Monitoring food and health news

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

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

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

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


31 March, 2009

Shooter video games 'sharpen vision'

This will rile the do-gooder knowalls: Myth-busting research revealed ... fast-paced video games may actually improve your vision, a ground-breaking tudy has found

SLAYING hordes of bad guys in fast-paced video games improves vision, a study has shown for the first time. Far from being harmful to eyesight, as some had feared, action games provide excellent training for what eye doctors call contrast sensitivity, the study found. Contrast sensitivity is the ability to notice tiny changes in shades of grey against a uniform background, and is critical to everyday activities such as night driving and reading. It often degrades with age.

The findings, published in Nature Neuroscience, reveal a previously unsuspected adaptability in the brain, and could open the way to new therapies, the researchers said. ”This is not a skill that people were supposed to get better at by training,” said Daphne Bavelier, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York state and the study's lead researcher. ”It was something that we corrected for at the level of the optics of the eye – to get better contrast detection you get glasses or laser surgery.” ”What we found is that even without this correction you can help your brain make better use of whatever information is received from your retina,” she said.

For the study, Bavelier and three colleagues conducted two sets of experiments. In the first, they compared the contrast sensitivity of hard-core action game players with video game aficionados of the same age who preferred less rapid-fire fare. In action games, players typically target and shoot figures that pop up suddenly on a computer screen. The researchers found that the action buffs were 50 percent more efficient at detecting contrast.

But there remained a chicken-or-egg question: had their vision been improved by playing, or did they become action game players because they had better than average contrast sensitivity to start with? To find out, Bavelier asked two groups of non-action video game players to undergo 50 hours of training. One played a popular point-and-shoot game called Call of Duty, and the other played a game that offered a rich visual experience, but one bereft of action.

”We found that the people in the first group improved by 43 percent, and the other group not at all,” she said. As important, the study also found that the improvement was not transitory. ”The positive effect remained months, even years after training, indicating long-lasting gains,” she said.

Is there some limit beyond which playing action games loses its positive effect or becomes detrimental? Can you, in other words, have too much of a ``good thing''? “For your visual system, probably not. For your social life, perhaps,'' said Bavelier.


Stem cells to grow bigger breasts

Technique finally gets to Britain. Our "betters" don't like the idea

A STEM cell therapy offering “natural” breast enlargement is to be made available to British women for the first time. The treatment could boost cup size while reducing stomach fat. It involves extracting stem cells from spare fat on the stomach or thighs and growing them in a woman’s breasts. An increase of one cup size is likely, with the potential for larger gains as the technique improves.

A trial has already started in Britain to use stem cells to repair the breasts of women who have had cancerous lumps removed. A separate project is understood to be the first in Britain to use the new technique on healthy women seeking breast enlargement.

Professor Kefah Mokbel, a consultant breast surgeon at the London Breast Institute at the Princess Grace hospital, who is in charge of the project, will treat 10 patients from May. He predicts private patients will be able to pay for the procedure within six months at a cost of about £6,500. “This is a very exciting advance in breast surgery,” said Mokbel. “They [breasts treated with stem cells] feel more natural because this tissue has the same softness as the rest of the breast.” He said the treatment offered the potential of considerable improvement on implants: “Implants are a foreign body. They are associated with long-term complications and require replacement. They can also leak and cause scarring.”

Although the stem cell technique will restore volume, it will not provide firmness and uplift.

Mokbel believes the stem cell treatment may be suitable only for modest increases in breast size, but will conduct research to find out whether larger augmentations can be achieved: “We are optimistic we can easily achieve an increase of one cup size. We cannot say yet if we can achieve more. That may depend on the stem cells we can harvest.”

The cells will be isolated from a woman’s spare fat, once it has been extracted from her thighs or stomach, using equipment owned by GE Healthcare, a technology company. The concentrated stem cells will then be mixed with another batch of fat before being injected into the breast. It takes several months for the breast to achieve the desired size and shape.

Until now, when fat was transplanted to the breast without extra stem cells, surgeons had difficulty maintaining a blood supply to the new tissue. Surgeons believe the double concentration of stem cells under this technique promotes the growth of blood vessels to ensure a sufficient blood supply circulates to the transplanted fat.

The same technique has been used in Japan for six years, initially to treat women with breast deformities caused by cancer treatment and, more recently, for cosmetic breast augmentation in healthy women.

Mokbel is confident the therapy is safe and that, after carrying out about 30 procedures, the London Breast Institute will be able to offer the procedure to private patients.

The use of stem cells in healthy women undergoing cosmetic surgery is controversial. Medical bodies have warned that the breast enlargements should not be offered to healthy women until large-scale trials in cancer patients have shown that the new technology is safe and effective. The treatment is not yet routinely available to women solely for cosmetic purposes.

Eva Weiler-Mithoff, a consultant plastic surgeon at Canniesburn hospital in Glasgow, is leading the British arm of a European trial of stem cell therapy for women who have been left with breast deformities following removal of cancerous lumps. So far more than a dozen British cancer patients have been treated and Weiler-Mithoff is impressed with the results. She does not believe this justifies offering the treatment to healthy women, however.

She said that while breast cancer patients regularly attend follow-up appointments, young women who have had cosmetic surgery are less likely to do so and complications could be missed. [What a pathetic excuse!]


30 March, 2009

Supermarket cakes have (shock!) additives in them

This is absurd. Australia has strict food laws and what is in the cakes is legally approved. It is true that a very small number of kids have sensitivities that give them a bad reaction to some additives but the article below gives the impression that kids generally have such reactions. The original heading on the article was "Coles and Woolworths cakes send kids hyper". There are all sorts of food sensitivities, many quite rare, and if you catered to them all there would be nothing left on the shelf

CAKES sold in our leading supermarkets are riddled with additives that cause hyperactivity in children, a consumer investigation has found. The Australian Consumer Association, Choice tested 97 cakes in Coles and Woolworths and found two Woolworths bakery cakes to be the worst offenders.

Choice spokeswoman Elise Davidson said Woolworths Bakehouse Sponge Iced and Fresh-Filled Cream cake had 27 additives. The Top Taste Rollettes Choc and Woolworths' Bakehouse Sponge Single Birthday Fresh Cream were close equal seconds, with 26 additives each.

Ms Davidson said many cakes were found to contain more than 20 additives, including food colours linked to hyperactivity and additives used to prolong shelf life or cover-up cheap ingredients. "Most people wouldn't use 40 ingredients when baking a cake at home, yet that's what we found in a large number of these cakes," Ms Davidson said. Food colours are used to enhance appearance but also enable manufacturers to get away with using cheaper ingredients, such as apples instead of raspberries in jam filling and palm oil, instead of butter.

More than half the cakes also contained food colours identified as increasing hyperactivity in children, in a UK study published in the medical journal, The Lancet.

Ms Davidson said parents should check product labels for the offending food colours. "Consumers expect the cakes they buy to be fresh and to maintain that freshness, so food manufacturers use additives," Ms Davidson said. "But we think consumers should be aware of the type of ingredients that go into a lot of these cakes".

The study found that price was no indicator of quality, with some of the most expensive brands among the heaviest users of additives. Australians spend $312 million a year buying cakes from supermarkets, which equates to about 70 million cakes.


Why are these vegans sent to plague us?

Comment from Australia by Michael Coulter, a recovering vegetarian

QUESTION: what do you get when you cross moral snobbery with a lack of taste? Answer: a vegan.

This may be tough on a group of people who want nothing more than to live a life free of cruelty. But, while there are many things in the world that are worse than evangelical vegetarianism — pre-season football and question time spring to mind — there are few that are more joyless and depressing. Vegans, you see, exist so that others may feel guilt about something completely normal: the desire to eat food that is tasty, nourishing and appropriate to our physical specifications.

Humans require certain basic nutrients to function, and to be vegan is to spend your life thinking about where you're going to get your next fix of vitamin B12. Not that they'll admit it. The vegans who write letters to newspapers and ring talkback radio rhapsodise about the culinary options available to them, and many of them seem to believe it. Perhaps their brains are so starved of essential trace minerals that they really think that spurning all animal-based products improves the range and quality of their diet.

The centrepiece of the vegan creed is that killing or domesticating animals for food production is cruel and immoral. It's a position that raises all sorts of questions, from those about the cognitive level of animals and whether they experience true emotion, to those about where you draw the line. For example, is it all right to eat grain grown on a farm that kills millions of insects that would otherwise devour the crops? If vegans won't eat honey, as many won't, the logical answer is "no". And just how far down the evolutionary ladder are we willing to go — Save the Microbes has a certain ring to it.

Lately the V-movement has added a second ingredient to its guilt cocktail — the environment. Raising animals is bad for the planet. To which one could reply: "Yes. And so is printing books, growing chickpeas and living in a house."

At some point, you need to balance what's good for people against what's good for the Earth (which, by the by, is an awfully tough old ball of rock that has already seen off millions of species and will see off millions more, including ours, before it is one day consumed by the sun).

Which brings us round to the big problem with veganism, which is that it's not so much pro-animal as anti-people. At the same time it raises up animals, it diminishes humanity. Noted thinker and the intellectual spearhead of the no-meat movement Peter Singer has summed it up thus: "But pain is pain, and the importance of preventing unnecessary pain and suffering does not diminish because the being that suffers is not a member of our species."

You could dismiss this as the "Awww, aren't they cute" reflex elevated to a moral philosophy, but it certainly sets up an interesting hypothetical: how would we live in a world where cows have equal rights with humans? What does a cow want from life, and how would we provide it? What would we do with the millions of cows we already have? Will they be prepared to follow our laws and share our values? Would a cow pass the Australian citizenship test (even one without the question about Don Bradman)?

The point being that humans are the only creatures on earth in a cerebral position to consider such matters, which does give us a certain status. While it's unfashionable for us Western-world types to claim any sort of superiority over anyone or anything, we are smarter than the average bear, bird and even dolphin.

Animals never think twice about devouring each other, often while the devouree is still alive and bleating. We definitely have an obligation to raise, keep and slaughter animals in the most humane manner possible. But survival of the species is a messy business, and instead of wringing our hands we should occasionally give ourselves a pat on the back for being so good at it. It's better than the alternative.

One of the other things that people are particularly good at is making choices, and there's nothing at all wrong with choosing not to eat animal products.

The problem is with zealotry. When a vegetarian comes to dinner, I wouldn't feed them meat, nor would I lecture them on the benefits of doing so. Because, if there's one thing worse than having high-minded zealots jam their dogma down your throat, it's when they want to do it literally.


29 March, 2009

Student Obesity Linked to Proximity to Fast-Food Outlets

A 5% increased incidence is very weak. The Federal Reference Manual on Scientific Evidence, Second Edition says (p. 384): "the threshold for concluding that an agent was more likely than not the cause of an individual's disease is a relative risk greater than 2.0." So the 5% in the present study stacks up badly when compared with 200%.

If there is any real meaning in the findings, they probably show that fast food outlets tend to locate more in areas where their customers are clustered -- in poorer areas. And poorer people tend to be fatter anyway

Teens who attend classes within one-tenth of a mile of a fast-food outlet are more likely to be obese than peers whose campuses are located farther from the lure of quarter-pound burgers, fries and shakes. Those are the findings of a recent study by researchers from UC Berkeley and Columbia University seeking a link between obesity and the easy availability of fast food. The academics studied body-fat data from more than 1 million California ninth-graders over an eight-year period, focusing on the proximity of the school to well-known chains including McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut. Their conclusion: Fast food and young waistlines make lousy neighbors, the LA Times reports.

The presence of an outlet within easy walking distance of a high school — about 530 feet or less — resulted in a 5.2% increase in the incidence of student obesity compared with the average for California youths, a correlation deemed "sizable" according to the findings. The link vanished when these fast-food joints were located farther from campus, presumably because students couldn't easily reach them. Nor was it present in schools located near full-service eateries, whose prices and service times don't typically match student budgets, tastes or schedules, reports Times writer Jerry Hirsch.

"Fast food offers the most calories per price compared to other restaurants, and that's combined with a high temptation factor for students," said Stefano DellaVigna, a UC Berkeley economist and one of the paper's authors, the Times reports. The researchers said cities concerned about battling teen obesity should consider banning fast-food restaurants near schools.

The findings are likely to fuel the debate over what's driving America's obesity epidemic. Concerned about growing rates of diabetes and heart disease — particularly among young people — state and local governments nationwide are taking aim at fatty, high-calorie foods.

California has been one of the most aggressive. Students can no longer purchase soda or junk food in Golden State schools. Some districts won't allow bake sales. California has banned artery-clogging trans fats, and Los Angeles has a one-year moratorium on new fast-food outlets in a 32-square-mile area of South L.A.

More than a dozen states and numerous cities are pondering legislation patterned after a new California law forcing chain restaurants to list calorie counts on their menus.

But blaming restaurants for the nation's weight problem strikes many as misguided. Obesity can be a product of a variety of factors, experts say, including genetics, lack of exercise and household nutrition. Courts have struck down patrons' attempts to sue restaurant chains for making them fat.

Not every group living or working in areas where fast food is plentiful experiences a higher incidence of obesity. The report's authors studied weight data for pregnant women, another group for which statistics are easily available. They found a much smaller correlation between the expectant mothers' weight gain and their proximity to the same type of burger, chicken and pizza restaurants.

The high schoolers studied appeared more susceptible to the temptations of fast food. "School kids are a captive audience. They can't go very far from school during lunch, but adults can get in their car and have more choices," said Janet Currie of Columbia University, a co-author, the Times reports.


Very hot tea and coffee linked to raised oesophagus cancer

This seems entirely reasonable. Note that, unlike most epidemiological studies, the effect found was large: An 800% rise versus the 30% that seems to be the average for the studies I see

You may be gasping for that freshly brewed cup of tea or coffee, but waiting five minutes before drinking it could save your life. Researchers have found that a taste for very hot drinks may be linked to cancer of the oesophagus and that the risk of contracting the disease may increase eightfold as a result of drinking tea hotter than 70C (158F).

The oesophagus is the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach and such cancers kill more than half a million people around the world every year.

In Europe and America it is usually caused by smoking or alcohol, but a study published in the British Medical Journal found that there was a particularly high incidence of the disease in northern Iran, where smoking and alcohol consumption is low. The people of Golestan province do, however, drink large amounts of very hot tea - at least 70C.

Researchers studied the tea-drinking habits of 300 people with the cancer and a group of 571 healthy people from the same area. Compared with drinking warm or lukewarm tea (65C or less), drinking it at 65-69C doubled the risk of oesophageal cancer, while drinking it at 70C or more was associated with an eightfold increased risk.

Drinking tea less than two minutes after pouring, rather than waiting four or five minutes, led to a fivefold increase in the risk. There was no correlation between the amount of tea — after water the most widely consumed drink in the world — and the risk.

In an accompanying editorial, David Whiteman, from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, said: “We should follow the advice of Mrs Beeton, who prescribes a 5-10 minute interval between making and pouring tea, by which time the tea will be sufficiently flavoursome and unlikely to cause thermal injury.”

Britons may also take comfort from the fact that most of us prefer our tea at between 56 and 60C.


28 March, 2009

Study Links Anesthesia To Learning Disabilities

Does it take more than 2 seconds of sniffing to smell the foulness of the following lengthy excretion of crap? Has anyone thought to ask what the prior characteristics of children who require repeated surgery might be? Might it be that they start out with brain damage as well as other forms of damage? I append some remarks by a chief anesthiologist working in a large American public hospital

Children who have had multiple surgeries under general anesthesia by the age of 4 may be at a higher risk of developing learning disabilities, according to a new study by scientists at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Dr. Robert Wilder, a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist, says his study was motivated by recent research on baby rats and other young animals. Those studies, conducted in the last several years, show that exposure to anesthesia at a very young age can kill off brain cells. But results in rodents don't necessarily translate to humans.

