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


30 June, 2008

Tap Water Chemicals Not Linked to Penis Defect

Though some research has linked chemicals in chlorinated tap water to the risk of birth defects, a new study finds no strong evidence that the chemicals contribute to a common birth defect of the penis. The defect, known as hypospadias, occurs when the urinary outlet develops on the underside of the penis rather than at the tip. Genetics are thought to play a large role in hypospadias risk, but the other potential causes are not fully understood.

Some past studies have suggested that certain chemicals in tap water -- byproducts of the chlorination process used to kill disease-causing pathogens -- may contribute to the risk of birth defects and miscarriage. Other studies, though, have found no such links.

For the current study, researchers led by Tom J. Luben of the US Environmental Protection Agency used birth records from 934 boys born in Arkansas between 1998 and 2002. Of these children, 320 were born with hypospadias. [WTF! A third of boys born deformed??? Apparently not. It seems that the controls were just a sample] Luben's team analyzed monitoring data from local water utilities to estimate the mothers' exposure to two major classes of water-disinfection byproducts during pregnancy. Overall, the researchers found, women with the greatest exposure to these chemicals were no more likely to give birth to a boy with hypospadias than women with the least exposure.

They report the findings in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine. "Our results do not support the hypothesis that continuous or intermittent exposure to tap water disinfection byproduct concentrations within regulatory limits during gestation is associated with giving birth to a son with hypospadias," Luben and colleagues write.

However, the findings are not the final word, either. The researchers did find that when they accounted for mothers' total exposure to certain chemicals -- through drinking, bathing and showering -- there was some evidence of a link to hypospadias.

There was, however, no clear pattern of hypospadias risk climbing as mothers' exposure to tap water chemicals increased. Such patterns, known as a "dose-response" relationship, are considered to be evidence of cause-and-effect. The results, according to Luben's team, "could be due to chance." They call for further studies, with more-precise information on individual women's exposure to tap water chemicals, to help settle the question.

Source. Journal article here

Alcohol shaping women's bodies

I doubt that the effect described is due to alcohol alone. Being overweight generally would seem a likely factor and that need not be due to drinking

As women catch up with men in the drinking stakes, their waistlines are also catching up with the beer belly, according to health experts. An English dietitian has given the apple-shaped body type a new name - the wineglass - due to the love of the drink. Jacqui Lowdon, from the British Dietetic Association, said it was the result of image-conscious women exercising to keep fit, and yet neglecting to cut back their alcohol intake.

The shape is characterised by weight accumulating in the middle, creating a larger upper body and a thinner lower half. Traditionally seen in women after menopause, this barrel-torso physique is now becoming common in the under 30s. Singers Britney Spears, Charlotte Church and Fergie are seen as examples of this emerging body type.

International health and longevity expert Dr John Tickell cited extended drinking hours contributed to the growing number of "wineglass" figures. "The social pressures on the way we eat and drink are just so different to what they were 50 years ago," Dr Tickell said. "What happens now is that most of the kids don't go out until 10 or 11 or midnight, and they stay out drinking in clubs all night."

Dr Tickell explained that our sedentary lifestyles and intake of excess calories through alcoholic drinks such as wine and sweet alcopops contributed to the skinny-leg, big-belly look. "The evolution of the wineglass shape for women, with the thinner legs, is because we don't use our legs," he said. "We don't play netball, we don't climb stairs - we don't do anything." "This is not a genetic thing; it's a lifestyle thing, the accumulation of excess calories you consume starts to go around the tummy."

Dr Tickell said it was a worrying trend and could lead to a number of health problems. "It was sort of OK for a man to look like an apple but now it's becoming OK for a woman to look like an apple or a wineglass, which is terribly unhealthy. "Wineglass equals high-risk diabetes, breast cancer and bowel cancer and all the other cancers."

Nadia Jacobi, 23, a regular at the gym, said she was aware of the emerging trend. "If you go out and drink all weekend there is no point to doing all the gym training," she said. "If you look on the back of a wine bottle you can see how many carbs the wine has that contribute to how many calories there are and I don't think a lot of people are aware of that."


29 June, 2008

Food safety stupidity

Leaders of the Black Cultural Council say volunteers and the black community felt "humiliated" after two health department food inspectors threatened to put a stop to a Juneteenth celebration over questions about food preparation for 600 free barbecue sandwiches. Council President Jo Ann Davenport-Littleton said health inspectors told them it was illegal for the group to serve the sandwiches because they were not prepared at the site where they were served.

Gino Solla, the county's top health official, said state law prohibits any food service operation from having food prepared in a private home for public consumption.

"I hate that it happened," Davenport-Littleton said in a story for today's edition of the Odessa American. "I wanted people to go away talking about how great the celebration was this year. All you heard was 'They were going to deny us barbecue. Here we are in modern-day slavery again.' "

The council, which has contracted with an individual to prepare the food offsite for the past 11 years, was eventually able to serve the sandwiches Thursday after police were called to the center and a "heated" argument with the inspectors, the newspaper reported. The group is demanding an apology.

Solla said he won't apologize. "We have to be aggressive when the public interest is involved," he told the paper. "If there was any kind of forwardness and if it was perceived as rude, that I'll apologize for. But when it comes to public health, I don't think I have any apology for that." Solla said he will write a letter to the group and others involved in hopes of working things out.

Juneteenth commemorates the June 19, 1865, arrival of Union Army Gen. Gordon Granger in Galveston with news of freedom for black people still enslaved even after passage of the Emancipation Proclamation.


The Pill ‘has had its day as an effective contraceptive’

An IUD revival? The Dalkon shield must have been forgotten

The Pill is “outdated” and leading to more unwanted pregnancies and abortions because so few women take it correctly, a leading academic has said. Nearly one in 12 women who takes the Pill stands to become pregnant each year by missing occasional tablets, James Trussell, of Princeton University, New Jersey, says.

Increasing access to emergency contraception - the “morning after” pill - would also not have a significant effect on rates of unwanted pregnancy and abortions, he will tell the British Pregnancy Advisory Service conference in London today.

Speakers at the conference on the future of abortion will say that women should use longer-lasting methods such as hormonal implants or intrauterine devices (IUDs) that can be “fitted and forgotten”, but later removed if a woman wants a baby.

The Government wants to encourage more women to use long-acting methods, and guidance has suggested that if 7 per cent of women currently using the Pill switched to a long-acting method, then it would prevent 73,000 unintended pregnancies, saving the NHS 100 million a year.

But Professor Trussell said that few GPs offered long-acting reversible contraceptives or were trained at fitting them, so most women ended up using the Pill by default. “The Pill is an outdated method because it does not work well enough,” he added. “It is very difficult for ordinary women to take a pill every single day. The beauty of the implant or the IUD is that you can forget about them.”

Studies suggest that women miss three times as many pills as they commonly say they do. Computerised pill packs were used to show that although about half of women said they did not miss any pills, fewer than a third actually did.


28 June, 2008

Introducing exercise early 'is vital' in tackling obesity (?)

Some "vital" advice for mothers below. It sounds reasonable -- until you read the article following it. Evidence seems to come last in most health advice. The writers JUST KNOW what is right

Something as simple as holding a baby in water at the swimming pool could reduce the risk of obesity, it has been claimed. The Sun has recommended a number of tips to help parents keep their children fit and healthy.

Mother-and-toddler groups or baby classes at local leisure centres are great ways of introducing little ones to activities at an early age, it advised, as they can experience things such as yoga and dance.

Teaching toddlers to walk as much as possible and taking them to play outside is also a great way to involve exercise in their routine, it continued.

Fitness expert Nicki Waterman said: "Healthy children should be introduced to exercise as early as possible. Whether it's swimming, football or dancing, find something they enjoy and encourage them by joining in too."

According to a government report, the number of under-20 year olds who are obese could ride from ten per cent to 15 per cent by 2025.


Gym class does little to lower childhood obesity

May I mention that weight-proneness is 77% genetic?

Pumping up the frequency of phys-ed classes doesn't make a difference to childhood obesity, a B.C. study has found. The research, presented to 700 delegates attending the Canadian Paediatric Society conference here, is apt to deflate the hopes of those pleading for more school-based phys-ed classes as a possible panacea against fatness.

Dr. Kevin Harris, a pediatric resident at B.C. Children's Hospital, helped conduct an analysis of studies on school phys-ed policies to determine if they change Body Mass Index, the common measurement used to assess fat and weight.

While such policies may be "theoretically appealing" and many jurisdictions are either considering or enacting changes to increase physical activity inside and outside school, the analysis shows BMI doesn't change as a result.

Harris said researchers looked at 13 trials of six months to three years duration in which pre- and post-BMI measurements were taken. In studies involving nearly 10,000 children, primarily in elementary schools, none demonstrated a reduction in BMI with those who were assigned to the most phys-ed time, compared to those who didn't have as much.

"School-based physical activity interventions do not improve BMI although they may have other beneficial health effects," he said. "There are improvements to bone mineral density, aerobic capacity, reduced blood pressure and increased flexibility," he added. Childhood overweight and obesity rates have quadrupled in the past 40 years and now stand at about 30 per cent.

Harris said experts have predicted that because of this, the current generation of children may be the first to have a reduced life expectancy because of the conditions associated with obesity such as diabetes, arthritis and cardiovascular disease.

Harris said policy-makers must realize that all the causes of childhood obesity are still not known so merely focusing on in-school phys-ed programs is not enough to reverse obesity trends.


27 June, 2008

Faked research data surprisingly common, survey suggests

It's the logical extension of all the dishonest interpretation of results that we constantly see. If you are determined to come to certain conclusions no matter what, why not make up the data altogether? There is a zero tolerance policy badly needed here. Stop the "broken windows" of biased interpretations and you might reduce reporting that is totally false

Scientific misconduct, notably including falsification of data, may be far more common than suspected, according to the authors of a new survey of more than 2,000 scientists.

Sandra L. Titus and colleagues at the Office of Research Integrity of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville, Md., surveyed 2,212 scientists at 605 institutions. They found that nearly 9 percent believed they had seen potential research misconduct in the previous three years. The findings are published in a commentary in June 19 issue of the research journal Nature.

The results suggest as many as 2,300 observations of misconduct, 1,000 of them unreported, occur each year in the larger research community funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, Titus and colleagues wrote. They added that it's unlikely such behavior is confined to the United States.

Survey participants described misbehavior ranging from scientists' changing numbers to make results look more definite than they really were, to more creative fabrications. One participant told of a colleague using Photoshop to tweak results of chemical tests that appear as blots on sheets of paper.

Suspected misconduct was seen "at all scientific ranks including postdocs, students, and tenured faculty members," the authors wrote. Sixty percent of the cases involved fabrication or falsification, and 36 percent plagiarism "only," Titus and colleagues added.

The authors wrote that the problem arises partly because scientists are reluctant to turn in cheating colleagues, and commonly face ill consequences for doing so. They cited evidence that institutions often encourage whistleblowers to drop allegations. "Institutions must establish the culture that promotes safeguards for whistleblowers and establishes zero tolerance both for those who commit misconduct and for those who turn a blind eye to it," Titus and colleagues wrote. Institutions may also want to consider auditing research records as part of renewed efforts to root out misconduct, they added.

The number of cases reported to the Office of Research Misconduct is very lowabout 24 investigations per year from institutions for cases that involve National Institutes of Health funding, Titus and colleagues wrote.


So now Britain will have degrees in quackery

It's hard to grade nonsense on a scale, but of all forms of medical quackery, psychic surgery must be judged one of the least scrupulous. You might recall the odd television expose of its practitioners - so-called 'surgeons' who appear to be operating on patients with their bare hands, and who seem to be able to remove allegedly diseased tissue without making any incisions. Despite being exposed as hoaxers, 'psychic surgeons' continue to cast their spell over the gullible and desperate – mostly in Brazil and the Philippines. The odd case still crops up in the supposedly less superstitious United Kingdom.

About a year ago the Conservative MP Robert Key wrote to the Department of Health following a complaint by one of his constituents, who had been a victim of such fraudulent "healing." I have the full ministerial reply in front of me. Lord Hunt of Kings Heath told Mr Key: "We are currently working towards extending the scope of statutory regulation by introducing regulation of herbal medicine, acupuncture practitioners and Chinese medicine. However, there are no plans to extend statutory regulation to other professions such as psychic surgery. "We expect these professions to develop their own unified systems of voluntary self-regulation. If they then wish to pursue statutory regulation, they will need to demonstrate that there are risks to patients and the public that voluntary regulation cannot address. I hope this clarifies the current position."

Indeed, it does. It makes it clear that the lunatics have taken over the asylum. For a start, how could Philip Hunt, previously director of the National Association of Health Authorities and Trusts, possibly have thought that "psychic healing" constituted a "profession" – let alone one which would "develop its own system of voluntary self-regulation? What might this involve? A code which declares that members must never perform genuine surgery, lest it brings the "profession" into disrepute?

Last week, in fact, the Department of Health published the report which outlines the regulation hinted at by Lord Hunt. It is called the Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and other Traditional Medicine Systems Practiced in the United Kingdom.

It is a scary document, and not just because many of its recommendations stem from something called the "Acupuncture Stakeholder Group". You thought they just used needles, didn't you?

Acupuncture is at the most respectable end of the alternative health spectrum – its practitioners would be affronted to be lumped in with psychic surgeons. Yet what, really, is the difference? There are many "patients" in the Philippines and Brazil who will insist that psychic surgery has cured chronic ailments which conventional medicine failed to alleviate. Such is the power of placebo – the driving force of all unconventional medical treatments, including acupuncture.

A few months ago an investigation into acupuncture, involving 1,162 patients with lower back pain, made a splash in newspapers across the world. The researchers at Regensburg University declared that just 27.4 per cent of those who had only conventional treatments such as physiotherapy felt able to report an improvement in their condition. However, of those who also underwent acupuncture, 47.6 per cent reported an improvement. So all that stuff about "different levels of Qi", "meridians", "major acupuncture points" and "extraordinary fu" is scientifically validated, then? Well, not quite, despite what some of the news reports said.

You see, the cunning researchers of Regensburg had one control group of back-pain sufferers who were told that they were undergoing traditional acupuncture – whereas in fact the needles were inserted entirely at random; and instead being put in to a depth of up to 40mm (as required by the acupuncture textbooks) were merely inserted just below the skin. This was sham acupuncture. And guess what? It worked – within the statistical margin of error – just as well as the "real" acupuncture: 44.2 per cent of the recipients of the sham treatment said that their back pain had been alleviated in a way which they had not experienced through conventional medicine.

Now here's another remarkable thing: the main body of the report produced for the Government last week does not contain the word "placebo" – and it crops up only twice in the appendices. One can understand why the various "stakeholders" who were consulted might have wanted to steer away from this fundamental question, but it's surprising that the chairman of the report, Professor Michael Pittilo, principal of Robert Gordon University, didn't insist upon it.

After all, Professor Pittilo claims that his report was an "echo" of the House of Lords' Science and Technology Committee report on the same subject – which had declared that the single most important question that any such investigation must address is: "Does the treatment offer therapeutic benefits greater than placebo?"

That indefatigable quackbuster, Professor David Colquhoun of University College London is on the case, however. His indispensable blog points out that Professor Pittilo is a trustee of the Prince of Wales's Foundation for Integrated Health, which advocates exactly the sort of therapies that this committee is supposed to be regulating.

Pittilo and his band of "stakeholders" have come up with their own way of "regulating" the alternative health industry – which the Government has welcomed. It is to suggest that practitioners gain university degrees in complementary or alternative medicine. Pittilo's own university just happens to offer such courses, which Professor Colquhoun has long campaigned against as "science degrees without the science."

It will be a particular boon to the University of Westminster, whose "Department of Complementary Therapies", teaches students all about such practices as homeopathy, McTimoney chiropractic, crystals, and 'vibrational medicine'.

One can see how this might fit in with the Government's "never mind the quality, feel the width" approach to university education. One can also see how established practitioners of such therapies might see this as a future source of income – how pleasant it might be to become Visiting Professor of Vibrational Medicine at the University of Westminster.

Thus garlanded with the laurels of academic pseudo-science, the newly professionalised practitioners of "alternative medicine" can look down on such riff-raff as the "psychic surgeons". Yet in one way those charlatans are less objectionable than Harley Street homeopaths: they openly admit that they are faith-healers, rather than pretend to academic status; and while they have made fools of their patients they haven't-yet-made a fool of the Government.


26 June 2008

Another confirmation of long Australian lifespans

There was a similar finding reported 18 months ago. Pesky that Australians are exceptionally long-lived despite the typical Australian diet being just about everything the food-freaks deplore. There are certainly a lot of nonagenarians about in Australia who grew up on food fried in dripping (animal fat) -- fried steak particularly. Fried steak and eggs was a routine breakfast for many Australian working men up until a few decades ago. And they would only have eaten nuts at Christmas. And to this day, very fatty meat pies (see pic above) and sausage rolls are a great favourite.

Going by the results of double-blind studies (e.g here), however, it is doubtful that type of diet has ANY influence on longevity. The fact that two long-lived populations -- Australians and Japanese -- have radically different diets also supports that conclusion.

The explanations for Australian lifespans given in the news report below are entirely speculative. An equally plausible explanation is that traditional Australian skepticism causes most Australians to ignore food freaks.

