN TO BE FALSE. See here, here and here. As for the water myth, there is no basis in nephrology for that either. It's just an old wive's tale. And if the Australian diet is so unhealthy, how come Australians have exceptionally long lifespans? But who cares about evidence when you have "official" wisdom to guide you?

Only one in 10 adults drank enough water to maintain their health, a study of Australians' dietary habits has found. And many Aussies were failing to hit most targets set by dietitians, according to a new healthy eating "index". Melbourne scientists have devised a 15-step checklist - called the dietary guideline index - by combining the latest recommendations from health authorities. The DGI was designed to make healthy eating easy by using scores of between 0-150. People could use the index to rate themselves in 15 categories - including fruit, vegetable and fast-food intake - worth up to 10 points each.

And by applying the DGI to the most comprehensive survey of Australians' eating habits, research leader Dr Sarah McNaughton, from Deakin University, has exposed the nation's diet secrets. Dr McNaughton said women aged 50-64 were the healthiest eaters in the country - and men aged 18-29 the most likely to neglect their health. "If you score 150, that means your diet is pretty much perfect and nobody in the survey has a perfect diet," Dr McNaughton said. "Younger people, particularly men, tend to have less healthy diets. "That can be for a whole variety of reasons, but it's often because younger people take less time to cook for themselves."

Results published in The Journal of Nutrition showed 10 per cent of Australian men and 14 per cent of women were drinking enough fluids (low-calorie soft drinks were accepted in the guidelines). However, Dr McNaughton said the most concerning result was the "very low" vegetable consumption. Just 15 per cent of men and 22 per cent of women ate five serves a day.

More than half of Aussies were also eating too many foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar and not enough cereals and dairy. Women scraped over the line for daily fruit intake with 55 per cent eating the recommended two pieces, but only 46 per cent of men. Dr McNaughton said adults could improve their diet and enjoy better health if they identified their weaknesses using the DGI.


The return of Killer Chlorine

Numberwatch After many mind-sapping years of trawling through the morass of health scare stories, I formulated a number of laws, one of which was the Law of Beneficial Developments:
The intensity of the scaremongering attack on any new development is proportional to the level of benefit that it endows.
Unbelievably, the Chlorine Scare has returned. According to the science editor of the Daily Telegraph, Babies exposed to chlorinated water are at risk of heart problems.

The first chestnut here is the appearance of a Trojan Number, so called because it is the stratagem by which authors infiltrate their findings into the columns of the media. In this case it is an impressive 400,000, which is the number of babies said to be involved in the study. In fact, almost all of them have no part in the study at all, as they are normal, healthy births.

As I wrote in a book called Sorry, Wrong Number! in 2000, chlorine is essential to life on earth, not only in the form of its sodium salt, but as a constituent of more than more than 1500 vital compounds in plants and animals, including our digestive juices. The chlorination of drinking water has saved more human lives than any other hygienic measure.

However in 1991, Greenpeace activist Christine Houghton said: "Since its creation, chlorine has been a chemical catastrophe. It is either chlorine or us." Even by Greenpeace standards this was a pretty remarkable piece of ignorant, hysterical nonsense. When chlorination was stopped in Peru in 1991 as a result of pressure from the EPA and Greenpeace, an epidemic broke out that spread through Latin America. Some 800,000 people became ill with cholera and 6,000 people died. Millions of people are still dying all over the world because of dirty water.

The anti-chlorine movement was one of the many legacies of Rachel Carson. It was intensified by an EPA study in the mid 1980s that purported to show that one of the by-products of chlorination (trihalomethanes) was carcinogenic. This involved subjecting hapless rodents to very high concentrations. That was a classical piece of junk epidemiology, based on accidental correlation, of the sort that editors cannot resist. Take just one of the conditions mentioned:

Anencephalus is so rare that most people have never heard of it. Its frequency is less than two per ten thousand of live births, so the impressive number whittles down to something under 80 actual cases. These are then divided into at least two groups - those who are exposed to the putative cause (at an arbitrary threshold) and those who are not. So the whole claim is based on a group of less than 40 babies - unlikely to produce a significant result, even with the debased statistical standards used by modern epidemiology.

Then there is the measure of exposure itself. How much of the dreaded fluid did the pregnant women drink? How did the boffins distinguish between a thirsty mother in a low dosage area and a non-thirsty mother in a high dosage area? The other glaring defect is that this is clearly a Data Dredge, given away by the fact that three conditions are mentioned. How many others were looked at we are not told.

The abysmal standard of significance in modern epidemiology is a one in 20 chance of the result having occurred by accident. But if you look at ten different diseases, this standard means that the probability of at least one crossing a given threshold of risk level becomes 40 per cent, which should be adjusted for, but isn't. As for the threshold itself, for a variety of reasons such as confounding factors, most scientists would be looking for more than a doubling of risk before claiming significance.

Who now believes that drinking tap water causes cancer? Yet 6,000 Peruvians died because of that claim, which was subsequently withdrawn. Fortunately, such scares (and miracle breakthroughs) are now so frequent that ordinary people have become blase about them - they yawn and turn to the sports pages. But there is no accounting for what politicians will do.

Like footballers, epidemiologists talk in cliches. After a while you can predict what they are going to say:
"The biological mechanism for how these disinfection by-products may cause defects are still unknown"
"...more research needs to be carried out to determine these side-effects."
The establishment media go through the ritual of publishing this nonsense. Hardly a day goes by without at least one scare or breakthrough. They are just page fillers, but there is always the danger that someone will take them seriously. As for the epidemiologists, irresponsible is an inadequate word. Reel off a few acronyms (DDT, HRT, MMR for example) and you uncover stories of millions of unnecessary deaths and lives turned to misery, all caused by the rejection of the boons of scientific research because of mindless attacks.


27 July, 2008

Arnie bans incorrect fat

California, a national trendsetter in all matters edible, became the first state to ban trans fats in restaurants when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill Friday to phase out their use. Under the new law, trans fats, long linked to health problems [Show us just ONE person who has been demonstrably harmed by trans-fats. It's all supposition], must be excised from restaurant products beginning in 2010, and from all retail baked goods by 2011. Packaged foods will be exempt.

New York City adopted a similar ban in 2006 - it became fully effective on July 1 - and Philadelphia, Stamford, Conn., and Montgomery County, Md., have done so as well. But having the requirement imposed on the most populous state's 88,000 restaurants, as well as its bakeries and other food purveyors, is a major gain for the movement against trans fats. That movement has been led by scientists, doctors and consumer advocates who trace the largely synthetic fat to a variety of ailments, principally heart disease. "I think the potential here is real for a far greater understanding of the harms of trans fats, and to encourage more states to do the same," Dr. Clyde Yancy, incoming president of the American Heart Association, said of the California law's enactment.

Trans fats are created by pumping hydrogen into liquid oil at high temperature, a process called partial hydrogenation. The process results in an inexpensive fat that prolongs the shelf life and appearance of packaged foods and that, many fast-food restaurants say, helps make cooked food crisp and flavorful.

But trans fats have also been found in scientific studies to lower high-density lipoproteins, the "good" cholesterol, while increasing low-density lipoproteins, the "bad" cholesterol, high levels of which contribute to the onset of heart disease, the leading cause of death in California and the nation. Dr. Yancy said a 2 percent increase in trans-fat intake could result over time in a 25 percent increase in the likelihood of developing coronary artery disease. "These are data we are just now beginning to understand," [An interesting admission!] he said. "It is pretty clear now that it was a mistake for us to embrace these fats."

Under the new law, restaurants, bakeries, delicatessens, cafeterias and other businesses classified as "food facilities" will, in the preparation of any foods, have to discontinue use of oils, margarine and shortening containing trans fats. Those purveyors will have to keep the labels on their cooking products so that the products can be inspected for trans fat, a process that will become part of the duties of local health inspectors. Violators will face fines beginning at $25 and increasing to as much as $1,000 for subsequent violations.

Trans fats are also linked to obesity, and the bill's author, Tony Mendoza, a Democratic assemblyman and former fourth-grade teacher from Southern California, said he had been inspired by the number of obese children he saw in school. "They are heavy," Mr. Mendoza said. "They eat out a lot, and you realize there are trans fats out there. You don't want kids to start off on the wrong foot."

Opposition to the move came largely from the California Restaurant Association, which argued that singling out trans fats as a singularly harmful food product was arbitrary and that a mandate would prove expensive. Further, the association said, a ban for health reasons is the purview of the federal government, not the states. "We don't doubt the health findings surrounding trans fats," said Lara Dunbar, the association's senior vice president for government affairs. "Our opposition was philosophical. Banning one product isn't necessarily the right solution." In addition, Ms. Dunbar said, many of the state's restaurants have already eliminated trans fats. "We don't think you need a mandate," she said. "Restaurants responded to a consumer demand."

Among national chains, Wendy's, KFC, Taco Bell, the Cheesecake Factory and McDonald's have all begun to move away from trans fats because of consumer concerns....

To many health policy makers, though, trans fats have become almost the enemy that cigarettes became long ago. New York's anti-trans-fat movement, led by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, is still in its early days. The first phase, which began last year, made a target of frying oils and spreads. This month, the program was extended to baked goods. Nearly all the 25,000 restaurants inspected have proved compliant, according to the city's health department. New York has also offered a Trans Fat Help Center where bakers were schooled in the use of alternative fats.


Leech revival

These critters are the bane of bushwalkers in Australia but medical uses of them are increasing

When Mehdi Jaffari was told his left carotid artery was so severely blocked he faced the risk of an imminent stroke, he turned the clock back to medieval times. The 52-year-old counsellor, from Chatswood, bought more than 35 leeches from a Victorian farmer and applied them to his body daily. Within five days, a CT angiogram showed the artery had cleared, stunning staff at Royal North Shore Hospital and his family.

Leech therapy, first documented in Greece more than 4000 years ago, is not new in Sydney. More than 50 Richardsonianus australis leeches are kept in a tank at Liverpool Hospital for use on patients who have had skin grafts or severed digits because their saliva contains hirudin, a chemical that acts as a powerful anticoagulant and vasodilator. But using them on patients with severe cardiovascular disease has not yet become established practice in Australia. "It should be, because the results have been amazing," Mr Jaffari's wife, Tracy, said yesterday. "Mehdi was able to achieve more in five days than anyone of us thought possible."

Mr Jaffari's journey began when he had four heart attacks one morning last September and was rushed to Royal North Shore Hospital for an angiogram and stenting. Four months later he was back in surgery when the stent blocked and he was told he had advanced cardiovascular damage, with his left carotid artery almost 80 per cent blocked. On the advice of his sister, a leech therapist in Iran, Mr Jaffari placed seven of them on his back, legs and neck five times a day. After five days, a scan showed the artery had almost cleared.

"I'm highly surprised that he improved so much in such a short space of time," Mr Jaffari's interventional cardiologist, Peter Hansen, said. "But I do have a degree of scepticism. Perhaps the first scan overestimated the narrowing of the artery and the second scan underestimated it. Or perhaps it was a miracle and leeches do work. I am willing to keep an open mind on this because the results were impressive."

Dr Hansen said while hirudin was known to dissolve blood clots, it was not known to dissolve plaque. "Nothing in Western medicine can make [plaque] disappear in a week, or indeed at all. Statins may reduce it but they rarely make it go away, so it's very interesting."

In 2001 an international trial involving more than 17,000 heart attack patients found that bivalirudin, a genetically engineered form of hirudin, was 10 times more effective than heparin, the most commonly used blood-thinning agent.

But anyone wanting to buy leeches privately could find it difficult, the co-ordinator of the leech program at Liverpool Hospital, Katie Laing, said yesterday. Her supply is sourced from a farm at Echuca and several times during the year she is called upon to supply hospitals throughout Australia. "For now, people may have to wait until the treatment becomes a little more orthodox," she said


26 July, 2008

Confused British minister

Says people should not be told that it is their fault for being fat -- which is fair enough. Geneticists would say the same. But he then goes on to warn people (falsely) that fat will shorten their lives. So it appears that he DOES expect people to take responsibility for their own fatness and reduce it

Alan Johnson sparked a political row over obesity last night by accusing David Cameron of holding “Victorian” views that blamed people for being fat. The Health Secretary called for a national movement to tackle obesity after complaints that ministers had not done enough to reduce the nation’s growing waistlines. This month the Conservative leader suggested in Glasgow that the obese should take more responsibility for their lifestyles, attacking the notion that some people were “at risk” of obesity through no fault of their own.

In a speech in London to the Fabian Society, Mr Johnson said that “hectoring and lecturing” the public would not work. “Vilifying the extremely fat does not make people change their behaviour and the healthy eating message has to be delivered more intelligently,” he said. “It’s easy for politicians to stand on the sidelines accusing the impoverished, the fat and the excluded of only having themselves to blame. But before we evoke the Victorian notion of the deserving and undeserving poor . . . we should take a moment to consider how complex these issues really are.”

Instead, parents should be told that children could have their lives cut short by 11 years because of dangerous levels of fat in their arteries or around their organs, he said. Mr Johnson argued that obesity was not just an issue for Government and that everyone, from individuals to big supermarkets, should do all they could to help people to lead healthier lives. The Health Secretary said that the Government had rejected both the “nanny state” approach and the “neglectful state”, which “wags the finger in the direction of the most vulnerable families in the vague hope that they will do as they are told.”

“The Conservative Party have apparently chosen this approach,” he added. The Government was criticised last month for slow progress in tackling obesity, as well as alcohol abuse. Despite England having the most obesity among adults in Western Europe, a government strategy on the issue was published only this year, the Healthcare Commission and the Audit Commission noted.


IVF turns 30 amid steady improvements

As Louise Brown cuts her birthday cake today, chances are she won't be thinking of the 3 million babies across the world, including more than 80,000 Australians, who have followed in her footsteps. Ms Brown, who works for a shipping company in Bristol, made history when she became the world's first baby born by IVF 30 years ago, but the mother-of-one has always preferred the quiet life, and has no plans to celebrate. "I might go out with my friends or I might have a meal with the family. I'm planning on having a quiet one," she said yesterday.

But for Australian fertility experts, her birthday is cause for celebration. In three decades, IVF has evolved to the point where doctors now predict pregnancy rates could double within five years and the genetic make-up of eggs could be scanned to guarantee their success.

Within 30 years, babies could be conceived with artificial sperm and grown in man-made wombs and genetic diseases, such as Huntington's and cystic fibrosis, could be switched off using artificial chromosomes while the embryo is still in the laboratory. "The technology has been significantly refined to a point where our success rate has doubled in the past 10 years and I see it hitting 50 per cent within another five," the director of IVF Australia, Michael Chapman, said yesterday. About 41,000 cycles of IVF are performed in Australia each year, resulting in about 10,000 babies - or one in every 33 children. "When this lot of babies grows up, we will have about eight federal politicians who are IVF-lings," Professor Chapman said. "It has become so routine now and soon it will be commonplace."

The next giant leap in IVF will involve screening eggs using polarised light to assess their molecular make-up before fertilisation. About 50 per cent of eggs lack miotic spindles, preventing the cells dividing properly. The eggs can be fertilised but will never become viable pregnancies. "At the moment, we can't tell which eggs will make it and once we start routine screening, the success rates should rise and miscarriage rate drop," he said.

Poppy Kougellis, 40, was told she would never have children because her ovaries did not produce enough healthy eggs. Now a mother of 11-month-old Thomas, she spent three years trying to conceive naturally, followed by two years on IVF. On her 11th cycle of treatment, she produced only one egg and was told it had a 5 per cent chance of success. "That egg, our lone ranger, became Thomas," Ms Kougellis, now pregnant with twins, said. "We had been put in the 'too hard basket' by so many doctors that we bought a dog and resigned ourselves to it just being the three of us forever. Now we are about to become a family of five. All the heartache, tears and injections have been worth it."


25 July, 2008

Family meals reduce risky teen sex?

Hmmm..... I am inclined to think that the findings below reduce to saying that middle class people are more cautious. On the other hand, the study claims to be a study of differences between siblings. If so, that would mean that class differences are controlled for.

The idea that different siblings in the one family are treated markedly differently seems very problematic, however. Do family meals often include one sibling but not another? And if so why? Is the non-included one more rebellious to start with and does that alone account for the different degrees of promiscuity etc.? Seems likely. And how can "parental knowledge" and "parent negativity" be different from one sibling to another? Presumably it can be but why? Could be that "difficult" children tend to be excluded and again we might find it unsurprising that "difficult" children in one way behave in difficult ways on other occasions. I suspect a very large confusion of cause and effect in this study. The journal abstract is here

PARENTS who don't want their teens to engage in risky sexual behaviour should make family time a priority, a new study suggests. Adolescents who took part in family activities more often had sex less frequently, less unprotected sex, and fewer sex partners, Rebekah Levine Coley of Boston College and her colleagues found.