"The initial reaction of the pediatric anesthesia community was, 'This must be wrong, we've been giving anesthetics to kids for years and we don't see a big problem,''' Wilder says. He, too, was skeptical.

The Mayo Clinic sits in Olmsted County. Both the research clinic and the county have kept precise records on the health care and hospitalization of its residents. Wilder sorted through the records of more than 5,000 children. About 600 of them had one or more surgeries with a general anesthesia, a class of drugs that enters the blood stream, reaches the brain and leaves a patient in a state of unconsciousness. Local anesthesia (like what's used by dentists when filling a cavity) and regional anesthesia (like an epidural that's common during childbirth) numb just a part of the body, but don't cause the patient to lose consciousness.

The surgeries ranged from those for serious problems, like open heart surgery, to more routine ones, like putting in ear tubes or removing adenoids and tonsils. Most of the kids in the study — about 80 percent — had surgeries for the small and common problems.

Wilder found that children who had undergone a single operation with a general anesthetic by the time they turned 4 were no more likely than other children to develop a learning disability. But kids who had had two surgeries were one and a half times more at risk. [In other words, it was only where kids had serious health problems that the learning problems were seen] And for children who had undergone three operations, the risk went up to two and a half times. Of the kids in Wilder's study who had had three or more operations, 50 percent of them later developed a learning disability.

Wilder speculates that anesthesia could cause learning problems in young children because it travels to the brain at a time when the brain is developing rapidly. "If you're exposed to these drugs at just the right time in your life," he says, "you have a lot more cell death than you otherwise would — and some of that is in the hippocampus, which is part of the brain that is involved in learning new things and it, therefore, does not work as well throughout the rest of your life."

That makes sense to Amanda Rathbun, who lives outside Salt Lake City. "I always thought that things like this ran in families, like if your dad has brown eyes, then you're more likely to have brown eyes. But there's not a history of this in our family," she says. Rathbun has three very smart kids. Her 11-year-old daughter has no learning disabilities. But another daughter, who's 8, and her son, who's 13, have both been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Both kids had several surgeries soon after birth. In addition, the son has struggled to write legibly. Fine motor skills are a problem for him, and Rathbun wonders if he could have gotten more attention for that sooner. "If general anesthesia early in life can really cause these sorts of problems," she says, "I think it would be good to know that, because maybe we could start more early intervention services for these kids and maybe prevent some of these later problems."

The new research is published in the current issue of Anesthesiology, the journal of the American Society of Anesthesiologists. The co-authors write that more studies are needed to be certain it's the anesthesia that's causing the problem. It might be the illness that requires the surgery — although the researchers took the sickest children out of the study.

Wilder says parents shouldn't avoid surgery when kids younger than 4 need it. "My advice is that if their child needs a surgical or diagnostic procedure that requires an anesthetic, then they should go ahead and have that surgical or diagnostic procedure with the anesthetic," he says.

Dr. Piyush Patel, who wrote an accompanying editorial in the same journal, agrees. He adds that parents can, however, ask their doctor if it's better to postpone a surgery until a child is older. "Based on these data, the parents of children have to be comfortable that the surgery is absolutely needed and they have to balance the risk of waiting for the surgery to be done versus the complication that may arise," says Patel, a professor of anesthesiology at the University of California, San Diego. "This is a decision that is best made by the surgeon and the anesthesiologist."

Wilder's study, and others, have created a sense of urgency to answer questions about the effects of anesthesia on the brain development of infants and young children. Earlier this month, the federal Food and Drug Administration announced a collaboration with Mayo and other clinics to support further research.



Trash from the start. And these guys are shameless - to get grant money - to raise stupid questions. And likely they will make a lot as expert witnesses to blame anesthesiologists for ADD etc..

And they admit that they excluded the worst cases. TRASH - how can you exclude children with serious defects requiring multiple surgeries? I speak as an expert. A routine anesthetic in a healthy patient is HARMLESS. In a sick patient, it is also HARMLESS -


These shameless anesthesiologists are pandering to the Obama Care lobby - to declare anesthesia as a risk factor, and use 'more caution' to limit the number of operations. Fits in just right to reduce budget. And to make parents hysteric so they avoid needed surgery in their children.


PS - In private practice, I did a lot of anesthesia on "healthy children" and NONE were more stupid after anesthesia than before, that I could see.

The integrity of neural wiring is a big factor in determining intelligence. It's also inheritable

I have mentioned this before but the article below gives more detail

New research suggests that the layer of insulation coating neural wiring in the brain plays a critical role in determining intelligence. In addition, the quality of this insulation appears to be largely genetically determined, providing further support for the idea that IQ is partly inherited.

The findings, which result from a detailed study of twins' brains, hint at how ever-improving brain-imaging technology could shed light on some of our most basic characteristics. "The study answers some very fundamental questions about how the brain expresses intelligence," says Philip Shaw, a child psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, in Bethesda, MD, who was not involved in the research.

The neural wires that transmit electrical messages from cell to cell in the brain are coated with a fatty layer called myelin. Much like the insulation on an electrical wire, myelin stops current from leaking out of the wire and boosts the speed with which messages travel through the brain--the higher quality the myelin, the faster the messages travel. These myelin-coated tracts make up the brain's white matter, while the bodies of neural cells are called grey matter.

White matter is invisible on most brain scans, but a recently developed variation of magnetic resonance imaging, called diffusion-tensor imaging (DTI), allows scientists to map the complex neural wiring in our brains by measuring the diffusion of water molecules through tissue. Thanks to the fatty myelin coating, water diffuses along the length of neural wires, while in other types of brain tissue it moves in all different directions. Researchers can calculate the direction of fastest diffusion at each point in the brain and then construct a picture of the brain's fiber tracts. A well-organized brain has well-functioning myelin, in which water can be seen clearly moving along specific paths. "Diffusion imaging gives a picture of how intact your brain connections are," says Paul Thompson, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who lead the study.

Thompson and his colleagues took DTI scans of 92 pairs of fraternal and identical twins. They found a strong correlation between the integrity of the white matter and performance on a standard IQ test. "Going forward, we are certainly going to think of white matter structure as an important contributor of intelligence," says Van Wedeen, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who was also not involved in the research. "It also changes how you think about what IQ is measuring," says Wedeen. The research was published last month in the Journal of Neuroscience.

If white matter is linked to both processing speed and IQ, this raises the question: is intelligence merely a function of how fast your brain works? Previous research has linked processing speed to IQ, but the tests used in the study are measures of general intelligence, including verbal skills, math, and logic. "Processing speed plays a big part in how intelligent you are, but it's not the only factor," says Shaw.

The new study is among the first to link a specific neural architecture to IQ in healthy individuals. "Most people have focused on grey matter," says Shaw. "This is good evidence we should be looking at white matter as well." Previous studies using DTI have linked white matter damage to Alzheimer's disease, chronic alcoholism, and traumatic brain injury.

The UCLA researchers took the study a step further by comparing the white matter architecture of identical twins, who share almost all their DNA, and fraternal twins, who share only half. Results showed that the quality of the white matter is highly genetically determined, although the influence of genetics varies by brain area. According to the findings, about 85 percent of the variation in white matter in the parietal lobe, which is involved in mathematics, logic, and visual-spatial skills, can be attributed to genetics. But only about 45 percent of the variation in the temporal lobe, which plays a central role in learning and memory, appears to be inherited.

Thompson and his collaborators also analyzed the twins' DNA, and they are now looking for specific genetic variations that are linked to the quality of the brain's white matter. The researchers have already found a candidate--the gene for a protein called BDNF, which promotes cell growth. "People with one variation have more intact fibers," says Thompson.

The search for the genetic and neuroanatomical basis of intelligence has been controversial, largely because opponents fear it will spawn a deterministic view of abilities and education. "People worry that if something is genetic, they have no power to influence it," says Thompson. "But that's not true at all." For example, both an average runner and a genetically gifted one can benefit from training.

But the debate may be moot since, as Wedeen points out, it is unlikely that an individual brain scan could predict a person's IQ. "The report described aggregate data over number of individuals," he says. "That's not the same as saying we can do a scan and determine a person's intelligence. That may be in the offing, but we don't know that yet."


27 March, 2009

British food faddist regulations put hot school meals at risk

The future of school meals is in jeopardy because only half of secondary schools are on course to comply with stringent government standards, catering leaders will say today. This could bring about the demise of hot meals in secondary schools, as caterers struggle to cope with the expensive and time-consuming restrictions. From September they will have to buy costly computer equipment to calculate the nutritional content of every meal. Each dish must meet 14 standards, including calorie content, fat, proteins and vitamins.

Caterers say that the obsession with raising the quality of school food, begun by the TV chef Jamie Oliver, has been taken too far by ministers. At best they will have to restrict choice, by scrapping the cafeteria-style buffet common in most schools in favour of a set two-course menu that places greater emphasis on nutrition than pupils’ tastes.

An example of dish that would meet the nutrition requirements is a chicken and vegetable stir fry with brown rice and green cabbage. A typical portion would contain 411 calories, 6.3g fat and 20.6g protein. Burgers with chips and baked beans will disappear.

Caterers say that teenagers will vote with their feet, choosing to eat elsewhere. They predict that this will lead to redundancies and say that the service will be under threat. The Government has banned schools from selling crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks.

The Local Authority Caterers’ Association, which holds its conference in London today, surveyed its members and found that only half were prepared for the nutrient standards at the start of the next academic year. A sixth will not have any in place. The standards became law in primary schools last year but this was much easier to introduce because a set meal is the norm for younger pupils.

Neil Porter, chairman of Laca, said these were a “step too far”. He said: “We will have to put menus and recipes through a software system which produces a graph to show whether they are compliant. These will be externally monitored and checked. “Secondary schools have an average 30 to 40-minute lunch break, and 1,000 pupils. How can you feed upwards of 1,000 students set meals, with the added complication of kitchen and dining areas not being able to cope with new food preparation and the increased numbers? And let’s not forget the other important point: that teenagers will not choose the new food on offer when, before, they had multiple choice menus. “We have to meet 14 nutrient standards and will have most problems with zinc and iron. Liver and spinach are the best sources but these aren’t the most popular items in school. We would be providing something that they shun, in order to tick a box.”

Mr Porter said that the changes would “inevitably lead to a loss of posts within kitchens and could finally result in the school meals service, as we know it, ceasing in secondary schools.” A statement issued by Laca said: “Together with a number of other leading organisations, academic researchers, dietitians and health experts, we believe that nutrient standards could bring the demise of the secondary school meal service in this country.”

The survey found that almost three quarters of caterers believed that the standards would result in high food costs and an increase in meal prices. Four fifths thought it would cause a decline in the uptake of school lunches.

A spokeswoman for the School Food Trust, which devised the nutrient standards, said: “They are challenging but there is a very valid reason for them. It is important that they are in place to ensure we promote the health, wellbeing and achievements of children. The School Food Trust has worked with caterers from a number of different school settings. All have proved that through hard work and engagement with students they have been able to produce a compliant, appealing, tasty and varied menu.”


Australia: Food freak mayor imposing her views on others

SYDNEY Lord Mayor Clover Moore has banned Tim Tams from council events for fear they're partially produced through cruel child labour on Africa's Ivory Coast. In a move to create "sustainable, healthy and cruelty-free catering" at City of Sydney meetings and events, staff have stopped providing chocolate biscuits along with meals containing eggs, bottled water, fat-rich cakes, dairy deserts and "bad" fish species.

One of the first attempts at the new politically correct meals policy was at the council's Investing in Sydney's Future business forum on February 25. On the menu were vegetables (locally grown), NSW wines (organic) and "a good fish species choice" (blue-eye trevalla).

Liberal councillor Shayne Mallard, who was at a briefing on the guidelines, said the first hint of the new policy was when Tim Tams disappeared from meetings. "We are being dictated to by a radical green agenda telling us what fish we can eat, what water we drink and banning eggs or Tim Tams instead of focusing on issues like saving jobs," Mr Mallard said.

"Council staff told me Tim Tams were banned because 80 per cent of world cocoa production comes from the Ivory Coast, where there are allegations of child labour." An Arnott's spokeswoman said only a very limited supply of chocolate was from the Ivory Coast. "But this supplier is a member of the International Cocoa Initiative, which is dedicated to ensuring no child is exploited in the growing of cocoa and to ending child and forced labour," she said.

Requests for comment from Ms Moore were declined yesterday but a spokeswoman said: "No particular brand of food or drink has been identified as being off the menu." In a memo obtained by The Daily Telegraph, the council's environmental projects manager Kirsten Woodward said the council would serve only cruelty-free and healthy options. "Vegan, vegetarian and lactose intolerant options have also been developed for future events," Ms Woodward's memo said.


26 March, 2009

Meet 'Lucky' Yamaguchi, the only man to have survived both Hiroshima AND Nagasaki atomic bomb blasts

The utter morons below are asking about his health problems -- ignoring the fact that he is 93! He clearly has unusually few health problems. That is exactly what one would expect from radiation hormesis. It has been shown many times that moderate doses of radiation are GOOD for you but nobody wants to acknowledge it. Because very high doses are bad for you, the pedlars of simplistic scare theories pretend that low doses are bad too. It just aint so -- and Mr Yamaguchi is one proof of it. There are MANY survivors of the 1945 blasts who are exceptionally long lived but that is too complicated for the lamebrains so reality is ignored

A man of 93 has become the first person certified as a survivor of both the U.S. atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of the Second World War. Tsutomu Yamaguchi appears to be the only person in history to have survived not one, but two atomic bomb blasts. But does this make him the luckiest man in the world - or the unluckiest...?

Yamaguchi had already been a certified 'hibakusha,' or radiation survivor, of the August 9, 1945, atomic bombing in Nagasaki. But he has now been confirmed as surviving the attack on Hiroshima three days earlier as well, city officials said.

Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip on August 6, 1945, when a U.S. B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city. Traumatised, he then sought the refuge of his hometown - Nagasaki. With devastating timing, he arrived just in time for the second attack, city officials said.

'As far as we know, he is the first one to be officially recognised as a survivor of atomic bombings in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki,' Nagasaki city official Toshiro Miyamoto said. 'It's such an unfortunate case, but it is possible that there are more people like him.'

It is unclear why it has taken so long for Yamaguchi to be recognised. Certification qualifies survivors for government compensation - including monthly allowances, free medical checkups and funeral costs - but Yamaguchi will not get double compensation, Miyamoto said.

Japan is the only country to have suffered atomic bomb attacks. About 140,000 people were killed in Hiroshima and 70,000 in Nagasaki.

Yamaguchi is one of about 260,000 people who survived the attacks. Bombing survivors have developed various illnesses from radiation exposure, including cancer and liver illnesses. Details of Yamaguchi's health problems were not released.

Thousands survivors continue to seek official recognition after the government rejected their eligibility for compensation. The government last year eased the requirements for being certified as a survivor, following criticism the rules were too strict and neglected many who had developed illnesses that doctors have linked to radiation.


Cannabis users 'suffering new syndrome'

THERE is mounting evidence to support the existence of a new syndrome afflicting heavy cannabis users, after the world's first cases were found in South Australia. The condition "cannabinoid hyperemesis" was first identified in a group of about 20 heavy drug users in the Adelaide hills in 2004, and a new case has emerged this time in the US. The syndrome is characterised by nausea, stomach pain and bouts of vomiting - ill effects which, oddly, sufferers say they get some relief from by having a hot shower or bath.