The only thing about diet that increases lifespan is restricted calorie intake. Which is probably why the Japanese -- who had very little food for much of the 20th century -- live so long. Restricted calorie intake also stunts growth -- which would also explain why older Japanese are so short. So attributing the high Japanese lifespan to a "healthy" diet is also just a guess that fails to consider other possibilities

Australians are living longer than ever as death rates from the big killers of heart disease and cancer fall and smoking continues to wane in popularity. The Australia's Health 2008 report, released yesterday, shows Australians can now expect to live for 81.4 years - and that we have leap-frogged Sweden and Iceland to claim the No2 spot on the world's life expectancy tables, second only to Japan.

Overall, the latest snapshot of the nation's health paints a mixed picture, showing that while Australians are cutting down on smoking and doing better against cancer and heart disease, we are also fatter, boozier, more likely to catch a sexually transmitted infection, and still likely to end up in hospital for something that could have been avoided.

In 2005-06, more than 9 per cent of hospital admissions were considered potentially preventable. We also too rarely make the diet and lifestyle choices that would ward off diabetes, high blood pressure and other problems, and there are poorer outcomes for people of lower socio-economic status which happens worldwide]. While asthma has receded as a health threat, others such as oesophageal disease, are looming larger.

And the picture for indigenous Australians is also mixed: the gap in death rates between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians appears to be narrowing, but otherwise indigenous adults seem to be slipping even further behind the health of their non-indigenous countrymen. [If you saw the way blacks often live, you would not be surprised. Methanol ("metho") is not a healthy drink]

Launching the report in Canberra yesterday, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said it was a "great achievement" that "highlights both the good and the bad". "We can take heart that an Australian born between 2003 and 2005 can now expect to live 42 per cent longer than those born in 1901-10," Ms Roxon said. "That's an extra 25 years for most people." Once the danger years of youth and middle age are past, men who reach 65 can expect to live to 83, and women to 86 - about six years more than a century ago.

The AIHW said one of the biggest factors in extending life was the drop in smoking rates. About one in six Australians were daily smokers last year, one of the lowest rates in the world. Vaccination also continues to enjoy widespread support, with more than 90 per cent of children fully immunised against the major preventable diseases such as whooping cough, measles and mumps.

As well as asthma affecting an estimated 10.3 per cent of the population in 2004-05 - down from 11.6 per cent in 2001 - other good news is that illicit drug use appears to be falling. The percentage of people aged 14 and over who admitted to using marijuana fell from a high of 17.9 per cent in 1998 to 9.1 per cent last year, while those using methamphetamine or "ice" fell from 3.7 per cent in 1998 to 2.3 per cent last year.

Ecstasy use remained level and only cocaine showed any upward trend, being used by 1.6 per cent of respondents to last year's survey, compared with 1 per cent in 2004.

However, AIHW director Penny Allbon said Australia could do more to tackle the main risk factors for chronic diseases. "In rank order, the greatest improvements can be achieved through reductions in tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, overweight and obesity, physical inactivity, high blood cholesterol and excessive alcohol consumption," Dr Allbon said. "The prevalence of diabetes, which is strongly related to these risk factors, has doubled in the past two decades.

"Excessive alcohol consumption not only brings costs in terms of personal health, but tangible social costs in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs, road accident costs and crime-related costs that have been estimated at $10.8 billion in 2004-05."

The report shows that alcohol caused 3.8 per cent of the burden of disease for males, and 0.7 per cent for females. Four in five Australians aged 14 and over drank alcohol, and one in 10 did so daily. However, the report said these rates "have been fairly stable since 1993".


Useless Menu Labeling Laws

Restaurants in New York City with 15 or more outlets nationwide now must conspicuously post the nutritional content of each item on their menus. Similar legislation is coming to San Francisco and Seattle, and is under consideration in about a dozen other cities and state legislatures.

At first blush, this seems like a good idea. Why not force restaurants to let their consumers know the nutritional value of what they're about to eat? If we're to believe what the public health world says about our bulging waistlines, perhaps a little more information would be a good thing.

The American Prospect's Ezra Klein made this argument last month, writing, "It's a bit rich to watch libertarians and associated anti-government types oppose a regulation that gives consumers more useful information. This, after all, is how markets are supposed to work best. Consumers have better information, can pursue their preferences in a more coherent manner, and the market can provide, adapt, and innovate in response."

It's a compelling argument. But the menu labeling debate is actually a bit more complicated than that. First, it's expensive to send an entree to the lab for testing. Nutritional labs typically charge $850 to $1,000 for the service, and most restaurants will want to test an item more than once to ensure accuracy. Any "have it your way" customization of an item would also need to be tested, which means a typical sandwich might need to be tested dozens of times to account for the various condiments and accouterments a restaurant may want to offer.

There is, however, another way to gauge the nutritional content of menu items that's a bit less expensive. That is to break every item down to its most basic ingredients and their quantities, then to run those ingredients through a nutritional database, which adds the ingredients up, then spits out totals. This too has it's problems, in that it requires restaurants to (a) turn over proprietary recipes for analysis, and (b) abide by those recipes every time, without fail.

The main problem with all of this is that it requires restaurants to slavishly adhere to the recipes of the dishes they originally sent away for testing. Let's say a particular batch of tomatoes delivered to a restaurant were particularly bland, for whatever reason. Don't even think about adding an extra dash of salt to your dish to compensate. If the original dish had only a dash of salt, you've just doubled the sodium content. You can also forget about substitutes, seasonal variety or allowing customers to customize dishes in ways that haven't been sent to the lab.

Forget about "going local," too. Buying from local growers is less predictable than buying from a national network of food suppliers, where shortages or disappointing harvests from one area of the country can be accounted for by purchasing more from other areas.

Menu labeling laws mean every restaurant in a given chain has to make every dish exactly the same way, every time. Most menu labeling laws allow for a 20 percent variance in nutritional labeling. This is the same variance allowed for the nutritional information on manufactured food products, where you have assembly-line machines cutting exact portions and abiding by standardized recipes instead of real live people making dishes from what's available in the kitchen.

Of course, the labeling of manufactured foods is another argument in favor of the futility of these menu labeling laws. We've been labeling packaged foods for decades now - the foods that make up the vast majority of our meals and snacks. And we're still getting fatter.

Supporters of menu labeling laws know that complying with these laws will be expensive and onerous. That's why they've only applied them to chain restaurants - restaurants they say can afford to send dishes off for nutritional testing. Perhaps, but knowing that adding a new dish to the menu could cost several thousand dollars and will almost certainly result in one of two consequences: Either restaurants will dramatically cut down on variety and serve only meticulously portioned cookie-cutter dishes or they'll merely pass the costs of testing each dish on to consumers.

Certainly, the chains that barely make the cut of 10-15 franchises (depending on which law you're talking about) will think twice before offering a perk like daily specials, where each new daily dish could add thousands of dollars to the company's bottom line.

But even large chains are going to be more hesitant about regional variety. And chefs at high-end spots like steakhouse chains are going to be extremely unlikely to create customized meals, or prepare dishes for people with specialized diets.

The other response to the "we're only requiring this of the restaurants who can afford it" argument is that if that's the case, what's the point of having the law in the first place? The New York City law will only affect about 10 percent of the city's eateries. If the goal is to combat obesity, you're missing 90 percent of the places where people are eating.

What's more, according to the National Restaurant Association, we buy just six of our 21 weekly meals from restaurants. Put another way, menu labeling laws mean nutritional information will be slapped in front of the average American for about three of every 100 meals. We aren't getting fatter because there aren't fat-count stickers on our Big Mac wrappers - as if most of us didn't already know a Big Mac isn't the most nutritious meal anyway.

Of course, most of the really large chains already make nutritional information available - either online or in pamphlets you can find at the restaurant. Calorie counters and people watching their sodium or sugar intake can find this information relatively easily if they need it. And they can choose not to patronize the few restaurants that don't make it available.

The menu-labeling crowd wants that information posted in big letters on menu boards or slapped on the packaging of the foodstuffs themselves. The goal of menu labeling legislation, then, is much more paternalistic than merely to "make more information available." It's to force nutritional information on people who aren't necessarily looking for it.

Then there are the lawsuits. When McDonalds voluntarily agreed to post its nutritional information on the Web several years, it wasn't long at all before the nutrition fanatics at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) attacked the company because a couple of McDonalds employees served covert CSPI reps overly large ice cream cones.

Earlier this month, a Seattle firm filed a class action suit against the Applebee's chain because of what the firm says were errors in its nutritional menu labeling. Days later, the same firm filed a similar suit in Texas, this time aimed at the Brinker chain, which owns brands such as Chili's and Macaroni Grill. Of course, if these restaurants deliberately mislabeled nutritional information or didn't bother to accurately test food labeled as "healthy," they should be held accountable.

But it's also impossible to make the same dish the exact same way every time. Such is the reason why large chains test the same dish multiple times to arrive at an average. But if you're looking for a reason to sue, you're only going to include in your claim the chains that served dishes that came out over the posted data, not under.

This is the main reason why restaurants have been reluctant to provide nutritional information in the first place. An extra pat of butter, an extra dash of salt, a substitution here or there, or even a generous chef who - God forbid - decides to give a customer a generous portion, can now mean multimillion-dollar class action lawsuits.

These menu-labeling bills have put restaurants in a no-win predicament. Their best bet is to mechanize their kitchens and to take all variety and spontaneity out of their menus - which isn't exactly a good outcome for consumers. And you can bet that when the latest round of menu-labeling bills fails to make us any skinnier, the nutrition activists will start taking aim at the smaller chains and independent restaurants too.


25 June 2008

British parents harassed in the name of junk science

Parents cleaning out their child's lunchbox at the end of the school day could be in for a nasty surprise — a scolding note from teacher alongside the half-eaten sandwiches and empty crisp packets. The School Food Trust wants teachers to send out warning letters to parents who fail to comply with school healthy-eating policies. And in advice that could be seen as patronising, the government-funded body suggests further that they send congratulatory letters to those who pack healthy lunches for their children.

Schools across the country were ordered to provide healthy lunches and remove vending machines filled with chocolate and fizzy drinks after a campaign led by the television chef Jamie Oliver exposed the poor standard of meals at many schools.

Most schools also ask parents not to give children crisps, biscuits or similar items for lunch, but the guidance from School Food Trust looks to harden the approach to unhealthy lunchboxes. In guidance sent as an example to head teachers and governors, the trust lists the foods pupils should not take to school: crisps, chocolate bars, chocolate-coated biscuits and sweets. “Cakes and biscuits are allowed but encourage your child to eat these only as part of a balanced meal,” it says. Nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit are welcome, as long as they have no added salt, sugar or fat. “Packed lunches should include at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables every day.”

Most parents are happy to comply with a healthy-eating policy, but could be irritated by the way the trust recommends it is assessed. “Parents and pupils who do not adhere to the packed lunch policy will receive a leaflet in the packed lunch informing them of the policy,” the trust says. “If a child regularly brings a packed lunch that does not conform to the policy, then the school will contact the parents to discuss this.”

A spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations said: “It's no way to communicate with parents and doesn't put healthy food in a positive light. It may make parents feel underrated, dismissed and dictated to. “As a parent, I'll sometimes have a biscuit with a cup of tea - everything in moderation is what's needed for adults and children. It makes you wonder what the staffroom lunchboxes look like.”

Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, the online forum for mothers, said that advice on packed lunches was helpful for parents because it assisted them to say “no” to their children. But receiving a letter would “feel a bit like the lunchbox police”, she said. “Just occasionally there is really nothing in the cupboard because you haven't done the shopping in time, and you just bung in anything.” She said that the policy should, instead, be made clear at the beginning of each term.

Despite winning praise for making school meals healthier, the Government has been criticised for the way it runs them. The campaign group Food for Life Partnership warned Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, that the school meal service was “at risk of collapse”. In a letter it sent to the minister yesterday, it said: “The majority of school meal providers are now running at a deficit which they will not be able to sustain. “If urgent action is not taken, the Government risks losing this key opportunity to fight obesity and climate change by changing young people's eating habits. “Unless policymakers start viewing school meals as an education service, not a commercial one, they will end up serving no one.”

The Local Authority Caterers Association backed the partnership. Sandra Russell, chairwoman of the association, said: “School meal providers nationally are encountering financial challenges.”


IVF safe

Women who want to postpone motherhood to establish a career or find the right partner have been given new hope by research that shows the safety of an advanced egg-freezing technique. The most exhaustive study yet of children born after the freezing procedure found that they appeared to be as healthy as those conceived normally or by IVF, paving the way for its widespread use.

Specialists said that the research, into a method known as vitrification, promises to lift the main barrier to routine egg freezing. While dozens of British women have already done this to preserve their fertility, medical groups had advised against it outside clinical trials because of limited evidence of its safety. The study, led by Ri-Cheng Chian, of McGill University, in Montreal, Canada, assessed the outcomes of 200 children born from vitrified eggs. It found that the rate of birth defects was 2.5 per cent, which is comparable to natural pregnancies and IVF.

Dr Chian told The Times: "I have two daughters. If they wanted to preserve their fertility because they were 35 and not married, I would say, yes, they should use this technique. Even if they were 20 or 25 and wanted to use it for social reasons, I would recommend going ahead. We cannot yet say it is 100 per cent safe, but we are starting to amass good evidence that it is not risky so far as we can tell. "The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says egg freezing for social reasons should happen only in clinical trials, because there isn't enough information yet, but I think that is soon going to have to change."

Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, which offers egg freezing in Britain, said: "This is the sort of evidence we have all been seeking. I think in time it will come to be seen as positively perverse to refuse to allow women to have the chance to establish pregnancies with their own frozen eggs." She said that frozen eggs stored when women were in their twenties or thirties might eventually be shown to reduce the rate of birth abnormalities beyond that seen in the McGill study, which is published in the journal Reproductive Biomedicine Online. Such defects become more of a risk when older women conceive with their own fresh eggs.

Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society, said that the society did not have a firm policy on egg freezing for social reasons. "A single study isn't enough, but if more data like this emerges we would be more relaxed about it," he said.

While it has long been possible to freeze sperm and embryos for use in fertility treatment years later, it has taken much longer to achieve this routinely for eggs. The prospects of wider use have recently been enhanced by the development of vitrification, which involves flash-freezing eggs after special preparation. Up to 95 per cent of vitrified eggs survive the thawing process, compared with 50 to 60 per cent of those preserved by older slow-freezing techniques. Pregnancy rates for vitrification can be as good as for IVF with fresh eggs.

These advances may encourage more women to freeze eggs as a way of preserving their fertility, which starts to decline steeply when from the mid-thirties. Several British clinics offer women in their twenties and thirties the option of storing their eggs, and more than 100 have done so.


24 June 2008

Australia's alleged "fat bomb"

I would rather like the report below to be true. It claims that Australians are extraordinarily fat. Since Australia has one of the world's longest life expectancies, it would help to slay the myth that obesity is unhealthy. Some skepticism about the report has already been expressed, however. The report comes from a nonprofit, not a university, so may simply be a trawl for funds. I have left it for a few days to say much about it as I wished to see details of the research first. The sample would appear to be far from random. I have however not so far been able to find the full report online. It is not linked from their home page and there has been some suggestion that their international comparisons are erroneous. The report is certainly deliberately deceitful in failing to note that it is extremes of weight rather than obesity which is unhealthy. The longest life expectancies are for people of middling weight. Not to put too fine a point on it, the alarmist claims of the report are total junk

AUSTRALIA has become the fattest nation in the world, with more than 9 million adults now rated as obese or overweight, according to an alarming new report. The most definitive picture of the national obesity crisis to date has found that Australians now outweigh Americans and face a future "fat bomb" that could cause 123,000 premature deaths over the next two decades. If the crisis is not averted, obesity experts have warned, health costs could top $6 billion and an extra 700,000 people will be admitted to hospital for heart attacks, strokes and blood clots caused by excess weight.

The latest figures show 4 million Australians - or 26% of the adult population - are now obese compared to an estimated 25% of Americans. A further 5 million Australians are considered overweight. The report, Australia's Future 'Fat Bomb', from Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, will be presented at the Federal Government's inquiry into obesity, which comes to Melbourne today.

A grim picture is painted of expanding waistlines fuelled by a boom in fast food and a decline in physical activity, turning us into a nation of sedentary couch potatoes. Those most at risk of premature death are the middle-aged, with 70% of men and 60% of women aged 45 to 64 now classed as obese.

But some weight specialists have questioned the tool used to measure obesity, saying "entire rugby teams" would be classified as obese if their body mass index (BMI) was calculated. BMI is measured by dividing weight in kilograms by height in metres squared. A BMI of over 25 is considered overweight while more than 30 is obese. But the tool does not distinguish between muscle and fat, prompting calls for the BMI overweight limit to be raised to 28.

However, even leading nutritionist Jenny O'Dea from the University of Sydney - who recently claimed Australia's childhood obesity epidemic had been exaggerated - has backed the new figures, which suggest that the crisis for adults has been drastically underestimated. Professor O'Dea said that while being fat was not necessarily a health risk for everyone, there was no doubt obesity was taking its toll on the nation.

It was previously thought that around 3 million adults were obese. But many past surveys were seen as unreliable as they often required participants to guess their own weight. The latest data was based on more than 14,000 people at 100 rural and metropolitan sites in every Australian state and territory. Each had their BMI recorded by having their weight, height and waist measured as part of a national blood pressure screening day last year.