Most research on parenting and teen sexual behavior has simply looked at whether or not a teen has had sex, not the degree of sexual risk he or she takes, Dr Coley noted in an interview with Reuters Health. But given that two out of three US teens have sex before they turn 19, more specific information would provide a better understanding of the risks involved, Dr Coley and her team point out in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

To investigate, as well as to better define whether parental qualities influence a child's sexual behaviour rather than vice versa, Dr Coley and her team used increasingly stringent statistical techniques to analyse the results of a survey of 4950 US teens, 1058 of whom were siblings. The adolescents were 12 to 16 years old when the study began, and completed the survey every year for 3 years. By comparing parenting quality and sexual behaviour for siblings raised in the same household, Dr Coley noted, it is possible to tease out potential cause-and-effect relationships.

The more times a week that an adolescent reported having dinner with their family, "doing something religious" as a family, or having fun with their family, the less likely he or she was to engage in risky sexual behaviour, the researchers found.

However, having a parent who used "negative and psychologically controlling" behaviour increased the likelihood that a teen would be having risky sex. This includes "criticising the ideas of the adolescents, controlling and directing what they think and how they feel," Dr Coley explained. "Negative and psychologically controlling parenting behaviours may inhibit adolescents' development of self-efficacy and identity, interfere with mature and responsible decision making skills, and affect the development of healthy relationships, in turn leading to an elevated likelihood of engaging in risky behaviours," the researchers suggest.

On the other hand, they add, family activities are "centrally important supports for children, providing opportunities for emotional warmth, communication, and transmission of values and beliefs." The findings make it clear, Dr Coley said, that "what parents do with their adolescents really matters."


Viagra gives ladies a lift

These findings come from a control group study so deserve respect

DEPRESSED women who are having trouble in the bedroom are being encouraged to take the erectile dysfunction drug Viagra to improve their libido. Loss of libido is a common side effect of antidepressants and a major reason why many women stop taking medication for their depression. This is particularly problematic given that twice as many women as men are prescribed antidepressants but the most effective drugs used to combat sexual dysfunction in men are not approved for use in women.

Researchers tested Viagra on 98 women whose depression was in remission but were still experiencing sexual dysfunction such as lack of arousal or pain during sex. The women were told to take a pill one to two hours before sex for eight weeks. Half were given placebos pills which had no pharmacological effects.

Some 73 percent of the women given placebos reported no improvement with treatment while only 28 percent of the women taking Viagra said they did not notice an improvement, the study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found. Some of the women experienced headaches, flushing and indigestion but none of them withdrew from the trial because of side effects.

"By treating this bothersome treatment-associated adverse effect in patients who have been effectively treated for depression, but need to continue on their medication to avoid relapse or recurrence, patients can remain antidepressant-adherent, reduce the current high rates of premature medication discontinuation, and improve depression disease management outcomes," wrote lead author George Nurnberg of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine.


24 July, 2008

British woman receives $1,600,000 payout for brain injury caused by fad "detox" diet

People just don't know how dangerous water intoxication can be. People die from it. It is PARTICULARLY dangerous if it is not accompanied by enough salt

A mother of two has won more than $1,600,000 at the High Court after she claimed that a radical detox diet left her brain-damaged and epileptic. Dawn Page, 52, said that she was told to drink four extra pints of water a day and reduce her salt intake to prevent fluid retention and reduce weight. Within days of going on "The Amazing Hydration Diet" she began vomiting and, less than a week after starting the diet, suffered a massive epileptic fit. She was taken to intensive care but doctors were unable to prevent permanent brain injury.

Mrs Page now suffers from epilepsy and a "cognitive deficit" that affects her memory, concentration and her ability to speak normally. She was forced to quit her job as a conference organiser, suffers from frequent mood swings and relies on her husband, Geoff, for help around the house. Mrs Page secured an $1,620,000 payout last week from Barbara Nash, the nutritionist who devised the diet, after more than six years of legal battle. Mrs Nash, who calls herself a "nutritional therapist and life coach", denies any fault and the settlement was concluded without admission of liability. Mrs Nash's insurance company will pay the damages.

In September 2001 Mrs Page paid Mrs Nash $100 for an initial consultation. She said that she was advised to drink four pints of mineral water per day as well as the tea and other fluids that she normally drank. After a few days she started vomiting but was allegedly assured by Mrs Nash that it was "all part of the detoxification process". Mrs Page, who weighed 12 stone (76kg), was even urged to increase her water intake to six pints a day and cut her salt intake further.

Mr Page said yesterday that the settlement reflected the seriousness of his wife's injuries. He said of his wife: "She was not obese or even mildly obese but, like a lot of women, Dawn liked to look after her weight and was not having much success with the normal ways of doing that. "Her life has been seriously affected, perhaps ruined, by this fad-type way of losing weight," he added. Mrs Page relies on written notes to remember basic instructions and finds it hard to recall simple information.

Mr Page, the project manager for a packaging company, covers all the bills as his wife cannot work. He said: "She can't drive and takes medication every day. And she will do so for life." Mr Page, who brought the legal action against Mrs Nash in 2001, said that the fight had been worth it. Mrs Nash, who is based in Wheatley, Oxfordshire, and has a diploma in natural nutrition, was unavailable to comment last night.

Plexus Law, the firm representing Mrs Nash, released a statement that read: "On behalf of our client, we wish to make it clear that all allegations of substandard practice made on behalf of Mrs Page in the litigation have always been, and continue to remain, firmly denied. Equally, the information contained in the medical records suggesting that Mrs Page appeared to have drunk five litres of water on the day that she was admitted to hospital, and therefore disregarded advice given by our client, were also denied by Mrs Page. "In our view, as a recognition of this, the settlement amount agreed to be paid was less than half of the total amount claimed and the compromise that was offered and accepted was on the basis of no admission of liability."


New prostate drug might not leave you prostrate

Looks good so far

Thousands of men with aggressive and incurable prostate cancer could gain years of life with a ground-breaking new drug, British researchers say. Eight out of ten patients with advanced prostate cancer - which kills 10,000 men a year - may see their tumours shrink and be relieved of pain simply by taking a daily pill even if their disease has spread around the body, the study suggests. Some men taking abiraterone have survived for more than twice as long as expected when all other treatments failed, suggesting that the most common cancer in men may in future become a manageable chronic disease. Scientists are also starting trials of the drug for sufferers of breast cancer to see if it has similar benefits.

Survival rates for common cancers such as breast and colon cancer have more than doubled in 60 years, and experts predict that, with this new drug, prostate cancer has the potential to join this list. About 35,000 Britons have prostate cancer diagnosed each year. Many of the cancers do not spread and can be managed by surgery or monitoring. Nearly all fatal cases are aggressive forms that are resistant to current treatments and are fuelled by testoster-one, the "male" sex hormone. After chemotherapy and radiotherapy have failed, the typical survival period is just one year or 18 months.

Johann de Bono, who led the study at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, said that 250 men worldwide with advanced cases had so far taken the new drug - some for as long as 32 months, indicating that it could even tually boost survival by many years. The study, published today in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, found benefits for 21 patients with advanced prostate cancer. Trials are continuing.

Dr de Bono said he hoped that the new drug could be licensed and available for treatment of advanced disease within three years. He suggested that it could eventually make chemotherapy obsolete. "This is potentially a major step forward," he said. "These men have very aggressive prostate cancer, which is exceptionally difficult to treat and almost always fatal. We hope that abiraterone will eventually offer them real hope of an effective way of managing their condition and prolonging their lives."

Karol Sikora, a leading cancer specialist, described the study as a "significant piece of work". He said: "We now can make people live with cancer. It's not curable but we can keep people alive to the extent that they will die of something else. Most people affected by cancer are over 60, so if we can give them an extra 10 to 15 years that is as good as can be. We have to take into account the variability of some forms of hormone-driven cancer - this is not 100 per cent effective - but to be able to treat some of the worst cases, and grant them extra years of life, is a very positive thing."

Advanced prostate cancer is typically treated with a form of chemical or surgical castration to block production of the male hormones. Abiraterone blocks the generation of these hormones in the testes and elsewhere in the body, including the generation of hormones in the cancer itself.

The pill decreased the size of tumours in 70 to 80 per cent of men with advanced prostate cancer, the researchers said. Patients also recorded large falls in prostate specific antigen levels in the blood - a key indicator of prostate cancer.

"Current treatments can be horrible, and carry side-effects such as loss of libido, but in some cases the cancer seems immune to therapy and carries on accelerating," Dr de Bono said. "We believe that the cancer cells can make their own hormone `fuel' to grow and survive. We believe we now have a drug that can block the ability of the cancer to make that fuel."

An international study aims to recruit 1,200 men with advanced prostate cancer. The drug is also being used to treat breast cancer in women through a preliminary trial funded by Cancer Research UK.

Dr de Bono said: "It was able to help patients whose cancer had spread to the bones, liver, even lung. A number of patients were able to stop taking morphine for the relief of bone pain, and they got their quality of life back. In the wider context we eventually aim to make chemotherapy obsolete."

Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research's prostate cancer expert, said that the results were exciting but the studies were small and it was too early to say what role the drug might have in treating those with earlier stages of cancer.


23 July, 2008

Husbands make women fat

So women should give up marriage?? It's all anecdotal anyway. I could equally make an argument that marriage assists slimness. There are plenty of single fatties around

WOMEN who pile on the pounds once they get married and can't seem to stick to diets can now blame their weight worries on their husbands. Experts say a husband is more of a hindrance than a help in a wife's battle of the bulge. "For some women, marriage definitely can be fattening," says Dr Brian Steadman, a leading British authority on nutrition. "It's hard enough for them to stick to good eating habits when they're single, but they can find it impossible after they're married.

"For a start, they've got to prepare food for two people, and it gets worse when children come along. Suddenly, she is constantly thinking about food - buying it, cooking it, fixing snacks and meals at different times of the day. And if the husband doesn't need to diet, then with all the best intentions in the world, the poor woman is going to find it very tough preparing big wholesome meals for the family and low-calorie snacks for herself."

Dr Richard B. Stuart, an American authority on slimming and nutrition, and former psychological director of Weight Watchers International, the author of Act Thin, Stay Thin, agrees. "If a woman can't stay on a diet, it could easily be her husband's fault," he says. "In fact, a husband might subconsciously be encouraging his wife to remain fat, and make it harder for her to lose weight." And he gives these reasons why this could be so:

If he feels in any way insecure in his relationship, then he reasons that a plump wife is less likely to leave him or make other men jealous.

If he has a low sex drive then having a fat wife is a very good excuse for lack of interest or potency.

If he's the kind who isn't prepared to put a lot of effort into the marriage, then it will be much easier for him to keep her "fat" than "happy".

If his wife is a failure as a dieter, it "allows" him to have his workaholic schedule or an affair.

And there are many other ways that a husband, perhaps unwittingly, can hinder his wife's ambitions to keep her weight down. "For instance, she may ask for his help in her battle of the bulge, only to be told, 'Sure I'll help, but we're not giving up pizza night'," Dr Stuart says. "Or he might give her a box of chocolates as a 'reward' for losing 1«kg. Some husbands even turn their support into competition, with the wife as loser. I know of one who agreed to go jogging with his wife, only to leave a trail of dust in her face every time as he sped off at breakneck speed."

However, there are also some reasons why a wife herself might prefer to be fat. "She may find it harder to avoid sex with her husband (if she were thin), or fear how she will handle the sudden attention from other men," Dr Stuart says. "And with the 'fat' cover-up gone, she may be forced to confront some painful issues."

According to a British study, despite fears of being too tubby, 62 per cent of women piled on the kilos when they fell in love. The results of the Gallup poll also show that one in four women hates being seen naked during sex for fear of turning their man off. And 90 per cent are unhappy about love-making because they believe they are overweight.

The biggest problem area is tummy bulges. A third of married women feel they are being judged by their bodies. "Putting on weight has a more damaging effect on women than men," Dr Stuart says. "As a woman's weight goes up, her self-esteem goes down. "While men get ego satisfaction from their jobs, women still associate their self-worth with their appearance.

"As husbands, many men can, without realising it, add to a woman's problems with her weight. Some often respond to their wives as if they were men, lending the kind of support a male would want, such as a pep talk. "Not only does a woman want different kinds of support, but her needs change during the course of her weight loss. He adds that a wife trying to keep her weight down should help her husband to help her. "Be specific. Should he talk about your progress? Reward you? Praise you? Keep the dialogue going."


Useless official food warnings

So were those tomatoes that grocery stores and consumers dumped two weeks ago really contaminated with salmonella bacteria? Or were hot peppers the real culprits in an outbreak of food-borne diseases that have sickened 1,200 people in 42 states?

As the Sacramento Bee's Jim Downing found last week, no one really knows for sure. Government scientists tracing the source of such illnesses rely on the most unreliable of sources: sick people's memory of what they ate last night, last week or two weeks ago.

Federal Food and Drug Administration investigators have not yet found any evidence of contamination on actual tomatoes. Nonetheless, based on the advice of health officials in New Mexico where the first outbreaks were detected and on the hazy memories of sickened people, the FDA issued a warning June 7, advising consumers to avoid red Roma, red round and red plum tomatoes. The produce industry estimates losses from the tomato scare could run as high as $250 million.

The FDA has since reconsidered its warning. Maybe it wasn't tomatoes. Maybe it was raw jalape¤os or serrano peppers. So hot peppers were added to the suspect list last week, and more produce was dumped.

Epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, one of the nation's leading experts on food-borne diseases, blames the confusion in part on a hodgepodge of state and local public health systems that are ill-equipped in terms of training or resources to do the sophisticated analysis necessary to reliably trace the source of food-borne illnesses. He thinks Congress should set national standards for epidemiologists who trace food-borne illnesses similar to those in place for criminologists who examine evidence from crime scenes.

Source. (A story here says that peppers rather than tomatoes were behind the salmonella outbreak).

22 July, 2008

How smart are 'smart drugs'?

There's a buzz about modafinil, meant to make you brighter and more energized. But does it work, and at what cost?

Is your memory so perforated that you fear early-onset Alzheimer’s? Your attention so centrifugal that you’ve self-diagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? Perhaps you don’t have time to sleep, or maybe you would just like to function as a super-you. The sci-fi solution we have all been waiting for is already here, and it’s circulating in student unions and school. These days, the kids are all on “smart drugs”.

A group of pharmaceuticals designed for sufferers of narcolepsy, Alzheimer’s and ADHD, smart drugs are increasingly being used “off label” (unsupervised, as a lifestyle choice) by healthy people, who procure them from online pharmacies, friendly physicians and illicit prescription sales. “This stuff is being passed around all the time,” says one male A-level student with something of a smart-drug habit — “this stuff” largely being Ritalin, usually prescribed for children with ADHD, and Modafinil, which is used to treat narcolepsy. Students are rejoicing and cramming for exams with smart-drug- fuelled all-nighters. One told me that he buys his from a mate who sells on his larger-than-necessary prescription; another offered to put me in touch with her “very kind doctor”.

The government, meanwhile, is sweating. It recently commissioned a report on brain science that concluded more work is needed. What students and the government both know is that in Ritalin improves attention, memory and cognitive flexibility in healthy subjects; Modafinil improves attention, memory, planning and decision- making and leaves you in a state of wakefulness without the wired bit, liability of addiction or “obvious toxic effects”. So what’s not to like?

Imbued with visions of a new, improved me, I visit that conveniently unregulated online pharmacy. Ritalin costs $116 for 10 pills; Modafinil, $20 for 10. No questions asked, no electrocardiograph tests required. I plump for cheapo Modafinil. My sister, a doctor, phones with a warning: “I’ve been discussing your drugs trial with a colleague, and we don’t think it’s safe to experiment with your brain like this.” I fall silent as she explains there are scant statistics on Modafinil’s long-term effects, even fewer on the effects on healthy subjects. Plus, as with all neurological drugs, there can be atypical side effects. And a new report claims three in five medicines bought online are fake, some dangerously so.

A dodgy package arrives in the post. Wrapped in low-grade manila, wonkily stamped “Mumbai — India”, is a loose strip of 10 x 200mg legit-looking Modafinil pills (the website was recommended by a genuine American pharmacy that refused to ship to the UK). There are no instructions, no warnings of harmful contraindications, only this: “Dosage: as directed by the neurologist/ psychiatrist/specialist.” I turn to my old friend the internet to check the dose (one or two pills) and side effects (insomnia, decreased appetite, anxiety, headache and rapid heartbeat). Some, of course, may see these cons as pros.

First thing the next morning, down it goes, and I await the “eureka!” moment. It never comes, but an hour later, I feel undoubtedly alert. Actually, I feel pretty normal (no cleverer, no less hungry), if a little edgy. A persistent, dry headache develops, like I have drunk one too many coffees (after all, caffeine and Modafinil both stimulate the central nervous system), but where my attention usually drifts, today it can’t. Streams of consciousness babble endlessly; I feel spirited and industrious. The steady energy endures with no 4pm fogs, and I fantasise about Thatcher-style productivity. Perhaps this is the key to the mythological 25-hour day?