The new case, involving a 22-year-old man in Omaha, is published in the World Journal of Gastroenterology where doctors were also told to consider it when treating people with unexplained vomiting. "Given the high prevalence of chronic cannabis abuse worldwide and the paucity of reports in the literature, clinicians need to be more attentive to the clinical features of this under-recognised condition," writes Dr Siva Sontineni, and colleagues, from the Creighton University Medical Centre.

In the US case, the sufferer had been smoking marijuana daily and in heavy doses for six years. This eventually led to bouts of vomiting lasting two to three hours daily, and this was worse after meals. As with South Australian cases, the young man initially turned to "compulsive hot bathing behaviour" to relieve the symptoms but he was not cured until he gave up smoking cannabis altogether.

Adelaide-based drug expert and emergency ward doctor, Dr David Caldicott, said he had seen three cases of the illness and it was possibly also under-reported by sufferers. "We're probably seeing the tip of the iceberg in the emergency departments, it's probably far more common but far milder (in the broader community)," he said.

Little was known about how cumulative cannabis use could lead to vomiting and, particularly, why sufferers would find some relief in hot bathing, Dr Caldicott also said. "That's a distinct and unanimously recurrent feature of this condition, and we don't know why," he said. "Grown men, screaming in pain, sweating profusely, vomiting every 30 seconds and demanding to be allowed to use the shower. It's a very dramatic presentation."

Dr Caldicott said the condition had been identified in a small number of cannabis users "but in the medical community it is now considered to be a real condition".

The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, based at the University of NSW, is taking a more conservative approach. Centre director Jan Copeland said more cases would need to emerge before it could be considered a new syndrome linked to chronic cannabis use. "It is not unusual for there to be significant mental and physical health complications with this level of cannabis use," Professor Copeland said.


25 March, 2009

BBQs in the gun again

It pays to look at the journal abstract (see following the article below). For a start, it says nothing about BBQs. It is concerned with meat consumption overall. Tiny differences were found and then only by comparing extreme groups. The study did have enough sophistication to control for education but education has only some relationship with occupation. If there is anything at all in the findings, the people in the big meat-eating group were probably manual workers in the main and the low meat-eating group were probably faddy middle class vegetarians and such like. And class differences are well known as an influence on morbidity and mortality. Any inferences from the findings are purely speculative

THROWING a steak on the barbecue is in the gun, after a major study found people who eat red meat are more likely to die from cancer or heart attack. Barbecuing red meat was also the cooking method that caused the most cancer causing "carcinogens", experts have warned.

The US study looked at the diets of more than 500,000 people and a follow-up 10 years later found those who ate the most red, or processed, meat had a higher incidence of death. Eating white meat - poultry or fish - did not have the same effect and was associated with a slightly decreased risk.

Cancer Council Australia chief executive Professor Ian Olver said that while the study could not be said to show that red meat caused cancer, the apparent link warranted further research. "Such population studies demonstrate these relationships between red meat and cancer deaths but are not able to prove that one causes the other," he said. "With red meat, for example, the method of cooking is important. "For example, more carcinogens would be expected to be produced from barbecue than by slow cooking (while) the other factor predisposing to cancer is the fat content of the meat."

The research, produced as part of the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study, is published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

The study raised the question of what role meat should play in the diet, says Mark Wahlqvist, Director of the Asia Pacific Health and Nutrition Centre at Victoria's Monash University. He said that red meat in small amounts - even about an ounce or 30 grams daily - could make a significant difference to the risk of micronutrient (vitamins and minerals) deficiency. "(But) the corollary is that a plant-based diet is a preferred orientation for food intake in the human species and many studies support this conclusion," Professor Wahlqvist said.


Meat Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People

By Rashmi Sinha et al.

Background: High intakes of red or processed meat may increase the risk of mortality. Our objective was to determine the relations of red, white, and processed meat intakes to risk for total and cause-specific mortality.

Methods: The study population included the National Institutes of Health–AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons) Diet and Health Study cohort of half a million people aged 50 to 71 years at baseline. Meat intake was estimated from a food frequency questionnaire administered at baseline. Cox proportional hazards regression models estimated hazard ratios (HRs) and 95% confidence intervals (CIs) within quintiles of meat intake. The covariates included in the models were age, education, marital status, family history of cancer (yes/no) (cancer mortality only), race, body mass index, 31-level smoking history, physical activity, energy intake, alcohol intake, vitamin supplement use, fruit consumption, vegetable consumption, and menopausal hormone therapy among women. Main outcome measures included total mortality and deaths due to cancer, cardiovascular disease, injuries and sudden deaths, and all other causes.

Results: There were 47 976 male deaths and 23 276 female deaths during 10 years of follow-up. Men and women in the highest vs lowest quintile of red (HR, 1.31 [95% CI, 1.27-1.35], and HR, 1.36 [95% CI, 1.30-1.43], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.16 [95% CI, 1.12-1.20], and HR, 1.25 [95% CI, 1.20-1.31], respectively) intakes had elevated risks for overall mortality. Regarding cause-specific mortality, men and women had elevated risks for cancer mortality for red (HR, 1.22 [95% CI, 1.16-1.29], and HR, 1.20 [95% CI, 1.12-1.30], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.12 [95% CI, 1.06-1.19], and HR, 1.11 [95% CI 1.04-1.19], respectively) intakes. Furthermore, cardiovascular disease risk was elevated for men and women in the highest quintile of red (HR, 1.27 [95% CI, 1.20-1.35], and HR, 1.50 [95% CI, 1.37-1.65], respectively) and processed meat (HR, 1.09 [95% CI, 1.03-1.15], and HR, 1.38 [95% CI, 1.26-1.51], respectively) intakes. When comparing the highest with the lowest quintile of white meat intake, there was an inverse association for total mortality and cancer mortality, as well as all other deaths for both men and women.

Conclusion: Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality.

Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(6):562-571.

Should schools tell you what to put in your child's lunchbox?

There seems to have been a lot of backpedalling since this story first broke -- judging from the commenter below. Note that the one thing that is most heavily hated seems to be chocolate but there have been plenty of findings suggesting that chocolate is good for you. I don't assert that it is. I just want to point out the arrogance of people claiming to know what is best in a field beset by controversy and ever-evolving knowledge -- particularly when much conventional thinking does not stand up under objective test

You have to feel for headteacher Deborah Metcalf. Accused by the Daily Mail of running a sandwich box Stasi and the Daily Telegraph of presiding over a mealtime Gestapo, the head of Danegrove Primary School in Barnet, Greater London, is somewhat bemused. "Everyone had been very supportive," she told School Gate today. "At least until one parent went to the papers."

The story is to do with packed lunches, and the drive towards healthy eating. Having worked on healthy school lunches for the last few years, Ms Metcalf felt that it was time to make some suggestions to pupils' packed lunches too. A third of pupils at the school (which is 605 strong) bring packed lunches every day, and Ms Metcalf and her staff were not too thrilled to see that some lunchboxes were filled with fizzy drinks and crisps.

"We wanted the children who bring packed lunches in to try and make them healthy, like the school lunches. We suggested a pot of pasta or rice, sandwiches or pitta pockets, fruit or yoghurt." Plain or fruit cake is also acceptable at Danegrove, although not chocolate cake (which the canteen doesn't serve to the children taking school lunches either), fizzy drinks or "full-fat crisps". The new policy began in September and parents have been told about it repeatedly "It's in our newsletter every week," says Ms Metcalf.

But while the head and her staff thought the whole policy was going well, it seems that some parents were not as thrilled (although it has to be said that only one family went to the press, and they chose not to speak to the head first...). Those who flout the new policy receive a little note in their child's lunchbox, reminding them of the healthy eating policy, and very occasionally (Ms Metcalf can remember just one, yep, one occasion when the mealtime supervisor took away a packet of chocolate biscuits), offending items are removed.

Some parents will complain, in Daily Mail voice about this, but, I'm going to stick my head above the parapet: I think this is a good idea. There, I said it! The school is not being overly prescriptive (it doesn't recommend jam sandwiches, for example, but it hasn't banned them either), is trying to educate adults a little and by doing this, is helping children learn about healthy eating. Many of them won't pick this up at home, but eating more healthily will help them throughout their lives. However, I do have to say that I'm not convinced about the letter-in-the-lunchbox. That does seem a little over-the-top.

I'm sure many of you will disagree with my (generally) positive thoughts about this, and argue that you, as parents, should be allowed to give your child whatever you want to eat. Feel free - at least out of school time. But I do feel that there is an obesity problem in this country, and that suggesting a child doesn't have a can of Coke for lunch can only be a good thing. And the headteacher of this school says that the children's behaviour and concentration in the afternoons is far, far better now, which has to be a good thing... [But she would say that, wouldn't she? Have any objective observations or tests been done?]


24 March, 2009

British scientists 'to create synthetic blood from embryonic stem cells'

Many people will object to this on moral grounds but, even though abortion horrifies me, I cannot see the harm in using material that would otherwise be discarded

British scientists are planning a ground-breaking research project to create synthetic human blood from embryonic stem cells, it has been disclosed. The results could provide an unlimited supply of blood for emergency transfusions free of the risk of infection. It could revolutionise blood transfusion services, which currently rely on a network of human donors to provide a constant supply of fresh blood.

The three-year project will be led by the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service and includes NHS Blood and Transplant and the Wellcome Trust, the world's biggest medical research charity.

The artificial blood will be made from the stem cells of human embryos left over from IVF treatment. Researchers will test the embryos to find those that are genetically programmed to develop into the "O-negative" blood group. This is the universal donor group, whose blood can be transfused to any patient without the fear of tissue rejection. The rare blood group, which is applicable to only 7 per cent of the population, could then be produced in unlimited quantities because of the embryonic stem cells' ability to multiply indefinitely.

The objective is to stimulate the cells to develop into mature, oxygen-carrying red blood cells for emergency transfusions. Such blood would have the benefit of not being at risk of being infected with viruses such as HIV and hepatitis.

The SNBTS is expected within weeks to sign an agreement with the Wellcome Trust for a grant to fund the multi-million pound research project. A spokeswoman for the SNBTS confirmed that the research project was to go ahead but said that no further comment could be made because it was bound by a confidentiality agreement with the Wellcome Trust.

According to The Independent, the project will be led by Professor Marc Turner, of Edinburgh University, the director of the Scottish National Blood Transfusion Service. Professor Turner has been involved in studies examining ways to ensure donated blood is free of the infectious agent behind variant CJD, the human form of "mad cow" disease.

Last year, Advanced Cell Technology, a US biotechnology firm, claimed it had produced billions of functioning red blood cells from embryonic stem cells. However, US projects have been delayed due to funding problems as a result of the ban on embryonic stem cell research introduced by the Bush administration, which Barack Obama has since overturned.


Proteins from garden pea may help fight high blood pressure and kidney disease (but only for rats so far)

One has to laugh! Pease pies (pies containing meat with a topping of mushy peas) are an old favourite in Australia. Who knew that we were doing ourselves such a lot of good?

Extracts from garden peas could be used as a food additive or supplement to reduce high blood pressure and kidney disease, claim scientists. Peas have long been recognised as a superfood containing protein, dietary fibre, and vitamins wrapped in a low-fat, cholesterol-free package. But new research shows for the first time that concentrating extracts from the pea can have dramatic affect on blood pressure and chronic kidney disease (CKD).

"In people with high blood pressure, our protein could potentially delay or prevent the onset of kidney damage," said study author Dr Rotimi Aluko, a food chemist at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. "In people who already have kidney disease, our protein may help them maintain normal blood pressure levels so they can live longer."

The study, which will be presented at the American Chemical Society's conference, is the first reporting that a natural food product can relieve symptoms of kidney disease, the scientists said. High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a major risk factor for CKD, a condition that has been affecting an increasing number of people around the world. CKD is difficult to treat, and may progress to end-stage kidney disease that requires kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant.

Working with colleague Dr Harold Aukema, Dr Aluko purified a mixture of small proteins – called pea protein hydrolysate – from the yellow garden pea. The researchers fed small daily doses of the protein mixture to laboratory rats with kidney disease. At the end of the eight-week-long study period, the protein-fed rats with kidney disease showed a 20 per cent drop in blood pressure when compared to diseased rats on a normal diet, the researchers say.

"This is significant because a majority of CKD patients actually die from cardiovascular complications that arise from the high blood pressure associated with kidney malfunction," Dr Aluko said.


23 March, 2009

Obesity 'causing rise in kidney stone operations'

This is just speculation dressed up as science

The number of patients requiring operations for painful kidney stones has risen by one third in five years, driven in part by the growing obesity crisis [How do they know that?], experts have warned. More and more patients are having to undergo invasive surgery and other procedures to remove the stones, which can cause excruciating pain and dangerous complications.

Official figures from the NHS Information Centre show that 18,964 of these procedures were carried out in 2006/07, an increase of a third on 2002/03, when the number was just 14,306. Although operations were most common on those in middle age or older the statistics also revealed that 203 were carried out on under-18s in 2006/07, up from 189 five years earlier.

Almost one in four British adults is now classed as obese, and doctors predict that the figure will rise in coming decades.

Daron Smith, urology consultant at University College London Hospital, said: "One of the major causes of kidney stones can be diet and lifestyle and the growing obesity problem is related [to them]. "Eating too much protein and high levels of salt is not good for the build up of chemicals in the urine which can cause stones. "This can be exacerbated by a condition called metabolic syndrome, which is also one of the links between obesity and Type II diabetes." He said that his clinic had noticed an increase both in the number of patients and in the size of the stones that required treatment in recent years.

Caused mainly by a build up of calcium or uric acid in the urine, stones are usually small enough that patients will "pass" them over time without the need for surgery. However, large stones can migrate from the kidneys into other parts of the body, where they can become stuck, cause infection, or lead to permanent kidney damage. Symptoms can include severe pain in the stomach or back, a frequent urge to urinate, as well as a fever.

Procedures to remove the stones include using an X-ray to locate where they are in the body, and then passing an electric current through the area to break them up so that they are small enough to be passed in urine, as well as invasive surgery on the kidney.


Prince Charles' Duchy Originals ordered to remove 'misleading' herbal remedy claims

Prince Charles' Duchy Originals brand has been ordered to remove claims about the effectiveness of its herbal remedies from its website, after regulators ruled they were "misleading". The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has upheld a complaint over the online advertising of two remedies, Duchy Herbals Echina-Relief Tincture and Duchy Herbals Hyperi-Lift Tincture, which are sold for 10 pounds for 50ml in selected Boots and Waitrose stores.

Although the MHRA has given the company a license to sell the remedies it does not allow them to make any claims about their effects, merely to stress their "traditional use". Since the ruling, made at the end of January but only made public, Duchy Originals has since amended its website and agreed not to make similar claims in any future advertising.

The remedies have been available in stores and through the company's website since the end of January and the MHRA made its ruling after a complaint from a member of the public. The move comes just a week after a leading scientist accused the Prince of "exploiting the gullible" with the Duchy Originals' tinctures.

Prof Edzard Ernst, from the Peninsula Medical School, dismissed one of the remedies, the company's Detox Artichoke and Dandelion Tincture, as "quackery" and dubbed the brand "Dodgy Originals". The Duchy Herbals brand is also being investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over claims made about its Detox Tincture product.

According to the amended website Duchy Herbals Hyperi-Lift Tincture is a “traditional herbal medicinal product used to relieve the symptoms of slightly low mood and mild anxiety, based on traditional use only.” Similarly Duchy Herbals Echina-Relief Tincture is a “traditional herbal medicinal product used to relive the symptoms of the common cold and influenza type infections.”

A spokesman for Duchy Originals said: “Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture is an excellent and safe product, traded as a food supplement and compliant with all of the relevant sections of both UK and European food laws. It is a natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s natural elimination processes. It is not – and has never been described as – a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease. “There is no “quackery”, no “make believe” and no “superstition” in any of the Duchy Originals herbal tinctures. We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity.”