The report's lead author, Simon Stewart, said that even allowing for the BMI's potential failings, the best case scenario was that 3.6 million adults were battling obesity. "We could fill the MCG 40 times over with the number of obese Australians now, then you can double that if you look at the people who are also overweight - those are amazing figures," Professor Stewart said. "And in terms of a public health crisis, there is nothing to rival this. If we ran a fat Olympics we'd be gold medal winners as the fattest people on earth at the moment," he said. "We've heard of AIDS orphans in Africa, we're looking at this time bomb going off where parents have to think about this carefully," Professor Steward said. "They're having children at an older age, if you're obese and you have a child do you really want to miss out on their wedding? "Do you want to miss out on the key events in their life? Yes you will if you don't do something about your weight now."

The obesity inquiry in Melbourne will be told that a national strategy encouraging overweight Australians to lose five kilograms in five months could reduce heart-related hospital admissions by 27% and cut deaths by 34% over the next 20 years. Among the radical solutions proposed in the report is a plan to make fat towns compete for "healthy" status in national weight loss contests tied to Federal Government funding. Towns that lost the most weight would be given cash to build sports centres and swimming pools. And like the "Tidy Towns" program, communities would have to meet targets to be eligible for a share of the funding pool.

Other suggestions from Professor Stewart's report include subsidised gym memberships, personal training sessions for heavier people and restricting weight loss surgery to those who show they can lose some weight on their own first.

One of Australia's leading obesity experts, Boyd Swinburn, will tell the inquiry in his own submission that a crackdown on junk food marketing to children is paramount in the fight against the epidemic. With the fastest growing rate of childhood obesity in the world, Australia must make radical changes to the way unhealthy food is promoted if the rate is to be reduced, his submission reads. Professor Swinburn, director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, will argue that better nutritional labelling and more funding for effective treatments such as weight-loss surgery are also necessary. "We've got a huge problem here and we can't bury our head in the sand any more," Professor Swinburn will tell the inquiry. "The previous federal government blamed parents and individuals and told them to pull up their socks . that's not going to achieve anything but make us fatter as a nation. "It's good to see the Rudd Government take obesity seriously with this parliamentary inquiry and the preventative health strategy but that has to be turned into proper policy, regulation and funding."

Ian Caterson, director of the Institute of Obesity, Nutrition and Exercise at the University of Sydney, said innovative government "thinking outside the square" policies were necessary because, "as we get fatter and older as a nation things are just going to get worse."


There really is coffee in coffee-flavoured milk!

Whoda thunk it?

PARENTS have been warned that caffeine levels in some flavoured milks can be more than double the dose found in controversial energy drinks such as Red Bull. Some milk drinks contain up to three times the caffeine hit found in a regular cup of coffee, new research shows. The findings are a wake-up call to parents who buy flavoured milk, believing the drinks are healthy. The National Health and Medical Research Council warns against giving caffeine to children because it can cause disturbed sleep patterns, bed-wetting and anxiety.

Researchers at Griffith University tested more than 20 varieties of iced coffee-flavoured milk to discover the high caffeine content. "A lot of people think it is better for you because it is milk-based," Griffith University researcher Ben Desbrow said. "But actually it is worse." Mr Desbrow's team tested 20 iced coffee products three times over a month, to allow for changes in the product run. "After calculating an average we found several that had very high levels of caffeine per 100ml. But the issue is these products are sold in 500ml, 600ml or 750ml containers. "So if there is 35mg per 100ml, you could be getting more than 175mg of caffeine in a 500ml drink and more than 260mg of caffeine in a 750ml drink." A 250ml can of Red Bull contains 80mg of caffeine.

"Caffeine in iced coffee is considered a natural ingredient so manufacturers are not required to disclose the level of caffeine on the label," Mr Desbrow said. "The product only needs to state that it contains caffeine." "Manufacturers only need to say how much caffeine is contained in a product when it is added." Mr Desbrow said consumers, and especially parents, needed to be aware "because children could be consuming more than your average adult".

Caffeine affects the brain by dampening neuro transmitters that would normally make you sleepy, temporarily improving cognitive function and even athletic performance. The typical consumer drinks about 200mg to 300mg a day in two to three cups of coffee.

Tanya Geary, 28, of Aspley in Brisbane, said she would never give her two boys caffeine because "they would be bouncing off the walls". "But it is quite alarming to think there is that much in flavoured milk," she said.


23 June 2008

NO to statins during pregnancy

Sandy Szwarc reports:

Someone must have sent out a press release, because there was no new study... or any study at all to support the sudden appearance of this public health message... yet, news outlets across the UK and around the world all reported this story, all on the same day. Yesterday, the top news story was that statins could help pregnant women avoid caesarean sections, especially fat women blamed for raising C-section rates, with headlines announcing that all "obese pregnant mums" will now be given statins during pregnancy.

This was a false story and one that could risk women losing their babies; delivering premature babies; or having babies with limb, brain and neurological deformities. Before we get into more details, it is important that all women know: There is NO medical expert body in the world recommending statins be used by fat women or any women during pregnancy. Statins are specifically contraindicated for use by pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant.

The United States Food and Drug Administration classifies statins and all cholesterol-lowering drugs as Category X drugs [reviewed here], which identify potentially teratogenic medications.

Category X: Adequate well-controlled or observational studies in animals or pregnant women have demonstrated positive evidence of fetal abnormalities or risks. The use of the product is contraindicated in women who are or may become pregnant.

More here

Alarming cellphone videos are fake

CONTROVERSIAL YouTube videos purporting to expose the dangers of mobile phones have been exposed as fakes. Part of an internet marketing campaign, each of the four videos shows kernals of popcorn allegedly being cooked by the radiation emitted by three mobile phones.

But the videos, which have had more than 11 million hits on YouTube, are viral advertisements produced by a French agency hired to boost sales for mobile phone accessories manufacturer Cardo Systems.

The videos, filmed by LastFools, feature various "optical illusions" and "magic tricks" designed to suggest mobile phones emit enough radiation to cook popcorn.

The claim is false. LastFools managing director Frederic Chast says he designed the viral ad campaign in the hope of garnering his client just 30,000 hits. Viral advertising is designed to be so engaging that consumers pass it on to friends.

The videos have angered some people who, in online forums, describe Cardo Systems as having behaved deceptively.


Man Says He Lost 80 Pounds Eating McDonald's

A Virginia man lost about 80 pounds in six months by eating nearly every meal at McDonald's.

Not Big Macs, french fries and chocolate shakes. Mostly salads, wraps and apple dippers without the caramel sauce.

Chris Coleson tipped the scales at 278 pounds in December. The 5-foot-8 Coleson now weighs 199 pounds and his waist size has dropped from 50 to 36.

The 42-year-old businessman from Quinton says he chose McDonald's because it's convenient.


22 June, 2008

Cloned cells kill skin cancer

More details here. Note that the patient was the only one of nine treated who benefited. The remission was in other words almost certainly random. I get a lot of skin cancers and about half of them regress spontaneously

DOCTORS have, for the first time, successfully treated a skin cancer patient with cells cloned from his own immune system, according to a new study. The ground-breaking treatment for advanced melanoma, or skin cancer, led to a long remission for the patient and used his own cloned infection-fighting T-cells, said doctor Cassian Yee, the lead author of the study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dr Yee and his associates from the Clinical Research Division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle removed CD4+ T-cells, a type of white blood cell, from a 52-year-old man whose melanoma had spread to a groin lymph node and to one of his lungs. The melanoma was already well advanced and in stage four.

The T-cells which specifically fight melanoma were modified and expanded in the laboratory and some five billion cells were then infused into the patient, who received no other kind of treatment. Two months later no tumours were found during scans of the patient's organs. And he had been cancer-free for two years, Dr Yee said. "We were surprised by the anti-tumour effect of these CD4 T cells and its duration of response,'' Dr Yee said. "For this patient we were successful, but we would need to confirm the effectiveness of therapy in a larger study.''

It was the first ever case to show that cloned cells from a patient's own immune system could successful combat skin cancer. If further tests confirmed the efficiency of the method, it could be used in some 25 per cent of patients with late-stage skin cancer, the study said.

Using a patient's own immune system to combat cancer, called immunotherapy, is a growing area of research that aims to develop less-toxic cancer treatments than standard chemotherapy and radiation.

Some 160,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed around the world every year, particularly affecting white men living in very sunny regions. Although it usually affects the skin, in rare cases it can also infect the eyes and intestines. According to the World Health Organisation, some 48,000 people die from melanoma every year.


Quite amazing: Obesity illegal in Japan

Japan, a country not known for its overweight people, has undertaken one of the most ambitious campaigns ever by a nation to slim down its citizenry

Summoned by the city of Amagasaki one recent morning, Minoru Nogiri, 45, a flower shop owner, found himself lining up to have his waistline measured. With no visible paunch, he seemed to run little risk of being classified as overweight, or metabo, the preferred word in Japan these days. But because the new state-prescribed limit for male waistlines is a strict 33.5 inches, he had anxiously measured himself at home a couple of days earlier. "I'm on the border," he said.

Under a national law that came into effect two months ago, companies and local governments must now measure the waistlines of Japanese people between the ages of 40 and 74 as part of their annual checkups. That represents more than 56 million waistlines, or about 44 percent of the entire population.

Those exceeding government limits - 33.5 inches for men and 35.4 inches for women, which are identical to thresholds established in 2005 for Japan by the International Diabetes Federation as an easy guideline for identifying health risks - and having a weight-related ailment will be given dieting guidance if after three months they do not lose weight. If necessary, those people will be steered toward further re-education after six more months.

To reach its goals of shrinking the overweight population by 10 percent over the next four years and 25 percent over the next seven years, the government will impose financial penalties on companies and local governments that fail to meet specific targets. The country's Ministry of Health argues that the campaign will keep the spread of diseases like diabetes and strokes in check.

The ministry also says that curbing widening waistlines will rein in a rapidly aging society's ballooning health care costs, one of the most serious and politically delicate problems facing Japan today. Most Japanese are covered under public health care or through their work. Anger over a plan that would make those 75 and older pay more for health care brought a parliamentary censure motion Wednesday against Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the first against a prime minister in the country's postwar history.

But critics say that the government guidelines - especially the one about male waistlines - are simply too strict and that more than half of all men will be considered overweight. The effect, they say, will be to encourage overmedication and ultimately raise health care costs.

Yoichi Ogushi, a professor at Tokai University's School of Medicine near Tokyo and an expert on public health, said that there was "no need at all" for the Japanese to lose weight. "I don't think the campaign will have any positive effect. Now if you did this in the United States, there would be benefits, since there are many Americans who weigh more than 100 kilograms," or about 220 pounds, Mr. Ogushi said. "But the Japanese are so slender that they can't afford to lose weight."

Mr. Ogushi was actually a little harder on Americans than they deserved. A survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that the average waist size for Caucasian American men was 39 inches, a full inch lower than the 40-inch threshold established by the International Diabetes Federation. American women did not fare as well, with an average waist size of 36.5 inches, about two inches above their threshold of 34.6 inches. The differences in thresholds reflected variations in height and body type from Japanese men and women.

Comparable figures for the Japanese are sketchy since waistlines have not been measured officially in the past. But private research on thousands of Japanese indicates that the average male waistline falls just below the new government limit. That fact, widely reported in the media, has heightened the anxiety in the nation's health clinics.

In Amagasaki, a city in western Japan, officials have moved aggressively to measure waistlines in what the government calls special checkups. The city had to measure at least 65 percent of the 40- to 74-year-olds covered by public health insurance, an "extremely difficult" goal, acknowledged Midori Noguchi, a city official.

When his turn came, Mr. Nogiri, the flower shop owner, entered a booth where he bared his midriff, exposing a flat stomach with barely discernible love handles. A nurse wrapped a tape measure around his waist across his belly button: 33.6 inches, or 0.1 inch over the limit. "Strikeout," he said, defeat spreading across his face.

The campaign started a couple of years ago when the Health Ministry began beating the drums for a medical condition that few Japanese had ever heard of - metabolic syndrome - a collection of factors that heighten the risk of developing vascular disease and diabetes. Those include abdominal obesity, high blood pressure and high levels of blood glucose and cholesterol. In no time, the scary-sounding condition was popularly shortened to the funny-sounding metabo, and it has become the nation's shorthand for overweight.

The mayor of one town in Mie, a prefecture near here, became so wrapped up in the anti-metabo campaign that he and six other town officials formed a weight-loss group called "The Seven Metabo Samurai." That campaign ended abruptly after a 47-year-old member with a 39-inch waistline died of a heart attack while jogging.

Still, at a city gym in Amagasaki recently, dozens of residents - few of whom appeared overweight - danced to the city's anti-metabo song, which warned against trouser buttons popping and flying away, "pyun-pyun-pyun!" "Goodbye, metabolic. Let's get our checkups together. Go! Go! Go! Goodbye, metabolic. Don't wait till you get sick. No! No! No!"

The word metabo has made it easier for health care providers to urge their patients to lose weight, said Dr. Yoshikuni Sakamoto, a physician in the employee health insurance union at Matsushita, which makes Panasonic products. "Before we had to broach the issue with the word obesity, which definitely has a negative image," Dr. Sakamoto said. "But metabo sounds much more inclusive."

Even before Tokyo's directives, Matsushita had focused on its employees' weight during annual checkups. Last summer, Akio Inoue, 30, an engineer carrying 238 pounds on a 5-foot-7 frame, was told by a company doctor to lose weight or take medication for his high blood pressure. After dieting, he was down to 182 pounds, but his waistline was still more than one inch over the state-approved limit.

With the new law, Matsushita has to measure the waistlines of not only its employees but also of their families and retirees. As part of its intensifying efforts, the company has started giving its employees "metabo check" towels that double as tape measures. "Nobody will want to be singled out as metabo," Kimiko Shigeno, a company nurse, said of the campaign. "It'll have the same effect as non-smoking campaigns where smokers are now looked at disapprovingly."

Companies like Matsushita must measure the waistlines of at least 80 percent of their employees. Furthermore, they must get 10 percent of those deemed metabolic to lose weight by 2012, and 25 percent of them to lose weight by 2015.

NEC, Japan's largest maker of personal computers, said that if it failed to meet its targets, it could incur as much as $19 million in penalties. The company has decided to nip metabo in the bud by starting to measure the waistlines of all its employees over 30 years old and by sponsoring metabo education days for the employees' families.

Some experts say the government's guidelines on everything from waistlines to blood pressure are so strict that meeting, or exceeding, those targets will be impossible. They say that the government's real goal is to shift health care costs onto the private sector.

Dr. Minoru Yamakado, an official at the Japan Society of Ningen Dock, an association of doctors who administer physical exams, said he endorsed the government's campaign and its focus on preventive medicine. But he said that the government's real priority should be to reduce smoking rates, which remain among the highest among advanced nations, in large part because of Japan's powerful tobacco lobby. "Smoking is even one of the causes of metabolic syndrome," he said. "So if you're worried about metabo, stopping people from smoking should be your top priority."

Despite misgivings, though, Japan is pushing ahead. Kizashi Ohama, an official in Matsuyama, a city that has also acted aggressively against metabo, said he would leave the debate over the campaign's merits to experts and health officials in Tokyo.

At Matsuyama's public health clinic, Kinichiro Ichikawa, 62, said the government-approved 33.5-inch male waistline was "severe." He is 5-foot-4, weighs only 134 pounds and knows no one who is overweight. "Japan shouldn't be making such a fuss about this," he said before going off to have his waistline measured.

But on a shopping strip here, Kenzo Nagata, 73, a toy store owner, said he had ignored a letter summoning him to a so-called special checkup. His waistline was no one's business but his own, he said, though he volunteered that, at 32.7 inches, it fell safely below the limit. He planned to disregard the second notice that the city was scheduled to mail to the recalcitrant. "I'm not going," he said. "I don't think that concerns me."


21 June, 2008

Australia beats US to title of most obese nation, report finds

Pesky that Australians also have one of the world's longest life expectancies, though

The ideal Antipodean, especially in the lead-up to an Olympic Games, may well be trim, taut and trouncing the opposition on the sporting field. But in one field Australians are, unexpectedly, leading the way as the heavyweight champions of the world - with arguably a greater proportion of obese citizens than even the notoriously supersized Americans.

A study released yesterday shows that Australia's obesity epidemic has been considerably underestimated, with almost 60 per cent of the adult population overweight. Described as the most thorough study of the problem in Australia for a decade, it also shows that 26 per cent of adults, or four million people, are obese. Researchers say that the once mid-ranking nation, in terms of obesity, now weighs in at the top.

Simon Stewart, who led the research team, said that obesity was the big threat to Australia's future health, with an estimated nine million people obese or overweight. "That is a million more obese adults than we had thought," he said. The study, which comes before a government inquiry into the epidemic, charted the height and weight of 14,000 adult Australians on a single day in 2005. It shows that the middle-aged are the fattest of all, with about seven in ten men and six in ten women aged 45 to 64 now registering a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more - a definition of being overweight.

An over-abundance of food, particularly those high in fat and sugar, and reduced levels of physical activity, are blamed for the expansion in Australian waistlines.


The poor are born less healthy

And the British government has failed to shift that, funnily enough

Sixty years in hot pursuit of equity have left Britain a country as divided as ever between healthy haves and unhealthy have-nots. Endless intellectual effort has been put into devising a formula that will allocate NHS resources in such a way as to eliminate such differences. They have failed. Since 1997, inequalities of health have in some respects widened. Targets have been missed.