There are stories of off-label users finally conquering their intellectual Everests (lifelong battles with War and Peace); the American poker player Paul Phillips claimed that when he was prescribed Modafinil, it helped him win more than $3.4m. One A-level student told me: “On Ritalin and Modafinil, no matter what you’re doing, you’re interested. I studied politics, which usually I couldn’t give a toss about. Four hours in, you have the choice to work or not, and you prefer to work. I screwed around all year and then worked really hard for my exams — on drugs. Some say it’s cheating, but it’s not like in sport, where you can be banned for taking steroids.” According to the Department of Health, buying these drugs from illegal organisations is not against the law, as they are legal.

It is time to find out what is going on in my head, so I call the Modafinil expert, Trevor Robbins, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cambridge University and one of the academics behind the government’s recent brain-science report. He is unambiguously excited. “It works like a mental manager, optimising the performance of several different faculties,” he says. “It’s great on tasks requiring reflection and planning, plus it inhibits impulsiveness — and blurting out the wrong thing.” Does he see it as cheating? “Coffee is a cognition enhancer,” he argues. “People don’t think of them as the same, but they’re both chemicals. It’s like taking a vitamin pill.” Except that Modafinil is much more sophisticated and active. But where was super-me?

“Modafinil operates on an inverted U-shaped curve,” Robbins says. “If you’re already functioning at the top of it, you can only go down.” Depressing. He adds that some may not be genetically optimal for enhancement. Has Robbins tried Modafinil? “Never. I perform optimally already.”

Disturbingly, nobody knows exactly how Modafinil works, although it’s generally considered safe (provided, of course, you’re not taking the fakes). Made by Cephalon, it’s been licensed for narcolepsy (as Provigil) for 10 years in the UK. In America, where the licensing regulations are more lenient, plenty of academics have it on repeat prescription. Cephalon refuses to answer my questions about off-label use, saying it has no direct involvement with tests on healthy volunteers, nor any plans for over-the-counter sales.

It was after dark that Modafinil’s potential for 48-hour wakefulness appeared — annoyingly. (I was only after the “smart” bit.) Wide-eyed at 2am, I reached for a sleeping pill. And another. Predisposed to poor sleep, I ended up taking three times the normal dose, yet getting barely two hours’ kip.

Many claim to sleep fine and that there is no sleep debt after all-nighters, provided you get eight hours’ kip the following night. I’m not convinced. The next day, I’m still alert, but I need an extra jolt of caffeine. By 6pm, I’m broken. I see that upper- downer cycle winking at me: Exhausted? Take this little pill. Can’t sleep? Try this.

And I did, a few days later, this time on a hangover. With the stuffing already knocked out of me, I wondered whether Modafinil could be the ultimate hangover cure. But no — I had the same sleep issues (none, all night) and a whole new hangover to deal with. The day after, I felt heavy, woolly and strung out, with a stubborn, brittle headache — not dissimilar to the aftermath of a drugs bender. Unsurprisingly.

According to the US military, sequential dosing has diminishing returns: Modafinil can work for 48 hours, but then people need sleep. After all, people eventually die from sleep deprivation. As far as I can work out, it doesn’t do to mess with your circadian cycle: power pills are no substitute for real sleep. But in these time-obsessed days, off-label use is predicted to rise, and more cognition-enhancing drugs are in development. I haven’t touched my stash since, but if I were a truckie or on the eve of exams, I could be tempted. But you would be foolish to treat smart drugs like the new coffee.


New hope for Alzheimer’s patients?

A drug injected into the spine has produced rapid improvements in verbal fluency in a trial of 12 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Etanercept (Enbrel), an antiTNF drug developed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, transformed the behaviour of some patients in a matter of minutes, the researchers say.

The results, published in BMC Neurology, are the latest in a series of bold claims made by Edward Tobinick, from a private medical group in Los Angeles, and Hyman Gross, of the University of Southern California. Their theory is that TNF is used in the brain to regulate the transmission of nerve impulses. They say that in Alzheimer’s high levels of TNF interfere with this process, so suppressing TNF with Enbrel should cause a reduction in Alzheimer’s symptoms.

BMC Neurology is accessible on the internet and includes a video showing the rapid improvements in language skills. Dr Tobinick said: “There are limitations to the data presented; the clinical trial was open label and not controlled. These caveats notwithstanding, the scientific rationale for the further investigation of antiTNF treatment of Alzheimer’s disease is compelling.”

Alzheimer’s experts have been sceptical of Dr Tobinick’s research. They say that Enbrel, even when injected into the spine, might not reach the brain in sufficient quantities to have any effect. Dr Tobinick has called for a full-scale trial of his methods.


21 July, 2008

Study finds lasting benefit in banned mushroom drug?

Delusions are a "spiritual" experience? The side effects would normally be considered too severe for pharmaceutical use and there was no control group to show that the alleged good effects were anything but placebo

In 2002, at a Johns Hopkins University laboratory, a business consultant named Dede Osborn took a psychedelic drug as part of a research project. She felt like she was taking off. She saw colors. Then it felt like her heart was ripping open. But she called the experience joyful as well as painful, and says that it has helped her to this day.

Various species of mushrooms native to tropical and subtropical regions of South America, Mexico, and the United States produce the compound responsible for the effect of "magic mushrooms."

"I feel more centered in who I am and what I'm doing," said Osborn, now 66, of Providence, R.I. "I don't seem to have those self-doubts like I used to have. I feel much more grounded (and feel that) we are all connected."

Scientists reported Tuesday that when they surveyed volunteers 14 months after they took the drug, most said they were still feeling and behaving better because of the experience. Two thirds of them also said the drug had produced one of the five most spiritually significant experiences they'd ever had.

The drug, psilocybin, is found in socalled "magic mushrooms." It's illegal, but it h as been used in religious ceremonies for centuries.

The study involved 36 men and women during an eight-hour lab visit. It's one of the few such studies of hallucinogens in the past 40 years, since research was largely shut down after widespread recreational abuse of such drugs in the 1960s. The project made headlines in 2006 when researchers published their report on how the volunteers felt just two months after taking the drug. The new study followed them up a year after that.

Experts emphasize that people should not try psilocybin on their own because it could be harmful. Even in the controlled setting of the laboratory, nearly a third of participants felt significant fear under the effects of the drug. Without proper supervision, someone could be harmed, researchers said.

Osborn, in a telephone interview, recalled a powerful feeling of being out of control during her lab experience. "It was ... like taking off, I'm being lifted up," she said. Then came "brilliant colors and beautiful patterns, just stunningly gorgeous, more intense than normal reality."

And then, the sensation that her heart was tearing open. "It would come in waves," she recalled. "I found myself doing Lamaze-type breathing as the pain came on." Yet "it was a joyful, ecstatic thing at the same time, like the joy of being alive," she said. She compared it to birthing pains. "There was this sense of relief and joy and ecstasy when my heart was opened."

With further research, psilocybin (pronounced SILLohSYbin) may prove useful in helping to treat alcoholism and drug dependence, and in aiding seriously ill patients as they deal with psychological distress, said study lead author Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins. Griffiths also said that despite the spiritual characteristics reported for the drug experiences, the study said nothing about whether God exists. "Is this God in a pill? Absolutely not," he said.

The experiment was funded in part by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The results were published online Tuesday by the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Fourteen months after taking the drug, 64 percent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.

That second question didn't ask for details, but elsewhere the questionnaire answers indicated lasting gains in traits like being more sensitive, tolerant, loving and compassionate.

Researchers didn't try to corroborate what the participants said about their own behavior. But in the earlier analysis at two months after the drug was given, researchers said family and friends backed up what those in the study said about behavior changes. Griffiths said he has no reason to doubt the answers at 14 months.

Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the HarborUCLA Medical Center, called the new work an important follow-up to the first study. He said it is helping to reopen formal study of psychedelic drugs. Grob is on the board of the Heffter Research Institute, which promotes studies of psychedelic substances and helped pay for the new work.


How two slices of brown bread a day protects pregnant women against life threatening pre-eclampsia

Utter crap. Womern who eat trendy food are probably middle class and hence healthier anyway

Eating only two slices of brown bread a day could help pregnant women stave off pre-eclampsia. Increasing fibre intake during the first three months of pregnancy can reduce the risk of the life-threatening condition by more than half, research shows.

Pre-eclampsia, which is characterised by high blood pressure, affects one in ten expectant mothers and occurs late in the pregnancy. If it develops into full eclampsia it can endanger the life of the mother and baby. In some cases, the baby may have to be delivered prematurely. If the condition worsens further, women can suffer fits.

Dr Chunfang Qiu carried out a study of 1,538 women's diets before conception and during the first three months of pregnancy. He found those whose diets were rich in grain, fruit and vegetables - more than 21.2g of fibre a day - were two-thirds less likely to develop the condition than those who ate less than 11.9g. Dr Qiu, who reports his findings on the American Journal of Hypertension website, said adding 5g of fibre to your diet is the equivalent of eating two slices of wholegrain bread.

Dr Qiu, of the Swedish Medical Centre, in Seattle, said: 'These results suggest the important health benefits of increased fibre consumption before and during early pregnancy.'


20 July, 2008

Scientific Evidence Shows Secondhand Smoke Is No Danger

Amazing EPA malpractice throws all their work into doubt. They are a political, not a scientific body

Exposure to secondhand smoke (SHS) is an unpleasant experience for many nonsmokers, and for decades was considered a nuisance. But the idea that it might actually cause disease in nonsmokers has been around only since the 1970s. Recent surveys show more than 80 percent of Americans now believe secondhand smoke is harmful to nonsmokers.

A 1972 U.S. surgeon general's report first addressed passive smoking as a possible threat to nonsmokers and called for an anti-smoking movement. The issue was addressed again in surgeon generals' reports in 1979, 1982, and 1984. A 1986 surgeon general's report concluded involuntary smoking caused lung cancer, but it offered only weak epidemiological evidence to support the claim. In 1989 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was charged with further evaluating the evidence for health effects of SHS. In 1992 EPA published its report, "Respiratory Health Effects of Passive Smoking," claiming SHS is a serious public health problem, that it kills approximately 3,000 nonsmoking Americans each year from lung cancer, and that it is a Group A carcinogen (like benzene, asbestos, and radon).

The report has been used by the tobacco-control movement and government agencies, including public health departments, to justify the imposition of thousands of indoor smoking bans in public places.

EPA's 1992 conclusions are not supported by reliable scientific evidence. The report has been largely discredited and, in 1998, was legally vacated by a federal judge. Even so, the EPA report was cited in the surgeon general's 2006 report on SHS, where then-Surgeon General Richard Carmona made the absurd claim that there is no risk-free level of exposure to SHS. For its 1992 report, EPA arbitrarily chose to equate SHS with mainstream (or firsthand) smoke. One of the agency's stated assumptions was that because there is an association between active smoking and lung cancer, there also must be a similar association between SHS and lung cancer.

But the problem posed by SHS is entirely different from that found with mainstream smoke. A well-recognized toxicological principle states, "The dose makes the poison." Accordingly, we physicians record direct exposure to cigarette smoke by smokers in the medical record as "pack-years smoked" (packs smoked per day times the number of years smoked). A smoking history of around 10 pack-years alerts the physician to search for cigarette-caused illness. But even those nonsmokers with the greatest exposure to SHS probably inhale the equivalent of only a small fraction (around 0.03) of one cigarette per day, which is equivalent to smoking around 10 cigarettes per year.

Another major problem is that the epidemiological studies on which the EPA report is based are statistical studies that can show only correlation and cannot prove causation. One statistical method used to compare the rates of a disease in two populations is relative risk (RR). It is the rate of disease found in the exposed population divided by the rate found in the unexposed population. An RR of 1.0 represents zero increased risk. Because confounding and other factors can obscure a weak association, in order even to suggest causation a very strong association must be found, on the order of at least 300 percent to 400 percent, which is an RR of 3.0 to 4.0. For example, the studies linking direct cigarette smoking with lung cancer found an incidence in smokers of 20 to around 40 times that in nonsmokers, an association of 2000 percent to 4000 percent, or an RR of 20.0 to 40.0.

An even greater problem is the agency's lowering of the confidence interval (CI) used in its report. Epidemiologists calculate confidence intervals to express the likelihood a result could happen just by chance. A CI of 95 percent allows a 5 percent possibility that the results occurred only by chance. Before its 1992 report, EPA had always used epidemiology's gold standard CI of 95 percent to measure statistical significance. But because the U.S. studies chosen for the report were not statistically significant within a 95 percent CI, for the first time in its history EPA changed the rules and used a 90 percent CI, which doubled the chance of being wrong.

This allowed it to report a statistically significant 19 percent increase of lung cancer cases in the nonsmoking spouses of smokers over those cases found in nonsmoking spouses of nonsmokers. Even though the RR was only 1.19--an amount far short of what is normally required to demonstrate correlation or causality--the agency concluded this was proof SHS increased the risk of U.S. nonsmokers developing lung cancer by 19 percent.

In November 1995 after a 20-month study, the Congressional Research Service released a detailed analysis of the EPA report that was highly critical of EPA's methods and conclusions. In 1998, in a devastating 92-page opinion, Federal Judge William Osteen vacated the EPA study, declaring it null and void. He found a culture of arrogance, deception, and cover-up at the agency. Osteen noted, "First, there is evidence in the record supporting the accusation that EPA 'cherry picked' its data. ... In order to confirm its hypothesis, EPA maintained its standard significance level but lowered the confidence interval to 90 percent. This allowed EPA to confirm its hypothesis by finding a relative risk of 1.19, albeit a very weak association. ... EPA cannot show a statistically significant association between [SHS] and lung cancer."

The judge added, "EPA publicly committed to a conclusion before the research had begun; adjusted established procedure and scientific norms to validate its conclusion; and aggressively utilized its authority to disseminate findings to establish a de facto regulatory scheme to influence public opinion."

In 2003 a definitive paper on SHS and lung cancer mortality was published in the British Medical Journal. It is the largest and most detailed study ever reported. The authors studied more than 35,000 California never-smokers over a 39-year period and found no statistically significant association between exposure to SHS and lung cancer mortality.

Propaganda Trumps Science

The 1992 EPA report is an example of the use of epidemiology to promote belief in an epidemic instead of to investigate one. It has damaged the credibility of EPA and has tainted the fields of epidemiology and public health.

In addition, influential anti-tobacco activists, including prominent academics, have unethically attacked the research of eminent scientists in order to further their ideological and political agendas.

The abuse of scientific integrity and the generation of faulty "scientific" outcomes (through the use of pseudoscience) have led to the deception of the American public on a grand scale and to draconian government overregulation and the squandering of public money.

Millions of dollars have been spent promoting belief in SHS as a killer, and more millions of dollars have been spent by businesses in order to comply with thousands of highly restrictive bans, while personal choice and freedom have been denied to millions of smokers. Finally, and perhaps most tragically, all this has diverted resources away from discovering the true cause(s) of lung cancer in nonsmokers.


Brain shrinks faster with less stimulation

Brain scans have revealed that people who do not engage in complex mental activity have twice the shrinkage in a key part of the brain in old age. The finding sheds more light on the link between lifestyle and dementia, and adds strength to the evidence that mental gymnastics, like puzzles and new languages, stave off ageing diseases.

"We've got strong evidence here that people who use their brains more have less brain shrinkage," said Dr Michael Valenzuela, from the school of psychiatry at the University of NSW. "I hope people take this as a further call to arms to get out there and use their brains, get engaged in anything from tai chi to world travel, in the knowledge that it may help delay or prevent the onset of dementia."

Mental activity has been found to delay the onset of the degenerative brain diseases, such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in large population studies.

Dr Valenzuela and his team were investigating the reasons behind this "use it or lose it" principle by studying the brains of 60-year-olds over three years and testing their lifetime mental agility with questionnaires. Of the 50 people studied, those who had been more mentally active over their lives had a larger hippocampus, an important memory centre in the brain. Critically, over the three-year period the area shrank at half the rate of those who had lower mental activity.

"This is a significant finding because a small hippocampus is a specific risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease," said Dr Valenzuela, whose work is published in the journal PLoS ONE. He said while many drug companies were trying to find a pharmaceutical target to prevent the shrinkage of the hippocampus, the good news is that people can help themselves. "Our prior research shows the risk for dementia is quite malleable, even into late life," the researcher said. "It is vital that everyone is involved in cognitive, social and physical activities in late life such as dancing, tai chi, sailing, travelling and learning a new language, for example."


19 July, 2008

Acupuncture useless

Infertile women who spend hundreds of pounds on acupuncture during IVF treatment are doing nothing to improve their chances of having a baby, the most extensive review of the evidence yet conducted has found. Acupuncture has no effect at all on pregnancy rates following IVF, according to a study that has examined all the high-quality trials to investigate its use by fertility clinics.

The findings, from a team at Guy's and St Thomas's Hospital in London, will dismay thousands of infertility patients, among whom acupuncture has become the most popular complementary therapy. While no official figures on its use are kept, demand is so great that several fertility clinics, such as Hammersmith Hospital in London, have set up on-site acupuncture services for their patients. Costs vary, but the Hammersmith unit charges $480 for an "IVF package" of four acupuncture sessions.