22 March, 2009

IVF babies in health alert: Test-tube children 30 per cent more likely to have defects

This is reasonable in theory but runs contrary to some previous reports. This is also a good example of how medical publications use RELATIVE rather than absolute risk to scare people. The raw facts behind the "30% more" are that the risk rises from a small 2.5% risk in natural conceptions to a still small 3.5% risk in IVF conceptions. That creates quite a different impression, doesn't it?

Couples having IVF treatment are to be warned for the first time that their children have a higher risk of genetic flaws and health problems. Official guidance will make clear that test-tube babies could be up to 30 per cent more likely to suffer from certain birth defects. The alert has been ordered by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the Government's watchdog on fertility issues.

It means that the one in six British couples estimated to be infertile will have to balance their desire for a child against concerns that IVF methods could lead to life-threatening defects or long-term disabilities. A number of studies have already raised concerns over the growing use of the procedure, which accounts for more than 10,000 births in Britain every year.

Research published online last month in the Human Reproduction journal found that IVF babies suffer from higher rates of birth defects than those conceived naturally. The scientists from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta looked at more than 13,500 births and a further 5,000 control cases using data from the National Birth Defects Prevention Study. They found that IVF babies suffer from a range of conditions, including heart valve defects, cleft lip and palate, and digestive system abnormalities due to the bowel or oesophagus failing to form properly.

In addition, IVF babies have a small but increased risk of rare genetic disorders including Angelman Syndrome, which leads to delays in development, and Beckwith-Wiedemann Syndrome, which can lead to a hole in the abdomen and learning difficulties.

HFEA experts believe parents should be told of the concerns associated with IVF - although they emphasised that not all the risks are fully understood and more research is needed.

One theory is that the fertility drugs which stimulate egg production can lead to poorer quality eggs, which nature would usually weed out. Another is that older women - whose eggs are of a lower quality - are more likely to turn to IVF to conceive.

Until now, official HFEA guidance on the safety of IVF has expressed only limited concerns about babies born by ICSI - where a single sperm is injected into an egg to create an embryo. The method is feared to lead to a doubling of birth defects including genital and urological abnormalities, kidney problems and deformities of the stomach and intestines.

But now the watchdog is to warn generally of the risks associated with all types of the procedure. Patients will be able to access the HFEA's advice on its website from next month, while IVF clinics will have to tell couples of the risks from October.

The HFEA will also make clear that the majority of babies born by IVF are healthy.

Last night, IVF specialist Richard Kennedy, of the British Fertility Society, said: 'We have known for some time that there is a slightly increased risk of abnormalities for all IVF treatments, not just ICSI. 'It is only right that patients should be told about this and it is a good thing that the HFEA is updating its guidance. 'What we need to remember is that the overall risks of an abnormality occurring is increased with IVF but it is still a small risk. Nevertheless, patients still need to be aware.' Around 2.5 per cent of babies in the general population are born with some form of birth defect, while in IVF, this may rise to around 3.5 per cent, he added.

Josephine Quintavalle, of the campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: 'IVF should never be the first port of call for someone trying to conceive and we need a lot more money to go into research to help restore fertility for natural conception. 'IVF is often used when couples are "sub-fertile", meaning they take longer to conceive, or by single women wishing to conceive using donor sperm. Patients need to consider the risks.'

An HFEA spokesman said: 'Following the publication of a U.S. study into birth defects, HFEA's Scientific and Clinical Advances Committee reviewed our guidance and advice about the risks. 'As with any medical procedure, it is important patients understand what the treatment involves and what the risks may be. 'Our code of practice says that clinicians must tell patients about the possible side effects and risks of treatment, including any risks for the child. 'Anyone who has concerns about their treatment should discuss this with their doctor.'


The Primal diet: the silliest diet ever?

Hollywood's latest food fad is the most extreme yet. Do not try this at home

John, a 36-year-old from London, is discussing the foods his diet allows. Carrots perhaps? Or quinoa? “I'm very keen on a raw hare carcass,” he says. “Raw mallard is good too. So's raw tongue and raw organ meat. Ideally, it'll have been sitting around for three or four weeks and be really off. Some people like it when it's liquid mush but I prefer it really off, but still so you can stick a fork in it.”

If the Pineapple, Atkins and Cabbage Soup diets seemed extreme, then consider the fanatics worldwide following the latest allegedly detoxifying trend - the Primal Diet, an eating plan consisting of raw meat, eggs and dairy - preferably past their sell-by dates. The diet, the latest to hit Hollywood, was founded by Aajonus (pronounced oj-enus) Vonderplanitz, a 62-year-old nutritionist from California - and it can be only a matter of time before it's endorsed by a twig-thin starlet. The theory is that raw fats bind to the toxins in the body, which are then more readily transported out of the system.

At its most basic level adherents exist on 95 per cent raw meat, including chicken (made more palatable with a marinade of herbs and spices). When they eat out they can rely on culinary classics such as sashimi, steak tartare and beef carpaccio. The remaining 5 per cent is made up with vegetable juices and low-carbohydrate fruits, such as avocados. True aficionados, however, favour “high” meat (so called because of Vonderplanitz's claims that it inspires a natural high), with a small sideorder of rancid unpasteurised yoghurt and fermented vegetables.

“It took me a long time to try high meat because I was scared,” John says. “It does stink like hell and it tastes like an aged raw cheese. The first time I tried it I had to chase it down with a glass of mineral water and I did have a couple of days detoxing, with a bit of diarrhoea. But now my only regret is being squeamish for so long. I used to have all sorts of health problems but now I feel great. I've heard of a couple of people with parasites from it, but I've been doing it for seven years and I haven't died yet.”

John was right to be scared. “Advocating a diet that relies on eating raw meat is simply irresponsible and could be downright dangerous,” says Dr Andrew Wadge, the Food Standards Agency's chief scientist. “It is a simple fact that raw meat may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness and even death. There are still around 500 deaths a year in the UK from food poisoning.”

But “high” primal diet followers say that the risks are worth it. Websites are filled with testimonials claiming that various ailments - including incurable cancers - were cured after a couple of months of rancid raw buffalo.

Vonderplanitz shrugs off any criticism, arguing that doctors have never observed the effects of his diet, while he has witnessed it “reverse 95 per cent of all diseases, while energy, mental clarity and emotional wellbeing are acquired within 30 days to two years”. He does, however, advocate eating rotting meat only if it is organic and free range, ideally grass-fed, and a period of preparing the body by eating fresh raw meat is advised.

A spokeswoman for the Centre for Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge says there has been no research into the possible benefits of eating raw or rotten meat, “because the health risk would be too great”.

But when it comes to squeezing into a bikini, it seems that some people will risk anything. “Fad diets like this are quick-fix solutions,” the spokeswoman says. “We think they'll solve all our problems, even though we know in the long term that they are not sustainable and have no real benefit.”


21 March, 2009

Now oranges are unhealthy! Where will the madness stop?

Netball organization bans oranges at half-time -- despite no proof of harm

A juicy stoush is brewing between a state sporting body and citrus growers over the banning of oranges at games because of potential damage to teeth. Netball Queensland, the umbrella body for 82 netball associations, has sanctioned the ban based on the high acid levels of oranges and the potential harm to children's teeth, according to Brisbane's Courier-Mail. "Most of our associations have banned oranges at half-time or are discouraging coaches from offering oranges," said a Netball Queensland spokeswoman.

But Queensland Citrus Growers, which is about to roll out a major campaign promoting fruit at sports games, said it was outrageous to be discouraging children from eating fresh fruit. State manager Chris Simpson said "citrus and kids' sport had been synonymous for generations". "I'd like to see medical research and evidence to prove fruit is unhealthy, particularly fresh citrus," Mr Simpson said.

Netball Queensland's consultant dietitian Kerry Leech said acidity was the problem. "When players come off the court at half-time they're generally a bit dehydrated and the worst thing for teeth in that environment is acid, because it erodes the enamel," Ms Leech said. "So we're encouraging fluids to re-hydrate at half-time rather than eating half an orange."

Dr Derek Lewis from the Australian Dental Association's oral health committee agreed oranges and athletes were not a good mix. Mr Simpson said his organisation was launching a campaign in which hundreds of mandarins would begiven away at sporting functions. "If they're concerned about oranges, why not try an Imperial mandarin?"


When it comes to wound healing, the maggot cleans up

Flesh-eating maggots and blood-sucking leeches might be considered more medieval than modern, but if you want a wound treated with maximum efficiency, few therapies can compete with 200 million years of evolution. A study by a team of British scientists, published today, lends support to the use of the maggot in high-tech healthcare. They found that, left to graze on the skin, maggots can clean wounds that fail to heal five times faster than conventional treatments.

In a trial to investigate the clinical effectiveness of maggots for wound treatment, the leg ulcers of patients treated with larvae were found to heal just as quickly as the water-based gel normally used. The study also showed that the process of debridement — the removal of dead tissue, in this case eaten by the maggots — occurred far faster, suggesting that larvae could be used to clean sites at high speed before urgent surgery, such as skin grafts.

Leeches have also been shown to be a highly effective tool in microsurgery. The excess blood that builds up when an appendage is reattached — because of the inability to link all the broken veins — is drained off with leeches, which can consume five times their weight in a single blood-sucking.

While the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has yet to issue licences for the medical use of maggots and leeches, the US Food and Drug Administration passed both invertebrates for use in 2005.

Britain’s biggest leech and maggot providers, both based in South Wales, have experienced an increase in interest in recent years. At Biopharm, the leech specialist, annual sales have doubled to more than 70,000 of the animals in the past 15 years.

Professor Nicky Cullum, a specialist in wound care, who led the maggot therapy study published in today’s British Medical Journal, said that maggots had cleaned wounds in 14 days — compared with 72 days with gel treatment. She said there was anecdotal evidence of increasing maggot use in the NHS.

The trial, which received health service funding, involved 267 participants who had at least one diseased vein leg ulcer — common in the elderly and those who have suffered deep vein thrombosis. Participants were randomised to receive loose larvae, bagged larvae — where the maggots are placed on the skin inside a gauze bag — or gel during the debridement, followed by standard treatment.

Carl Peters-Bond, the assistant manager at Biopharm, said that he was not surprised at increased interest in the use of maggots, having seen his leech business grow steadily in recent years. “These are creatures that have evolved over millions of years to remove blood or tissue — to do a job.

Nature's nurses

Maggot: (such as Lucilia sericata) Use of maggots for wound healing has been linked to Maya Indians and Aboriginal tribes, as well as during the Renaissance. Military physicians, including Napoleon’s surgeon-general, observed that soldiers whose wounds had become colonised with maggots experienced significantly less morbidity than other wounded soldiers. Maggots were popular into the 1900s, but went out of vogue with the rise of antibiotics

Leech: (such as Hirudo medicinalis) Medical use was first recorded in 200BC, while George Washington is said to have died when too much blood was drained during an illness. The leech is a segmented worm related to the earthworm. The front suction cup has three sharp jaws, each with 125 teeth, that make a Y-shaped bite — leaving a mark compared to the badge of a Mercedes-Benz.

The leech can feed for six hours or more, enough to last it for as long as two years. Leech saliva contains chemicals that prevent clotting, so a wound might bleed for hours after the leech is removed


20 March, 2009

Being overweight 'can reduce lifespan by three years'

The journal abstract is here. This is an analysis of a large number of studies (though of unknown representativeness) and confirms the usual finding that people of middling weight are the healthiest. What is stressed below are extreme cases, however. The statistics actually provided by the study suggest that the overall correlation between weight and ill health is very weak

Being four stone overweight can cut your life by up to three years, according to a new study. Severely obese people can lose 10 years from their life, researchers found: the same effect as long-term smoking. Almost one in four people in Britain are now obese, official statistics show, and experts predict that the problem will mushroom in coming decades.

The latest study looked at the effect that weight had on the lifespan of almost 900,000 men and women. It found that those with the lowest deaths rates had a "normal" weight, judged to be a Body Mass Index (BMI) of between 22.5 and 25. BMI is a ratio of weight in kilograms versus height in metres.

For every five points, or one band on the BMI scale, above a healthy weight, overall risk of death increased by almost one third, 30 per cent, the study found. Jumping an entire band caused death rates from diabetes, liver and kidney disease to increase by between 60 and 120 per cent. Deaths from heart disease and stroke rose by 40 per cent, while lung disease increased by 20 per cent and cancer 10 per cent.

Dr Gary Whitlock, from the University of Oxford, who led the trial said: "Excess weight shortens human lifespan. "In countries like Britain and America, weighing a third more than the optimum shortens lifespan by about 3 years. "For most people, a third more than the optimum means carrying 20 to 30kg - 50 to 60 pounds or 4 stone - of excess weight. "If you are becoming overweight or obese, avoiding further weight gain could well add years to your life."

He and his team looked at 57 previous studies to make their calculations. Those who had a low BMI also had a higher death rate, they found, mainly due to smoking-related diseases. The research, published online by The Lancet medical journal, showed that severe obesity, measured as a BMI of between 40 to 50, while rare, was as dangerous for the body as smoking.

Dr Whitlock added: "In adult life, it may be easier to avoid substantial weight gain than to lose that weight once it has been gained. "By avoiding a further increase from a BMI of 28 to 32 a typical person in early middle age would gain about two years of life expectancy. "Alternatively, by avoiding an increase from a BMI of 24 to 32, a third above the apparent optimum, a young adult would on average gain about three extra years of life."

A person's BMI is calculated by dividing their weight in kilograms by their height in metres squared.


A bowl of porridge in the morning 'will make you feel fuller for longer'

I had porridge for breakfast for the first 16 years of my life and I certainly felt sustained by it. I was very slim then too!

Eating a bowl of porridge in the morning really will keep you feeling fuller for longer, scientists have discovered, in what could be the key to how the GI diet works. A new study suggests that foods with a low glycaemic index (GI), like oats, trigger the release of greater amounts of a hormone in the gut which delays hunger pangs by creating a "full" sensation. Scientists previously knew that a low GI diet took longer to digest, releasing sugar more slowly into the bloodstream.

Now a team of researchers have discovered that foods with a low GI score, which include brown bread and most fruit and vegetables, stimulate the release of around 20 per cent more of the GLP-1 hormone per meal than foods with a high GI ratio.

Dr Reza Norouzy, who led the study, said that the chemical was "one of the most potent hormones for suppressing appetite". She added:"Our results suggest that low GI meals lead to a feeling of fullness because of increased levels of GLP-1 in the bloodstream. "This is an exciting result which provides further clues about how our appetite is regulated, and offers an insight into how a low GI diet produces satiety."

The team, from King's College London, looked at the effects of different diets on 12 healthy volunteers. The results of their findings were presented at the annual Society for Endocrinology BES meeting in Harrogate. The GI score ranks carbohydrates according to the effect that they on the body's blood sugar levels.

Foods classed as having a low GI include granary bread, milk, most fruit and vegetables, while high GI foods include white bread, croissants and cornflakes.


19 March, 2009

Long-term ozone exposure linked to higher risk of death, finds nationwide study

The increased risk is quite small -- of a magnitude that could well be random. If real, the risk could also be due to other factors -- such as urban crowding and the consequent increased exposure to pathogens

Long-term exposure to ground-level ozone, a major component of smog, is associated with an increased risk of death from respiratory ailments, according to a new nationwide study led by a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

The study, to be published in the March 12 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, analyzed the risk of death for both ozone and fine particulate matter, two of the most prevalent components of air pollution. The study followed nearly 450,000 people for two decades and covered 96 metropolitan regions in the United States.

The researchers found that people living in areas with the highest concentrations of ozone, such as the Los Angeles metropolitan area and California's Central Valley, had a 25 to 30 percent greater annual risk of dying from respiratory diseases compared with people from regions with the lowest levels of the pollutant. Those locations included the Great Plains area and regions near San Francisco and Seattle.