Alan Johnson's response is to throw another 34million pounds at the problem, and shift the deadline from 2008 to 2010. Ministers' latest wheeze is to inject more money to provide extra GP surgeries in areas that have fewer doctors. Let us pass over the fact that these areas are already well-funded under the allocation formula, so should not need any more. Of course it is right that everybody should have equal access to a GP, so far as human ingenuity can provide it, but by the time most patients reach the GP's surgery the damage is done.

Health inequalities begin in the womb, are nurtured by poor diet and bad parenting, and multiplied by habits such as smoking. Once, high cancer rates in the North would have been explained by occupational exposure in the workplace but that is no longer plausible. Smoking, and increasingly obesity, are the greatest risk factors. There is a near-doubling of lung cancer incidence in men between Surrey, West Sussex and Hampshire (the lowest) and Merseyside and Cheshire (the highest). In women the gap between highest and lowest is wider still.

Breast cancer is much more egalitarian, with only small variations. There are bigger variations in prostate cancer incidence, but this largely reflects local enthusiasm for screening: the differences in death rates are smaller. The literature of health inequalities generally concludes that they follow disparities of wealth: the wider the wealth gap, the wider the health gap. If this is so, then Labour has been caught in a trap of its own making. Gordon Brown was happy to "eliminate poverty" with handouts, but not by squeezing the rich until the pips squeaked, as Denis Healey once promised. And American evidence suggests that there is no threshold above which the wealth-health link diminishes in force. In a world of haves, have-nots, and have-yachts, it is the yacht-owners who do best of all.

So you can have a go-getting economy where entrepreneurs flourish and hedge-fund billionaires proliferate, or you can have Scandinavian-style levelling down and more equal health outcomes. What nobody has yet devised is a way of combining the two.


20 June, 2008

Diabetes linked to depression risk

So people who have diabetes don't feel well and get depressed? Big discovery! Note that people often feel poorly for many years before they are diagnosed with diabetes. No mention of that below, though

PEOPLE being treated for type 2 diabetes are at increased risk for depression, according to a new report, and individuals with depression have a moderately increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. To explore the relationship between diabetes and depression, Dr Sherita Hill Golden at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore and colleagues analysed data on 6814 subjects who underwent three examinations between 2000 and 2005.

Among 4847 participants without depression at the start of the study, the researchers report, rates of occurrence of depression symptoms during follow-up were similar for people without diabetes and those with untreated type 2 diabetes, but about twice as high in people being treated for type 2 diabetes. "The psychological stress associated with diabetes management may lead to elevated depressive symptoms," Dr Golden's team suggests in their report in the Journal of the American Medical Association. They also found that participants who had symptoms of depression were about 30 per cent more likely to develop diabetes during the study than people without depression.

The link between depression and diabetes onset was partially due to lifestyle factors, such as caloric intake and physical activity. "Future studies should determine whether interventions aimed at modifying behavioural factors associated with depression will complement current type 2 diabetes prevention strategies," Dr Golden and her colleagues wrote. Their finding also suggest, they said, "that clinicians should be aware of increased risk of elevated depressive symptoms in individuals with treated type 2 diabetes and consider routine screening for depressive symptoms among these patients".


Placebos the best performance enhancers!

Ever since 1807, when Abraham Wood smoked opium to keep awake for a 24-hour race against Robert Allardyce, athletes have risked their health and professional careers by taking performance-enhancing drugs. It seems that they need not have bothered. Most benefit derived from doping is in the mind, an Australian study suggests.

Over eight weeks at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, athletes were given either growth hormones, which are banned by the World Anti-Doping Association, or inactive placebos - without knowing which substance they were taking. At the end of the study, volunteers who took placebos could sprint faster, jump higher and lift heavier weights.

Ken Ho, who led the study, said that the results showed the power of the mind in sport. "We found that athletes were putting their careers at risk by using growth hormone despite any evidence it actually improves performance," he said. "We wanted to know if any improvement was due to the athlete's own belief. "The results suggest the placebo effect was very powerful. If you really think you are receiving a beneficial treatment, you will perform better. Athletes who believe they are cheating gain an advantage even though they receive no chemical assistance."

At the end of the experiment, the volunteers who were given placebos were asked what they thought they had swallowed. About half thought incorrectly that they had taken growth hormones while the other half guessed correctly they had taken the dummy drug. The volunteers who got it wrong outperformed everyone else in their group.

The placebo effect was greater in males than females, said Dr Ho, who presented the study to the Endocrine Society's convention in San Francisco. Volunteers of both sexes who thought they were taking drugs showed a markedly improved performance. Although the study was carried out on "recreational athletes" who trained twice a week sports psychologists said there was no reason why the placebo effect would not apply to professionals. "The key aspect is confidence," said Rob Robson, a sport psychologist. "If an athlete thinks he's taking a powder that gives him an advantage, he'll become more relaxed. He'll push himself harder and build confidence that improves his times."

Legal experts disagreed on whether athletes who mistakenly thought that they were cheating could fall foul of anti-doping laws. Nick Bitel, who lectures on sports law at King's College London, said: "If someone told their trainer to buy them HGH growth hormone and then took it thinking it was HGH when it was actually sugar, they wouldn't have a defence." A spokesman for the World Anti-Doping Association said that the rules did not cover "placebo dopers". He said: "If the substance involved is not a banned substance, that would not fall under the scope of anti-doping laws, regardless of any intention to cheat."


19 June, 2008

Too much television 'is an asthma risk'

Good God! Yet another attack on whatever is popular. If you read the explanation, it is however more reasonable than at first appears. Breathing exercises DO seem to help asthma. It's all epidemiological however so other factors could be at work. Perhaps couch potatoes are more likely to be different physiologically to start with

Children who watch more than five hours of television a day are at an increased risk of developing asthma, scientists have found. Researchers concluded that the danger of them developing the respiratory condition was raised by more than half compared with children who watch just one hour.

This could be attributed to the fact that children who lead a "couch potato" lifestyle sigh much less than their healthier counterparts. Deep inspirations play a significant role in helping lungs to function but sitting for hours leads to shallow breathing. Dr Giuseppe Corbo, who led the research carried out by the Catholic University, Rome, said: "Prolonged sitting is associated with a decrease in spontaneous sighs, which regulate airways."

The study of 20,000 six and seven-year-olds, published in the medical journal Epidemiology, confirmed a strong link with asthma and obesity, but found that salt was the biggest risk. Those with the highest intake were two and a half times more likely to develop asthma. Children who played more computer games and watched more television were also found to be less active and had poorer diets.

The British Lung Foundation said: "Obesity, high TV viewing and a high salt diet get children off to a bad start in life." More than a million children in Britain have asthma.


Vaccine against diarrhoea?

A needle-free vaccine protected more than 70 per cent of visitors to Mexico and Guatemala from traveller's diarrhoea, popularly known as Montezuma's Revenge, researchers reported today. The affliction, more commonly known in Australian travelling circles as Bali or Delhi belly, can lay a traveller out for days on end with more extreme cases resulting in an unscheduled return home for treatment.

Even if travellers did get infected with the stomach bug, Iomai Corp's experimental vaccine patch prevented severe illness, the researchers reported in the Lancet medical journal. "I think it's one of the most exciting new developments in travel medicine,'' said Dr Herbert DuPont of the University of Texas in Houston, who helped test the vaccine. "People could buy this and put it on themselves whenever they take a trip. It is the most convenient form of immunisation I have ever seen,'' DuPont said in a telephone interview.

The vaccine protects against Escherichia coli bacteria - specifically a strain known as Enterotoxigenic E. coli or ETEC. It is the leading cause of diarrhea in travelers to certain areas, causing four to five days of misery including nausea and cramps.

Iomai's team, along with DuPont's independent team and a group at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, tested the patches in a Phase II safety and efficacy trial. They got data back from 170 adults travelling to areas known to be hot spots of tummy trouble in Guatemala and Mexico. During and after travel, 15 per cent of the patients who got the vaccine developed diarrhea of any type, and just 5 per cent had ETEC-associated diarrhea. This compared to 22 per cent of travelers who got placebo, 10 per cent of whom had ETEC diarrhea. Eleven per cent of the travelers who got placebo had severe diarrhea, compared to 2 per cent of those who got the patch.

"It looked like it prevented more than 70 per cent of the episodes of moderate or severe traveller's diarrhea,'' DuPont said. "This vaccine is among the best we have for these kinds of diseases.'' The vaccine also appeared to protect against non-ETEC causes of diarrhea. DuPont said it may stabilise the intestine and prevent the reaction to infection that causes diarrhea.

Austrian vaccine maker Intercell is in the process of buying Maryland-based Iomai, which also has a patch that boosts the effects of influenza vaccines. DuPont, who said he receives no payments from Iomai, said the market potential could be large because "we have no vaccine for traveller's diarrhea.'' The needle-free approach could work against other infectious diseases, he said. The company plans a Phase III trial of the vaccine -- the last stage of testing before seeking US Food and Drug Administration approval.


18 June, 2008

How being brainy 'can add 15 years to your life'

There has long been evidence that IQ is in general just one aspect of a syndrome of general biological fitness

It gets you good grades at school, improves your prospects at work and makes you more attractive to the opposite sex. And as if all that weren't enough, being brainy could add 15 years to your life, a study suggests. Researchers found those with rogue copies of a gene linked to intelligence are unlikely to survive beyond the age of 85. However, those blessed with good versions of the gene could live to be 100.

The gene governs an enzyme which destroys a chemical known to dampen brain activity and cause drowsiness. The enzyme - succinic semialdehyde dehydrogenase, or SSADH - also detoxifies the brain by getting rid of excess acid, protecting cells from damage which can accelerate ageing. The gene comes in two common forms, with the so-called 'T' version working 20 per cent less well than the 'C' variety. Previous studies have shown that men and women with two copies of the 'T' version do less well in IQ tests than others. But only now have scientists made the link to life expectancy, this week's New Scientist reports.

The Italian researchers based their findings on a study of 115 elderly men and women. They were asked to complete a test of memory and mental dexterity more usually used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. The volunteers, who were aged between 65 and 85, had given blood samples to determine which version of the gene they were carrying. Those carrying two copies of the rogue 'T' version of the gene performed significantly worse than the others, echoing the results of the earlier research on young people.

The University of Calabria researchers then used data on how common the versions of the gene were across different age ranges to work out if it was linked with longevity. This showed those carrying two 'T' variants were unlikely to live past 85 - but those with at least one 'C' could expect to live to up to 100. The scientists said that having a double dose of the rogue gene appeared to make people more vulnerable to mental decline in old age, as well as affecting their survival. But they stressed that genes do not tell the whole story.

Professor Giuseppe Passarino said: 'There's no doubt lifestyle such as reading, having challenging work and enriching your cultural life is far more important than having the bad variant.'

Professor Robert Plomin, of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, who in 2004 linked the gene to IQ, said: 'Although the sample size is small...the reported associations with cognitive ability are significant and in line with our previous results.' He added that further studies were needed to confirm the link with longevity.


Coffee may protect the heart, leading experts claim

Some proper caution about the findings expressed below. That coffee is at least not bad for you seems a reasonably firm conclusion, however

Drinking three cups of coffee a day could reduce the risk of women dying from heart disease by a quarter, researchers said today. The team also found that drinking lots of coffee is not harmful, as those who consumed up to six cups a day were not at increased risk of death, as has been suggested previously.

The research published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine tracked over 84,000 women and 41,000 men for around twenty years. The participants completed questionnaires every two to four years about their coffee intake and other habits including diet, smoking and general health.

Study author Dr Esther Lopez-Garcia, from the School of Medicine at Universidad Autonoma de Madrid in Spain, said: "Coffee consumption was not associated with a higher risk of mortality in middle-aged men and women. The possibility of a modest benefit of coffee consumption on heart disease, cancer, and other causes of death needs to be further investigated."

Women consuming two to three cups of caffeinated coffee per day had a 25 per cent lower risk of death from heart disease during the follow-up period compared with people who did not drink coffee, and an 18 per cent lower risk of death caused by something other than cancer or heart disease. For men, three cups of coffee daily was not linked with either a higher or a lower risk of death.

While accounting for other risk factors, such as body size, smoking, diet, and specific diseases, the researchers found that people who drank more coffee were less likely to die during the follow-up period. This was mainly because of lower risk for heart disease deaths among coffee drinkers. The researchers found no association between coffee drinking and cancer deaths. The lower risk of death did not appear to be linked to caffeine as those who drank decaffeinated coffee also had lower death rates than those who did not drink coffee.

The editors of the journal said the findings should be read with caution as the design of the study does not make it certain that coffee decreases the chances of dying sooner than expected as something else about coffee drinkers might be protecting them. Also the researchers relied on self-reporting of consumption which can increase the chance of errors.


17 June, 2008

ADHD is genetic

ABOUT one in 20 children (those under 18) have a group of symptoms that has come to be known as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). About 60% of them carry those symptoms into adulthood. For what is, at root, a genetic phenomenon, that is a lot-yet many studies have shown that ADHD is indeed genetic and not, as was once suspected, the result of poor parenting. It is associated with particular variants of receptor molecules for neurotransmitters in the brain. A neurotransmitter is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells and, in the case of ADHD, that chemical is often dopamine, which controls feelings of reward and pleasure. The suggestion is that people with ADHD are receiving positive neurological feedback for inappropriate behaviour. The surprise is that the variant receptors are still there. Natural selection might have been expected to purge them from the population unless they have some compensating benefit.

Of course, this analysis turns on the definition of "inappropriate". The main symptom of ADHD is impulsiveness. Sufferers have trouble concentrating on any task unless they receive constant feedback, stimulation and reward. They thus tend to flit from activity to activity. Adults with ADHD tend to perform poorly in modern society and are prone to addictive and compulsive behaviour. But might such people do well in different circumstances?

One hypothesis is that the behaviour associated with ADHD helps people, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads, who lead a peripatetic life. Since today's sedentary city dwellers are recently descended from such people, natural selection may not have had time to purge the genes that cause it.

Dan Eisenberg, of Northwestern University in Illinois, and his colleagues decided to test this by studying the Ariaal, a group of pastoral nomads who live in Kenya. The receptor Mr Eisenberg looked at was the 7R variant of a protein called DRD4. Previous work has shown that this variant is associated with novelty-seeking, food- and drug-cravings, and ADHD.

The team looked for 7R in two groups of Ariaal. One was still pastoral and nomadic. The other had recently settled down. As they report in this week's BMC Evolutionary Biology, they found that about a fifth of the population of both groups had the 7R version of DRD4. However, the consequences of this were very different. Among the nomads, who wander around northern Kenya herding cattle, camels, sheep and goats, those with 7R were better nourished than those without. The opposite was true of their settled relations: those with 7R were worse nourished than those without it.

How 7R causes this is not yet known. It may stem from behavioural differences or it may be that different versions of DRD4 have different effects on the way the body processes food. Nevertheless, this discovery fits past findings that 7R and a set of similar variants of DRD4, known collectively as "long alleles", are more common in migratory populations.

One suggestion is that long-distance migration selects for long alleles (see chart) because they reward exploratory behaviour. This might be an advantage in migratory societies because it encourages people to hunt down resources when they constantly move through unfamiliar surroundings.

As for the Ariaal, there remains the question of why 7R-although it is apparently beneficial to a nomadic way of life-is found in only a fifth of the population. One possibility is that its effects are beneficial only when they are not universal, and some sort of equilibrium between variants emerges. A second is that the advantage is gained when 7R exists along with another version of DRD4 (the genes for the two variants having come from different parents). Unfortunately, the way Mr Eisenberg collected the data does not allow these hypotheses to be tested.

Either way, his research raises the question of whether people suffering from ADHD and conditions related to it, such as addiction, are misfits coping with a genetic legacy that was useful in the evolutionary past, but is now damaging. As society continues to diverge from that evolutionary past, the economic and social consequences of being such a misfit may become increasingly important.


The nanny state has spoken on binge-drinking. But who’s listening?

By Australian columnist Janet Albrechtsen

The nanny state has apparently spoken. I went to bed last night feeling happy after a night out with friends. I wake up in the morning to news that I am a binge drinker because I indulged in more than three glasses of wine.

If you had four middies of beer last night, join the club. You are a binge drinker. That is according to the boffins at the National Health and Medical Research Council who have reportedly drafted new guidelines on safe drinking for Australians. While the Council is refusing to confirm reports in the Fairfax media until the release of its final report next month, perhaps the Council could do with some community feedback on their apparent eagerness to label so many of us binge-drinkers.

Yes, binge-drinking is a problem. Yes, alcohol driven violence is a problem. But surely that means addressing these real problems rather than conflating the issue of alcohol abuse by setting consumption limits at ridiculous levels. Health bureaucrats, whatever their well-intentioned beef, be it setting down eating and drinking guidelines for pregnant women or these latest drinking rules for the rest of us, always seem to frame their rules for the lowest common denominator brain. They treat us all like a bunch of feather-brained numskulls incapable of making sensible decisions about just about anything to do with our lifestyle. Now, we apparently have to endure being labelled a “binge-drinker” if we exceed 4 drinks during a pleasant evening out with friends.

There is another label that comes to mind. It applies to this kind of bureaucratic overreach. It’s called infantilisation. Reducing us to the status of children, they set down rules that end up neutering our ability to take personal responsibility for our actions. Like moves to ban the advertising of fast food, this is just another step by Big Brother to interfere in our choices by applying scary labels of binge-drinking to behavior that many of us would regard as normal.