The new research, led by Sesh Sunkara, is a meta-analysis, in which the results of many high-quality randomised controlled trials are pooled to provide a more complete picture of a medical procedure's effectiveness. She said that while she had been open-minded about acupuncture before starting the investigation, she felt that she could not recommend it to patients. "If women come to me and ask if they should have acupuncture, I have to say there is no evidence that it helps," she told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona. "Women are investing hope, energy and time in something that has not shown a definite benefit.

"The reason we chose to do this was that in our IVF clinic, every day we have patients who ask whether they should have acupuncture to improve their success rate. There have been all sorts of papers saying that sticking pins and needles increases the pregnancy rate, which have been widely reported in the media, and we are looking at women who are very vulnerable, who want to do everything possible to increase their pregnancy chances. "We wanted to look at this in an unbiased, open-minded way, to help us advise our patients. We wanted to know whether we should be doing acupuncture routinely and setting up a service in our clinic, or whether we should be advising people that there is no evidence that it works."

In the study, Dr Sunkara identified 83 trials in the medical literature, of which 13 were found to be of suitable quality to be included in the meta-analysis. The others were rejected either because they were commentary articles that did not include data, or because they were inappropriately designed.

Pregnancy rate and live birth rate were the only outcomes considered, and the results showed that acupuncture had no effect on either, whether it was used during embryo transfer or for pain relief while eggs were collected.

The research contradicts a similar meta-analysis that was published in the British Medical Journal in February, which suggested that acupuncture can improve pregnancy rates by as much as 65 per cent if performed when embryos are transferred to the womb.

Scientists behind the new work said that the BMJ study had overlooked a number of good studies that reached negative conclusions. Professor Peter Braude, who supervised the Guy's and St Thomas' team, said: "The BMJ paper didn't include all the studies, and if you include the negative ones there is no effect. We can't turn around and say it does not work, but there is no evidence it does and hand on heart we can't come out and recommend it."

Dr Sunkara said that more large randomised clinical trials of acupuncture in IVF were needed to settle the issue.

Paul Robin, the chairman of the Acupuncture Society, said: "I'm really surprised by these findings. I've been treating people for 20 years and in my experience treatment does seem to improve their chances of becoming pregnant. This study has shown that there's no proof that acupuncture can help - so that suggests that there should be lots more studies to examine the question. I'm convinced it can help."

Other studies that have claimed a benefit for acupuncture have hypothesised that it helps with relaxation during embryo transfer, which may boost the chances of a successful implantation and pregnancy. It has also been suggested that the therapy may increase blood flow to the womb.


CA: Legislature approves bill banning trans fats

California is poised to become the first state in the nation to ban restaurants and other food facilities from using trans fats, which are known to increase the risk of heart disease, under a bill approved by the state Legislature Monday and sent to the governor. The measure, passed with a bare majority, comes two weeks after a similar ban in New York City became fully effective. California doctor and consumer groups support the law, while restaurant groups have offered a lukewarm response. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position, a spokesman said.

Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Artesia (Los Angeles County), who wrote AB97, said the measure is intended to promote the health of Californians. "When it comes to heart disease and diabetes, communities of color are leading the way," Mendoza said. "I figured that the use of trans fats in our restaurants is a leading contributor to that."

Mendoza's bill would require restaurants, hospitals and facilities with food-preparation areas to remove oils, shortenings and margarines with trans fats by Jan. 1, 2010, except for use in deep frying for dough and batter. Bakers would be given an extra year to figure out how to make goods free of partial hydrogenation. By Jan. 1, 2011, food preparation sites would have to be eliminate all ingredients with trans fats or face fines from $25 to $1,000. The bill exempts public school cafeterias, which must be trans fat free under a law that takes effect at the start of the coming year.

Mendoza's bill defines trans fat free as containing 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving, and the law would not apply to packaged goods, which cross state lines and are subject to FDA regulation. The bill also allows local governments to create trans fat ordinances, such as San Francisco's voluntary plan under which restaurants that pass a $250 inspection will be awarded a decal indicating that they are trans fat free. The city's law takes effect this month.

New York City's law has been a success, said Dr. Sonia Angell, director of the New York Health Department's Cardiovascular Disease Prevention and Control program. The department began phasing in a ban on artificial trans fats in December 2006, with the law fully in force on July 1. "At this point, all inspections have been going quite smoothly," Angell said. "Compliance has been at 98 percent. The evidence is very clear that trans fats are dangerous and very replaceable."

Dari Shamtoob, owner of the popular - and trans-fat-free - King Pin Donuts near the UC Berkeley campus, said he wonders why Berkeley has not implemented a law like New York City's. He fully supports a California ban. "I don't know what's stopped them, but these days they should," he said, "especially for the students. It's very important." Shamtoob began experimenting with oils free of trans fats in 2005 and perfected his recipes in 2006. He is waiting to buy a soybean oil that promises to be cholesterol free as well as trans fat free.

The switch increased King Pin's expenses, but the cost gap between the oils is closing. At first, Shamtoob said, trans-fat-free palm oil cost him 100 percent more than partially hydrogenated oil. Now the difference is 15 percent....

Meanwhile, California counties are worried that the bill contains no funding for implementation and enforcement, said Justin Malan, executive director of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health. "The thing in enforcement is that it's difficult to verify the absence of trans fat in hundreds of thousands of different products," Malan said. Adding requirements to the inspection process without financial support will result in cursory inspections, Malan said.

Legislators who voted against the bill said they prefer incentives rather than forced regulation. "The average population is mature enough to make their own decisions," said Sen. Sam Aanestad, R-Grass Valley (Nevada County). "I don't believe government was formed to tell citizens what they can and cannot do."

But attorney Stephen Joseph of Tiburon, a leader in the battle against trans fats, says now is the time for regulation. "The public has shown in survey after survey that they want this," he said. "I haven't heard a complaint from a company in years."

Joseph has sued McDonald's and Kraft Foods regarding trans fat information disclosure and use, and also led a successful, voluntary campaign in Tiburon to eliminate trans fats from restaurant kitchens. He views the elimination of trans fats as a form of consumer liberation rather than restriction. "Customers don't notice the difference. There's no loss of freedom of choice here. It's not freedom of choice for the customer when a restaurant owner puts something in the food and doesn't tell the customer," he said.


18 July, 2008

Another blow to breast feelies

Breast self-examination has been questioned for some time now -- on the grounds that it does more harm than good

According to a review by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates medical research, there’s no evidence that self-exams actually reduce breast cancer deaths. In fact, the often-recommended monthly chore may even do more harm than good, according to the group’s analysis of a pair of studies of nearly 400,000 Chinese and Russian women.

“Data from two large trials do not suggest a beneficial effect of screening by (BSE) but do suggest harm in terms of increased numbers of benign lesions identified and an increased number of biopsies performed,” concluded the authors in Tuesday’s issue of The Cochrane Library. “At present, screening by breast self-examination … cannot be recommended.”

“I guess it’s one less thing that I need to be doing, but it is a little confusing,” says Liz Lane, a 29-year-old public relations manager from New York City. “Now I’m not sure what I am supposed to do to check myself.”

The issue is complicated, acknowledges Dr. David B. Thomas, breast cancer epidemiologist at Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington. “It’s important to separate out the public health implications from the implications for an individual woman,” says Thomas, who is also the author of the 2002 landmark study involving more than 250,000 Chinese women that was analyzed and affirmed by this latest review.

“If a woman is highly motivated — let’s say her mother or sister has been diagnosed with breast cancer — then of course she should practice breast self-exam. But that’s a different situation than trying to reach women on a mass scale. Our study shows that that’s probably a waste of time. You’re not going to get women sufficiently motivated to practice it well enough and frequently enough to make that big of a difference.”

What’s more, Thomas says BSEs can be problematic because the lumps and bumps women do report often turn out to be benign. “The price you pay for doing more thorough breast exams is you’re going to find more benign lesions and that will result in unnecessary surgical procedures,” he says.


NYC inspectors know best

Especially enjoying all the freedoms of this fine country over the July 4th week end were all the immigrants and their descendants as they celebrated with glorious food from their ancestral homelands. And in New York City, with people from around the world, that could mean cannoli, cheesecake and croissants to name a few ethnic reats. Heaven, in other words, for me. But in over-bureaucratized, big brother New York City, a new insensitivity to the cultural food diversity of its citizens means that the local government is deciding that (grand)ma's recipes have too much trans fat so they're going to take it away from you. For your own good of course.
"How can that be when there is only butter in it [the croissant]?" asked Sarabeth Levine, owner of Sarabeth's on the upper West Side. Indeed, butter and other dairy products include trace amounts of natural trans fat. The tests cannot determine whether the trans fat found was man-made - like margarine - or natural.

Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said the agency focus is on artificial trans-fat, but he noted, "Just because something doesn't have artificial trans-fat doesn't mean it's a health food. It means it doesn't have an artificial product in it that is going to make you more likely to have a heart attack."
Of course worrying about losing your livelihood because some city inspector grandly decrees your iconic products artificially violates city law does make it more likely you're going to have a heart attack. And not savoring your favorite food because a city commissioner, rather than mother, knows best will also increase your chances of having a heart attack. But
officials will not punish bakeries if they find more than .5 grams of trans fat, as long as it is natural trans fat, from sources such as butter.
Hey, thanks. Bon appetit in any language.


17 July, 2008

Cot death risk 'higher for babies with imbalance of mood chemical'

Only in mice so far

The key to cot death may be a brain-signalling chemical that is better known for regulating mood, research has suggested. Scientists have discovered the first direct evidence that an imbalance of serotonin in the brainstem can kill infant animals, offering insights into the origins of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the leading killer of children aged under 12 months.

The findings, from experiments with genetically modified mice, add to a belief that serotonin is involved in many if not most human cot deaths. They build on the results of a study in 2006 that identified serotonin deficits in the brainstems of cot death victims, and show that a similar abnormality regularly kills mice of a similar age. The new study, published in the journal Science, has also isolated a possible genetic cause of this imbalance. The abnormalities, however, could also be a result of environmental factors known to raise the risk of cot death, particularly parental smoking. If the genetic link is confirmed, the research could lead to ways of identifying babies at risk, and to interventions that could reduce the danger. In Britain there were 380 unexplained deaths among infants aged under 2 in 2004. Cot death occurs in about one in 2,000 babies.

Enrica Audero, who led the research at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Monterotondo, Italy, said of the mouse model: "Ultimately, we hope it will give new ideas to doctors about how to diagnose babies at risk for SIDS."

The 2006 research at Children's Hospital, Boston, compared postmortem brain samples from 31 cot death victims with tissue taken from 10 infants who had died of other causes. The cot death babies had a reduced ability to use and recycle serotonin in the brainstem, which controls critical unconscious functions, such as breathing, heart rate and temperature.

The discovery led scientists to suggest that a serotonin imbalance in the brainstem could cause death by preventing the detection of falling oxygen levels or rising body temperature. Babies might fail to wake as they normally would in response to such cues, causing them to suffocate. The danger would be particularly high among babies sleeping on their fronts - a known cot death risk factor.

Dr Audero's team engineered genetically modified mice to overproduce a serotonin regulator called Htrla, of which excessive levels have been found in some cot death victims.

Cornelius Gross, head of the laboratory's mouse biology unit, said the mice seemed normal at first, "but then they suffered sporadic and unpredictable drops in heart rate and body temperature. More than half of the mice eventually died of these crises during a restricted period of early life. It was at that point that we thought it might have something to do with SIDS."

Most of the transgenic mice died before reaching three months. Only 30per cent survived beyond four months. Those that survived, however, had a normal lifespan, suggesting that there is a critical period for risk. Further study showed that the mice were unable to regulate temperature, breathing or heart rate properly when subjected to certain kinds of stress. This is thought likely to influence their high risk of death in infancy.

George Haycock, of Evelina Children's Hospital in London and scientific advisor to the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths, said that more work was needed to establish the cause of the serotonin imbalance in cot death victims. Dr Audero said that the team would examine whether it was possible to determine which of the serotonindefective mice were most likely to die.


Life-saving cold


Nearly four years ago to the day, Felicity van Elst glanced out at the courtyard where her 20-month-old son, Jasper, had been playing. With a double-take she registered that he wasn't to be seen. Mrs van Elst found Jasper lying face down in the backyard fishpond. He had climbed a barrier around the pond and when she pulled him from the water he wasn't breathing. A trained nurse, Mrs van Elst knew she had to start CPR on him.

She ran, carrying him, to the front of their Bondi home, and screamed for help as she lay his limp body on the median strip, then started CPR. "A neighbour heard me screaming. I had the phone in my hand and he called the ambulance," she said.

By all accounts Jasper should have died, or suffered extreme brain damage. What saved him was a record cold July day - the pond water was near freezing. That and his treatment by a trauma specialist with an interest in the use of cold for brain injury. Cold is being used in the treatment of heart attacks, head and spinal cord injuries, stroke and near drownings.

Andrew Numa leads the intensive care unit at Sydney Children's Hospital and was in charge the day Jasper was rushed in. "If you fall into a body of very cold water, the brain cools rapidly, either before or around the same time as the heart stops," he said. "The heart will keep going for maybe a couple of minutes. If you get your brain cold fast, it's probably protected."

Jasper took his first breath in the resuscitation room more than 100 minutes after his heart had stopped. He had been stripped down and placed on a cooling blanket to keep his body in a state of mild hypothermia.

Two weeks later, he walked out of the hospital to go home. Today, Jasper is a smart, strong and sensitive boy, with a busy mind. "For being underwater for three minutes, he's very good," says Dr Numa. "When, really, the normal outcome when it's not cold water is dying or being severely brain damaged."


16 July, 2008

Don't laugh: Global warming is going to increase kidney stones

The "reasoning" below is that kidney stones are more prevalent in warmer areas of the USA and that they are therefore caused by warmth. That's just epidemiological speculation, however. People in some warmer parts of the USA do get more kidney stones but is that BECAUSE OF the warmth? Bacteria are being increasingly implicated in kidney stone formation so it could (for instance) be due to differing prevalence of bacteria in the areas concerned. Note also that kidney stone prevalence is high in the Great Lakes area, which is not exactly the warmest part of the USA

More Americans are likely to suffer from kidney stones in the coming years as a result of global warming, according to researchers at the University of Texas.

Kidney stones, which are formed from dissolved minerals in the urine and can be extremely painful, are often caused by caused by dehydration, either by not drinking enough liquid or losing too much due to high heat conditions. If global warming trends continue as projected by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, the United States can expect as much as a 30 percent growth in kidney stone disease in some of its driest areas, said the findings published in Monday's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The increased incidence of disease would represent between 1.6 million and 2.2 million cases by 2050, costing the US economy as much as one billion dollars in treatment costs.

"This study is one of the first examples of global warming causing a direct medical consequence for humans," said Margaret Pearle, professor of urology at University of Texas Southwestern and senior author of the paper. "When people relocate from areas of moderate temperature to areas with warmer climates, a rapid increase in stone risk has been observed. This has been shown in military deployments to the Middle East for instance."

The lead author of the research, Tom Brikowski, compared kidney stone rates with UN forecasts of temperature increases and created two mathematical models to predict the impact on future populations. One formula showed an increase in the southern half of the country, including the already existing "kidney stone belt" of the southeastern states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.

The other showed that the increase would be concentrated in the upper Midwest. "Similar climate-related changes in the prevalence of kidney-stone disease can be expected in other stone belts worldwide," the study said.


Jewish obesity under attack in Australia

Having seen the snacking ladies at Rose Bay, I think I know what this is all about

Kosher food can stack on the kilos. So says the rabbi who has launched a diet challenge to Australian Jews: lose 1000 kilograms in 12 weeks. Rabbi Mendel Kastel is publishing a diet online this month that comes with kosher recipes, a kosher conversion guide, personalised menus, exercise plans and tools to set goals and track weight. "Bagels, chopped liver, matzo balls, schmaltz herrings - there are things in a kosher diet that make us put on weight," he said. "Rather than a white bagel, try a wholemeal one."

As head of the Rabbinical Council of NSW, Rabbi Kastel has sent a message out to rabbis across Australia to challenge their communities. Corporate sponsorship in the form of a dollar for every kilogram lost will be directed to the Jewish House, a crisis housing agency. "We aim to lose about a kilo a week. So we're looking for 100 people to lose 10 kilos each. And the more, the better," he said.

Rabbi Kastel said he did not know if Jews were fatter than other Australians, but he said they needed to be aware of the importance of eating well, drinking moderately and getting regular exercise. The rabbi has been road-testing the program for the past five weeks and said he has shed six kilograms. "Just 20 kilograms to go."

Under Jewish law people should eat only kosher food. Meat, for instance, must come only from animals that chew the cud and have cloven hoofs, such as cows. And they must be killed in a particular way, removing as much blood as possible.


15 July, 2008

Low IQ Linked To Dementia

Which means that high IQ people are LESS likely to become demented

Children with lower IQs are more likely decades later to develop vascular dementia than children with high IQs, according to research published in the June 25, 2008, online issue of Neurology. The most common type of dementia after Alzheimer's disease, vascular dementia occurs when blood flow to the brain is impaired.

The study examined 173 people in Scotland who took a test of their mental ability in 1932 when they were about 11 years old and later developed dementia. This group was compared to one set of control participants of the same age and gender. For another group of controls, the researchers made sure that the cases and controls came from families where the fathers had similar types of occupations.