"This is the first time we've been able to connect chronic exposure to ozone, one of the most widespread pollutants in the world, with the risk of death, arguably the most important outcome in health impact studies used to justify air quality regulations," said study lead author Michael Jerrett, UC Berkeley associate professor of environmental health sciences. "Previous research has connected short-term or acute ozone exposure to impaired lung function, aggravated asthma symptoms, increased emergency room visits and hospitalizations, but the impact of long-term exposure to ozone on mortality had not been pinned down until now."

The study found that for every 10 parts-per-billion (ppb) increase in ozone level, there is a 4 percent increase in risk of death from respiratory causes, primarily pneumonia and chronic pulmonary obstructive pulmonary disease.

"World Health Organization data indicate that about 240,000 people die each year from respiratory causes in the United States," said Jerrett. "Even a 4 percent increase can translate into thousands of excess deaths each year. Globally, some 7.7 million people die from respiratory causes, so worldwide the impact of ozone pollution could be very large."

The findings come a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strengthened its National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone from an annual average of 80 ppb to 75 ppb to reflect growing evidence of the harmful health effects of ozone. A group of leading scientists appointed to advise the EPA had actually recommended stricter health standards for ozone levels - from 60 to 70 ppb.

A month after the EPA released its new standards, a National Research Council report concluded that premature deaths related to ozone exposure of less than 24 hours are more likely among those with pre-existing diseases. The report called for more research on the link between mortality and ozone exposure over a period of weeks and years.

Ozone - gas made up of three oxygen atoms - forms a protective layer from the sun's ultraviolet radiation when located in the Earth's upper atmosphere. However, that same gas is toxic at ground level where it can be breathed by humans. Ground level ozone is formed through a complex chemical reaction in sunlight between nitrogen oxides (NOx), commonly spewed from vehicle exhaust, and industrial factory emissions.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change considers ground-level ozone, along with carbon dioxide and methane, to be one of the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere.

"Ozone levels outdoors are not always highly correlated to ozone levels indoors, making it difficult to fully evaluate associations between ozone and health outcomes using ambient site monitors," said study co-author C. Arden Pope III, professor of economics at Brigham Young University. "The reality is that most of us spend the majority of our time indoors. But this study suggests that repeated exposures to elevated ozone levels over time have cumulative effects on respiratory health."

The new study analyzed data from 448,850 adults ages 30 and older enrolled in 1982 and 1983 in the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II.

The researchers correlated the information from that study with data from EPA air pollution monitors while controlling for potentially confounding factors such as a participant's age, race, education, occupational exposures, smoking history and diet. The study also factored in other variables such as unemployment rates in the metropolitan and zip code area levels.

Ozone data were obtained from 1977 through 2000 between the months of April and September. Those months were chosen because ozone levels are typically higher when it's warmer and because insufficient data was available during the cooler months.

Researchers included EPA measurements of fine particulate matter - particles equal to or smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter and typically found in smoke and haze - when they became available in 1999 and 2000. Because fine particle levels had already been linked to increased risk of premature death in previous studies, the researchers included them in the analysis to distinguish the effects of the two pollutants.

In an 18-year follow-up period, 48,884 of the people in the study died from cardiovascular causes such as heart disease and strokes, and 9,891 died from respiratory causes.

As has been observed in previous studies, the researchers found that fine particulate matter was linked to an increased risk of death from cardiovascular causes when analyzed alone and with ozone. The new finding was that the effects of ozone remained strongly linked to risk of death from respiratory problems, even after fine particle pollution was taken into account.

Not surprisingly, highly populated regions such as the Los Angeles, Riverside and Houston areas, where the climate is sunny for much of the year and the air mass is relatively stable, had the highest average concentrations of ozone, ranging from 62.5 to 104 ppb. The regions with the lowest ozone levels had average concentrations of 33.3 to 53.1 ppb.

"Places like the Pacific Northwest and the Minneapolis St. Paul region are cooler and see more rain in the summer, which keeps the ozone levels in check," said Jerrett. "Similarly, the San Francisco Bay Area's infamous summertime fog blocks the sun and helps protect the region from high ozone levels."

Because ozone formation depends on a complex interaction of multiple factors, it is challenging to regulate, the study authors said. "Our study for the first time presents evidence suggesting that long-term exposure to ozone and fine particle pollution have separate, independent effects on mortality, and that they seem to impact different parts of the body," said Jerrett. "With this research, we now know that controlling ozone is not only beneficial for mitigating global warming, but that it could also have near-term benefits in the reduction of deaths from respiratory causes."


Fresh mushrooms 'slashes breast cancer risk' (in China)

I don't know enough about the social correlates of diet in China but I suspect that including mushrooms in your diet is more expensive than usual and so mushroom consumption is more a sign of higher social status than anything else -- and middle class women everywhere are healthier than others

Eating a daily portion of mushrooms could slash the risk of breast cancer by up to two-thirds, according to new research. Scientists found women consuming a third of an ounce of fresh mushrooms every day were 64 per cent less likely to develop a tumour. Dried mushrooms had a slightly less protective effect, reducing the risk by around half. The study, carried out in China, also showed women who combined a mushroom diet with regular consumption of green tea saw an even greater benefit. The risk among women in this group was reduced by almost 90 per cent.

Researchers say the latest findings, published in the International Journal of Cancer, do not prove eating mushrooms will stop cancer and more studies are needed to confirm the results. But laboratory tests on animals do show the fungi have anti-tumour properties and can stimulate the immune system's defences. Some evidence suggests mushrooms act in a similar way to breast cancer drugs called aromatose inhibitors, which blocks the body's production of the cancer-feeding hormone oestrogen. Last month, scientists in California began a trial to see if taking mushroom extract twice a day for a month helps breast cancer survivors remain free of the disease.

Around 40,000 women a year in Britain are diagnosed with breast cancer. The disease affects one in nine women at some point in their lives. Diet is thought to be a key factor. Rates of the disease in China are four to five times lower than in some western countries.

Experts at the University of Western Australia in Perth studied more than 2,000 Chinese women. Roughly half the women had suffered breast cancer, while the rest were tumour-free. After taking account of other factors that could have contributed to cancer, such as being overweight, lack of exercise and smoking, scientists analysed eating habits. They found women who ate ten grammes or more a day of fresh or dried mushrooms were much less likely to have developed a tumour.

Those also drinking green tea slashed their cancer risk even further. In a report on the findings the researchers said: 'Higher intake of mushrooms decreased cancer risk in both pre and post menopausal Chinese women.'


18 March, 2009


Zombie science: A sinister consequence of evaluating scientific theories purely on the basis of enlightened self-interest

By Bruce G. Charlton, MD


Although the classical ideal is that scientific theories are evaluated by a careful teasing-out of their internal logic and external implications, and checking whether these deductions and predictions are in-line-with old and new observations; the fact that so many vague, dumb or incoherent scientific theories are apparently believed by so many scientists for so many years is suggestive that this ideal does not necessarily reflect real world practice. In the real world it looks more like most scientists are quite willing to pursue wrong ideas for so long as they are rewarded with a better chance of achieving more grants, publications and status.

The classic account has it that bogus theories should readily be demolished by sceptical (or jealous) competitor scientists. However, in practice even the most conclusive 'hatchet jobs' may fail to kill, or even weaken, phony hypotheses when they are backed-up with sufficient economic muscle in the form of lavish and sustained funding. And when a branch of science based on phony theories serves a useful but non-scientific purpose, it may be kept-going indefinitely by continuous transfusions of cash from those whose interests it serves.

If this happens, real science expires and a 'zombie science' evolves. Zombie science is science that is dead but will not lie down. It keeps twitching and lumbering around so that (from a distance, and with your eyes half-closed) zombie science looks much like the real thing. But in fact the zombie has no life of its own; it is animated and moved only by the incessant pumping of funds. If zombie science is not scientifically-useable - what is its function?

In a nutshell, zombie science is supported because it is useful propaganda to be deployed in arenas such as political rhetoric, public administration, management, public relations, marketing and the mass media generally. It persuades, it constructs taboos, it buttresses some kind of rhetorical attempt to shape mass opinion. Indeed, zombie science often comes across in the mass media as being more plausible than real science; and it is precisely the superficial face-plausibility which is the sole and sufficient purpose of zombie science.

Medical Hypotheses, Volume 71, Issue 3, Pages 327-329 (September 2008)

Sandwich box Stasi: British parents' fury over school which inspects lunches and confiscates junk food

A primary school has been accused of running a 'mealtime Gestapo' after insisting on inspecting children's lunchboxes for unhealthy food. If pupils are found to have sweets, chocolate, fizzy drinks or full-fat crisps, teachers confiscate them and hold them in the staffroom. The snacks are returned at the end of the day but only if parents ask.

One parent, Magdi Cullen, said she was shocked when her nine-year-old daughter Maria told her about the policy at Danegrove Primary School in Barnet, North London. Mrs Cullen, 34, of Cockfosters, said: 'When I found out about what they were doing, I thought, "This is a primary school, not Guantanamo Bay". 'I can't believe that teachers go through their lunchboxes because there might be something like a small chocolate bar. 'My daughter has a sandwich and an apple as well, but now she has to hide a small box of Smarties I give her. It's just not right. 'The school is very good apart from this and we can't fault it in any way academically.'

Her husband, wine vendor Jerry Cullen, 51, said: 'The whole situation is ridiculous and the teachers are acting like the mealtime Gestapo by going through their lunchboxes. The crisps have to be approved healthy ones and they can cost a small fortune.'

Parents were sent a letter informing them of the strict meal searches. The letter warned: 'Lots of unsuitable items have been sneaking in lately. Therefore, we will have to look after such items until the end of the day in order to be fair to everybody. 'So chocolate and other unhealthy foods found in packed lunch boxes will be taken to the office for collection by parents at the end of the day.' The school said in a statement-At Danegrove School: We are following the Government's healthy lunches guidelines for school meals and packed lunches. 'We advise that that all pupils consume a well balanced meal at midday in order to promote healthy eating and maximise the children's potential learning in the afternoon sessions.'

Headmistress Deborah Metcalf said: 'We were finding that some children could be bringing in crisps, a Mars bar and can of Coke with their lunches. This stance is trying to work with parents to provide a healthy meal for their children.' Danegrove is not the first school to cause controversy with its healthy eating policies.

In 2007, Standish High School in Wigan banned pupils from leaving the school grounds at lunchtime, stopping them from going to fast food outlets. Some children phoned a local sandwich delivery man who came to the school and passed his wares through the gates. However, teachers complained and the sandwich seller was asked to move on by police.


17 March, 2009

Warning: capitalism can damage your health

Deaths rose sharply in communist countries that rushed to privatise. Does that prove economic `shock therapy' kills? Or was it that the statistics rapidly became more honest in such countries? You would have to be naive to believe Communist statistics and old habits die hard

For a communist nation wishing to show off its capitalist credentials, mass privatisation was a killer move. Literally. In Russia, when the sell-off of state-owned companies was at its height, the death rate of working adults rose by 18 per cent and the life expectancy dropped by nearly five years. Men of working age, suddenly bereft of both employment and the healthcare that frequently accompanies it, found themselves greeting the Grim Reaper well ahead of schedule, sometimes having downed a bottle or two of aftershave.

This is, in caricature, the controversial thesis offered by David Stuckler, Lawrence King and Martin McKee, in The Lancet recently. The scientists - Dr Stuckler and Dr King are sociologists at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, and McKee is Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - claim that hasty mass privatisation in several former Eastern bloc and Soviet states coincides convincingly with a spike in their death rates. They speculate the main link between the two is unemployment, a well established cause of ill health and stress, as well as a trigger for life-shortening behaviour, such as binge drinking.

The study has ignited an intriguing, and sometimes ill-tempered, debate about how swiftly - or slowly - a fledgeling economy should emerge from its chrysalis. In their analysis, the researchers gently wag a finger at Jeffrey Sachs, the world-famous economist and advocate of "shock therapy" - the sudden lifting of price controls and subsidies, coupled with the flogging off of state companies and assets - to catapult countries irreversibly into capitalism. "The need to accelerate privatisation is the paramount economic policy issue facing Eastern Europe," the economist once wrote.

Unsurprisingly, Professor Sachs is none too keen to have up to a million communist corpses piled at his door. He counters that the link between privatisation and deaths is "zero"; that a rise in dangerous drinking among Russians was due not to unemployment but to the abandonment of an anti-alcohol campaign; and that the notoriously poor Soviet diet must bear some blame. It's a peculiar choice, that last one, for the cerebral professor: short of adulteration with poison, diet cannot explain sudden changes in death rates.

As well as pointing this out, the academics retort that "the countries Professor Sachs cites as successes (in terms of their transition to free-market economies) were only successful because they did not follow his advice".

It's not so much velvet glove, this spat, as boxing glove, and it looks like going the full ten rounds. At the very least, we should admit the possibility that shock therapy has hit the ropes. and why it matters. Because China and India are poised to sell off many of their state-owned enterprises in the hope of ascending to the top of the economic heap. Stop and think about it. Two of the most populous nations on earth are heading down the path of capitalism, and there is half-decent evidence that the way this path is travelled could spell the difference between life and death for millions.

Dr Stuckler and Professor McKee say their paper is about epidemiology, not ideology. Their aim was to peer deeper into the high human price paid for the death of communism in Europe, a fact that is not in dispute. Unicef estimates it caused three million premature deaths. The United Nations calculates that ten million men disappeared during the transition. Life expectancy dropped in many affected countries (for Russian men, who especially suffered, it fell from 64 to 58 between 1991 and 1994). Unemployment and hazardous drinking (including the consumption of spirits and even aftershave) were found to be serious factors.

But why did some countries, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, suffer steeper rises in their death rate than other countries going through similar turmoil, such as Slovenia? Dr Stuckler et al decided to try to put numbers and a timeline to a hunch: that the way market reforms were carried out might be the key. As the authors summarise: "Any disruption to the established social order creates high levels of social stress." Anecdotally, the countries that sprinted to capitalism appeared to suffer most; those that cantered emerged relatively unscathed.

They defined "mass privatisation" as the transfer of at least 25 per cent of large, state-owned enterprises to the private sector within two years. On average, the countries with mass privatisation programmes saw the death rate for adult men (aged between 15 and 59) rise by 13 per cent; in total, it represented nearly a million extra deaths. Across the five worst countries, which included Russia and Kazakhstan, the average death rate shot up by 42 per cent for a short period in the early nineties.

Other countries, such as Croatia and Slovenia, which dismantled the machinery of communism more slowly, did not see such a dramatic rise. Also, those countries where people belonged to social networks such as the Church, or trade unions were less badly affected; interestingly, it is this aspect that the authors regard as their key breakthrough.

"The Poles came out well (from communism)," Professor McKee told me. "Why? Because they meet each other at Mass every Sunday."

The authors speculate that those countries undergoing shock therapy unwittingly swept safety nets away with the old order. Many Russians lived in "one-company towns"; when the companies and jobs disappeared, so did healthcare, childcare and the social hub.

The Economist has lambasted the paper and the research has provoked a torrent of invective in the blogosphere. But what should matter more is whether the paper represents decent science; here, we must note the opinion of Professor Sir Michael Marmot, perhaps the biggest name in the field of how social circumstances affect health: "With all the caveats, Stuckler and colleagues' study is relevant beyond Eastern Europe..."

The paper has been wrongly viewed by outsiders as an ideologically motivated attack on capitalism; its authors have fallen victim to an occupational hazard of social science. "We are not stark raving Leninists," sighs Professor McKee, who confesses to being flabbergasted at the critics. Of course capitalism is a good thing, he says, but we should pursue it with human welfare - as well as political and economic considerations - in mind. Privatising at a prudent pace, while ensuring the jobless have social support, is the ideal scenario.