Former federal health minister Tony Abbott is right to describe these new guidelines as fostering a “moral panic, which is taking over the land.” There is, says Abbott, “no doubt that binge drinking is a problem, but it is no worse than in the past. I am in favour of people improving society but you have to be reasonable about it. Usually these debates are more about establishing the virtue of the people leading the way. In the end what an individual does is his or her responsibility particularly with something that is legal.”

The medical boffins so keen to mould their own vision of utopia should keep in mind that this kind of dogmatic overreach comes with its own risks. When health guidelines are set at patently unreasonable levels, it might just mean people stop listening to these bodies about anything they have to say. It might undermine what is an important educative function if they start laying down rules that seem so preposterous to the social drinker. As Lenore Taylor said on the ABC’s Insiders today in response to claims that the delightful Belinda Neal MP had been the victim of sexism, we need to be careful about devaluing the currency by flinging about inappropriate labels. Likewise, binge drinking should be reserved for real alcohol abuse.

Before the chaps who are so keen to impose new nanny state drinking rules on us conclude their final report next month, they need to get out more. Perhaps have a drink or two with a few social drinkers who take umbrage at this new Puritanism. Labelling us all as binge-drinkers will do nothing to address the real problem of alcohol abuse.


16 June, 2008

Genetic clock is ticking for older men?

This guy cites NO research. See my post of 3rd for what the research shows

MOST men would have been surprised to read that overseas researchers had found the death rate of young adults was higher if they had been born to older fathers. This is no surprise to me. It has been scientifically established that genetic changes occur more often in the sperm of older fathers than younger fathers.

As men age there is a higher chance of changes in the genes in the sperm. These changes can cause genetic conditions in their offspring, such as birth defects, autism and schizophrenia. Their partners can also have an increased risk of miscarriages.

The presumed reason for the increase occurrence of all of these conditions is that they are all due to a new genetic change in the sperm of the older father. Genetic changes are occurring all the time. Sometimes they have a beneficial effect, such as making the individual stronger, taller or smarter. This is part of the concept of "survival of the fittest".

Sometimes, when the gene change is in a non-coding part of the genome, they have no effect. At other times, they can be harmful. The problem is that these harmful effects are extremely varied because they can affect any one of the 20,000 or so human genes. For example, they often change the structure of the body. One example is dwarfism, where the arms and legs are short due to a genetic change. The commonest type of dwarfism is achondroplasia. An individual with this condition will have a 50 per cent risk of having an affected child themselves.

Indeed, about 20 per cent of the parents of achondroplastic babies have one of the parents with this condition, but the remaining 80 per cent do not. If you look at the parents of babies with achondroplasia, who do not have the condition themselves, you find their average age is older than other people having babies in the population. Significantly, statistics show it is the father's age which is important and not the mother's.

Achondroplasia is rare and it is only one of the many genes that can go wrong. Collectively, any of the 20,000 genes can change and this causes an increase in risk from about the age of 40. The risk in men for any single gene change is one in 200 at age of 40, 20 at age 50 and rises steeply after that.

This increase in risk with paternal age is no surprise to me, but it is a surprise to practically everyone else. The increase risk for older mothers for Down syndrome is well-known. As part of my work as a clinical geneticist, I see couples every week who come to ask about the risk of having babies because of the age of the mother. We talk about this and often, as the male partner is also older, we talk about the risk of his age. Most of the partners are quite surprised and even taken aback with this news.

In today's society, delaying pregnancy until later is often done for career and other purposes but usually only the age of the mother is taken into account in planning when to start a family. Why is the increased risk in relation to a father's age not widely known? There are many possible reasons. Some of the information - such as increased death rates of adults - is new. But information about single gene changes, such as achondroplasia, has been around for many years.

I think the real reason for the lack of knowledge is the conditions that can be caused are varied and can't really be prevented by a screening program like the one offered for Down syndrome. In fact, most of the conditions, such as achondroplasia, can't even be picked up by the normal ultrasound scan for abnormalities done at 18-20 weeks of a pregnancy.

So, if you're a male, the only way not to be exposed to this increased risk of genetic defects in your offspring is to plan your children early and regard the increasing risks of the woman in her late 30s and early 40s as also applying to you. In other words, stop your child bearing at the same sort of age that women stop child bearing. This may not be what older men want to hear, but they need to seek information about what the risks actually are before making child-bearing decisions.

We hear about the positive sides of parenthood in some older celebrity fathers but the story last week about the increase in death rates of the offspring brings out the hidden risks associated with fathering children at an older age.


Poisonous shower curtains?

Plastic shower curtains and liners sold at big-box retailers release chemicals associated with cancer, liver and nervous system damage, an environmental group contends. The Center for Health, Environment and Justice wants the feds to recall and ban all polyvinyl chloride bath curtains and liners. "The familiar 'new curtain smell' may be toxic to your health," said Mike Schade, the center's PVC campaign coordinator. "It's really surprising that retailers are manufacturing products that contain and release harmful chemicals in our homes."

The Washington, D.C.-based group tested five house-brand curtains and liners sold by Wal-Mart, Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, K-Mart and Sears. All contained phthalates, chemicals that make plastic soft, and metals. One curtain made by Wal-Mart expelled high levels of gases called volatile organic compounds for the first three days after it was opened.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman did not comment by press time, and a spokesman for Sears and K-Mart didn't return calls. Bed Bath & Beyond said it sells PVC-free alternatives, as does Target, which said it was reducing the number of PVC curtains and liners in its inventory. Consumers have complained on company Web sites about headaches and nausea after opening the items.

But critics said the study was flawed and tested too few products to be conclusive. No studies have connected the products to illnesses in consumers. Exposure to high levels of chemicals in PVC-manufacturing plants and in animal tests has been associated with increased disease risk. "There's no justification whatsoever for the agency to take any kind of action," said Julie Vallese, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. "The claims being made about the dangers of shower curtains are phantasmagorical. It's ridiculous."

The environmental group said consumers should buy organic cotton products and avoid those with a "3" inside the recycling symbol, or that say "vinyl," "PVC" or are unlabeled.

A New York pediatrician specializing in environmental exposure said consumers needn't be alarmed. Airing out a plastic curtain for a week before hanging it up should bring volatile organic compounds down to acceptable levels. "If you don't eat the shower curtain, it probably doesn't pose a real risk, but if there's no ventilation you'll be exposed," said Dr. Joel Forman, an associate professor of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. "If you have one that's more than a month old, the levels are likely quite low," Forman said. "My year-old one, I'm more worried about the mold."


15 June, 2008

Heart attack admissions fall by up to 40% since smoking ban

I thought the headline above was too good to be true. It is. See, for instance, the bit I have highlighted. Reading the small print is important in health matters too. The honest headline would be: "Smoking ban makes no difference"

The number of heart attack patients being admitted to emergency wards has fallen sharply in more than half of England's hospital trusts since smoking was banned in public places. The figures, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, are an early indication of the impact of the smoking ban on heart disease rates in England. Some hospitals have seen the number of cases fall by 41 per cent since last July. The British Heart Foundation said that it showed the ban was the "most significant public health initiative this century".

Studies in Scotland and Ireland, which introduced a public-smoking ban in 2006, showed hospital admissions for heart attacks falling by 17 and 14 per cent respectively. Comparable evidence has come from France and Italy. These drops in the rate of heart attacks have been attributed to a large number of people stopping smoking, and far fewer people being exposed to airborne toxins through passive smoking.

The Government has not yet published figures documenting the effects of the ban in England. But NHS records show that there were 1,384 fewer heart attacks in the nine months after the legislation was introduced than in the same period a year earlier. The figures, obtained by the Daily Mail, show admissions for heart attacks from 114 trusts: 66 saw a drop in admissions compared with the same period the year before. The most striking figures came from Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, where there was a 41 per cent fall, or 418 fewer cases. In the remaining 48 trusts, the number of admissions remained the same or increased slightly.

The Department of Health welcomed the figures as "good news" but added that it was too early to attribute falls in heart attack rates to the new legislation. Rates of heart disease were falling before smoking in public was banned in European countries, and various factors, including mild weather, can contribute to a fall. Nevertheless, the health benefits of stopping smoking are well established. A year after a person quits smoking, the risk of a heart attack falls to half that of a smoker.

Nicholas Boon, of the British Cardiovascular Society, said: "When you place these figures with the research in Scotland, Ireland, France and Rome, it is consistent with the observation that the ban has been followed by improvements in heart attack rates."


Breast cancer: brittle bone drug can stop disease taking hold

It might kill you too but who cares about that?

A drug prescribed to combat brittle bones has been shown to prevent invasive breast cancer. Scientists stumbled on the discovery while investigating whether the drug, raloxifene, could also protect against heart disease. Although there was no impact on heart disease, the trial showed that the drug reduced by 55 per cent the risk of invasive breast cancers, which spread through tissue barriers into surrounding areas.

Sold under the brand name Evista, raloxifene is used both to prevent and treat osteoporosis in postmenopausal women. It works by activating "receptors" or molecular switches in bone tissue that normally respond to the female sex hormone oestrogen. By blocking the receptors, raloxifene may prevent some of the effects of oestrogen that spur cancer growth, scientists say. They believe that raloxifene acts in the same way as the highly successful breast cancer drug tamoxifen.

During the trial, only hormone-sensitive cancers that are fuelled by oestrogen were affected, but they make up the majority of breast cancers. More than 10,000 women with heart disease, or at risk of the condition, took part. Over a period of more than five years, those who took raloxifene were 55 per cent less likely to develop invasive oestrogen-positive breast cancer than those who took a dummy placebo drug. Raloxifene had no effect on noninvasive cancer or cancers not affected by oestrogen. The findings are reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

There was a downside to the treatment: women given raloxifene were more likely to suffer blood clots and fatal strokes than those taking the placebo.


14 June, 2008

Peking duck is 'better for your heart than statins'

Hard to tell if this was double blind. Colour me skeptical. The Abstract is here. Note also that this is a study of people who had already had attacks. The results may not generalize to others

The ingredient used to colour Peking duck can cut the risk of dying from heart disease by a third and cancer by two-thirds, scientists say. Researchers looking at red yeast rice said the benefits of the Chinese food colouring even seemed to outstrip those of statins - the much vaunted cholesterol-lowering drugs. Describing the effects as ' profound', they said extract of the fermented rice could play an important part in improving heart health.

Taking the supplements also nearly halves the risk of a second heart attack and reduces the odds of cardiac surgery, they found. The rice is fermented with the red yeast Monascus purpureus. It has been used in China for thousands of years as a food preservative, colourant and seasoning, and herbal medicine.

For the study, scientists tracked heart attack survivors at more than 60 hospitals in China. They focused mainly on heart disease, but cancer deaths were also recorded. Each day, patients took capsules of a partially purified extract of the red yeast rice preparation Xuezhikang - XZK - or an inactive dummy supplement. Researchers compared the progress of the groups over five years. To their surprise, they found taking the supplements cut the odds of death from heart problems and cancer. Those taking part experienced few side-effects from the supplements, the American Journal Of Cardiology reports.

Researcher Dr David Capuzzi, of Thomas Jefferson University in Pennsylvania, said the effects could not be explained by the 'statin' content of the extract alone. 'My hope is that XZK becomes an important therapeutic agent to treat cardiovascular disorders and in the prevention of disease whether someone has had a heart attack or not,' he added.

The researchers do not yet know how the extract works. And they cautioned against self-medication, saying supplements available at health food stores were an unknown quantity.


Breast cancer victims have normal lifespan - if it is detected early enough

Women whose breast cancers are detected early live as long as those who never developed the disease, a new audit has shown. The findings will come as a huge boost to the more than 60 per cent of women whose cancers are detected when small and before they have spread to the lymph nodes. The new audit, by the Association of Breast Surgery and the NHS Breast Screening Programme, traced the outcomes for women with breast cancer diagnosed in 1990-91 and 2000-01.

Women in the first group whose prognosis at the time of detection was classified as "excellent" showed the same life expectancy as women of the same age who had never had cancer. This was also true for the second group of women whose prognosis was "good". The two categories include 61 per cent of cancers detected through screening.

The audit also showed that survival rates are also improving for women with more aggressive types of breast cancer. Overall, 15-year survival stands at 86 per cent for women with a screen-detected invasive breast cancer in England, Wales and Northern Ire-land. But not all breast cancers are screen-detected. About two thirds are found in other ways, either because they appear during the intervals between screenings and produce symptoms, or because they occur in women who fall outside the age groups routinely screened. Screening is to be extended to include women aged between 47 and 73 by 2012. This means that an extra 400,000 women a year will be screened and an increased proportion of cancers detected.

Martin Lee, president of the Association of Breast Surgery, said: "It is vital that women are aware of the excellent survival now achieved for breast cancers diagnosed through screening and they should be confident in the quality of the service they receive. I would encourage all women who are invited to be screened to attend. Any woman who has previously ignored an invitation to breast screening should contact her local unit."

Professor Julietta Patnick, director of the NHS Breast Screening Programme, said that this year marked the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of breast screening in England. "Huge strides have been made over the past two decades and more women than ever before are surviving breast cancer, many of whom have benefited from early detection through routine breast screening," she said.

Gill Lawrence, director of the West Midlands Cancer Intelligence Unit, which coordinates the audit, said that over the past 12 years it had mapped improvements in the quality of the screening programme. "The data clearly demonstrate significant improvements in the quality of the service women receive, from the reduction in the number of women requiring surgery to obtain a definitive diagnosis of breast cancer, to an increase in the proportion of cancers that are diagnosed through screening" she said.


13 June, 2008

Thongs said to be harmful

The conclusions below are pure speculation: An attempt to hype some minor findings. Like many Australian men, I have worn little else on my feet for decades and, while not all of my bits work as well as they once did, my feet are fine. That could be me on the right below

American medical experts have put the toe into the great Australian tradition of wearing thongs, saying the iconic footwear is bad for the health. US researchers claim thongs - called "flip-flops" in America - can lead to leg pain among those who favour them. And the trusty, old faithful pair of thongs that have been "broken-in" were the most dangerous, a study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine found last month.

The study's lead author, Justin Shroyer, said many people with lower leg pain could blame the so-called Aussie work boot. "It's apparent that individuals alter their gait while wearing flip-flops," Mr Shroyer said. "Based on this, we expected to find that flip-flops may be a cause of pain in the leg or foot."

Mr Shroyer said thongs should only be worn on rare occasions and be replaced every few months. "Flip-flops should only be worn casually and for shorter periods of time," he said. "They should also not be a primary footwear choice."

The study measured the way people walked, and the force with which their feet hit the ground in both running shoes and thongs. Researchers found those wearing thongs used less downward force while walking than they did while walking barefoot or in runners. That resulting change in gait may lead to lower leg pain, the researchers said.


Hysteria over anti-smoking drug

The hysterics forget that smoking has Side Effects too -- like death

Patients and physicians want breakthrough medicines, and pharmaceutical companies spend years - and billions of dollars - researching and testing such medicines. But this is all becoming increasingly difficult amid the public's growing confusion about how drug development and safety monitoring actually work. Patients might rush to judgment, making medical decisions without consulting their doctors. We could also wind up with policies that reduce the availability of innovative new medicines in decades to come.

We should keep all that in mind following last month's release of a collection of adverse-event reports by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices (ISMP), a nonprofit group in Horsham, Pa. The report focused on Chantix, a medicine developed by Pfizer to help people quit smoking. Both the report and the subsequent media coverage of it revealed a lack of understanding about how pharmaceutical companies and regulators monitor drug safety. Missing was important context about the dangers of smoking, and how adverse-event reports are used to improve patient safety.

Chantix helps keep nicotine from reaching key receptors in the brain. It is designed to give smokers another option in their struggle to quit. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and premature death globally, and it is estimated to cost more than $200 billion in annual health-related expenses and productivity losses in the U.S. alone.

Since its approval by U.S. regulators in May 2006, Chantix has been approved in more than 70 countries and prescribed to more than 6 million smokers world-wide. On May 21, the ISMP issued a statement accompanied by a tally of Chantix adverse-event reports collected by the FDA. The reports linked Chantix to conditions such as heart trouble, seizure and diabetes.

But contrary to some public perceptions, the information in the institute's report is not based on new or previously unknown data. In fact, the ISMP says it obtained the information from data published by the FDA for research purposes. What's more, Pfizer has been submitting adverse-event reports to the FDA ever since Chantix clinical trials first began, and has continued to do so since it went on sale in August 2006.

This is a system all pharmaceutical companies follow with prescription medicines. These reports have also been routinely submitted to regulatory authorities around the globe. The adverse-event reporting system is working as it should - gathering information that regulators and drug companies use to help communicate a medicine's safety profile.

After considering adverse-event reports and other factors, Pfizer updated Chantix product labeling in May 2007 to state that patients should use caution when driving or operating machinery until they determine how Chantix may affect them. In January, Pfizer updated the labeling to warn that certain neuro-psychiatric events had been reported by Chantix patients. In May, the warning was again updated to suggest patients stop taking Chantix if a depressed mood, agitation or other "changes in behavior that are not typical for them" are observed, including thoughts of suicide.

Label changes often crimp sales, as they have for Chantix. But they also show how drug companies and regulators strive to bring the latest information about the safe use of a medicine to the attention of patients and physicians.