The people with vascular dementia were 40 percent more likely to have low test scores when they were children than the people who did not develop dementia. This difference was not true for those with Alzheimer's disease.

"These results point to the importance of reducing the vascular risk factors that can lead to strokes and dementia," said study author John M. Starr, FRCPEd, of the University of Edinburgh. "Risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking."

Starr said the findings support the hypothesis that low childhood IQ acts as a risk factor for dementia through vascular risks rather than the "cognitive reserve" theory. This theory speculates that greater IQ and education create a buffer against the effects of dementia in the brain, allowing people with greater cognitive reserve to stay free of signs of dementia longer, even though the disease has started affecting their brains.


Lesbianism linked to obesity


Obesity is an epidemic, and lesbians are nearly twice as likely to be overweight than heterosexual women. Sarah Fogel, Ph.D., R.N., associate professor of Nursing at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, is using an extraordinarily successful, predominately lesbian weight loss group in Atlanta, as a model system for discovering how to target obesity in a lesbian population. Fogel is studying the group, and her findings are giving her a different view on weight loss. “All weight loss groups offer an environment of like-bodied people (overweight or obese), but this is the first group, to my knowledge, that has been developed around other personal and social issues,” said Fogel.

Adherence to a new lifestyle is often the most difficult barrier to overcome in weight loss. The Atlanta group, however, has had remarkable success in developing long-term change in its member’s lifestyles. “Perhaps the best representation of the group is to say that there are still several women in the group who were ‘founding members.’ They have been attending since October 2006 and continue to come even though a couple of them have reached their weight loss goals. The other side of this is that even the women who have not been able to lose what they want to lose keep coming . . . this is unheard of,” said Fogel. “It says volumes about the group.”

Fogel is trying to answer a difficult question: how do we understand obesity in different social contexts? Being overweight or obese can lead to a number of health problems, namely cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide, so understanding how obesity develops in different populations is a pressing concern.

Fogel will study the group over a six-month period, both empirically and qualitatively. Using body mass index (BMI) and relative weight loss, she will put a number on the group’s success. She has already held focus groups in order to lend a deeper, more personal aspect to the study, and therefore weight loss.


14 July, 2008

Frozen embryos 'make healthier babies than fresh ones'

LOL. This is at least believable. It would have to be a pretty tough little embryo to survive freezing

IVF babies born from embryos that are frozen and thawed are less likely to be underweight or premature than those conceived during fresh treatment cycles, research has shown. The findings show that the use of frozen embryos could soon be accepted as completely safe, doctors said.

Another team of researchers told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona that IVF success rates could be improved by as much as 15 per cent with a "viability index" for selecting embryos with the best chance of a healthy pregnancy.

The Danish study into frozen embryos found that the average birth weight of those babies was 200g more than in fresh-embryo IVF. The findings, from a team led by Anja Pinborg, of the Copenhagen University Hospital, are important because women are increasingly encouraged to use one fresh embryo - to avoid multiple births - and to freeze any others produced in the process for later use. Dr Pinborg said it was highly unlikely that freezing improved the health of embryos. The figures could be explained because patients who froze embryos were generally young women with a good prognosis. Poor quality embryos were also more likely to die during the thawing process.

"These findings are reassuring," she told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona. "If our results continue to be positive, frozen embryo replacement can be accepted as a completely safe procedure, which can be used even more frequently."

Scientists from Yale University told the conference that overall IVF success rates could be improved by as much as 15 per cent by a new "fitness test" that can predict which IVF embryos will implant into the womb up to 70 per cent of the time. The non-invasive procedure examines chemical fingerprints in the culture media in which they grow in the laboratory. Scientists said the technology, known as metabolomics, should be ready for widespread use within two to three years, and predicted that the viability index could become a routine part of fertility treatment.

Denny Sakkas, who is leading the research, said: "The other side of IVF is that we probably fail to get patients pregnant about two thirds of the time we do an embryo transfer. One of the reasons is we're not that good at picking the best embryo we have available. "In the clinic, we would probably be looking at a 10 to 15 per cent improvement in pregnancy rates. "It's not going to make a bad embryo good, but it should help us to tell them apart. This definitely could make the difference between people getting pregnant or not."

The average success rate for IVF in Britain is 21.6 per cent across women of all ages, and 29.6 per cent for women under 35.


Patients to grow spare body parts

HEART disease patients could grow "spare body parts" with a radical technique being developed by Melbourne engineers. Swinburne University scientists are poised to put on trial world-first technology that may see entire organs cultivated from just a few human cells. First on the agenda are heart valves that Prof Yosry Morsi believes his team can grow - and have transplanted into humans - within five years. The breakthrough may help up to 6000 Australians a year, revolutionising the surgery that repaired Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's heart about 15 years ago.

Prof Morsi said he believed that the technique might make artificial valves and "tissue" versions from humans, pigs and cows redundant. "We are trying to copy nature," he said. "We'd be using a patient's own cells, so their body is not going to react it."

The key to the technique, which could be tested on animals within a year, is "scaffolding" modelled on a patient's real heart. A cell from the patient's heart is put into the scaffolding, which is left in a machine that simulates human heart conditions. Cells multiply, growing into a replica of the original within 12 weeks. "While we are creating this living tissue, we are subjecting it to exactly the sort of pressures it will be under (in the body), like the pressure of blood flow," Prof Morsi said.

Though other scientists around the world are also in the race to successfully "grow" human organs, it is Swinburne's techniques that put it on track for the big breakthrough.

Prof Frank Rosenfeldt, head of The Alfred's cardiac surgical research unit, said Prof Morsi's work could revolutionise the common but complicated operation. "If a human heart valve can be grown using the patient's tissues, this would be a great advantage," he said. "It would be a living tissue, which might even regenerate and repair itself."

Like Mr Rudd, Melbourne grandfather Bill Wade was given a tissue valve and is enjoying a new lease on life. He was transplanted with a pig's valve - Mr Rudd had a human donor - at The Alfred in February. "I'm happy with this, and they've said it will last 10 to 15 years before I need a replacement, maybe longer," said Mr Wade, from Sandringham. "But if I had the choice (to grow) my own valve, that would just be amazing."


13 July, 2008

The dreadful peril of salty sausages

What utter nonsense. Our blood is roughly as salty as seawater so any idea that salt is a problem for us is just do-gooder claptrap. If we can't handle salt, we can't handle anything. People on salt restricted diets in fact die SOONER!

The iconic Aussie sausage sanger has been hauled over the coals for its "extreme salt content" in a new review showing the bread and everything inside it blows sodium guidelines. The product review found that one single sausage sandwich at a barbecue contains an adult's daily recommended dose of salt, and double that suggested for a child.

Researchers reviewed almost 200 sausage, bread and sauce products found on supermarket shelves and found the vast majority exceed acceptable salt levels set in the UK. Just two per cent of 44 sausage and hotdog brands and 16 per cent of the 43 white bread products met the guidelines. There were huge content variations across products, with some sausages containing over three times as much salt as others, the researchers said. Dozens of tomato and barbecue sauce brands also were checked, with more than half failing to make the cut.

"That's an incredible salt overload on its own, let alone with everything else you eat in a day," said Dr Bruce Neal, research director at The George Institute for International Health in Sydney. "I know it's an icon of the Australian diet but if people knew what they were eating and what it's doing to their health they might well think twice about it."

Anecdotal evidence suggests the average Australian adult consumes about nine grams of salt a day, well above the six grams recommended for good health. The new review suggests the six-gram threshold would be met by one sandwich, bringing with it increased health risks. "There's very clear evidence that eating more salt pushes your blood pressure up and that increases your risk of stroke and heart attack," Dr Neal said. "You're obviously not going to fall dead as you bite into the sausage but you're going to pay for it down the track."

The study was released today as part of a national campaign to cut salt levels in food at home and in restaurants and supermarkets by 25 per cent over five years. The Australian Food and Grocery Council has lent support to the campaign, and several big brands like Coles, Kellogg and Unilever have begun efforts to reduce salt content in products. "The government now needs to make salt a national health priority and lead negotiations on maximum salt targets for different products," said Dr Neal, who chairs the Australian Division of World Action on Salt and Health.


Horse drug ketamine to get wider use

HORSE tranquilliser ketamine, sometimes used as an illicit drug for people, will be given to patients in Queensland as pain relief from July 14. While other Australian ambulance services are still trying the drug, Queensland paramedics will be the first to use it as standard therapy.

QAS medical director Steve Rashford said that in small doses the fast-acting intravenous anaesthetic provided profound relief for severe pain, particularly in car crash victims. "It has mind-blowing improvements in complex orthopaedic injuries and severe burns that morphine alone doesn't provide," he said. "It will improve the paramedics' ability to provide extra support to a trapped patient and it will speed up their extrication time."

Ketamine has been around for many years but has been administered only by doctors and veterinarians.


Comment on the above two articles from a medical correspondent:

Ketamine has been all but abandoned by anesthesiologists because it produces an LSD like "dysphoria" - quite unpleasant, and the patients REMEMBER EVERYTHING. It's the only drug a patient said that, if I used it, he would kill me; he had had a bad reaction. Some of this is dose related, so small doses given by paramedics is likely safe. On the other hand, it has been used as a "street drug" so may boe "controlled" in some places.

Salt : Some patients with high blood pressure and heart failure ARE sensitive to salt; it's genetic. Others can eat all the salt they want. But diuretic drugs have greatly reduced fear of salt; you simply urinate a lot. But these food police have ignored an important use of salt - it keeps the bacteria count of food down. (Ancients used salt as a preservative long before refrigeration).

12 July, 2008

Risks of IVF twins exaggerated

Infertile couples who want more than one child should be encouraged to try for IVF twins in spite of the medical consensus that multiple pregnancies should be avoided, a senior American doctor said. The health risks of conceiving twins by IVF have been exaggerated by the medical profession, and a British initiative to cut the number of such pregnancies is "categorically wrong", according to Norbert Gleicher, of the Centre for Human Reproduction in New York.

He told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona that for many women who need IVF to conceive, the birth of twins is a "favourable and ethical" result. Such pregnancies provide complete families at a stroke, and may often be safer than having two singleton IVF pregnancies, he said. Moves to persuade more women to use one embryo at a time during fertility treatment, as recommended by a UK national strategy launched last week, are thus misguided.

Professor Gleicher's comments were fiercely disputed by other senior doctors, who said that his opinions were based on a flawed analysis of the risks of multiple pregnancies to both babies and mothers. Professor Peter Braude, of King's College, London, said that IVF twin pregnancies are well-established to be more hazardous than singleton conceptions, with dangers that include prematurity, stillbirth, low birth weight, cerebral palsy, pre-eclampsia, haemorrhage and maternal death. "Couples should be extra cautious about interpreting this advice because it flies in the face of all other published data about the risks of multiple births," he said.

The conference executive, which is encouraging IVF clinics across Europe to move to single embryo transfer to guard against multiple births, said in a statement: "There are significant risks to multiple pregnancies, and we should not be generating them deliberately. IVF babies also deserve the best start in life."

A Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) expert panel, chaired by Professor Braude, found in 2006 that twins have five times the usual risk of death in the first year of life and six times the risk of cerebral palsy. More than half are born prematurely, and 40 to 60 per cent require intensive care. Each twin costs the NHS 16 times as much as a singleton birth in the first year of life, and it is estimated that 126 deaths would have been avoided had all IVF twins born in Britain in 2003 been singleton births.

Multiple pregnancies are also dangerous for mothers. A quarter are complicated by problems such as high blood pressure, and the death rate is doubled for women expecting twins.

These dangers have led the HFEA and the British Fertility Society to launch a national strategy to reduce Britain's IVF twin rate from 24 per cent to 10 per cent by 2012. This is likely to require single embryo transfer in about 50 per cent of IVF cycles, compared to about 10 per cent at present.

Professor Gleicher, however, claimed that some of these risks had been over-estimated, because they have been calculated by comparing twin births with just one singleton pregnancy, not two. "When you ask infertile patients having treatment, a very large majority want more than one child," he said. "The question is how you get two children, not one. When you add the risks of two singleton pregnancies together, many risks of twins disappear.

"For infertile patients, desirous of more than one child, twin deliveries represent a favourable, cost-effective and ethical treatment outcome, which in contrast to medical consensus, should be encouraged.

"Because the alleged excessive risks and costs of twin deliveries have been the primary motivation behind the recently increasingly popular concept of single embryo transfer, the clinical, ethical and economic validity of single embryo transfer should be seriously questioned."

He added that much of the medical literature is based on comparisons between naturally conceived singletons and twins. This may be misleading because IVF twins have a lower risk than spontaneous twins of dying at or soon after birth.

In a paper published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, Professor Gleicher has suggested that when these factors are taken into account, IVF twin pregnancies are less risky than two singleton conceptions for complications including stillbirth, neonatal death and major birth defects.

Professor Braude and the conference doctors pointed out that even Professor Gleicher's adjusted figures show substantially raised risks of maternal death, low birth weight and pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening blood pressure disorder.

They added that for many risks, it is statistically misleading to compare twin pregnancies with two singleton pregnancies. Professor Mark Hamilton, the chairman of the British Fertility Society, said: "It is misleading, as he has done, to combine the risks of two single live births which are two independent events, each with a lower risk than that of a twin pregnancy. "With singleton pregnancies, the chance of having a stillborn baby, or one that dies soon after, is about five per 1,000. In a twin pregnancy it's four to five times that. If your first singleton pregnancy was uncomplicated, your chance of a problem the second time round is even lower, probably less than one in a thousand. Multiple pregnancies unquestionably expose mothers and babies to increased hazards."

Professor Gleicher's study has also ignored the long-term health risks of the low birth weights suffered by twins, and the psychological impact of multiple births on parents.

A separate study presented at the conference, from Helsinki University Central Hospital in Finland, has found that the mothers and fathers of twins suffer significantly more mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, than the parents of singletons.


Britain: Food fanaticism hits school meals

School meals will soar in price or vanish without a significant injection of government funds, parents are to be told today. Sandra Russell, chairwoman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, told The Times that school meal provision was not sustainable because of the credit crunch, rising food prices and declining numbers of children eating school meals.

Hundreds of millions of pounds is said to be needed from the Government to prop up the system, or meals could rise by 30p a day – costing more than o100 extra each year for a family with two children. Parents already pay between o1.50 and o2 for each meal, but some catering companies are running at a deficit.

New nutrition regulations that come into force this year will make the situation even more untenable, Ms Russell said. Kitchen staff will have to provide details of the calories, fat and nutrients in each dish, restricting the choice that catering firms can offer and putting off even more children. Numbers dropped after Jamie Oliver, the television chef, campaigned in 2005 to improve the standards of school lunches.

Many schools now serve only healthy meals and almost half a million fewer pupils ate school lunches last year than two years earlier. The latest take-up of school meals will be announced this week at the association's annual conference.

Ms Russell will challenge schools and the Government at the event, saying that head teachers need to put nutrition at the heart of the curriculum, and that ministers from different departments should work together to tackle childhood obesity.

Detailed nutrition targets must be implemented at secondary schools from September, such as meals not containing more than 11 per cent fat or less than 40 per cent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

Ms Russell said: "Our regulations are the most stringent in Europe. I do have concerns about how secondary school catering is going to stay sustainable when the nutrition standards are introduced. Some children don't recognise the food served in schools because they haven't eaten it at home. We have generations of young mums who can't actually cook."

Ms Russell said that catering firms would have to buy nutritional analysis software to meet the new standards. If schools experience low take-up of school meals, then they will lose funding, Ms Russell said. She added: "There is the impact of rising food prices and distribution charges. I think it will be a case of putting school meal prices up or asking for additional government funding."

Kevin Brennan, the Education Minister, said that children should have to stay on school premises at lunchtime in order to prevent them eating junk food. The restriction could help to tackle obesity and prevent tensions with those who live near by, he said. The proposal was condemned by head teachers as unworkable.


11 July, 2008

British government minister calls for children to be locked in school to stop them buying junk food

Children should be locked inside school grounds to stop them buying unhealthy food from shops and takeaways, a minister said yesterday. The proposal comes amid new evidence that the Jamie Oliver-inspired drive to make school kitchens offer more nutritious meals is being shunned by pupils in favour of junk food. The number of secondary school children eating school meals has plunged by 400,000 to barely a third.

Children's minister Kevin Brennan said secondary pupils should be barred from leaving the premises during breaks after research found they were spending their money on snacks with high levels of salt, sugar or fat.

Backing a plea by the renowned cook Prue Leith, who chairs the School Food Trust, Mr Brennan said: 'Some schools have a stay-on-site policy for 11 to 16-year-olds but let the sixth form go off- site. I'm very strongly supportive of that approach.

'I would like to see more schools operating some sort of stay-on-site policy because its advantages are shown not just in improved uptake of school meals, but also improved behaviour and community relationships.'

Yesterday's research underlined quite how unhealthy the snacks being bought by children during breaks in the school day are. Some of those who buy their own food during breaks are consuming their entire daily allowance of fat and sugar in one sitting.