China and India are embracing free markets. China alone has a population of 1.4 billion, roughly ten times that of Russia. If there is an inkling of truth in the analysis, then "shock therapy" could jeopardise tens of millions of lives. And there's nothing therapeutic about that.


MMR-autism scare: the truth is out at last

The `vaccine court' in the United States, and its excellent expert witnesses, have finally slain and buried MMR junk science.
`To conclude that Colten's condition was the result of his MMR vaccine, an objective observer would have to emulate Lewis Carroll's White Queen and be able to believe six impossible (or, at least, highly improbable) things before breakfast. The families of children with autistic spectrum disorders have waited in vain for adequate evidence to support the autism-MMR hypothesis. Although I have the deepest sympathy for families like Colten's, struggling emotionally and financially to find answers about ASD's [Autistic Spectrum Disorders] causes, and reliable therapies to treat ASD's symptoms, I must decide Colten's case on the evidence before me. That evidence does not establish an adequate factual basis from which to conclude that Colten's condition was caused by his vaccines.'

Denise K Vowell, 12 February 2009, Special Master, US Court of Federal Claims. Petitioners: Kathryn and Joseph Snyder (parents of Colten).Respondent: Secretary of Health and Human Services

`I feel a deep sympathy and admiration for the Cedillo family. And I have no doubt that the families of countless other autistic children, families that cope every day with the tremendous challenges of caring for autistic children, are similarly deserving of sympathy and admiration. However, I must decide this case not on sentiment, but by analysing the evidence. Congress designed the [vaccine injury compensation] programme to compensate only families of those individuals whose injuries or deaths can be linked causally. to a listed vaccination. In this case the evidence advanced by the petitioners has fallen far short of demonstrating such a link.'

George L Hastings, 12 February 2009, Special Master, US Court of Federal Claims. Petitioners: Theresa and Michael Cedillo (parents of Michelle). Respondent: Secretary of Health and Human Services

`The Hazlehursts' experience as parents of an autistic child, as described during the evidentiary hearing in this case, has been a very difficult one. The undersigned is moved as a person and as a parent by the Hazlehursts' account and again extends to the Hazlehursts very sincere sympathy for the challenges they face with Yates. The undersigned's charge, however, does not permit decision-making on the basis of sentiment but rather requires a careful legal analysis of the evidence.

`The parties have submitted a wealth of evidence and have presented the testimony of a number of experts who have extensive clinical and research experience in the particular areas of interest in this case. Having carefully and fully considered the evidence, the undersigned concludes that the combination of the thimerosal-containing vaccines and the MMR vaccine are not causal factors in the development of autism. The weight of the presented evidence that is scientifically reliable and methodologically sound does not support petitioners' claim. Petitioners have failed to establish entitlement to compensation under the Vaccine Act.'

Patricia E Campbell-Smith, 12 February 2009, Special Master, US Court of Federal Claims. Petitioners: Rolf and Angela Hazlehurst (parents of William Yates). Respondent: Secretary of Health and Human Services
In 2007 federal judges were appointed as `special masters' in three test cases selected from the families of more than 5,000 children claiming compensation on the grounds that a combination of vaccines containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal in the first year of life and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine after 12 months, caused them to develop autism and related health problems.

The first case in the `Omnibus Autism Proceedings' - that of Michelle Cedillo - was heard by George L Hastings in Washington, DC in June 2007; the second - that of William Yates Hazlehurst - by Patricia E Campbell-Smith in Charlotte, North Carolina in October 2007; the third - that of Colten Snyder - by Denise K Vowell in Orlando, Florida in November 2007. On 12 February, in simultaneously published judgments, all three judges rejected claims that vaccines caused autism in these children (1).

The special masters' concluding summaries, quoted above, are sympathetic, judicious and categorical. The full judgments, amounting to nearly 700 pages of text, are of exceptional interest to anybody concerned to establish the truth in this long-running controversy.

A tribute to American justice

Andrew Wakefield, the former Royal Free Hospital researcher who launched the MMR-autism scare more than a decade ago, and is now based in a private autism treatment clinic in Texas, told a local TV station last week that he believes that this issue `can't be resolved in the courts of law' (2). In general, I am inclined to agree with Dr Wakefield that law courts are not the best places in which to deal with matters of controversy in science. Yet, on the particular issues at stake in the `Omnibus Autism Proceedings', the legal forum offers some advantages.

Though assemblies set up to evaluate claims of vaccine-autism links, by the Medical Research Council in the UK, or the Institute of Medicine in the USA, have sought to involve parents and other lay interests, the terms of discussion have generally been set by scientists and medical authorities. By contrast, the expert witnesses in the vaccine courts are obliged to present their evidence to judges who have no particular scientific expertise: the standard is that of the intelligent, objective, observer.

Parents who attribute their children's autism to vaccines often claim that they - and the scientists and doctors who support their conviction - have been denied a public hearing. The vaccine courts allowed their voices, and those of their legal representatives and supportive experts, to be heard and to be interrogated. The scientific issues, though complex, can be resolved in these cases into a basic question that can be decided by a competent judge: does the evidence support the claim that this vaccine (or combination of vaccines) caused autism in this child? It is also worth recalling the precedent of the exemplary judgment made in relation to claims against the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine in England more than 20 years ago (3).

In each of the three test cases, the special masters heard statements from lawyers for the petitioners (the children's families) and from those representing the respondent (the US health department). They heard evidence from the parents and from expert witnesses called by the parents and those called by the health authorities; witnesses were subjected to cross examination by rival lawyers. The special masters reviewed documents submitted by both sides, including scientific papers and medical reports relating to the three children. They carefully and conscientiously evaluated the evidence and, by a process documented in detail in the judgments, came to their conclusions. By contrast with the proceedings currently underway at the General Medical Council in London, the US vaccine courts offer a process that is transparent, democratic and scrupulously fair and efficient, a tribute to the superiority of the American legal system (4).

A number of aspects of the vaccine court's judgments merit further discussion. The first is the most important, but also the most familiar - the scientific issue of whether vaccines cause autism. The second is the questions raised by the court about the quality of the scientific and medical advice received by the petitioners, and, implicitly, by parents of autistic children more widely who identify with the anti-vaccine and associated biomedical treatment campaigns. The court also raised serious concerns about the activities of three key figures in this controversy - Andrew Wakefield (who did not appear in person but whose work was extensively discussed), the paediatric gastroenterologist Arthur Krigsman and the general practitioner Jeffrey Bradstreet. Both Krigsman and Bradstreet are close collaborators with Wakefield and both appeared in these test cases as expert witnesses and consulting physicians. Both are prominent figures in the Defeat Autism Now! network of practitioners who provide `unorthodox biomedical interventions' for children with autism.

`Bad science'

`Doctor Fombonne summed up the body of scientific research into ASD's [autistic spectrum disorders] causes and the petitioners' TCV-MMR vaccine hypothesis, saying the possibility that some children are genetically predisposed to abnormal reactions to TCVs [thimerosal-containing vaccines] and the MMR vaccine so as to cause autism was less likely than the possibility of the earth being the center of the solar system. His statement is an exaggeration of the evidence (or lack thereof), but is a concise and pithy expression of the general scientific disapproval of petitioners' theories.' (5)

`Sadly, the petitioners in this litigation have been the victims of bad science, conducted to support litigation rather than to advance medical and scientific understanding of ASD'. (6)

We need not dwell here on the scientific basis of claims that autism may be caused by mercury or MMR vaccines: for a comprehensive review see my new book and Paul Offit's account (7). Let us simply present the conclusions drawn by special master Denise Vowell in the Colten Snyder case (which are similar to those in the other cases). `After careful consideration of all of the evidence', Vowell found that `it was abundantly clear that petitioners' theories of causation were speculative and unpersuasive' (8). In particular, petitioners:

a) `could not reliably demonstrate the presence of measles virus in Colten's central nervous system' (this was `because of pervasive quality control problems at a now-defunct laboratory' - of which more below);

b) `failed to establish that measles virus can cause autism or that it did so in Colten';

c) `failed to demonstrate that amount of ethylmercury in TCVs [thimerosal-containing vaccines] causes immune system suppression or dysregulation';

d) `failed to show that Colten's immune system was dysregulated'.

Vowell also dismissed the concept of `autistic enterocolitis', an inflammatory bowel condition that provides a hypothetical link between MMR and autism, as `speculative and unsupported by the weight of evidence' (9).

Bad scientists

`Respondents' experts were far more qualified, better supported by the weight of scientific research and authority, and simply more persuasive on nearly every point in contention.' (10)

The gulf in relevant expertise and experience between the rival expert witnesses is a recurring theme in the vaccine court judgments. The special masters exposed several instances of `resume padding' among the parents' experts and of illegitimate claims to academic status and authorship of published papers. They noted that one of these experts had become a professional expert witness after retiring from clinical practice 17 years ago. By contrast, the experts challenging vaccine-autism links were highly qualified and highly experienced in the relevant disciplines.

While noting their concerns about the parents' experts' CVs, the special masters emphasised that their judgment was not merely based on the experts' academic authority, but also on their performances in court. All three commented that whereas they found the respondent's witnesses in general to be knowledgeable, well-informed and credible, the parents' experts tended to be ineffectual and unpersuasive. Special master Patricia Campbell-Smith, who presided in the Hazlehurst case, emphasised that the respondent's witnesses were more persuasive because their evidence was `well supported by medical literature and significant clinical experience' (11). She observed that they were `careful in matters of degree', that they offered `specific, detailed criticisms' of rival evidence `explaining carefully' why they considered it was not reliable. By contrast, petitioners' witnesses were `not as disciplined. where differences mattered'. When it came to the interpretation of scientific papers, they gave `greater weight to speculative conclusions' than even the authors of these papers, they used `carefully selected sentences' taken out of context and relied on `scientifically flawed and unreliable articles'.

Take, for example, the contrast between Jean Ronel-Corbier, a paediatric neurologist who treats autistic children, but has no record of academic publications or professional distinction, and Diane Griffin, a virologist with a long record of publication and an international reputation. Both, like most of the expert witnesses, appeared in all three cases. Vowell found Ronel-Corbier to be `earnest and sincere' but considered that his opinions were `heavily laced with generalities, speculation and beliefs largely unsupported by evidence' (12). Hastings agreed that he was `sincere but not reliable'; he appeared `unfamiliar with the medical literature' and was `willing to give opinions on causation on very scant evidence' (13). Vowell found that Griffin was, `despite her inexperience' in court, a `model witness' whose testimony was `careful, reasoned and responsive' (14). She offered `appropriately qualified opinions' and as a result was `compelling and completely convincing'. Campbell-Smith considered Griffin `highly credible and knowledgeable'.

The gulf in academic and professional standards between the rival experts in these cases is not the result of the petitioners' difficulty in persuading high quality scientists and doctors to testify on their behalf. It reflects the fact that the bad science of the vaccine-autism campaign is not supported by reputable scientists and doctors in the relevant disciplines. It is a great misfortune that, over the past decade, thousands of parents of autistic children, on both sides of the Atlantic, have come under the influence of the plausible purveyors of the junk science of the vaccine-autism campaign (15). The great value of the Omnibus Autism Proceedings has been in exposing the work of these shady practitioners to the scrutiny of serious scientists.....


16 March, 2009

Thicker myelin aids IQ!

Not exactly where you would initially look for the genetic basis of IQ. That IQ is polygenetically determined, however, is undoubted

A study has found that the thickness of the insulation of our brain's white matter is directly linked to IQ. Memory, self-control, planning, logic and mathematical ability are all linked to the quality of myelin sheath that protects nerves of white matter from damage, according to New Scientist magazine. Scientists at the University of California in Los Angeles examined the brains of 23 sets of identical twins and the same number of fraternal twins using a new type of magnetic resonance imaging scanner called HARDI.

MRI scans usually show volumes of different tissues in the brain by measuring the amount of water present. HARDI determines water levels diffusing through white matter - an indirect measurement of myelin integrity.

The research also found that inherited genes play a greater role in intelligence than was previously thought [Thought by whom? IQ has been known to be mainly hereditary for around 100 years]. Genes appear to affect intelligence by influencing how well nerve fibres are encased in protective and insulating fatty myelin. A good covering of myelin results in faster nerve impulses. "It's like a picture of your mental speed," chief researcher Professor Paul Thompson told New Scientist magazine.

Identical twins share the same genes while fraternal twins share about half their genes. Comparing the results from each showed that myelin integrity was genetically determined in many parts of the brain important for intelligence. They include the corpus callosum, which brings together signals from the left and right side of the body, and the parietal lobes responsible for visual and spatial reasoning and logic. Myelin quality in these areas correlated with scores from tests of abstract reasoning and overall intelligence.

Dr Richard Haier, from the University of California at Irvine, who worked on the research, said the findings did not mean intelligence could not be improved. "It's just the opposite," he said. "If it's genetic, it's biochemical, and we have all kinds of ways of influencing biochemistry." In future there might be a way to identify the genes involved and enhance their activity, he said. This in turn could lead to treatments for multiple sclerosis, autism and attention deficit disorder, which are all associated with lack of myelin.


Fruit-juice drink has sugar in it! Horrors!

Maybe sugar should be banned from restaurants and cafes too. Who needs sugar in their tea or coffee?

It claims it has "no bad stuff" but children are being warned to avoid a new fruit juice drink. One Sydney school has even taken the extraordinary step of hiring a dietitian to talk to parents and experts have slammed the makers of Golden Circle LOL No Bad Stuff for preying on children. Teachers became alarmed after spotting students as young as six drinking the carbonated fruit juice for breakfast.

Bankstown Grammar School is so concerned about the effects on children it is calling on parents to stop allowing the drink in lunch boxes. The private school has already banned Coke and Mars bars but still finds the sugary sweets creeping into students' bags. "We could try banning it (LOL) but we have tried before on other products and kids still end up bringing them in," principal Terry Lidgard said. "I would rather educate the students ... like harm minimisation."

Manufactured by a leading fruit juice company, the cans of drink contain 26gm of sugar. Emblazoned with large smiley faces and colourful labelling, the drinks have come under fire for looking like caffeine energy drinks such as Red Bull and V. The Children's Hospital at Westmead dietitian Susie Burrell criticised Golden Circle for preying on kids. "They have a big enough market, they don't have to target children like this. It is marketed in a way that makes it look healthy," she said. Golden Circle was contacted but did not respond.

US research advises kids should not consume more than two sweetened drinks a week. "Fruit juice contains sugar and this is highly concentrated. It is bad for teeth. It contains no other nutritional value," Ms Burrell said. "Parents should be giving their children flavoured milk [Really? Milk is highly calorific!] or water." At least one in four children in Australia is overweight.


15 March, 2009

Congress ratchets up the obesity war

One little bit of language in the omnibus appropriations bill signed today could shift the government's focus on food marketing and childhood obesity from kids under 12 to everyone under 18, potentially affecting hundreds of millions of dollars of food, beverage and fast-food advertising on TV. Besides funding government agencies and a number of pork-barrel projects, the bill signed by President Barack Obama today calls for several government studies, including one examining whether the government should set standards for determining which foods are healthy and appropriate to market to youths as old as 17.

Late Tuesday, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., one of the study's sponsors, inserted a statement in the Congressional Record indicating that the under-17 language should be considered a mistake. "I think it would be more appropriate to limit the scope ... to children under 12," he said. The legislation, though, still has original language.

Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, was the other sponsor for the study. His communications director, Kate Cyrul, took a different tack. "Childhood obesity is on the rise and nearly at an epidemic proportion. And we know the obesity rate does not end with children [who are] 13. It affects all school-age children," she said. "Considering the health risks that are involved and the potential impact on our nation as a whole, it would be irresponsible to only focus on a portion of school-age youth."