The adverse-event reporting system is one of many tools used by drugmakers and regulators. After Chantix was approved, Pfizer began additional clinical studies in smokers with special health conditions.

The postmarketing adverse-event reporting system also has limitations. Reports may not tell us what other medications the person is taking, their general state of health or medical history. Nor do postmarketing adverse-events reports give us the rate of incidence for these events in the general population. For example, did the person report a depressed mood because they were undergoing nicotine withdrawal? Did they smoke because they were depressed - or was their depression caused by Chantix? As the ISMP report noted, "adverse event reports in themselves do not establish a causal link to the drug, only that an observer suspected a relationship."

We must rely on the most rigorous science, and our physicians, to help us make the best decisions for our health. Sensational media reporting sometimes risks creating a cascade of confusion that makes sensible medical choices difficult today, and that undermines the search for newer and better drugs for the future.


12 June, 2008

Australia: Healthy living campaigns seen as 'patronising'

Why? Because they are. What people do with their own bodies is their business. They don't need fad-happy do-gooders lecturing them

A Queensland researcher says healthy living campaigns are not getting through to people from low socio-economic backgrounds. Julie-Anne Carroll from the Queensland University of Technology has conducted a study which found many felt "patronised and overwhelmed" by advertising urging them to exercise. It also found they were reluctant to exercise in public because of poor body image.

She says health professionals need to create more targeted campaigns. "There's a big socio-economic divide when it comes to people being overweight and under-active," she said. "Health professionals need to respond to this public health problem in a more targeted way by designing messages and interventions that resonate more effectively within poorer contexts."

Ms Carroll says exercise is a low priority for many people from disadvantaged backgrounds due to cost and accessibility. "People from poorer backgrounds don't relate and don't feel like these sorts of goals are feasible or achievable given the number of challenges, and these need to be taken into account when physical activity is being promoted," she said. "There need to be local resources for children and even adults and mothers can go to that don't cost anything."


Cellphones leaving teens with stress and sleep problems?

So: They found that restless people use phones more. What else is new? Once again we see researchers just ASSUMING the direction of causation. That need to discredit cellphones just will not be denied

Warning: Researchers believe teenagers can suffer from stress and sleep problems if they use mobile phones a lot. Frequent use of mobile phones may leave teenagers with stress and sleep problems, a study found. Researchers in Sweden looked at 21 youngsters between 14 and 20 who were split into two groups according to their phone use.

One group made fewer than five calls or sent fewer than five text messages a day. The other made more than 15 calls and sent more than 15 messages. The scientists found that the teenagers who used their phones often were more restless. They also had more 'careless' lifestyles, consumed more stimulating drinks, suffered from disrupted sleep or insomnia and were more susceptible to stress and fatigue.

Study leader Dr Gaby Badre, from Sahigren's Academy, Gothenburg, said: 'Addiction to phones is becoming common. Youngsters feel pressure to be interconnected and reachable round the clock. 'It is necessary to increase their awareness of the negative effects of excessive phone use on their sleep- wake patterns, with serious health risks as well as attention and cognitive problems.' She said adolescents should get nine hours of sleep a night.

The findings were presented at Sleep 2008, the annual meeting in the U.S. of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.


11 June, 2008

UN overstated Aids risk, says specialist

Another example of unreliable official guidance. A default position of ignoring ALL official guidance on everything would give you a lot more hits than misses -- particularly in the health field. Fortunately, some past examples of official guidance are now a regular laughing stock -- such as "Reefer madness" and "Duck and cover"

The United Nations has systematically exaggerated the scale of the Aids epidemic and the risk of the HIV virus affecting heterosexuals, claims a leading expert on the disease.

The numbers of people worldwide with HIV have been inflated and the UN Aids agency has wasted billions of pounds on education aimed at people who are unlikely to become infected, says Professor James Chin, a former senior Aids official with the World Health Organisation. He also accused UNAids of misleading and scaring the public by promoting 'myths' about the disease, such as that poorer people are most at risk, and of being guided in its approach by 'political correctness' rather than hard evidence.

Chin will detail his claims this week in London in a meeting hosted by the International Policy Network, a free-market think tank, where he will launch a new report, called 'The Myth of a General Aids Pandemic'. Despite his controversial reputation, Chin, a professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, will also explain his concerns when he meets Department for International Development officials who specialise in HIV and Aids.

'UNAids has systematically exaggerated the size and trend of the pandemic, as well as hyping the potential for HIV epidemics in general populations,' said Chin. 'UNAids's perpetuation of the myth that everyone is at risk of Aids has led to billions wasted on prevention programmes directed at general populations and youth who, outside of sub-Saharan Africa, are at minimal risk of exposure to HIV.'

Paul DeLay, UNAids' director of evidence, monitoring and policy, last night rejected Chin's claims and told The Observer he was 'living in the past'. Chin's criticisms are based on old counting systems that have been improved. However, UNAids has revised down its estimate of the number of people worldwide with HIV from more than 40 million to 33.2 million, he admitted. Chin claims the true figure is 'probably under 30 million but close to 30 million'.

DeLay said UNAids was right to warn people that HIV could 'bridge' into heterosexual populations from high-risk groups such as prostitutes, injecting drug users and bisexual men, and that education focused on those most at risk.

Chin's claims are part of a growing backlash at the Aids strategies employed by international aid agencies. Writing in the British Medical Journal last month, Dr Roger England, of the Health Systems Workshop in Grenada, said HIV should be downgraded in the fight to improve global healthcare for poorer people. It caused 3.7 per cent of mortality but received 25 per cent of international healthcare aid, he said. He urged switching œ5bn a year of Aids funding to tackle other diseases and said Aids was not a unique global threat.

Official figures from the Health Protection Agency show that Aids had killed 17,932 people in the UK by the end of 2007, of whom 15,409 were men. The annual death rate has fallen from a high of 1,726 in 1995 to 445 last year, of whom 311 were men and 134 women. Similarly, the number of people being diagnosed with Aids has dropped from a peak of 1,853 in 1994 to 503 last year. However, growing numbers of people are being diagnosed as carrying the HIV virus.


No link proved between video games and violence

Another finding exonerating games. This study previously mentioned more briefly on May 11

TRUE or false: violent video games cause children to become more aggressive? Sorry, that was a trick question. Despite much bandying of statistics and loud talking by critics on both sides of the argument, the real answer is that there is no real answer - at least not one that's been proved scientifically. So say Cheryl Olson and Lawrence Kutner in their new book, Grand Theft Childhood.

Most information about the effects of violent video games is wrong, write the husband and wife team, who direct the Centre for Mental Health and Media at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. The pair conducted a $1.5 million study funded by the US Department of Justice that looked at the effects of violent video games on 1200 middle school-age children and found that the results of available research can't be boiled down to a simple answer. For most children and most parents, they write, the bottom-line results of their research can be summed up in a single word: relax.

Experts say that the causes of violent behaviour cannot be explained simply. There is no one thing that will cause a child to become violent, says Kathryn Seifert, a forensic psychologist and expert in assessing and treating children at risk of becoming violent. "It's a great, great study," she says of the Kutner and Olson research. "I think what they did is wonderful." Seifert says she would like to see an additional study incorporating children who have been suspended from school or who are in detention centres or a study conducted on street kids, who are more likely to become violent than children who are still in school.

Kutner and Olson became interested in the subject after watching their son, now 18, play video games. They are not apologists for the video-game industry. While they cite a 2001 FBI study that showed no link between violent video games and school shootings, their own research did show links between 12 to 14-year-olds who almost exclusively played M-rated (for mature) games and a much more common schoolyard problem: bullying. This was among both boys and girls who played more than 15 hours a week, which, Kutner and Olson note, is not the norm. Middle-schoolers in this category also were more likely to get into fights, destroy property and argue with their teachers.

However, Kutner and Olson are careful to point out that their study does not prove causality: It may be that more aggressive children are drawn to more violent games, and not that the games themselves are to blame. Researchers just don't know yet.

But for parents who are contemplating throwing out their son's Wii, the research showed that boys who don't play video games at all were the most likely to engage in bullying and other antisocial behaviours. That may be because video games are such an important part of socialising for that age, Kutner and Olson say, that these boys are, by definition, abnormal. Here again, Kutner says, there's no proof of causality. "(We're not saying) 'Oh just have a video game, and he'll be fine'. No, it doesn't work that way."

Parents need to be involved with their children's games and actually playing the games themselves is not such a bad idea. That way, the child may be more receptive to any of the parents' concerns about the games they are playing. Parents, however, should be aware that not all video games are equal, and that ratings do not tell the whole story.

Manhunt and Postal are two games that no child should ever go near, says Olson. And she views Def Jam Vendetta, a teen-rated game, with a dim eye, because of its portrayal of women.

Finally, Kutner says: "We advise parents not to have (game) consoles in a child's bedroom. "You should be able to see what they're doing; it should be in a public place. Plus, they'll be able to sleep at night. Nor should children have televisions in their room," they add.


10 June, 2008

Does socializing prevent dementia?

Good to see that the "chicken and egg" nature of the results is recognized below. That the last two paragraphs below exist in a logical vacuum is not recognized, however.

Socializing with friends and family can do more than lift the spirits of elderly women - it can improve cognition and might help prevent dementia, according to a new study. The study began in 2001 and included women at least 78 years old who were free of signs of dementia. Researchers conducted follow-up interviews between 2002 and 2005. "We've interviewed people who were not demented and who were able to report on their social network at baseline in 2001," said lead author Valerie Crooks. "By starting with people who are cognitively intact and following them over time, you can begin to make a legitimate link between social networks and dementia."

Crooks is director of clinical trials administration and a research scientist at the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. The study appears in the July issue of The American Journal of Public Health.

Women frequently experience increasing social isolation as they age, but it has been difficult to make a solid connection between this social separation and cognitive function and dementia. For this study, researchers pooled data from 2,249 members of a health maintenance organization, comparing health conditions and demographic information for women with and without dementia at follow-up, at which time they identified 268 new dementia cases in the previously screened women.

The researchers rated each woman's social network by asking about the number of friends and family members who kept in regular contact, and of these, how many she felt she could rely on for help or confide in. Of the 456 women with low "social network" scores, 80 women (18 percent) had developed dementia. Of the 1793 women with stronger social networks, 188 (10 percent) had developed dementia.

"The study does a laudatory job of addressing the relationship of these variables," said Deborah Newquist, Ph.D., director of geriatric services at Louisville, Ky.-based ResCare, Inc. However, concluding that isolation causes dementia might be overstating the case, said Newquist, who is not associated with the study. "The fundamental problem here is one of the chicken and the egg," she said. "Are weak social relationships caused by dementia or the other way around?"

""Finding ways to help older adults remain engaged in productive and enjoyable activities is an important component of successful aging," said Cathleen Connell, Ph.D., head researcher at the Center for Managing Chronic Disease at the University of Michigan. "Not only have social networks been linked to positive physical and mental health outcomes, but also to quality of life."

"Our findings indicate that it's important to think about ways to try to reduce the amount of isolation people have - even those with families," Crooks said. "It's also important for us to find out what kinds of social support groups we can create for people who are isolated based on extreme age or lack of family."


Cell phones and wasting gasoline

Post below excerpted from TigerHawk . See the original for links. More unintended consequences of a "health and safety" directive

I have long railed against laws that require "hands free" use of cell phones while driving. I believe they are unsupported by evidence -- accidents have declined substantially during the cell phone era -- and opinion to the contrary is a function of observer bias. I also believe that they are causing people to waste gasoline.

I use an ear bud, but more and more people are using bluetooth systems built into their cars or added with aftermarket devices. These systems cut off when the driver turns off the car's engine, so people are increasingly in the habit of sitting in idling cars to talk on the telephone rather than terminating the phone call merely because they have arrived at their destination. Not only have I seen beloved family members do this, but in the last few months -- since New Jersey made handheld cell phone use a primary offense -- I have been on the other end of numerous calls in which my counterparty was sitting in an idling automobile. Today, after having dropped my son off at the SAT administration at the Hun School, I walked back out to the parking lot only to see the cars on both sides of mine idling while the drivers chatted away on their speaker phones.

This is idiocy on stilts, but a perfectly predictable consequence of the ridiculous "hands free" laws. The nanny staters are, apparently, going to have to choose between the various ways to boss us around.....

The more likely explanations for the decline in accidents during the cell-phone era are, first, that talking on cells phones is substituting for other forms of distraction (putting on makeup, reading maps, looking at fascinating things along the way) or, second, that people who talk on phones compensate by driving more conservatively while they talk. If, for example, a significant proportion of the people who talk on phones slow down a bit, do not fluctuate their speed, and avoid changing lanes (as I and many other drivers obviously do), then it may be that cell phones have contributed to the huge improvement in road safety in the last twenty years.

In any case, the "hands free" laws make absolutely no sense to me. If the point is that it is distracting to have something in your hand then we should also abolish cup-holders and the eating of food. If the point is that it is distracting to have a conversation in the car, then we should ban conversations between passengers and the driver. Both suggestions are so laughable that they immediately reveal the stupidity of the "hands free" laws, which serve no actual purpose other than to give the constabulary yet another reason to pull you over.

9 June, 2008

Australian schools encouraging childhood obesity

Lack of exercise is a major factor in weight gain and kids are being denied their normal activities

TRADITIONAL playground games such as kick-to-kick footy, chasey, hopscotch and even marbles are being banned in schools across Victoria. Games using tennis balls and running on school property have been axed and some schools have prohibited footy, cricket, soccer and netball during lunch breaks. The increasing number of bans on games are because of a fear of injury and subsequent litigation from parents. But parents groups, education experts and some teachers have hit back, saying play is a vital part of a child's development. A Sunday Herald Sun survey of schools found:

CARLTON Gardens Primary School has banned cricket bats and removed its monkey bars and climbing equipment.

ST MICHAEL'S Primary School in North Melbourne has banned children playing football and soccer in the schoolyard.

ASCOT Vale West Primary School has banned games deemed "too rough".

ST PETER Chanel Primary School in Deer Park has outlawed tackling in football and soccer to avoid injuries.

Melbourne University researcher Dr June Factor said a primary school banned marbles because of "arguments". "But for goodness sake how do children learn to resolve arguments if they don't have any?" she said. Dr Factor said the perception parents would threaten litigation if a child was hurt wasn't based on fact. "There have been very few such cases in Victoria," she said. Victorian Principals Association president Fred Ackerman said playgrounds had become more restrictive as parents and teachers had become more anxious and over-protective.

A school not opting for the draconian approach to play is Preston West Primary School. Principal Mark Ross said play was "part of a child's normal development". "As long as there is no safety issue, we encourage kids to engage in play," he said. [Goodbye to football, then, I guess]

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Early Childhood said: "This is a school-by-school decision and we encourage all students to be active and healthy."


Alcohol and arthritis

We see below a rather pleasing degree of caution about the findings. It does at least seem clear that moderate alcohol drinking is not bad for your joints

A regular tipple cuts the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by up to half, Swedish research suggests. The Karolinska Institute assessed 2,750 people in two studies, Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases reports. The risk was up to 50% lower for those who drank the equivalent of five glasses of wine a week compared with those who drank the least, they found. However, arthritis experts warned that drinking too much alcohol increased the risk of a range of health problems.

Rheumatoid arthritis - an auto-immune disease caused by a malfunctioning immune system - is a condition which results in tender, stiff and swollen joints. It affects 400,000 people in the UK.

The two separate studies assessed environmental and genetic risk factors for rheumatoid arthritis. Participants were quizzed about their lifestyle, including how much they smoked and drank, while blood samples were taken to check for genetic risk factors.

Researcher Dr Henrik Kallberg stressed the most important finding of the study was that smoking was a very significant risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis, reinforcing findings from previous studies. However, he added: "In addition, it is important to know that moderate alcohol consumption is not deleterious and may in some contexts be beneficial concerning risk for future onset of rheumatoid arthritis."

There are known to be links between moderate alcohol consumption and a reduced risk of other inflammatory processes, such as cardiovascular disease. However, the reason for this is still unclear.

Professor Robert Moots, from the Arthritis Research Campaign, said it was possible that drinking alcohol may have a protective effect against rheumatoid arthritis. But he said the study was not conclusive and any protective effect was not properly understood. He said: "There is no doubt that drinking too much is very bad for our health in many ways and these risks by far outweigh any potential benefit for reducing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis, which this study points to, without being conclusive. "We must also remember that drinking alcohol in excess can be especially dangerous in patients taking some anti-rheumatoid drugs that may cause liver damage. "There are many modifiable lifestyle risk factors for developing rheumatoid arthritis and, as this study also points out, smoking is by far the greatest."

A spokesman for Arthritis Care said: "It's too early to say what these findings may mean, so people with rheumatoid arthritis should continue to work in partnership with their health professionals to address their specific health needs."


8 June, 2008

Females benefit more from mother's milk than males

An odd finding in a variety of ways but it applies to premature babies only. The journal source is not quoted so I could not check on what controls there were for birth weight, socioeconomic status etc.

BREASTFEEDING gives health advantages to all infants, but girls get a greater benefit from breast milk than boys, researchers found. The researchers tracked a group of low birthweight, pre-term infants in Argentina to gauge the protective effect of breastfeeding against respiratory infections in babies. They found breastfed girls were far less likely than breastfed boys to develop serious respiratory infections requiring a stay in hospital.