A team from London Metropolitan University studied pupils at two large comprehensives - one in a deprived urban setting and another in a well-off suburban area.

The inner-city school allowed all pupils to leave the premises at lunchtime, while the suburban school allowed only sixth-formers the same privilege.

Children's Minister Kevin Brennan has called for secondary school children to be locked inside school grounds during breaks to stop them buying unhealthy food

In the school where pupils were allowed out, just 15 per used their canteen. Even in the school which kept them inside the grounds, less than half (44 per cent) bought food from the canteen, usually sandwiches or wraps, with many buying food on the way to school.

Virtually all the children who were allowed out bought food from local shops, mainly fizzy drinks, chocolate, sweets, crisps, cakes, biscuits and chips.

The researchers found it was not the healthy menus in school canteens that were deterring the pupils so much as long queues, poor facilities and high prices.

They said schools considering keeping children on the premises ought to address these issues first, a finding backed by Oliver last night. 'If you look at what's going on in schools where the catering staff have got the right support and where a "dining culture" is developing, that's where it's working,' he said. 'But there's a big divide between these schools and the many where there are still problems.'

The pitfalls of 'lock-ins' were illustrated at the height of the Jamie Oliver campaign in 2006 when two mothers of children at Rawmarsh Comprehensive in Rotherham started their own takeaway delivery service in response to curbs on pupils' trips to local shops.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: 'Much as schools would like to keep children on site at lunchtime, the number of exits in some - as many as 20 - make this almost impossible.'


Eating slowly can help you slim, study finds

There could be something in this

YOUR mother was right when she told you to take the time to chew your food. Eating slowly, research suggests, can encourage people to eat less, and enjoy the meal more. Researchers found that when they had 30 young women eat a lunch of pasta, tomatoes and cheese, the diners consumed an average of 70 fewer calories when they ate the meal slowly and chewed the food thoroughly.

The findings give scientific support to a long recommended weight-control tactic, the researchers report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The theory has been that a leisurely dining pace allows time for the body's natural fullness signals to kick in, explain Ana M. Andrade and colleagues of the University of Rhode Island in Kingston.

Stomach distension and changes in several appetite-related hormones, for example, alert the body that it's time to stop eating. But these processes take time, so a rushed meal could theoretically cause overeating.

But there has been little evidence as to whether slow eating really does trim calorie intake.

Ms Andrade's team tested the idea by having 30 women eat the same pasta meal on two separate occasions. On one day, the women were told to eat the meal as fast as they comfortably could, with no pauses between bites.

On the other day, they were instructed to take small bites, put their spoons down between bites and chew each mouthful 20 to 30 times.

On average, the researchers found, the women ate nearly 70 fewer calories when they slowed down. They also felt fuller and more satisfied after the meal.

There are several potential reasons for the findings, according to Andrade and her colleagues. Besides allowing more time for the body's fullness signals to start working, savoring a meal's flavors, textures and aromas may help people feel more satisfied with fewer calories.

Similar studies are needed in men and obese adults to see if the current findings hold true for them as well, the researchers note.


Splurging Is Good for Your Health

Buying overpriced indulgences may feel good in the short term, but you pay the price later. Or at least that's the conventional wisdom. But a study by a couple of business-school professors says splurging now makes you happier later. Even more surprising: Not splurging now gives you pangs of regret later. Anat Keinan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, and Ran Kivetz, a professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, make their case for the vice lifestyle in an article in the Harvard Business Review.

One of their studies polled college students and alumni on the subject of spring breaks. Regret about not having spent more money or traveling during breaks increased with time, whereas regret about not having worked, studied, or saved money during breaks decreased with time. The authors write: "We saw a similar pattern in a study of how businesspeople perceived past choices between work and pleasure. Over time, those who had indulged felt less and less guilty about their choices, whereas those who had been dutiful experienced a growing sense of having missed out on the pleasures of life." (As the old saying goes, nobody dies saying "I wish I'd spent more time at the office.")

The authors also did a study of mall shoppers, asking about their regret about buying an expensive item of clothing. Those who anticipated short-term regret bought less-expensive items, while those who anticipated long-term regret splurged. "Thinking about short-term regret drives consumers to be virtuous, while thinking about long-term regret leads them to be extravagant," the authors write.

Luxury-goods makers, of course, will eat this up. I can see the slogan now: "Luxury: It's Good for Life." Or "Cartier: You'll be sorry you didn't." Whether luxury is good for your finances is another matter. (Nobody goes bankrupt saying "I wish I'd spent more on Gucci bags).


10 July, 2008

Use it or lose it?

One sometimes wonders if medical researchers have ever heard of the chicken and egg conundrum. They certainly show little sign of it. They mostly seem to think that they can just intuit the direction of the causal arrow. I think I can leave it to readers to fill in the blanks regarding the nonsensical conclusions below

There's new advice for older men who want to preserve their sexual function: have sex, and have it often, researchers say. In a study that followed nearly 1,000 older Finnish men for five years, researchers found that those who were regularly having sex at the start of the study were at lower risk of developing erectile dysfunction (ED) by the study's end. In fact, the more often the men had sex, the lower their ED risk. The implication, say the researchers, is that men should be encouraged to stay sexually active into their golden years.

Dr. Juha Koskimaki and colleagues at the University of Tampere in Finland report the findings in the American Journal of Medicine. The study included 989 men who were between the ages of 55 and 75 at the outset.

Overall, those who said they had sex less than once per week were twice as likely to develop ED over the next five years as men who had sex at least once a week. Furthermore, compared with men who had sex three or more times per week, their ED risk was increased nearly four-fold.

A number of factors contribute to ED development, many of which could also affect a man's sexually activity -- such as age, diabetes and heart disease. However, after taking account of those factors, sexual activity itself remained linked to ED risk, Koskimaki's team found.

It may be a matter of "use it or lose it," according to the researchers. Just as exercise boosts physical fitness, they note, regular sexual activity may help a man preserve his erectile function. ED occurs when there are problems with blood flow to the penis. Regular sexual activity, Koskimaki's team writes, may help maintain healthy blood vessel function in the erectile tissue.


Journal abstract follows:

Regular Intercourse Protects Against Erectile Dysfunction: Tampere Aging Male Urologic Study

By Juha Koskimaki et al.


Erectile dysfunction is common among men aged more than 60 years. Its cause involves both physiologic and psychosocial factors.


To evaluate the effects of coital frequency on subsequent risk of erectile dysfunction, data were analyzed from a population-based 5-year follow-up study that was conducted in Pirkanmaa, Finland, using postal questionnaires. Assessment was based on the 5-item version of the validated International Index of Erectile Function. Men with erectile dysfunction at entry were excluded from the analysis. The study sample consisted of 989 men aged 55 to 75 years (mean 59.2 years). The most common comorbidities were hypertension (32%), heart disease (12%), depression (7%), diabetes (4%,) and cerebrovascular disorder (4%).


The overall incidence of moderate or complete erectile dysfunction was 32 cases per 1000 person-years (95% confidence interval [CI], 27-38). After adjustment for comorbidity and other major risk factors, men reporting intercourse less than once per week at baseline had twice the incidence of erectile dysfunction compared with those reporting intercourse once per week (79 vs 33/1000, incidence rate ratio 2.2, 95% CI, 1.3-3.8). The risk of erectile dysfunction was inversely related to the frequency of intercourse. No relationship between morning erections and incidence of moderate or severe erectile dysfunction was found.


Regular intercourse protects against the development of erectile dysfunction among men aged 55 to 75 years. This may have an impact on general health and quality of life; therefore, doctors should support patients' sexual activity.

American Journal of Medicine. Volume 121, Issue 7, Pages 592-596 (July 2008)

The coffee merry-go-round again

Good for you, bad for you, Good for you, bad for you. It is of course just the usual epidemiological twaddle. Maybe women who are less vigorous drink more coffee to perk themselves up and it is the lesser vigour that leads to their pregnancy problems, not the coffee. It's all speculation but these epidemiological simpletons seem to feel that they "just know" what the causal path is. The fact that alcohol, an entirely different substance from caffeine, had similar effects, also points to a social explanation

FOUR cups of coffee a day seriously damage a woman's chances of having a baby or damage the unborn baby's health, Dutch research suggests. The Daily Mail reports that women drinking that much caffeine were 26 per cent less likely to have a baby adding to evidence that it can harm fertility and the health of an unborn baby. There is also caffeine in chocolate and some soft-drinks.Coffee has also been found to increase the risk of stillbirth and is linked to birth defects. Research has shown fit, young, healthy women take longer to get pregnant if they have lots of caffeinated drinks.

The Dutch researchers followed the health and habits of 9000 women with fertility problems for up to 13 years after they finished IVF treatment. Some of the women had a baby through IVF, others had not. Almost 1350 had babies after treatment ended, with most pregnancies occurring in the first year.

When the researchers from Radbout University in Nijmegen looked at why some women conceived naturally and others did not, they found lifestyle played a critical role. Having three or more alcoholic drinks a week had the same effect, while being slightly overweight cut the chances of getting pregnant.


British menus to list carbon footprint of dishes. Chinese and Indian food both bad

And French food too, no doubt. The nonsense is coming thick and fast today

BRITISH restaurants may have to identify the ''carbon footprint' of their dishes, possibly listing those items that are airfreighted to the country. The plans were outlined on Monday in the Cabinet Office report on the food strategy Britain should adopt for the 21st century. The document examines rising obesity rates, spiralling prices and the problem of millions of tonnes of good food going to waste.

Backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it outlines far-reaching plans to improve the nation's diet. Fast food outlets, curry houses, kebab shops and even Michelin-starred restaurants will be given guidelines on how to deliver healthy food. They will come under pressure to list the amount of fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar included in items on the menu.

Britain could follow the example of New York, which has brought in laws to require chain restaurants in the city to list the calorie count of dishes. Restaurants may even be asked to follow the "traffic light" system of red, amber and green logos on dishes, used on supermarket ready-meals. The report recommends that food served by public bodies, from prisons to army barracks and hospitals, meets minimum nutrition standards. The Food Standards Agency would ensure restaurants deliver healthier dishes.

Recent studies have warned that single takeaway curries or Chinese dishes can contain more saturated fat than an adult should consume in a day.


9 July, 2008

Australians unhappy?

I don't suppose many people take seriously reports such as the one below but in case they do, perhaps I should say that I don't believe the results at all. All the Australians I meet seem to be cheerful and friendly folk whereas the British are a chronically gloomy lot. Yet the survey below would have you believe the opposite. I suspect poor sampling. It was probably phone polling. With Australia's benign climate and strong outdoors orientation, maybe it was mainly gloomy losers who were at home to answer the phone in Australia. And maybe it was only rich and happy people who could afford a phone in Puerto Rico and Columbia

AUSTRALIA is 22nd in a survey of the world's happiest nations - one place below Britain and seven behind New Zealand. Denmark, with its strong welfare system and social equality, was the happiest country, University of Michigan researchers found.

Zimbabwe, torn by political and social strife, was the least happy, while the world's richest nation, the US, ranked 16th. Puerto Rico and Colombia came after Denmark, followed by Northern Ireland, Iceland and Switzerland.

Overall, the world was getting happier, the survey found. Increased happiness from 1981 to last year was detected in 45 of 52 countries analysed.


Tofu 'may raise risk of dementia'

I am not going to criticize this one. I enjoy the conclusion too much! Though I suspect that tofu eaters in the Western world are not too good mentally to start with

Eating high levels of some soy products - including tofu - may raise the risk of memory loss, research suggests. The study focused on 719 elderly Indonesians living in urban and rural regions of Java. The researchers found high tofu consumption - at least once a day - was associated with worse memory, particularly among the over-68s. The Loughborough University-led study features in the journal Dementias and Geriatric Cognitive Disorders.

Soy products are a major alternative protein source to meat for many people in the developing world. But soy consumption is also on the increase in the west, where it is often promoted as a "superfood". Soy products are rich in micronutrients called phytoestrogens, which mimic the impact of the female sex hormone oestrogen.

There is some evidence that they may protect the brains of younger and middle-aged people from damage - but their effect on the ageing brain is less clear. The latest study suggests phytoestrogens - in high quantity - may actually heighten the risk of dementia.

Lead researcher Professor Eef Hogervorst said previous research had linked oestrogen therapy to a doubling of dementia risk in the over-65s. She said oestrogens - and probably phytoestrogens - tended to promote growth among cells, not necessarily a good thing in the ageing brain. Alternatively, high doses of oestrogens might promote the damage caused to cells by particles known as free radicals. A third theory is that damage is caused not by the tofu, but by formaldehyde, which is sometimes used in Indonesia as a preservative.

The researchers admit that more research is required to ascertain whether the same effects are found in other ethnic groups. However, previous research has also linked high tofu consumption to an increased risk of dementia in older Japanese American men.

Professor David Smith, of the University of Oxford, said tofu was a complex food with many ingredients which might have an impact. However, he said: "There seems to be something happening in the brain as we age which makes it react to oestrogens in the opposite way to what we would expect."

The latest study also found that eating tempe, a fermented soy product made from the whole soy bean, was associated with better memory. Professor Hogervorst said the beneficial effect of tempe might be related to the fact that it contains high levels of the vitamin folate, which is known to reduce dementia risk. "It may be that that the interaction between high levels of both folate and phytoestrogens protects against cognitive impairment." She also stressed that there was no suggestion that eating tofu in moderation posed a problem.

Rebecca Wood, of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, which funded the study, said more research was needed to pin down the potential risks and benefits of so-called superfoods. However, she said: "This kind of research into the causes of Alzheimer's could lead scientists to new ways of preventing this devastating disease. "As over half a million people have Alzheimer's in the UK today, there is a desperate need to find a new prevention or cure."


New vitamin pill 'doubles' pregnancy rates

Utter crap

QUEENSLAND doctors are backing a new male fertility pill that claims to double pregnancy rates in infertile couples. The over-the-counter supplement Menevit contains seven anti-oxidants and minerals that experts believe can help boost sperm quality. Keith Harrison, Associate Professor of Queensland Fertility Group which carries out the majority of the state's fertility treatments, recommends all couples trying to conceive take the treatment. "The evidence is clear to us that the pill is beneficial to patients in getting pregnant and staying pregnant," Dr Harrison said.

The tablet, which costs $29.95 for a packet of 30, was developed by Australian scientist Kelton Tremellen from the University of Adelaide. It contains anti-oxidant vitamins C and E, and zinc, and works by neutralising free radicals in the body - caused by drinking and smoking - which lead to the breakdown of sperm.

One in six couples has trouble conceiving and male infertility is to blame in 30 per cent of cases. Brisbane obstetrician Gino Pecoraro, a spokesman for the Australian Medical Association, said the Menevit treatment looked promising. "We know that zinc has been shown to be useful in fertility and anti-oxidants play a big role in improving the production of quality sperm," Dr Pecoraro said.

But University of Melbourne fertility expert Hugh Baker and Melbourne in-vitro fertilisation specialist David Edgar criticised the trial in a letter to the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. They wrote: "The trial provided no evidence that Menevit treatment improved embryo quality. "Large multi-centre double-blind placebo trials should be performed to confirm if this agent is beneficial before it is sold to patients." Scientists are now working to extend the trial.

Gold Coast couple Paul and Ros Jones tried for seven years to have a baby and are now pregnant after taking Menevit. "We tried IVF unsuccessfully for five years, so I think the supplement may have assisted us," Mr Jones said.


8 July, 2008

Men over 40 less fertile?

The article this is based on is not in print yet but it sounds pretty simple-minded. That couples who seek fertility treatment late in life might be dissimilar from those who seek it early in life seems not to have been thought of. For a start, the older men in this study would in many cases be married to women at the very tail-end of their fertility so it seems likely that a severe drop off in pregnancies among that group could be entirely accounted for by factors in the woman. The fact that miscarriages are also high in the group concerned would also point to problems in the woman rather than the man

Women's pregnancy rates drop and miscarriages increase when the baby's father is over 40 years old, according to a study. It has long been known that a woman's chance of reproducing declines with age once she is in her mid-thirties, but the new findings provide the strongest evidence to date that being an older father poses a risk as well.

Researchers in France monitored 21,239 cases of intrauterine insemination (IUI) - a particularly effective type of artificial insemination - in more than 12,000 couples. As expected, they found that women over 35 showed significantly decreased pregnancy rates compared to younger women, as well as higher rates of miscarriage.

"But we also demonstrated that the age of the father was important in the rate of pregnancy, with a negative effect for men over 40," said Stephanie Belloc, a researcher at the Eylau Centre for Assisted Reproduction in Paris, and lead author of the study. "And even more surprising, the proportion of miscarriages went up as well," she said.

Ms Belloc is to present her research tomorrow at the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona. It will be published in the British journal Reproductive Biomedicine.

In IUI treatment, sperm are separated from seminal fluid in a centrifuge. The "washed" sperm are then inserted directly into the uterus in order to enhance the chances of conception. In most of the cases examined, the couples were being treated because of the husband's infertility, but the findings also apply to men without such problems, the researchers said. "There is no doubt that we can extrapolate from the study to men in general," said co-author Yves Menezo, also a researcher at the Eylau Centre. [WHY?]