The bill calls for the Federal Trade Commission, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Secretary of Agriculture to establish an "Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children," according to a report attached to the legislation. "The Working Group is directed to conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food when such marketing targets children who are 17 years old or younger or when such food represents a significant component of the diets of children," it says. Further, the "Working Group will determine the scope of the media to which such standards should apply," asking that the group report back to Congress by July 15, 2010.

"This proposal is completely unnecessary," said Scott W. Openshaw, director-communications for the Grocer Manufacturers Association. He said the FTC is monitoring the effectiveness of the industry initiative. "Taxpayer dollars and agency time could be made much better use of. Besides, the proposal -- the way it is written -- not only reinvents the wheel, it does so poorly with broad, misdirected language that goes far beyond marketing to children. Too far."

Many marketers have already reined in their food and fast-food advertising. Under Capitol Hill pressure, major food and fast-food companies launched the Children's Food & Beverage Initiative in 2006 and altered their ad mix and their products to sell healthier products to children under 12. Candy-makers pulled their ads from such media.

There has been some criticism, including from the Federal Trade Commission, that even as the voluntary industry action led to healthier products being advertised to children, each company was creating its own standard for what healthy meant. In other words, the government should step in and set standards.

The [far-Left] Center for Science in the Public Interest, for one, is happy about the language in the bill. "I think it's terrific," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for CSPI. She noted that the FTC has urged development of more uniform standards for what foods are and aren't appropriate to advertise. "This would set up a mechanism to do that." She also said the teen audience could be more at risk. "In a lot of way, teens are more vulnerable than younger kids because they have more options to make choices out of their parents' supervision," she said. [Horrors! Fancy teenagers having choices!]

Food manufacturers and advertising groups, however, were concerned. They traditionally have said that there are no good or bad foods, and that any food can be fine with the right diet and exercise regimen. Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers, said setting standards for what should be advertised and then extending the focus to teens is troublesome. "When you start to look at rules that would affect kids almost old enough to vote, it could raise major issues," he said. "There is a good food-bad food approach and if they are going to say some specific food is not OK to advertise, it would be unconstitutional."


Wonder drug that stole my memory

Statins have been hailed as a miracle cure for cholesterol, but most people know little about their side effects

I had just walked in to the party, and spotted a familiar face. "Oh, hi," I said brightly, "you're just the person I wanted to see: I had something to ask you." There was a pause. "Yes?" said my friend gently. I stood there in confusion. I couldn't remember her name. And the thing I wanted to ask her had slipped completely out of my mind.

That was a year ago, and it had been happening to me more and more frequently. At first I could shrug it off as examples of those senior moments we all have in late middle age. It started with the names of people and places. "Oh, you know, that man who wrote a book about depression. He used to live in that road just off Primrose Hill. Begins with G."

I have always been a trifle absent-minded. Walking home from prep school, I was usually the one who left his lunchbox behind, or managed to lose his cap while taking a short cut through the copse. Even now, I am not the most reliable person in the world with whom to leave the back door keys. But this was different. I was beginning to be plagued not just with forgetfulness but with confusion. I got into small panics, when for a moment I couldn't make sense of what was going on around me or what I was supposed to be doing. Playing doubles tennis, for example, as I do most weekends, I would get the score wrong and I had to watch the other three like a hawk when we started each new game, so that I knew to stand in the right place.

Worse still was when not only proper nouns but also everyday words escaped me. As a novelist and journalist, my whole life is about words: getting them right and putting them down on the page speedily. Now I found myself looking perplexedly at the keyboard, not only for the right word, with the help of a thesaurus, but where to find the letters I wanted on the laptop.

My wife was by now accustomed to providing names and finishing my sentences for me. It was an unhappy time for both of us. She thought that this was how life was going to be for the next 30 years; I became unusually reclusive for fear of making a fool of myself in public. Both of us read about Alzheimer's with a gripping sensation around the heart, although my symptoms did not seem to fit the classic patterns of the condition.

What, if anything, did seem to fit the pattern, besides incipient dementia? I was pretty healthy, except for moderately high cholesterol, for which I took the statin drug Simvastatin. Other than that I went through periods of taking vitamin supplements - that was all. "Did you say Simvastatin?" asked a friend. "Did you know that statins have been linked to memory loss?"

This was news to me. Statins are, I think, among the greatest successes of modern pharmacology. They work by blocking the action of a chemical in the liver which is needed to make cholesterol. By lowering blood-cholesterol levels, they help defend against arterial diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes and strokes. My doctor, when prescribing me tablets of Simvastatin to be taken once a day, described it to me, rightly I'm sure, as a "wonder drug" which deserves to be taken by most of the Western world.

Because the drug worked so well in reducing my cholesterol, it never occurred to me to think of statins as a feature in my memory loss. But looking back to when I began taking that 40-milligram dose, I realised that it more or less coincided with the intensification of my memory problems. I decided to take the bull by the horns. I went to our very good local doctor, told her what was happening, and asked for her advice. She nodded, and said: "We'll take you off statins for three months. Let's see what happens".

For six weeks or so, I noticed. I continued to go around in a daze. Then my life began changing back. At dinner parties I could tell stories without losing track halfway through. In tennis, I didn't have to think about the scores or where I stood at changeovers. Words came back like old friends jostling to greet me. My shattered confidence began returning as decisions became easier to make. The other day, my wife said, "I feel I've got my husband back".

The strangest thing was that for most of last year I noticed something I had never suffered from before: poor circulation in my fingers and toes. I thought my numb white index fingers might be connected to my furious two-finger typing. Nearly every day I had to stop and massage my fingers to get the blood circulating. Then, at about the time my memory began returning, my circulation came back to normal too. Through this coldest winter for 20 years, my fingers have not once lost their nice healthy pink.

I would be a fool to pretend that I know anything about the circulation of the blood to the brain, but an even greater fool to suppose that the medication I took might not somehow be connected to it. Unscientific and simplistic though it is, I truly believe what the history of my symptoms suggests that the Simvastatin I took, so effective in lowering my cholesterol, simultaneously affected my brain.

I am not alone in coming to this conclusion. Google "statins" and "memory loss" and you will come upon a selection of websites connecting the two. In a recent Dutch survey of 4,738 statin users, a quarter reported physical or mental side effects, of whom 13 per cent reported memory loss. Nobody knows why this should be [Rubbish! It is well-known that the brain needs cholesterol to function properly. The brain even makes cholesterol], although many researchers point out that statins can block the production of Co-Q10, a vital heart nutrient. The Canadians now print a mandatory warning on all packets of statins that Co-Q10 reduction "could lead to impaired cardiac function".

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the Commission on Human Medicines include memory loss as one of the potential adverse effects of taking statins. A recent discussion paper on statins and memory loss, published by the Pharmacotherapy Press, reports that "the effects of these agents on the human brain are not [as] well established. The more lipid-soluble the statin, the greater propensity it has to cross the blood-brain barrier and affect the central nervous system. According to some reports, Simvastatin is the most lipophilic drug in its class."

Sounds worrying to me. Last month Britain's "heart tsar", Professor Roger Boyle, argued that millions of healthy people over 40 should be considered for statin therapy after a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggested the drugs were even more effective than previously thought. The study, of 230,000 people, found that the drugs halved the risk of heart attacks. At present, the prescription of statins for primary prevention of heart disease is confined to those considered to be at high risk of developing heart disease.

Maybe they are right and the benefits of these drugs outweigh the side-effects. However, now that I've got some of my memory back, I'll remember to look for other ways of keeping down my cholesterol.


14 March, 2009

Four fat myths about obesity and cancer

A new report from the World Cancer Research Fund recycles some highly dubious claims about our waistlines and health. The World Cancer Research Fund is in any case a corrupt body that finds only what it wants to find -- as we see here and here. I imagine that scares are a great help in raising money for "research". WCRF representatives certainly put out scares with great frequency

The fat police have tried to frighten us for so long they’ve used up most of their stock of scary images. Yet the media still run with every ‘The Fat End is Nigh’ story, no matter how absurd.

Exhibit A is today’s World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) report, Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention - Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, which warns of a global catastrophe from obesity-induced cancer.

As the Observer’s David Smith breathlessly previewed the WCRF report last weekend, ‘Cancer cases are now rising at such a rate in Britain and the rest of the world that the disease poses a threat to humanity comparable to climate change’. Not to be outdone, the Mail on Sunday’s David Derbyshire wrote that the ‘obesity epidemic will double the number of cancer deaths within 40 years… At least 13,000 cases of cancer are caused by obesity in Britain each year’.

The new WCRF report is largely based on a report published two years ago by the same group that claimed that a third of cancers were caused by diet and lack of exercise. That controversial report advised people to be as thin as possible, and to avoid red and preserved meat and alcohol. The problem with this latest effort from the WCRF is that it is as blatantly and foolishly wrong as its 2007 version. This is especially evident in four areas.

Are cancer and obesity linked?

The report’s headline-grabbing claim about the link between obesity and cancer is not supported by the majority of the WCRF’s own data from the 2007 study, or by other, more recent British and American studies. Once you dig beyond the bold claim, you find that what is being claimed is that overweight and obesity can increase your risk for six cancers (cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, colon-rectum, breast, endometrium and kidney). But even this more limited claim has little scientific support.

Take pancreatic cancer, for example. The 2007 report cites 20 case control studies, but only three show a statistically significant association between obesity and pancreatic cancer. Similarly, of 42 cohort studies on colorectal cancer, only 13 show a link with obesity. Again, with breast cancer and obesity, of 16 studies only three are statistically significant, while eight show a decreased risk between breast cancer and obesity.

Even for oesophageal cancer, the increased risk was generally found in the morbidly obese (ie, those with a body mass index, or BMI, of at least 40 - a very small percentage of the population). And with endometrial and kidney cancers the relative risks were below two. According to the National Cancer Institute, relative risks below two (that is, two times the risk compared to a control group) are so small that they may be due to ‘chance, statistical bias or the effects of confounding factors’.

These claims about a link between obesity and cancer are further called into question by the UK’s recent Million Women Study, which examined the link between 17 of the most common cancers and BMI. In that study, the incidence of 10 of the cancers does not show a statistically significant association with either higher levels of overweight or obesity. Of the remaining seven cancers, the association between overweight and cancer is non-significant in four, and where the results are significant the relative risks (except for endometrial and oesophageal cancer) are never stronger than two, except in the obese.

The supposed link between cancer and overweight and obesity is again called into question by a study from the US National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control published in 2007 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This study found that being overweight was not associated with increase mortality from cancers considered obesity-related, and further noted that ‘little or no association with excess all-cancer mortality with any of the BMI categories’. In other words, the overall risk of dying from cancer was not related to body weight.

Indeed, the study suggested that being overweight might be protective against cancer. For example, in individuals aged 25-59, obesity appeared to be protective against death from cancer. Even for those individuals aged 70 and over, BMIs in excess of 35 were not significantly linked with a higher risk of dying from cancer.

Will ‘five a day’ keep cancer away?

The WCRF report claims that there is a link between a certain kind of diet, obesity and cancer, and that fruits and vegetables, which fat people tend to eat less of, can protect against cancer. Once again, the scientific evidence contradicts such claims. For example, of the 17 cancers discussed in the report, virtually all have statistically non-significant associations with every type of food, which means that they provide no evidence of a link between a particular food and a particular cancer. For example, of the 17 studies cited that looked at a link between colon cancer and processed meat, 13 are not statistically significant.

Despite the advice to avoid red meat, the report itself concludes that ‘there is limited evidence...suggesting that red meat is a cause of oesophageal cancer’. Or, again, ‘there is limited, inconsistent evidence...that grilled or barbecued animal foods are causes of stomach cancer’. If the evidence is so limited and inconsistent, how can the advice to entire populations to reduce red meat consumption or avoid it entirely be so dogmatic?

What of the extraordinary claim that, since fat people tend to eat less fruit and vegetables, they are more likely to get certain cancers? This claim is contradicted by the largest and most expensive randomised controlled studies of the effect of eating certain foods and weight on the risk of getting breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, and stroke, that is, the Women’s Health Initiative Dietary Modification Trial.

Almost 49,000 American women were followed over an eight-year period in terms of eating, weight, and disease. The women in the intervention group ate ‘healthy’ diets that were low fat and high fibre. The results? There were no statistically significant differences between the intervention and the control group in the incidence of breast cancer, colon cancer, strokes, or heart attacks.

In fact, the women following the healthy diet didn’t even weigh less than they did at the beginning of the study, or less than the group that continued to eat as they always had. So much for the claim that there is a link between eating certain foods and avoiding cancer.

Are fat children more likely to get cancer in later life?

The WCRF’s Martin Wiseman told the Mail on Sunday that ‘the increase in the number of overweight children is deeply troubling because the more overweight a child is, the more likely they are to be overweight as an adult. And the more overweight the population becomes, the more cases of cancer we are storing up for the future.’

But if Wiseman had simply looked at the official figures on childhood overweight and obesity in the most recent Health Survey for England, he would have found that since the previous survey in 2006, there was a decrease in obese girls aged 2-15, from 18 per cent to 15 per cent. Among boys aged 2-10, the prevalence of overweight declined from 16 per cent to 12 per cent. Indeed, according to the Health Survey, amongst boys and girls aged between 2 and 15, overweight and obesity has been declining since 2004.

Nor is Wiseman’s claim about fat kids becoming overweight adults true. Only morbidly obese children - that is, a very small minority of all children - are at risk for adult obesity. As Charlotte Wright in her Thousand Families Study in Newcastle found, there is ‘little tracking from childhood overweight to adulthood obesity’.

Does exercise protect against cancer?

The final problem with the WCRF report is its assumption that there is a scientifically established link between physical activity, obesity, and cancer prevention. To put it charitably, this assumption is open to significant question. Most of the summaries of the relevant scientific literature on this supposed connection are either non-committal or highly skeptical, despite the common sense claim that exercise is good for one. As one reviewer wrote, ‘It is important to emphasis at the outset that most of what can be written on this topic remains speculative. No study exists which has recorded adequate birth-to-death information relating physical activity to health’.

Moreover, the evidence of a specific cancer-physical activity link is difficult to establish. Commenting on the supposed association between breast cancer and physical activity, Rissanen and Fogelholm wrote that due to the lack of evidence one could not make a public health recommendation for women to exercise to reduce their risk of breast cancer.

A recently published meta-analysis on 52 studies that looked at the association between colon cancer and physical activity reported that 44 were not statistically significant. So the supposed, obvious link between physical activity and preventing cancer dissolves upon closer examination. Once you get beyond the scary headlines, the WCRF’s claims about diet, weight, and cancer turn out to be, at best, dubious and, at worst, simply untrue.


For better exam results simply have a drink of water

This is pretty weird. Sounds like some sort of placebo effect

The key to exam success could be as simple - and as cheap - as a glass of water. Children who have a drink of water before sitting tests fare up to a third better, researchers have found. The reason why isn't clear, but it could be that information flows more smoothly between brain cells when they are well hydrated. In one of the first studies of its kind, researchers from the University of East London looked at the effects of water on the performance of almost 60 boys and girls aged between seven and nine.

Half were given a 250ml glass of water to drink, and 20 minutes later, both groups were subjected to a battery of tests. One test, designed to assess visual attention and memory, involved spotting the differences between two cartoons. The water-drinkers scored 34 per cent better, the research journal Appetite reports. They also did 23 per cent better on a more difficult version of the test and 11 per cent better on a third task that required them to cross out specified letters from a sequence. In tests designed to assess short term memory there were no differences between the two groups.