A lot of research has shown breastfed babies enjoy a range of health benefits compared to those given baby formula, beyond combating respiratory infections. The benefits include fewer ear, stomach or intestinal infections, digestive problems, skin diseases and allergies, and less risk of developing high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. And some research has shown breastfed babies are smarter, too.

"There are many, many different diseases that are protected against by breastfeeding. It's a great source of nutrition. It's important for development. Everyone benefits from breastfeeding," Dr Fernando Polack, of Johns Hopkins University in the US, one of the researchers, said. "Now, in the specific case of acute respiratory diseases like bronchiolitis and viral infections of the respiratory tract, it seems that there is greater benefit in girls than in boys. And that benefit is substantial."

Bronchiolitis is an infection of the airways of the lungs seen most often in infants aged between three and six months, and the researchers studied a group of 119 high-risk infants who weighed less than 1500g at delivery, a group highly susceptible to these kinds of infections. Of the formula-fed girls, 50 per cent had to be hospitalised when they experienced their first respiratory infection, compared to about 7 per cent of the girls who were breastfed, the researchers wrote in the journal Pediatrics.

But there was no difference between the boys who were breastfed or formula-fed - with about19 per cent of both formula-fed and breastfed infants needed hospitalisation following a respiratory infection, the researchers said. The pattern repeated throughout the first year of life and in subsequent infections, the researchers said. Polack said there may be something in the breast milk that better activates a baby girl's ability to cope with such infections more so than it does for a baby boy.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women who do not have health problems exclusively breastfeed their infants for at least the first six months, with it continuing at least through the first year as other foods are introduced.


Gamers not nerds

The knowalls generally seem to overlook the fact that computer gaming can be quite social. Kids get together to play them

You might think of video game addicts as "shy nerds", but an Australian study has found that they are just as outgoing as everyone else. Dan Loton, a Psychology graduate from Victoria University, conducted an honours research project to find out if video game addiction was related to social skills and self-esteem. "From a clinical point of view, an addiction is a mental illness with very serious consequences," he said. "In this context, we need to ask whether gaming is responsible for causing people's lives to fall apart in the same way we see with gambling, alcohol or drug addiction."

Mr Loton's study found that only 1 per cent of game addicts suffered from shyness and there was no direct connection between problem game-playing and social skills or self-esteem.

The research has implications for the American Medical Association (AMA), which plans to formally recognise video game addiction as a mental disorder in 2012. Last year the AMA described players of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, known as MMORPGs, as "somewhat marginalised socially, perhaps experiencing high levels of emotional loneliness and/or difficult with real-life social interactions". MMORPGs such as World Of Warcraft are often associated with problem gaming due to their virtual economies, expansive worlds, and in-game socialisation.

"There have been some concerns in psychological literature, including the AMA report, that excessive game playing... is related to a difficulty in establishing social relationships and maintaining them," Mr Loton told "It was theorised that people who have social difficulties are turning to games, particularly games that offer social communication, to alleviate those difficulties and (are) therefore getting stuck in the game."

Mr Loton conducted a survey of gamers using two psychological scales, the Problem Video Game Playing scale (PVP) and Social Skills Inventory (SSI), to measure how addicted respondents were and how they operated socially. Of the 621 respondents, around 15 per cent were identified as problem gamers who spent over 50 hours a week playing games. Within this group, there was no clear link between problem gaming and poor social skills or low self-esteem.

However, the study showed MMORPG players were more likely to suffer problems with addiction. "We found that those who played MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, which currently has over 10 million fee-paying monthly subscribers, were more likely to exhibit problematic game play," he said. "But, what is important to note is that even problem gamers did not exhibit significant signs of poor social skills or low self-esteem. Only one percent of those identified as problem gamers appeared to have poor social skills, specifically shyness."

The research showed there was no direct relationship between social characteristics and video game playing, and more research needed to be done before the AMA was able to make an informed decision, Mr Loton said. As for people suffering game addiction, Mr Loton suggested they try to balance their play with other activities. "If a person feels that they're at the point where they feel that they want to stop playing but they can't and it's interrupting elements of their lives, I would advise them to seek counselling," he said.


7 June, 2008

Babies could soon have three parents

DESIGNER babies with three parents could be born within three years. The controversial technique screens an embryo created by a man and a woman for incurable genetic diseases. Defective DNA is replaced with that from another woman, effectively giving the baby two mothers and a father. Scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have already created embryos using the method and are perfecting it for use in IVF clinics. They say it could free children from diseases including some forms of diabetes, blindness and heart problems.

Critics say it could lead to genetically-modified babies being designed to order. UK law says embryos created using the technique must be destroyed, but scientists hope this can be overturned.

The research focuses on mitochondria "batteries" inside cells, which turn food into energy. Each mitochondrion has its own DNA, which is passed from mother to child. Defects in this DNA affect more than one in 5000 babies and cause around 50 genetic diseases, some of which kill before adulthood. The researchers have managed to swap the damaged DNA with healthy genetic material.

The first step is fertilisation of an egg through IVF. The embryo is screened for defects. When it is a few hours old, the nucleus containing genetic information from the parents is removed and put into another woman's healthy egg. Mitochondria are outside the nucleus so the baby is free of defects and will look like its "real" parents.

US biologist Professor Jonathan Van Blerkom told New Scientist magazine it would be "criminal" not to allow the technique to be used. There are fears that the influence of mitochondria on areas including longevity, IQ and fertility could lead to GM babies being made to order.


Parkinson's cure 'in the nose'

RESEARCHERS say a cure for Parkinson's disease could lie inside the nose of patients. The Griffith University study found that adult stem cells harvested from the noses of Parkinson's patients gave rise to dopamine-producing brain cells when transplanted into the brain of a rat. Current drug therapies can replace dopamine in the brain, but these often become less effective after prolonged use.

Director of the university's National Adult Stem Cell Research Centre, Alan Mackay-Sim, said researchers simulated Parkinson's symptoms in rats by creating lesions on one side of the brain similar to the damage caused in human brains. "The lesions to one side of the brain made the rats run in circles," Professor Mackay-Sim said. "When stem cells from the nose of Parkinson's patients were cultured and injected into the damaged area the rats re-acquired the ability to run in a straight line. "All animals transplanted with the human cells had a dramatic reduction in the rate of rotation within just three weeks."

He said the discovery meant they were on the verge to finding a cure for Parkinson's, a debilitating disease which includes loss of muscle control caused by the degeneration of cells that produce the essential chemical dopamine in the brain. The study was published yesterday in the journal Stem Cells.


6 June, 2008

No to talk therapy

Eysenck showed the uselessness of talk therapy in the 1940s but it is a monster that refuses to die

Britain's traditional stiff upper lip may be a better strategy for dealing with shock than letting your feelings spill out, a new study claims. The popular assumption is that talking about a terrifying experience, such as a terrorist attack or natural disaster, can be therapeutic and helpful. But new evidence suggests "getting it off your chest" may not be the right thing to do.

Psychologists in the US used an online survey to test people's responses to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Those who chose to express their thoughts and feelings were compared with those who did not over a two-year period. To their surprise, individuals who bottled up their feelings ended up better off. They suffered fewer negative mental and physical health symptoms than people who were willing to talk.

The results have important implications for expectations about how people should react to collective trauma that affects a whole community or nation, said the researchers. It also called into question the pleas made to people caught up in shocking events to come forward and "open up". After last year’s Virginia Tech University shootings in the US, numerous "media-doc" psychiatrists told how important it was for the students to express their feelings.

Dr Mark Seery, from the University of Buffalo, New York State, who led the new research, said: "This perfectly exemplifies the assumption in popular culture, and even in clinical practice, that people need to talk in order to overcome a collective trauma. "Instead, we should be telling people there is likely nothing wrong if they do not want to express their thoughts and feelings after experiencing a collective trauma. "In fact, they can cope quite successfully and, according to our results, are likely to be better off than someone who does want to express his or her feelings." The findings are published in the June issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.

Dr Seery stressed it would be wrong to say people recovering from trauma should never express their feelings. "It's important to remember that not everyone copes with events in the same way, and in the immediate aftermath of a collective trauma, it is perfectly healthy to not want to express one’s thoughts and feelings," he said.


Another comment:

It would be hard to pinpoint exactly the death of the British stiff upper lip, but I would hazard it happened around the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. What with hours of television shows devoted to personal problems and acres of self-help manuals filling the shelves, its demise had been coming for some time; but the Princess's death opened the floodgates and we haven't stopped having sizeable feelings from that day.

Feelings, of course, are often quite unavoidable. Equally, though, they are a rather cumbersome replacement for thoughts. Yet people increasingly believe that if they can only say what they feel, then all anxieties will magically vanish.

Not so, according to this month's issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. It turns out that - contrary to every mother's advice, and every episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show - there are serious health benefits to be enjoyed from bottling things up. Not speaking about one's worries is a reliable way of getting over them; while the highly profitable culture of Yak Yak Yak has done quite the opposite, making people altogether more worried about the bad things that have happened, or are happening, or are likely to happen in the next 50 years.

Laying it all out on the table over a nice cup of tea was nothing short of a health hazard: it might have offered the instant sensation of a burden lessened, but doctors now believe that too much talk about worries can exacerbate them to the point where they seem out of control.

Science and I don't often agree - which is good news for science and bad news for me - but I've been arguing for the return of the stiff upper lip for some time. I hate all those TV programmes where people line up on stage to ask their daddy why he didn't love them enough.

For a start, one can usually understand quite quickly why the daddy didn't, and second (perhaps more scientifically) the people on those shows don't seem to benefit from the spectacle of unburdening.

In the old days, when people's daddies didn't love them enough, they felt a bit sad about it and tried to do better with their own children. Or they sought ways to bear it.

Bear it! Now there's an outmoded concept. Surely there's something to be said for gearing oneself up for a bit of disappointment in life, to say nothing of pain, rather than bleating every time you realise that a perfect life is not something that follows on naturally from excessive moaning.

Yet misery memoirs are now among the nation's national tonics, even though any number of them have proved to be works of fiction aimed at a gullible and needy public. Tonics, in my view, are something best taken with a glass of gin and a slice of lemon, helping one towards the refreshing conclusion that solutions to intractable problems might often be found in a combination of acceptance and forgetting, as opposed to endless wallowing.

Being "self-aware" - ie, droning on about feelings - has, among other things, threatened to kill the art of conversation and normal social interaction. The proper response to, "How do you do?" is "How do you do?", not, "Well, actually, I have a tummy-ache," or, "I am prey to unbearable anxieties about my childlessness".

It used to be considered insufferably self-regarding to answer any polite query about one's health with anything other than a cheery, "Fine, thank you," even if one were riddled with necrotizing fasciitis and had mere moments to live. Today, anyone who inquires about anyone else's well-being needs to brace themselves for an onslaught of unlovely detail.

While it is rather sad if your mummy never kissed you goodnight - and such sadness can lead to great heights of human expression, see Proust - too much wallowing can cheapen emotion, and common complaints transform into little arias of self-importance.

You'll notice that the expression "sob story" has recently fallen out of common parlance and that's because everybody is now assumed to have one: you can't turn on the radio without hearing some allegedly successful person wailing about the fact that there was never a sweetie in their tuck box.

How much more impressive (and heartening, and a real tonic) it is to come across people who have surmounted incredible difficulties and can still get on with their lives. People in wheelchairs find love; people with no voice become politicians and speak for masses - with nary a complaint or a memoir along the way - while every day we are invited to commune with some perfectly endowed individual who wants us to feel her pain about not being able to find a boyfriend.

The stiff upper lip doesn't seek to deny sadness, but rather acknowledges it quietly, takes control of it, and allows one to survive and move on. The person who ends each telephone conversation - with everyone from their mother to their plumber - with "Love You" is not necessarily the supremely well-adjusted hero you might think. This is to put sentimentality before real feeling; sometimes holding back is simply a way of allowing your emotions their true weight.

For the sake of your health, get buttoned up, though please don't expect to win any national talent contests if you do so.


Vaccine for brain tumor may double survival

An experimental vaccine designed to treat the most common and deadly brain tumor has more than doubled the survival of patients, according to results of a small clinical study. The vaccine, produced by the US firm Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc, stimulates the immune system to attack the glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) tumor. The clinical trial involved 23 patients with large GBM tumors. The patients treated with the vaccine lived an average of 33 months while those receiving standard treatment typically live for an average of 14 months, said Dr John Sampson, of Duke University in North Carolina who presented the results Monday at the annual conference of the American Society of Clincial Oncology in Chicago.

The study also showed the vaccine slowed the return of the tumor after surgery. The tumor for those treated with the vaccine reappeared in 16.6 months compared to the usual six months. The GBM is an aggressive cancer with a poor prognosis, brain specialist Mark Gilbert of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas told reporters. The tumor kills 50 percent of patients during the first year after diagnosis and few live beyond three years. Without treatment the tumor grows back between two to three months after being surgically removed.

The GBM tumor is the same that afflicts longtime US Senator Edward Kennedy who underwent surgery on Monday in Durham, North Carolina. When asked about Kennedy's case which has generated national media attention, Gilbert said that the senator could possibly benefit from the vaccine if surgery succeeds in completely removing his tumor.

The experimental vaccine, administered with chemotherapy to stimulate an immune response, is aimed at proteins linked to tumor cells. A much larger clinical trial was planned for later this year, Gilbert said.

About 22,000 cases of malignant tumors of the brain and bone marrow will be diagnosed in 2008 in the United States and 13,000 people will die, according to the American Cancer Society. Pfizer has acquired exclusive licensing rights for the vaccine.


5 June, 2008

Penis toughener discovered

RESEARCHERS believe the spread of HIV could be reduced with a world-first discovery at the University of Melbourne. The study, to be published today in PLoS One medical journal, reveals that the application of oestrogen to the human penis increased the thickness of the natural keratin layer on the skin, which could prevent HIV from infecting the male.

Dr Andrew Pask, of the Department of Zoology at the university, made the discovery after analysing the tissue samples from 12 foreskins. "This suggested that oestrogen could induce a thickening of the keratin layer of the foreskin epidermis in the same way as it acts in the vagina," Dr Pask said. Topical oestrogen was applied to the human foreskin for a two-week trial to confirm its effect. This resulted in a rapid and substantial increase in keratin thickness.

Professor Roger Short, of the university's faculty of medicine, said today: "We have found a new avenue to possibly prevent HIV infection of the penis. "In countries where circumcision is not religiously or culturally accepted, oestrogen treatments to the penis could be very effective in reducing the spread of the disease."


Cannabis 'shrinks brain volume'

HEAVY marijuana use over many years appears to shrink those parts of the brain that control emotion and memory, an Australian study has shown. Brain scans on 15 men who smoked at least five joints a day for more than a decade show for the first time that they have structural brain abnormalities not seen in non-smokers.

The researchers from the University of Melbourne say their findings should settle the historic controversy over the long-term effects of cannabis use with solid proof of the damage it causes. "These findings challenge the widespread perception of cannabis as having limited or no consequences on the brain," said study leader Dr Murat Yucel, a clinical neuropsychologist at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centre. "Although modest use may not lead to significant neurotoxic effects, these results suggest that heavy daily use might indeed be toxic to human brain tissue."

The study, published in the US journal Archives of General Psychiatry, showed two important areas of the brain were smaller in long-term smokers. The hippocampus, thought to regulate emotion and memory, was 12 per cent smaller in volume and the amygdala, involved with fear and aggression, was reduced by seven per cent. The smokers also were more likely to show mild signs of psychiatric disorders, but not enough to be formally diagnosed with one, Dr Yucel said. The men also performed "significantly worse" in a memory test that involved trying to recall a list of 15 words.

He admitted the findings did not necessarily prove marijuana was responsible for the difference in brain volume but the findings strongly suggest this was the cause. If this was the case, this indicated everyone was vulnerable to potential changes in the brain, some memory problems and psychiatric symptoms if they used heavily enough and for long enough, the researchers said.

The study involved men who were around the age of 40 and who had not taken other illicit drugs more than 10 times.

Another recent research review from the University of NSW showed that cannabis smokers had a 40 per cent increased risk of developing schizophrenia, and smoking daily drives the risk up two-fold. Other studies have linked the habit to gum disease and lung cancer. Statistics show a third of Australians have smoked at least once in their life, with about 300,000 using daily.


4 June, 2008

Play golf, live longer?

I hope the Karolinska report was more nuanced than what appears below. Cause and effect seem badly entangled. Maybe fit and healthy people are more likely to play golf

GOLFERS are never short of an excuse to take a few swings but a new study has given them a legitimate reason - golf prolongs your life. According to research from Europe's leading medical research institute, playing golf can add five years to a person's life. A study of 300,000 golfers revealed that they were 40 per cent less likely to die at any given age than those who did not play.

The study, by the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, revealed the best players, as measured by handicaps, were the healthiest of all. Despite the lack of physical activity involved in golf, golfers who play a single round of 18 holes usually walk more than 6km. Golfers have a lower death rate regardless of sex, age and social group, the study found.

The effect is greater for blue-collar workers than for those from white-collar backgrounds. Professor Anders Ahlbom, who led the study, said while not all golfers had a healthy lifestyle, it is believed playing the game has a significant impact on health. "Maintaining a low handicap involves playing a lot, so it supports the idea that it is largely the game that is good for the health," he said.