Although previous research has shown an overall decline in sperm count and quality as men age decade by decade, this is the first clinical proof that simply being an older man has a direct effect on a couple's fertility, he said. "We already believed that couples where the man was older took longer to conceive," said Ms Belloc. "But how DNA damage in older men translates into clinical practice has not been shown up to now." The impact of paternal age on artificial insemination outcomes "should be considered by both doctors and patients in assisted reproduction", she said.


Diets? Don't bother

They won't work and can even make you fatter, says author Geoffrey Cannon, the scourge of the slimming industry

Take a stroll into any bookshop and you won’t suspect a thing: the shelves are heaving with summer-diet tomes, from Crash Diet — Lose 7lbs in 7 Days to Bikini Bootcamp: Two Weeks to Your Ultimate Beach Body and, perhaps most optimistic of all, The Revenge Diet: Make Him Sorry He Dumped You! Lose 15lbs in a Month. Yet, despite appearances, the diet industry is in the throes of a backlash. It started with The Diet Delusion and Rethinking Thin, both of which challenged conventional wisdom about weight loss. Now comes something even more revolutionary, the splendidly titled Dieting Makes You Fat. Its author, Geoffrey Cannon, is unequivocal in his belief that dieting causes the very condition it is meant to cure.

His argument is simple: in evolutionary terms, the human body cannot distinguish between dieting and famine. We are hard-wired to respond to the threat of an insecure food supply by retaining body fat rather than burning it off, just as camels are biologically designed to store fat in humps to survive forays in the desert. “The more we endure cycles of dieting, the more our bodies become trained to seek out food, slow down vital functions and conserve body fat,” he says. Apparently, it’s evolution, not lack of willpower, that causes us to seek out sweet foods. “In the forest, sweetness was nature’s way of telling early humans that fruit was safe to eat.”

For anyone who has ever tried to stick to a diet, some of Cannon’s advice might come as a shock. He says that restricting calories is the worst possible way to achieve the body of your dreams. “If you have more body fat than you want, don’t even think of going on a diet,” he warns. “Be more physically active instead, and be patient. You need to train your body to build up lean tissue, which works more efficiently than body fat.” He isn’t advocating that you go and binge on Krispy Kremes, but suggests that if you are active, then you can enjoy a balance of good food — even cake.

Cannon points out that there are huge misconceptions about the link between physical activity and weight loss. “Many people, including GPs, mistakenly believe that the amount of exercise you need to take is huge, and they’re still thinking in terms of energy balance — for example, playing two hours of squash to work off a cupcake.” Researchers at Stanford University, however, found that people who exercised regularly burnt off 500-700 more calories a day than their sedentary counterparts. Crucially, fit bodies burnt off this energy largely during the time they were resting, not just while they were pounding away on the treadmill.

Somewhat unusually for a writer in this field, Cannon has direct experience of the misery of being overweight. He battled through a childhood fuelled by comfort eating following his parents’ divorce — fish and chips with pickled cucumbers, washed down with Tizer — and he continued to struggle through his years at Oxford, where he discovered the delights of cucumber sandwiches layered with butter and salt. He writes movingly about how his emotional hunger for a true home led him to overeat through marriage break-ups and career changes, including a stint at The Sunday Times, before he became a nutrition writer and campaigner. Eventually, it was running, not dieting, that got him on the path to thin.

Nor is Cannon jumping on the anti-diet bandwagon: Dieting Makes You Fat was originally a bestseller in 1983. He decided to write a 21st-century version of the book to tackle issues such as the global obesity time bomb and phenomena such as Atkins, about which he is dismissive. “It’s quite tricky to know what he was going on about,” he says. “In as much as I understand, if you’re on 1,500 calories a day, and are not encouraged to take any physical activity, then it’s not going to work. I don’t care how many people say it does.” Fortuitously, research published by UCLA last year, while Cannon was working on the new edition, concluded that — guess what? — diets don’t work.

The lead author of the study, Traci Mann, noted: “You can initially lose 5%-10% of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more.” The success rate for maintaining weight loss five years after a diet ends is estimated at only 5%.

“People make the mistake of judging the success of a diet at the point that it is stopped,” says Cannon, who points out that this is like assessing the state of your finances based on the one day in the month when your account is in the black. “It’s madness. Dieting triggers the body to go into reversal. When people come off a regime, it’s a form of the bulimic syndrome. They find they can’t stop eating. I’ve had that when coming off a diet, and it’s scary.”

Is this really true of every diet, even a teensy crash diet in the week before you hit the beach? Apparently, these are the worst: restricting calorie intake by anything more than 200 calories a day will trigger a rebound effect, and the more drastic and long-lasting the diet, the worse the rebound once it ends. In some studies, people coming off a diet were forced to eat up to 10,000 calories a day — and still reported feeling hungry.

“People often ask me, ‘If this is all true, why haven’t I heard it before?’ Well, my response is, ‘In whose interests is it to tell you?’ The diet industry sells its wares on the basis of repeat custom — if a diet doesn’t work, it’s your fault. It’s time for a paradigm shift. Much of what our bodies do is beyond the control of our minds.”

Cannon accepts that, to most people, the idea that we don’t have control over our appetites is not an attractive one. “That’s why there was such an outcry about Fern Britton’s gastric-band surgery. She knew all along that dieting wasn’t the reason she lost the weight. People don’t want to admit that. I’m sure she is by no means the only high-profile figure to have had one fitted secretly,” he observes, before speculating wildly on other — unprintable — likely candidates.

“Claims made by the diet industry appeal to our base desires, like the e-mail spam messages saying you have won 5 million or can enjoy multiple orgasms for ever,” Cannon says. “The dieting business is fabulous. It sells dreams. But dreams rarely come true.”


7 July, 2008

DANGEROUS FAD! Water and workouts to become compulsory for some Australian toddlers

What a picnic for lawyers the first time a toddler gets seriously hurt as a result of this nonsense! It looks like the kids are to be given lots of water one way or another but THAT IS DANGEROUS EVEN IN ADULTS -- to the point of death. And quite small amounts of water given to children can lead to water intoxication, resulting in brain damage. See also here, where it speaks of an "epidemic" of water intoxication among U.S. children. Blasted know-nothing faddists!

Children as young as three will undergo compulsory exercise regimes of up to two hours every day in preschools. The New South Wales Government's anti-obesity program also phases out junkfood with kids now drinking watered down juices and low-fat milk and parents receiving a list of recommended foods for their children's lunchboxes. Star jumps, action-singing songs as well as catching, jumping and running are just some of the exercises included in the roll call of daily activities.

The Munch 'n' Move blueprint aims to bring down the rocketing rates of childhood obesity [Utter rubbish! Obesity peaked in the late 1990s] in NSW with one in five preschoolers now either overweight or obese.

Nearly 1000 preschools will implement the new healthy lifestyles policy within the next 18 months, with childhood teachers in 14 centres receiving their initial training this week. "We do music and movement every day but this program also encourages us to do more structured exercise outside where we are teaching children the finer points in jumping, running, hopping, galloping and fundamental movement skills," said educator Vicky Smith from Five Dock preschool, which is implementing the program.

NSW Health's Centre for Health Advancement director Liz Develin said once the preschools were completed the program would be rolled out in long-day care centres. She said that while some parents might question the need to force active three-year-olds into exercise, Ms Develin said recent research showed 89 per cent of children aged four to five spend more than two hours watching a screen every day. "A lot of three to five-year-olds have started these bad habits early," Ms Develin said. [PROVE that it's a bad habit!] "If children are well equipped in fundamental movement skills they are more likely to participate in physical activity and sport later - they'll have the basic skills of how to run, throw and jump rather than just running around erratically."

Early childhood teachers will receive a 188-page manual outlining the details of the new exercise and food program, which includes giving children water rather than fruit poppers and cordials so that kids don't develop a sweet tooth. It also recommends limiting giving juice to once a day and to the 100 per cent variety, which is then diluted by water by at least half, and suggests reduced-fat milk for children over two.

NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher said the program was devised to combat the growing number of overweight preschoolers as well as educate parents. "There is clear evidence that the number of people who are overweight or obese is increasing," she said. "By the time NSW children reach kindergarten nearly 18 per cent of them are either overweight or obese."


Pesky finding: In mice, "youth" drug prolongs vigor but not life

Large doses of a red wine ingredient can ward off many of the negative effects of aging in mice who start taking it at midlife, according to a new report. But those benefits, from the chemical known as resveratrol, come without necessarily prolonging the rodents' lives -- the hoped-for result it achieved in simpler animals, scientists say.

The new findings, by David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School and more than two dozen colleagues, appear online July 3 in the research journal Cell Metabolism.

The scientists found cardiovascular benefits, greater motor co-ordination, reduced cataracts, and better bone density in mice taking resveratrol. The results show evidence that the substance mimics the documented beneficial effects of eating sparingly, the researchers said -- many tissues show very similar gene activity either way.

"The quality of life of these mice at the end of their days is much better," said Rafael de Cabo of the U.S. National Institute on Aging, one of the researchers. Resveratrol may "extend productive, independent life, rather than just extending life span."

"I was most surprised by how broad the effects were," added Sinclair. "Usually, you focus on slowing down or ameliorating one disease at a time. In this case, resveratrol influences a whole series of seemingly unrelated diseases associated with aging." Sinclair said he expects some of the effect seen in the mice would have even greater impact if they hold in humans. That's because, unlike people, mice usually don't die as a result of heart disease or suffer from weakening bones.

Earlier studies found that reducing calorie intake by 30 percent to 50 percent, or eating only every other day, can delay the onset of age-related diseases, improve stress resistance, and slow down functional decline. Although dietary restriction has beneficial effects in humans, such a diet is unlikely to be widely adopted and would pose a significant risk to the frail, critically ill or elderly, the researchers said.

Therefore, scientists hope to find compounds that provide the benefits without cutting calories. One contender has been substances like resveratrol that activate a gene known as SIRT1. It and equivalent proteins have been linked to long life in many studies in yeast to mammals, although its role in prolonging life remains a matter of considerable controversy.

Studies have found resveratrol can extend the lives of yeast, worms, flies, and fish, and improves the health and survival of obese mice on a high-calorie diet. In the new research, investigators placed one-yearold mice on a standard control diet or every-other-day feeding with or without resveratrol.

The resveratrol-fed mice did not live longer in general, although mice on a high-fat diet plus resveratrol did avoid the shortened life span that tends to come with such a fatty meal plan, Sinclair said. Resveratrol treatment is already being tested in clinical trials for type 2 diabetes, the researchers noted, and more potent molecules with effects similar to resveratrol are also under development. The new findings in middle-aged mice suggest that treatments with such drugs might benefit people who start taking them in their late thirties or forties, the scientists said.


6 July, 2008

Red wine may mitigate red meat's dangers

Antioxidants do actually SHORTEN lifespan in at least some cases so even if these findings do generalize to humans, the stuff may have other effects that are damaging. You've got to look at the big picture or the bottom line or whatever metaphor suits

What happens when red wine meets red meat? If that happens in the stomach, wine's healthful chemicals may thwart formation of harmful substances released during digestion of fat in the meat, scientists report.

Researchers attribute the documented benefits of moderate wine consumption -- including protection against cancer and heart disease -- to its high levels of polyphenols, compounds also found in fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants, substances that suppress destructive chemical reactions promoted by oxygen.

But the body doesn't absorb polyphenols easily; scientists have puzzled over how and where they exert their benefits. The researchers found an answer in tests with laboratory rats fed either red meat or red meat with red wine concentrate. Wine concentrate substantially reduced formation of two byproducts of fat digestion, malondialdehyde and hydroperoxide, which are toxic to cells, the investigators said. The stomach acts as a "bioreactor" that facilitates the beneficial effects, the researchers wrote. The polyphenols work not only to prevent generation of toxic compounds, but also to inhibit their entry to the blood stream, they added.

The study, by scientists at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and The Volcani Center in Bet Dagain, Israel, appears in the June 11 issue of the American Chemical Society's Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.


Molecule discovery gives hope to allergy sufferers

Still in vitro. A long journey ahead to reach therapeutic use

Putting an end to extreme allergic reactions could be as simple as turning off a molecule, Sydney researchers have found, giving new hope to thousands of people suffering debilitating asthma, eczema and rhinitis. In a world first, scientists at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, in Darlinghurst, have identified two molecules which combine to create an allergic reaction 10 times more powerful than any molecule can create in isolation. If one of the molecules, known as IL-4 and IL-21, could be switched off, extreme allergic reactions could be avoided, a biologist, Stuart Tangye, said yesterday.

The findings, published in the latest edition of the international journal, Blood, are good news for allergy sufferers, but Dr Tangye warns that it could be years before a treatment is developed. "So far this work has only been done in cultures and it will be some time before it can be achieved in humans - but it is very exciting," he said.

"People with allergies tend to have high levels of an antibody called IgE in their blood and it has been known for many years that IL-4 can drive IgE production in humans and mice. But we now know that IL-21 also stimulates IgE by using an entirely different pathway," Dr Tangye said. "When the two combine, the response is very robust . and we now know that any sort of therapy or treatment for allergies would be best served by neutralising one or both of those molecules, rather than just going after one, which has been a strategy for many drugs in the past," he said.

An allergy specialist at The Children's Hospital Westmead, Dr Andrew Kemp, said the results were encouraging at a time when allergy rates were rising steadily. International studies show rates of asthma, eczema and hay fever have increased dramatically in the past 15 years but specialists are unsure what is responsible. "What they're showing here is just in the test tube at this stage and in theory it's exciting," Dr Kemp said. "But we've had molecular targets in the past that we thought would be very beneficial - one in particular for asthma - that haven't turned out to work that well as a drug."


5 July, 2008

New study undermines anti-Junk-Food campaign

Findings Show that Smaller Packages Can Lead to Greater Indulgence -- Pesky!

It is a truism of public health that people consume more junk food from large packages than from small ones. In response, food companies have decreased portion sizes and introduced single-serve packages, particularly for foods like ice cream and snack chips that people have usually bought in bulk, deciding on their own what constitutes a proper portion, the NY Times reports.

But a study in Journal of Consumer Research suggests smaller packages can lead consumers to eat more, by blunting their wariness about how much they consume. In one experiment, students were primed to think about their body shape, then were given potato chips and left to watch television. They ate nearly twice as many chips when given nine small bags as when given two large ones. They also hesitated less before opening the small bags, reports Times writer Alex Mindlin.

The authors took particular aim at "multipacks" of single-serve portions, like the H„agen-Dazs ice cream cups known as "Little Pleasures." "Consumers may merrily consume the innocently small packages of Little Pleasures at an even higher pace," they wrote, "leading to over-consumption."


Cold sores could be banished for good

A way to banish unsightly cold sores forever has been found by scientists. Millions are affected with the painful blemishes around the mouth and, although there is an effective treatment, the virus is able to go into hiding and then launch another attack, notably when a person is run down and exhausted

Now scientists have found out how the cold sore virus hides and are testing a way to smoke it out, so that it can be eradicated, an approach that could be extended to other latent infections, such as shingles and genital herpes.

Duke University Medical Centre scientists studied how the herpes simplex virus 1 is able to lie dormant in the trigeminal nerve of the face until triggered to reawaken by excessive sunlight, fever, or other stresses. "We have provided a molecular understanding of how HSV1 hides," said Prof Bryan Cullen of Duke, one of the team that reports the study in Nature. The team focused on the one sign of a latent infection by the virus, when it is out of the reach of treatments, the production of a molecule called latency associated transcript RNA or LAT RNA. "It has always been a mystery what this product, LAT RNA, does," Prof Cullen said.

Now studies in mice have revealed LAT RNA keeps the virus dormant by sending out molecular signals that block the production of the proteins that make the virus reproduce. This reveals both how the virus can launch a new infection, and how to treat it too. After a larger stress the virus starts making more instructions to multiply than LAT RNA can block, and it starts to reproduce, travelling down the trigeminal nerve, to the site of the initial infection at the mouth.

Now the team is testing a way to block LAT RNA, so the virus starts to reproduce. Once the virus is active, a patient would then take acyclovir, a drug that effectively kills replicating HSV1. "In principle, you could activate and then kill all of the virus in a patient," Prof Cullen said. "This would completely cure a person, and you would never get another cold sore."

He and the team are working with drug development companies in animal trials to begin to answer questions about how to deliver this drug most effectively. "We are only beginning to do animal experiments, so it will be quite a while before anything reaches the clinic, even for trials," he told the Telegraph. However, he added that one company has recently launched phase one (preliminary) trials of an analogous drug to treat Hepatitis C. "If their studies go well, that is do not reveal excessive toxicity, that might speed up our efforts."

His group's findings, also provide a framework for studying other latent viruses, such as the chicken pox virus, which can return later in life as a case of shingles, and herpes simplex 2 virus, a genitally transmitted virus that also causes painful sores, Prof Cullen said


4 July, 2008

Scared to Death by Christopher BOOKER & Richard NORTH

Book review by "Ken"

This is an expose of the cost to society of unsubstantiated scare campaigns.