Bone-building drug Zometa seems to fight breast cancer spread in younger women

A drug to prevent bone loss during breast cancer treatment also substantially cut the risk that the cancer would return, results that left doctors excited about a possible new way to fight the disease. It is the first large study to affirm wider anti-cancer hopes for Zometa and other bone-building drugs called bisphosphonates. Zometa, made by Novartis AG, is used now for cancers that have already spread to the bone.

The new study involved 1,800 premenopausal women taking hormone treatments for early-stage breast cancer. Zometa cut by one-third the chances that cancer would recur - in their bones or anywhere else. "This is an important finding. It may well change practice," said Dr. Claudine Isaacs, director of the clinical breast cancer program at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center. About three-fourths of breast cancers occur in women after menopause. Zometa may help them, too, but it hasn't been tested yet in that age group. The study was led by Dr. Michael Gnant of the Medical University of Vienna and reported Saturday at an American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago.

If a second, ongoing study also finds a benefit, doctors predict that Zometa will quickly be tested against other cancers that tend to spread, or metastasize, to bones, such as prostate and kidney cancer. "Hugely important is whether this has to do with the fact that it just makes the bone hostile, somehow, to metastasis or if there is a more global anti-metastasis effect," said the oncology group's president, Dr. Nancy Davidson of Johns Hopkins University. "Either of those would be good and would teach us a lot about what to do next."

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in women. About 184,450 cases and 40,930 deaths from the disease are expected in the United States this year. Standard treatments are surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and hormone-blocking drugs if the tumors are like those in the study - helped to grow by estrogen or progesterone. The hormone-blockers often weaken bones, so bisphosphonates like the osteoporosis pill Fosamax have become increasingly popular to treat this side effect. However, using them to treat the cancer itself is a very different approach. Lab studies hinted it would work, and Gnant's is the first to test it in a large group of breast cancer patients.

All had surgery to remove their tumors and were taking hormone-blocking drugs - goserelin plus either tamoxifen or anastrozole - treatments that made them menopausal. Half also were given infusions of Zometa once every six months. The women were treated for three years and studied for two more. By then, only 6 percent of those given Zometa had suffered a relapse or died, compared to 9 percent of the others. That translated to a 36 percent decline in risk. Sixteen women given Zometa died versus 26 of the others - a difference that could have occurred by chance alone but an encouraging trend that doctors hope will mean better survival as the groups are followed for a longer time.

There were no big differences in serious side effects, though minor ones like fever and bone and joint pain were more common among women given Zometa. Two percent of all study participants developed a rapid heartbeat, but only three were hospitalized - two on Zometa and one of the others.

The study was sponsored by Zometa's maker, Swiss-based Novartis, and British-based AstraZeneca PLC, which makes Arimidex, the brand name of anastrozole. Gnant consults for the companies and several other breast cancer drugmakers. With doctor fees for the infusion, a Zometa treatment can run more than $1,200. The other large study is testing it in 3,360 pre- and postmenopausal women with cancer that has spread but not extensively.

Experts stressed that the results so far are only in women who were made menopausal by hormone-blocking treatments - not women who develop breast cancer after natural menopause. For now, using Zometa to prevent breast cancer recurrence should be confined to those who develop breast cancer before menopause, said Dr. Eric Winer of Dana-Farber Cancer Center in Boston. "This is a treatment that doctors should talk to a patient about" because of these encouraging new results, Winer said.

In other news at the conference, women with advanced breast cancers who were given Avastin plus Taxotere were a little less likely to have their cancers progress than women given Taxotere alone. However, side effects including high blood pressure were more common for those taking both drugs. Taxotere treatment is more common in Europe and Asia; in the United States, doctors are more likely to use Taxol.

In the study of 736 women, 44 percent of those given just Taxotere had their tumors shrink versus 55 percent of those also given a lower dose of Avastin and 63 percent of those given a higher dose.

Avastin, marketed by California-based Genentech and Swiss-based Roche Holding AG, recently won federal approval for breast cancer - against the recommendations of outside advisers. The approval was based on measurements like those in this study - cancer progression, rather than overall survival. The new study was too short to show any differences in survival.


3 June, 2008

Older fathers bad for kids?

More speculation presented as fact below. The fact that the relationship between mortality and age was non-linear looks very suspicious. Since sperm decline is as far as I know quite linear with age, blaming sperm quality for the effects observed seems a big stretch.

The researchers explain the non-linearity by pointing to the characteristics of the mother in the case of young fathers but somehow take remarkably little interest in the mothers where older fathers are concerned. Apparently, it HAD to be the fathers at fault.

That women who marry older men might be different from other women in all sorts of ways seems not to have been considered. Might not those differences have health consequences? Might such women be ON AVERAGE (Yes. I know about Catherine Zeta Jones and Sophia Loren) more "desperate" or more "mercenary" and might that not have something to do with the health of their children? A desperate woman might for instance be less attractive and that might stem from poorer health. Or a mercenary woman might take less care of her children. That the kids of older fathers tend to die more from poisoning would certainly suggest the latter possibility rather than the father's sperm being at fault. It's all speculation but so are the explanations presented below.

It never ceases to amaze me that I have to point out such obvious things

A mass study found that deaths of children fathered by over-45s occurred at almost twice the rate of those fathered by men aged between 25 and 30. Scientists believe that children of older fathers are more likely to suffer particular congenital defects as well as autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. The study was the first of its kind of such magnitude in the West, and researchers believe the findings are linked to the declining quality of sperm as men age.

A total of 100,000 children born between 1980 and 1996 were examined, of whom 830 have so far died before they reached 18, the majority when they were less than a year old.

The deaths of many of the children of the older fathers were related to congenital defects such as problems of the heart and spine, which increase the risk of infant mortality. But there were also higher rates of accidental death, which the researchers believe might be explained by the increased likelihood of suffering from autism, epilepsy or schizophrenia.

Most research into older parents has, until now, focused on the risks passed on by older mothers. But the new study, published in the European Journal of Epidemiology, was adjusted to take account of maternal age and socio-economic differences.

The research also found higher death rates among children of the youngest fathers, especially those below the age of 19. However, the study said these differences were explained by the risks of teenage motherhood and poorer diet and lifestyle. Previous research using the same data found that older men were four times as likely to father a child with Down's syndrome, while other studies have found that the genetic quality of sperm deteriorates as men age.

More than 75,000 babies in Britain are born to fathers aged 40 and over each year, or more than one in 10 of all births. This includes more than 6,000 born to fathers aged 50 or over. The average age of fathering a child in this country is 32.

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology - the medical specialty dealing with male reproduction - at the University of Sheffield, said: "A lot of people know that there are risks for the child that come from having an older mother, but children of older fathers also carry an increased risk. These sorts of results provide another good reason to have children early, when possible." Dr Pacey, who is secretary of the British Fertility Society, said scientists were unsure exactly what impact the ageing process had on the quality of sperm, making it impossible to detect defects before conception.

Dr Jin Liang Zhu, from the Danish Epidemiology Science Centre, which carried out the research, said: "The risks of older fatherhood can be very profound, and it is not something that people are always aware of."

The mother's age still has the bigger impact on child health, however. About one in 900 babies born to women under 30 have Down's syndrome - a figure which reaches one in 100 by the age of 40. The number of over-40s giving birth in Britain each year has doubled in the past decade to 16,000. The risk of miscarriage rises sharply with age.


Journal abstract:

Paternal age and mortality in children

Zhu JL et al.

Background: Since paternal age correlates with some diseases that have a high case-fatality, a paternal age effect on offspring's survival is expected but unsettled. We examined the association between paternal age and mortality in children in a large population-based cohort taking maternal age and socioeconomic factors into account.

Methods: From the Danish Fertility Database (1980-1996), we identified 102,879 couples and their firstborn singleton children. Information on childhood death (N = 831) was obtained by linking the cohort to the nationwide register on cause of death (1980-1998).

Results: We observed a U-shaped association between paternal age and the overall mortality rate in children up to 18 years of age. Adjustment for maternal age and other confounders reduced the mortality rate ratio (MRR) for children of younger fathers but not for children of older fathers. Compared with children of fathers aged between 25 and 29 years, the adjusted MRR was 1.77 (95% confidence interval 1.28-2.45) for children of fathers aged between 45 and 49 years and 1.59 (1.03-2.46) for children of fathers aged 50 years or more. The cause-specific MRRs were highest for congenital malformations [2.35 (1.42-3.88)] and injury or poisoning [3.43 (1.49-7.92)] for children of fathers aged 45 years or more.

Conclusion: Our data revealed a higher mortality in offspring of fathers aged 45 years or more that lasted into adulthood. This adds to the cumulating evidence on adverse effects of advanced paternal age in procreation.

Eur J Epidemiol. 2008 Apr 25

Fighting spirit has no impact on cancer

The popular belief that a positive attitude can help fight cancer has been debunked by a group of Australian specialists who have proved a fighting spirit does not improve a patient's survival chances. The Melbourne researchers say they realise their findings, presented at a major cancer conference in Chicago today, might not impress the majority of patients who believe their outlook can help their diagnosis, but they say it could be good news too.

"People often really beat themselves up and blame their attitude if their cancer relapses," said Professor Kelly-Anne Phillips, a medical oncologist at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne. "We've shown absolutely that you're not at fault. You cannot influence your cancer with positive or negative thinking, depression, a fighting spirit, or any other factor. "That should be reassuring, but I guess it could cut both ways."

The study involved 708 women in the Australian Breast Cancer Family Study who had been newly-diagnosed with localised breast cancer and tracked them over eight years to see whether their cancer relapsed. A quarter died over the period.

Levels of depression, anxiety and other factors like fatalist outlook, avoidance, anger, and feelings of hopelessness were also assessed. "Essentially the bottom line is we didn't find any correlation at all between these issues and whether their cancer came back," Prof Phillips said. "This goes against what the vast majority of patients believe."

Interestingly, women who had an anxious preoccupation with their cancer were more likely to get a relapse, but once the researchers adjusted for all the things known to cause recurrence, like size and grade of the tumour, this association disappeared, she said. "The women who were anxiously preoccupied were the ones that had the worst tumours, so they were anxious and preoccupied for a reason," said Prof Phillips.

She said women may not like the news as it might make them feel like they have little control of their outcome, "but it's important to see the upside too".

Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said he had been involved in a smaller study in lung cancer that reached a similar conclusion. "A positive attitude is great and it clearly helps quality of life when you're going through treatment but it makes an undetectable difference to disease," he said.


2 June, 2008

Vitamin D helps with breast cancer?

Talk about simple-minded inferences! The old fraudulent "correlation is causation" mantra again! The researchers below were wise enough to ask WHY some women had less vitamin D but examined only a few possibilities. That it was the underlying causes of the vitamin deficiency rather than the vitamin deficiency itself which interacted with cancer, cannot therefore at all be eliminated. Lifestyle factors such as drug use were not examined as influences on D levels nor were basic demographic factors such as race and class. Such factors are known to have an effect on health generally and any one of such variables could have produced the relationship observed.

That the relationships involved were complex is suggested by the finding that fatties had low D levels. Yet fatties get LESS breast cancer in general. I think that goes close to showing that D levels were NOT the critical factor. Pesky to know your research literature, isn't it?

As is usual with epidemiological studies, this one proves exactly nothing. The research abstract is here

WOMEN who have low levels of vitamin D when they are diagnosed with breast cancer are almost twice as likely to see the cancer spread and 73 per cent more likely to die within 10 years, research has found. The findings, presented at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting in Chicago yesterday, represent the first time researchers have been able to link not having enough of the vitamin to the progression of breast cancer. The research is considered significant because it raises the possibility of treating breast cancer using a cheap, easily available nutrient.

Women with insufficient levels of vitamin D were 94 per cent more likely to have the disease spread within a decade than those with sufficient levels. More than a quarter of these women eventually died from the disease. But after 10 years, cancer did not spread in 83 per cent of women with adequate vitamin D levels and 85 per cent were still alive.

The study was conducted at three Canadian hospitals and followed 512 women diagnosed with breast cancer between 1989 and 1995. Only a small number of women (24 per cent) had adequate levels of vitamin D when diagnosed, with 37.5 per cent having low levels and 38.5 per cent having moderately low levels. Women who were pre-menopausal, weighed more, had high insulin levels or more aggressive tumours generally had a deficiency.

Vitamin D is found in food and supplements and is made by the body after exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun. It is necessary for bone health.

Professor Pamela Goodwin of the University of Toronto said although the new research showed that poor vitamin D levels raised the risk of death from breast cancer, scientists had not yet determined the optimum amount to be taken as a supplement.


Mediterranean diet prevents diabetes?

Here we go again: More Mediterranean diet crap. Note: Australians live longer than Italians or Greeks and the traditional Australian diet is about the opposite of the traditional Mediterranean one. And if lifespan is not the bottom line I don't know what would be. So everybody should be eating lots of steak, chops, sausages, hamburgers, meat pies, mincemeat (ground beef), sausage rolls, buttered bread, cheese, vegetables boiled to death and sticky desserts! That's what I and most Anglo-Australians grew up on -- a version of the traditional British diet

The whole Mediterranean shtick is just another way of telling ordinary people how stupid and wrong they are and how superior people know better -- and facts be damned in the process.

The study below was methodologically pathetic anyway -- as even the BBC concedes -- being based on self-reports, small numbers of diabetics etc.

The Mediterranean diet, which is famously beneficial for the cardiovascular system, also helps protect against diabetes, researchers have found. The mainstays of the Mediterranean diet are olive oil, fish, grains, fruit, nuts and vegetables, usually supplemented by a modest amount of red wine. Meat and dairy products have only a minor role.

Researchers at the University of Navarra in northern Spain recruited 13,753 people between December 1999 and last November who had no history of diabetes. Their health and dietary habits were then tracked in detail. During the follow-up period - an average of 4.4 years over the range of participants - 103 people were diagnosed with Type2 diabetes and there was a large preponderance of cases among those who did not follow the basics of the Med diet.

Those who adhered to the diet most strictly enjoyed a relative reduction of 83per cent in the risk of diabetes, according to the research, published yesterday by the British Medical Journal. Many people in this group also had the biggest accumulation of risk factors for the disease - they were older, fatter, had a family history of diabetes and a more sedentary lifestyle or were former smokers. But they appear to have been shielded by the diet, the authors say.

Type 2 diabetes has become an epidemic in developed and developing countries. The blame has been pinned on a switch to sugary and fatty diets and a sedentary lifestyle. The less common Type1 diabetes is caused by permanent destruction of insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas and usually occurs early in life.


1 June, 2008

Obesity epidemic found to be a myth in Australia too

New recommendation: Target antifat messages at the fatties only! Whoda thunk it? Though what the government has to do with it at all needs to be questioned

AUSTRALIA'S childhood obesity epidemic has been "exaggerated" and government-led national prevention efforts may be misdirected, with childhood obesity only increasing in lower-income families. Controversial new research into childhood obesity rates has called into question whether the millions of dollars allocated by the Federal Government for obesity prevention programs should be targeted to the highest-risk groups, rather than focused at the general population.

The findings, based on measurements taken from thousands of Australian children in two nationally representative samples in 2000 and 2006, found that the growth in childhood obesity overall has slowed to a crawl, and the only statistically significant increases are now among boys and girls from low-income homes, The Australian reports.

Last night, Health Minister Nicola Roxon said obesity was "a significant challenge in health and a cause of several major chronic diseases - and will remain a priority for the Rudd Government". The overall obesity rate rose only slightly, from 6 per cent in 2000 to 6.8 per cent in 2006 - an increase researchers said was not statistically significant.

Among low-income boys, obesity almost doubled from 5.4 per cent in 2000 to 9.3 per cent in 2006. The increase for wealthier children was much less, rising from 4.9 per cent to 6.8 per cent among middle-income boys and from 3.7 per cent to 4.9 per cent for the wealthiest. Among low-income girls, the obesity rate increased from 3.9 per cent in 2000 to 6.8 per cent in 2006, whereas the rate stayed flat at 5.5 per cent for middle-income girls, and increased from 2.4 per cent to 3.9 per cent among high-income girls.

Australia's health ministers in 2003 labelled obesity "an epidemic". In this month's Budget, the Government said it would spend $62 million under its National Preventative Health Strategy to fight obesity, including nearly $13 million to fund a kitchen garden program in 190 schools nationally. But Jenny O'Dea, associate professor of child health research at the University of Sydney, will tell a Nutrition Australia conference next month that obesity in children "has not increased overall" between 2000 and 2006. In comments that have already drawn fire from some other obesity experts, Professor O'Dea told The Weekend Australian there was "no doubt that it (childhood obesity) has been exaggerated". "Some kids are more at risk than others, and that's where the prevention efforts need to go," she said.


Research offers infection clue to sudden infant death syndrome

Many cot deaths may be caused by common infections, the largest study of post-mortem examination data has suggested. Doctors at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London have found that in about half the cases of sudden infant death syndrome (Sids) where no cause of death could be found, samples taken from the babies contained bacteria that might have caused their deaths. The bacteria detected most often were E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus. This suggests that some of the deaths may be the result of infections that were not considered as causes at the time the babies died.

Neil Sebire, a paediatric pathologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, and colleagues said in The Lancet: "We must now investigate the pathophysiological mechanism involved in these cases."

Every year about 250 infants die from Sids. The best way to reduce the risk is to ensure that babies sleep on their backs and that their parents do not smoke, the Foundation for the Study of Infant Deaths recommends.