The human race seems to have an inherent need to predict the end of western civilization as we know it. A familiar sight in cartoon corner is the bearded fanatic holding up a sign saying "THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH!". The fact that we have a cartoon cliche for the event should alert us to the frequency of such claims. Such portentous predictions have a similar negative outcome to the modern scares of bird flu, global warming etc. but without the enormous cost to society of these latter phenomena. Unfortunately, the actual purveyors of mass hysteria are not the largely ignored hirsute placard wavers, but respectable suited bureaucrats, ambitious self-promoting scientists, sensation-seeking media, and sycophantic politicians who are too scared to back the true science against a rising tide of popular opinion.

The book's authors were personally involved in many of the scares recorded in its pages, either as consultants or scientific investigators, and so have firsthand knowledge of the fallacious reasoning that propagates many of the panics. They have split the text into three sections; part one simply states case studies of food scares that caused financial ruin to many producers through needless draconian legislation, bad science, and overzealous field operatives; part two elaborates on other non-food related scares while the epilogue attempts to question the reasons the human race seeks out these disasters and offers a pseudo-religious hypothesis for our motivations.

While reading about these events it is difficult not to feel your hackles rising in anger at the simple lack of common sense being applied to apparently innocuous situations that bring unbelievable hardship and, in many cases, bankruptcy to the people concerned. The reader's sense of frustration is heightened by the natural desire to confront the officials concerned and demand answers. While in a few cases a follow up report is offered, I felt an overwhelming desire for resolution and a general feeling of anger towards officials who apparently made stupid choices even when faced with logical truths.

Food health scares in Great Britain saw an overreaction that caused a 70 percent increase in the number of statutory instruments issued between 1986 and 2001. Most of these demands for upgrades and changes to premises were prompted by regulations flowing from new legislation or directives from the European Community.

The authors offer a plausible explanation for the mechanism behind this proliferation of regulations, but seem to simply shrug at the inevitability of it, accepting that the motivations are difficult to disagree with. They accept that our society is obsessed with the desire to legislate away any possibility of harm or accident and in the process are causing idiotic precautions the cost of which are way out of proportion to the risk.

All of the cases examined, of course, were investigated in hindsight when it is relatively easy to isolate areas of extravagant precaution and overreaction. Unfortunately scientific confirmation of the causes of mass poisonings require time to investigate, setting up double-blind tests and examining all of the variables concerned while potentially putting thousands of innocent people at risk. This lag in scientific proof can be very dangerous, "lack of proof that long term damage is not caused by mobile phone use is not proof that mobile phone use does not cause long term damage"

It may be that modern life necessitates that we have to accept the ridiculously high cost of panic-driven precautionary measures in order to prevent a real pandemic. Modern communications and technology is moving so fast that there is very little time to verify safety before rolling out new ideas. When a new cancer drug looks promising everyone with cancer wants access to it immediately.

We have to face the fact that we are living in an age of instant gratification. We cover up undesirable side effects by prescribing a fix for the side effects. We are trapped in a cycle of fixes for fixes.

In attempting to explain the inexplicable, the authors delve into man's deep-seated fears and desires, even suggesting that we are seeking out super sensations simply because we live in an age of unprecedented peace and prosperity. The arguments are well put and quite persuasive, especially the thought that the need for a cause to throw our energies behind has supplanted the religious fervour that is rapidly losing its grip on the masses.

Overall the book is an excellent source of controversial material to give ammunition to those wishing to further the cause of rationalism when arguing with bigots.

I was left with a sense of awe and amazement at the obviously massive extent of hysteria-led decisions that are made at huge public expense by people untrained in scientific principles. Decision makers in general seem singularly unsuitable for the jobs entrusted to them.

There is another review of the same book -- by Prof. Brignell -- here

Eating broccoli reduces prostate cancer?

This is little more than speculation. Some proper skepticism expressed below.

EATING broccoli once a week can reduce a man's chances of developing prostate cancer and might even slow tumour growth, a study suggests. Australian cancer experts have welcomed findings from a British study which have confirmed the benefits of the vegetable on cancer in humans, not just lab rats. However they warn it is still unclear how protective the broccoli is or who will benefit most from adding it to their dinner plate.

Researchers from Institute of Food Research in Norwich, in eastern England, gave 22 men 400g of either broccoli or peas a week equal to one or two portions in addition to their normal diet, for a year. Tissue samples were taken from their prostate gland before and during the trial and the results showed that broccoli changed how genes linked to prostate cancer act. This suggests the broccoli-rich diet reduces the risk of developing prostate cancer and also the chance of localised cancer becoming more aggressive. Other studies have shown that cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli may reduce the risk of prostate cancer and other chronic disease, but this is the first to explain why.

Lead researcher Professor Richard Mithen said the results, published in the journal PLoS ONE, were exciting because they indicate benefits from relatively small quantities. "Other fruits and vegetables have been shown to also reduce the risk of prostate cancer and are likely to act through other mechanisms," he said. "Once we understand these, we can provide much better dietary advice in which specific combinations of fruit and vegetable are likely to be particularly beneficial."

Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said the result was interesting but larger studies were needed to prove broccoli caused the reduced cancer risk. Dr Michael Fenech, principal research scientist at CSIRO Human Nutrition, warned that studies had yet to show broccoli consumption affected levels of PSA, the main biomarker of prostate cancer risk, or that it changed tumour cell growth. "There is also little direct evidence to suggest that eating more broccoli protects you against prostate cancer if you are susceptible due to any genetic or environmental factor," Dr Fenech said.


3 July, 2008

Present-day kids happier than kids of 20 years ago

Looks like a pretty good base for comparison was used

They may be fatter, glummer and living under clouds of global terrorism and climate change, but children today are more emotionally stable than 20 years ago. Despite rising rates of childhood obesity and depression and more older, working and single mothers, there's no evidence Australian children have more problems than they did in the 1980s.

Parallel studies by the Australian Institute of Family Studies reveal that two decades ago, children were less sociable, less persistent and more intense than those today. Two studies comparing temperament and behavioural issues among toddlers and young primary schoolers, then and now, show children growing up with hip-hop and computer games in the new millennium are probably better socially adjusted than those raised watching Madonna on MTV and riding bikes around neighborhood streets unbothered by stranger danger.

The twin studies, of almost 2500 children from 1983-1990 and about 10,000 children since 2004, found many more two to three-year-olds had trouble falling asleep 20 years ago, and showed greater signs of aggression and destructiveness. And although behavioural problems among six to seven-year-olds were very low in both eras, significantly more kids of the '80s suffered from worries and fears as well as conduct problems such as restlessness, fidgeting, fighting and disobedience.

Children's school report cards revealed the biggest generational differences. Anecdotal evidence from experienced teachers suggested children behave worse at school now than they did 20 years ago. [The erosion of discipline is the main susppect there]


Gene discovery may help to fight Crohn's disease

The number of genes linked to the bowel condition Crohn's disease has been trebled by research that provides promising targets for better therapies. The discovery of 21 new genes and genetic regions brings to 32 the number of DNA passages known to raise susceptibility to the condition, which affects between one in 500 and one in 1,000 people, causing inflammation of the gut, pain, ulcers and diarrhoea. The research has highlighted links between Crohn's and other conditions, including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes and psoriasis, many of which were unexpected.

Miles Parkes, of the University of Cambridge, a leading member of the study team, said: "We are building up a picture of the biology underlying Crohn's disease, and the more we understand about the underlying biology of these diseases, the better equipped we will be to treat them."

The study, which is published in the journal Nature Genetics, is based on DNA data taken from almost 12,000 people, from Britain, the Continent and North America.


2 July, 2008

TV actors must not be seen to eat "junk food"

Hide the children: Commercial products are visible on network television. That's the urgent message from a clatch of public interest groups who wrote to the Federal Communications Commission last week demanding an end to "advertainment." According to the signers of the letter to FCC Chairman Kevin Martin - including the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, the Parents Television Council and Public Citizen - the appearance of brands in sitcoms and soap operas is bad for us and for the impressionable minds of children. The media are "carrying messages that would otherwise be criticized by the public or even deemed illegal," the groups wrote.

So what are these nefarious products and messages infecting the airwaves? Well, Oreos, to pick one outrage. The chocolate sandwich snack has appeared in sponsored plot points of two installments of "Everybody Loves Raymond." According to the public interest scolds, peddlers of junk food and alcohol are among the culprits exploiting our airwaves.

Such suggestions are almost guaranteed to find a receptive audience among politicians. The FCC's Mr. Martin expressed concern last year over the increasingly "subtle and sophisticated" ways of weaving commercial messages into traditional programming. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Ed Markey also profess to see product placement as a manipulation of our "emotional connection" to TV characters. This conspiratorial view of advertising goes back to Vance Packard and the "Hidden Persuaders," the book unmasking the supposed media manipulation of the 1950s.

In reality, TV producers are trying to make programming pay in an age when more and more viewers are TIVO-ing through the commercials. Overall, product placement has risen 13% on network TV in the past year, as advertisers seek ways to get their products noticed without annoying customers. A ban on product placement will increase the incentive for broadcasters to offer more programming as pay-per-view.

The FCC said this week it plans to consider new rules that would require shows to more prominently notify viewers of sponsored products in their plot points. But where does it end? A lion's share of product appearances has come on reality TV shows like "American Idol." Professional sports, especially Nascar and your average pro golfer, are wallpapered with endorsement logos. Viewers already understand exactly what's going on when a TV character flaunts a name brand - and that awareness is the best defense against whatever "manipulation" is going on.

One of the things at stake in this election is who will run agencies like the FCC, which have enormous discretionary power. In the 1970s, at the height of the nanny state, these agencies were populated by meddlers who harassed business and raised costs for consumers. They're back on the march, and eager to tell you what's good for you - whether you like it or not.


Can science save us from superbugs?

New antibiotics might help to fight hospital infections but socialized medicine systems might still not use them on cost grounds. Comment from Britain:

Last Thursday the Office for National Statistics confirmed that more than 20 patients a day now die from the superbug infections, MRSA and C difficile. NHS practice has been poor. MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcal aureus) is a bacterium that many people carry, safely, in their noses. Yet when people are weakened by sickness, MRSA can invade the bloodstream and kill. In Scandinavia, Holland and Harley Street (three places where MRSA is rare) carriers are screened and treated before being admitted to the wards, but the NHS has been slow in following suit.

Clostridium difficile is another bacterium that many people carry safely (in their intestines), but when hospital toilets are poorly cleaned, when wards are overcrowded, or when people fail to wash their hands, patients will acquire C difficile from each other and, in their weakened state, die of diarrhoea. Can science offer a technological solution to the NHS's failings? Can we invent new antibiotics? Two papers offer hope.

Our bodies make their own natural antibiotics, of which nitric oxide is one. In a recent paper in Science, Dr Fang of the University of Washington, Seattle, showed that MRSA produces a special enzyme that detoxifies nitric oxide. That is why MRSA can kill us.

Meanwhile Dr Pierik of Philipps University, Marburg, has shown that C difficile's enzymes are equally special. They are ancient. There is no oxygen within our guts because the bloodstream does not extend into them. But billions of years ago - before green plants evolved - there was no oxygen in the Earth's atmosphere either. Yet bacteria were already established, and C difficile still uses the enzymes of its primordial ancestors to flourish without oxygen.

Antibiotics work as "magic bullets". It was Paul Ehrlich, the German microbiologist, who in 1909 invented antibiotics by identifying chemicals that, magically, disabled bacterial but not human enzymes. But to find his bullets, Ehrlich had to search randomly. He infected rabbits with syphilis and he dosed them with random chemicals. He named his first drug Salvarsan 606 because it was the 606th chemical he tested that finally cured the rabbits.

Drs Fang and Pierik now proffer the hope of a focused future. Now that we can characterise the key enzymes of MRSA and C difficile, we might design new antibiotics systematically, not randomly. Science may indeed rescue us from the NHS's failings.

Yet the NHS, as a state monopoly, will find new ways to fail. And we will have ourselves to blame. The insurance-based systems of continental Europe - whose hospitals have bed occupancy rates of only 75 per cent and whose hospitals, being separately owned, compete for patients - are better than our own. But the British resist reforms that cost them money.


1 July, 2008

Unbelievable: British health meddlers trying to cut the number of holes in fish-shop salt shakers

This might just be lucrative for the lawyers. When some keen eater of fish and chips dies prematurely, their relatives may find that people on salt-restricted diets actually die sooner. The council could then be up for compensation!

Pot-holed roads, crumbling schools, litter-strewn streets - there's no shortage of problem areas crying out for their attention. But councils believe they have found a better use for their money: reducing the number of holes in chip shop salt shakers. Research has suggested that slashing the holes from the traditional 17 to five could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half. And so at least six councils have ordered five-hole shakers - at taxpayers' expense - and begun giving them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas.

Leading the way has been Gateshead Council, which spent 15 days researching the subject of salty takeaways before declaring the new five-hole cellars the solution. Officers collected information from businesses, obtained samples of fish and chips, measured salt content and `carried out experiments to determine how the problem of excessive salt being dispensed could be overcome by design'. They decided that the five-hole pots would reduce the amount of salt being used by more than 60 per cent yet give a `visually acceptable sprinkling' that would satisfy the customer.

The council commissioned Drywite Ltd - a catering equipment company based in the West Midlands - to make five-hole shakers and bought 1,000 of them at a cost of 2,000 pounds, giving them away to fast-food outlets in their areas. Drywite confirms that it has since received orders for the shakers from at least five other councils, including Rochdale Borough in Greater Manchester. Another giving the shakers away is Labour-controlled Middlesbrough Council, where the idea has run into fierce criticism.

Cllr Chris Hobson, leader of the Conservatives, said: `This is just silly, a total waste of money in an area where council tax is very high. I'm all for good health but do they really think they are going to stop people using as much salt simply by putting fewer holes in thecellar? They'll just shake it for longer.'

Beryl Scott, who owns the Chipchase Chippy in Linthorpe in the city, said a council worker had visited the previous week to explain the merits of less salty fish and chips. `He said he had a salt cellar with five holes to give me free. I thought it was a joke. It doesn't matter how many holes it has, people are going to put on as much salt as they want.' Another local chip shop owner, Carol Ackerman, who runs Carol's Plaice in the suburb of Acklam, said: `People will just put on more salt if they want more. `In fact, we have had some people unscrewing the lids to do so.'

Gateshead Council defended its decision. A spokesman said: `Research carried out by us discovered customers were often receiving huge quantities of salt with their fish and chips - up to half their daily allowance. The council was so disturbed it decided to commission a manufacturer to produce a salt shaker with fewer holes, which it distributed free to every fish and chip shop and hot food takeaway in Gateshead. `We believe the cost to be a small price to pay for potentially saving lives.'

The scheme is being promoted by the Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services, which is responsible for ensuring councils follow food hygiene rules. A spokesman said: `Heart disease costs taxpayers 7billion a year so to say that projects such as this are a waste of money is mind-boggling.'


Rigid British bureaucrats force the destruction of perfectly good fruit

A wholesaler has been banned from selling a consignment of kiwi fruits because EU laws deemed them too small.

Tim Down, a market trader for 25 years, said he was not permitted even to give away the 5,000 Chilean fruits, each of which is about the size of a small hen's egg and weighs about 60g. Mr Down said his family run firm would lose several hundred pounds in sales because of the ban. "It is bureaucratic nonsense, they are perfectly fit to eat," Mr Down said at his stall at the Wholesale Fruit Centre in Bristol.

Inspectors from the Rural Payments Agency, an executive agency of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), made a random check on his stall, and found a number of his kiwis weighed 58g, four grams below the required minimum of 62g.

Mr Down said that 4g in weight was the equivalent of about one millimeter in diameter. He said: "They (the inspectors) went through a lot of my stock using their own little scales. "These regulations are enforced in the United Kingdom with a higher level of rigour than is applied in mainland Europe. There is not a level playing field. "This fruit will now go to waste at a time when we are all feeling the pinch from rising prices." He said there would also be the environmental cost of taking the fruits to a landfill site. Mr Down said he was not permitted by law to give away the kiwis to a school or hostel and faced a fine of several thousand pounds if he did.

Barry Stedman, head of the Rural Payments Agency's inspectorate, said the consignment had failed to meet the minimum standards for saleable produce, in contravention of EU grading rules. "The inspector's decision is consistent with RPA's commitment to protect consumers, who must feel confident that the produce they are buying is of the right quality," he said. "RPA's role is to work with traders to provide advice and assistance to ensure that this happens and to help traders carry out their business within the law."

The agency said Mr Down has been given a number of options, including sending the fruit back to the importer. The European Commission said recently that it wanted to relax the regulations which prevented misshapen or underweight fruit and vegetables being sold. The rules have previously banished curved cucumbers, straight bananas and skinny carrots.

"The inspectors visit us on a random basis, probably two to three times monthly and select items at random that they wish to inspect," said Mr Down. "The latest inspection took place subsequent to the announcement by the EC that the regulations are being modified. "We have had many items rejected over the years, but this, for a variety of reasons, is one of the most nonsensical."