Researcher Dr Caroline Edmonds said: 'Children who had a drink of water performed significantly better on a number of tasks. Our findings suggest that consuming water benefits cognitive performance in children.' It is possible that water improves the flow of information between brain cells, added Dr Edmonds. Other possibilities include the water drinkers not being distracted by feeling thirsty.

Previous studies have shown that drinking water boosts the brainpower of adults.


13 March, 2009

Women, keep drinking

Why was a flimsy study apparently showing a link between booze and breast cancer so uncritically accepted? The woman who headed the study is a fraud and a liar whose results were the opposite of what she claimed

For over a decade, a constant stream of studies has warned women who drink that they run an increased risk of getting certain cancers, particularly breast cancer. But this steady stream of anti-drinks advice last week gave way to a global torrent when two new studies about the link between drinking and cancer in women received huge, and typically uncritical, international media attention.

The study that attracted the most attention is sponsored by Cancer Research UK and was published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The lead researcher, Naomi Allen from Oxford University, told the Guardian: ‘Given that this is the largest study in the world to look at this, it’s clear that even at low levels of alcohol consumption, there does seem to be a very significant increase in cancer risk, and most women are probably not aware of that.’

Allen came across with even scarier news for Americans, telling the Washington Post that the ‘take-home message’ was this: ‘If you are regularly drinking even one drink per day, that’s increasing your risk for cancer [since] there doesn’t seem to be a threshold at which alcohol consumption is safe.’

One can’t help but wonder just what Allen herself has been drinking in the Senior Common Room at Oxford. After all, her public pronouncements, her recommendations to government, and the reports about her study in the media are certainly not supported by her results.

First, Allen’s study is an observational one, based on data from the UK’s Million Women Study, which is a study about the association between Hormone Replacement Therapy and cancer and heart disease. Allen’s study comes from self-reports about the drinking habits of women in that study.

This means that the study, as an observational study – the weakest kind of epidemiological endeavour and certainly nothing close to the gold standard of a randomised controlled trial – is inherently unable to draw any causal conclusions about a link between drinking and cancer.

Second, the study fails to meet even the most basic requirement of science – that is, being able to validate its measurements – since it is entirely based on the women’s self-reports of their recollection of their drinking. None of these reports was checked and the authors can make no claim about how reliable they are. No one knows how much or how little these women really drank since no one bothered to measure it. This makes any conclusions based on such ‘evidence’ just a tad dicey. At its foundation, therefore, the study can’t warrant that any of its data about the key fact – the drinking habits of its subjects – is accurate. However, the worst is yet to come.

Third, the study is full of significant puzzles that suggest that its results are unreliable. For example, it reports that the incidence of all types of cancer studied in its non-drinking subjects was 5.7 per cent compared with 5.3 per cent for those subjects who had at least a drink a day, and up to 14 drinks a week. In other words, not only was there no dose-response in terms of cancer risk, but teetotallers had a higher population incidence of cancer than those consuming up to 14 drinks a week! Even those women in the study who drank the most (15 or more drinks a week) had a cancer incidence of 5.8 per cent, which is virtually identical to those who drank nothing. But this particular take-home message somehow escaped Allen’s notice, and that of the media as well.

Fourth, the study looked at 21 types of cancer incidence. Of these, it found statistically significant associations between drinking and only four types of cancer. Moreover, these associations were barely significant. The association with breast cancer, with by far the largest number of cases in the study (almost 22,000), was non-significant. Therefore, of the cancer-drinking correlations examined, virtually none was statistically significant.

What is the real take-home message of this study? Perhaps it should be to avoid drinking policy advice produced by Oxford epidemiologists.


Prince Charles accused of 'outright quackery' over detox food supplement

Prince Charles has been accused of ‘ exploiting a gullible public’ by putting his name to a detox treatment. Professor Edzard Ernst, Britain’s top expert on complementary medicine, said the 10 pound Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture relied on ‘ superstition and quackery’ rather than science. Nicknaming the range ‘Dodgy Originals’ after the Prince’s Duchy Originals brand, Prof Ernst said that using herbal potions to detoxify the body was ‘implausible, unproven and dangerous’.

The 10 pound tincture was launched last month as part of the Prince’s range of luxury organic products. Customers are advised to add a few drops of the dandelion and artichoke solution to a glass of water twice a day. Combined with a balanced diet, it is claimed, the product will help the body cleanse itself of ‘toxins’ and aid digestion.

But Prof Ernst, a complementary medicine researcher at Exeter University and a former homeopathic doctor, said there is no evidence that the tincture works. He said: ‘I know everything about artichoke that there is to know. There is a hint it might lower cholesterol to a very minor degree, but that’s all. ‘And there is nothing to know about dandelion. They say they have produced it to the highest standards, and that may be so. But high quality nonsense is still nonsense.’

The professor warned that detox products could be dangerous if they were viewed as a ‘quick fix’ to unhealthy habits. He said yesterday: ‘Prince Charles contributes to the ill-health of the nation by pretending we can all over-indulge and then take his tincture and be fine again. 'Under the banner of holistic and integrative healthcare he promotes a “quick fix” and outright quackery. ‘Prince Charles and his advisors seem to deliberately ignore science and prefer to rely on makebelieve and superstition. ‘Prince Charles thus financially exploits a gullible public in a time of financial hardship.This comes from somebody who should know better and from somebody who arguably should not be deluding the nation and contributing to its ill-health.’ Prof Ernst added that those who do over-indulge should simply drink lots of water, take exercise and get some rest.

The Duchy Originals website states: ‘HRH The Prince of Wales… believes poor health does not exist in isolation, but is in fact a direct consequence of our lifestyles, cultures, communities and how we interact with our environments. ‘He is passionate about adopting an integrated approach to health, as well as exploring how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine.’

A Duchy Originals spokesman said the tincture satisfied ‘all of the relevant sections of both UK and European food laws’. Andrew Baker, the firm’s chief executive officer said: ‘It is a natural aid to digestion and supports the body’s natural elimination processes. ‘It is not – and has never been described as – a medicine, remedy or cure for any disease.’ He added: ‘Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture contains globe artichoke and dandelion which both have a long history of traditional use for aiding digestion. ‘We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity.’

Nelsons Organic Pharmacy, which makes the tincture for Duchy Originals, said that artichoke and dandelion had been used for hundreds of years to aid digestion. Its chairman, Robert Wilson, said: We do not believe this product encourages ill-health through over-indulgence.’


12 March, 2009

More grave statin side-effects

Lower intelligence, memory problems, nightmares, depression, suicide... Statins are the wonder drug for cutting cholesterol. But evidence of severe side-effects keeps piling up

Could statins, the cholesterol-lowering drugs taken by more than three million Britons, be doing more harm than good to many thousands of patients? This is the rather alarming suggestion to emerge from two new studies. The research challenges the medical convention that lowering your cholesterol is always a good thing - indeed, they suggest statins may affect intelligence, cause depression and even raise the risk of suicide. The studies add to a growing body of evidence that having low cholesterol levels may prove as dangerous as having high readings.

This has huge implications for British proposals to offer statins to all men over 50 and women over 60, even if they don't have a high cholesterol count. The NHS spends more than o500 million a year on statins. The drugs are commonly prescribed to cut the level of so-called 'bad' LDL cholesterol that our livers create. In patients vulnerable to heart attacks and strokes, the drugs reduce the risk of fatty deposits gathering in their bloodstream and causing life-threatening blood clots.

But cholesterol is also produced by the brain, where it is used to release vital chemicals called neurotransmitters that carry messages between brain cells. Now a study by Iowa State University suggests that statins inhibit this vital process. When brain cells are deprived of cholesterol, they are five times less effective at releasing chemical messengers, says the research, published in the highly respected journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences.

'If you deprive cholesterol from the brain, then you directly affect how smart you are and how well you remember things,' says Yeon-Kyun Shin, the biophysics professor behind the study. 'This may lead to depression and irrational acts.' He believes this is directly caused by disruption in the neurotransmitter release in the brain. Indeed, statins were implicated in the suicide in April 2007 of London teacher Allan Woolley. After being prescribed the drug simvastatin, the housemaster at University College School in Hampstead complained of blackouts, insomnia and nightmares before he then killed himself by standing in front of a train. His family and friends said his death was completely out of character. The coroner ruled that the drug 'was involved' in his suicide.

Shin's findings reinforce another new study, which found that men with a combination of low cholesterol and depression are seven times more likely to die prematurely from suicide, accidents and other unnatural causes than men with only depression.

Scientists who followed nearly 4,500 Vietnam veterans over a 15-year period say the disturbing findings may be due to low blood cholesterol reducing levels of the brain's feel-good chemical messenger, serotonin. Low serotonin is linked to depression, anger, sleep loss and other problems, says Dr Joseph Boscarino, of the American Geisinger research institute, who did the research. 'While it's generally understood that having low cholesterol is a good health sign, combined with other factors, it could actually put a person at risk,' says the report. In fact, there is a significant body of evidence to show that low cholesterol may be as dangerous as high cholesterol.

These reputable studies show how people with markedly low levels of cholesterol are more likely to die from a variety of causes, including strokes, certain cancers, liver disease, lung disease and suicide. The deaths from these other causes mount so quickly that the mortality rate for those with low cholesterol equals the rate for people with very high cholesterol, who are likely to die from heart disease.

The findings do not question the standard medical advice that people with high blood cholesterol should diet or take statins. Current guidelines from the Department of Health say that the maximum healthy total cholesterol level should be less than 5.0 millimoles per litre of blood (mmol/l). But researchers worried about the harmful effects of low cholesterol estimate that the danger threshold may be just below 4.0mmol/l.

One report claims that women on low-cholesterol diets may face infertility problems. This small study of 300 patients by the Toronto Infertility Clinic says that cholesterol is essential for creating the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone.

Other U.S. research found that women with low cholesterol could be twice as likely to suffer from depression or anxiety problems. Even more worrying, studies of older people have found that those on low- cholesterol diets have a much higher rate of stroke, possibly because cholesterol has a protective effect in mature brain linings.

But the link between low cholesterol, decreased serotonin and dangerous behaviour is particularly strong and disturbing. A study of 80,000 Swedes, for example, shows that men who murder in a fit of rage tend to have below-average cholesterol. Irish doctors report that cholesterol levels are significantly lower in people who have been admitted to hospital after harming themselves. Research in the animal kingdom supports the existence of this problem: studies of captive monkeys reveal that they become abnormally aggressive when put on low-fat diets. And studies on mice indicate that cholesterol may help the brain to suppress reckless impulses.

Meanwhile, the NHS continues to prescribe ever more statins. There is no doubt that statins are life- saving drugs for people who have already had a heart attack. But the guidelines are constantly being revised. Until 2006, statins were prescribed only to men and women under 75 who had a 20 per cent risk of developing coronary heart disease within ten years. Now, the NHS recommends they are given to any adult with a total cholesterol of more than 5.0mmol/l who is thought at risk.

Moving forward, the Government argues that giving all men over 50 and women over 60 a daily dose of statins would save lives, NHS funds and doctors' time. However, Dr Alastair Dobbin, a GP based in Edinburgh, is highly critical of the policy. He has written in the British Medical Journal severely criticising the 'statins for all' approach. He believes it's an expensive waste of time that leaves millions of people falsely reassured and which may have damaging side-effects. 'The new Iowa study shows that we should be really cautious about handing out statins the way we do,' he says. 'We should be very careful about giving a drug to healthy people where there is any risk of any side-effects.'

He adds: 'Research shows that in people over 69 who've had no symptoms of diabetes, angina, stroke or heart attack, statins don't reduce mortality. 'They're invaluable for patients who have had these symptoms, but there's no scientific case for giving them to anyone else. 'It's a sheer waste of money, but the Government is ignoring the research.

'On the other hand, studies have found that patients have suffered memory loss with statins - some people have been unable to even recognise their spouse - yet the problem has disappeared after they stopped taking the drug.' Yet rather than investigating the disturbing links with statins further, the medical establishment has largely hushed, ignored or discredited them, for fear of confusing the 'high cholesterol is bad' message.

One campaign group, The International Network of Cholesterol Skeptics, includes on its website a list of academic research articles and letters it feels have been unfairly rejected by medical journals. For the sake of everyone's health, and to save the NHS millions it hasn't got, perhaps the answer is to rewrite the public health message to read: moderation in all things - including cholesterol control.


The idea that low cholesterol could be bad for you isn't the only health message that's been revised. Here are some others:

EGGS: Only last month, research backed by the British Nutrition Foundation put cholesterol-rich eggs firmly back on our healthy menus. For years, eggs had been associated with an increased risk of heart disease; this has been shown to be wrong.

BACKS: Conventional wisdom held that a bad back should be treated with bed rest. But experts changed their minds, and now stress the importance of movement and exercise.

TONSILS: A tonsillectomy was once almost a childhood rite of passage but are now so discredited that children who do need their tonsils removed can't get the operation.

NUTS: For ten years, pregnant and breastfeeding women were advised not to eat peanuts if there was a family history of allergies. But last December, the Food Safety Agency said it was no longer backing the policy because 'current evidence' does not support it.

MAGGOTS AND LEECHES: These were banned from mainstream therapy after the NHS was formed in 1948. But, in recent years, maggots have been used to keep wounds clean, and leeches to help healing after surgery.

NYMPHOMANIA: This was regarded as a mental illness until the Sixties. These days, women who don't have a strong sex drive are thought to be 'unwell', suffering from Female Sexual Dysfunction.



A vegetable-based drug could inhibit melanoma, US scientists believe. Compounds extracted from green vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage could be made into a potent drug against melanoma. Tests on mice suggest that these compounds, when combined with selenium (found in cereals, meat and fish) target tumours more safely and effectively than conventional therapy.

"There are currently no drugs to target the proteins that trigger melanoma," says Gavin Robertson, Associate Professor at Penn State College of Medicine. "We have developed drugs from naturally occurring compounds that can inhibit the growth of tumour in mice by 50 to 60 per cent with a very low dose."

The search for a drug to block the protein led them to a class of compounds called isothiocyanates, which are naturally occurring in cruciferous vegetables, though in very low doses.


11 March, 2009

A really keen food freak

A story from my local paper

Supermarket queues can be testy places, but a recent incident at a Capalaba supermarket, southeast of Brisbane, takes the cake. A woman of evidently rigid vegetarian beliefs objected to the next customer putting her meat too close to the shopping divider. When her protests brought no response, she picked up the divider and whacked the other woman shopper around the head

Naps cause diabetes?

This is brain-dead. All that they have found is that people with less energy nap more

Taking a regular afternoon nap is raising your risk of getting diabetes, say scientists. The danger of developing the illness, which can lead to strokes, blindness and kidney failure, increases by around a quarter among those who nap at least once a week. Experts said the raised risk could be simply down to the fact that those who took forty winks were less likely to be physically active.

Some 2.25million Britons have been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to unhealthy lifestyles and obesity. The research, being presented at a conference in Glasgow this week organised by charity Diabetes UK, examined the napping habits of 16,480 older people in China. More than two thirds of the group (68 per cent) took a nap at least once a week. Even when other factors were taken into account, such as the person's weight, the study found napping was linked with an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Overall, those who napped at least once a week had a 26 per cent greater risk of developing the illness compared with those who never took a nap.

The experts, led by a team from Birmingham University, said several factors may be behind the link, including the fact that those who nap are also probably taking less exercise anyway. In addition napping during the day may disrupt night-time sleep - those who sleep for just a few hours a night are known to have a greater chance of developing Type 2. Waking up from a short sleep also activates hormones and mechanisms in the body that stop insulin working effectively, the researchers said. Insulin controls levels of blood sugar.

Dr Iain Frame, director of research at Diabetes UK, said: 'This research could be another step towards explaining the possible link between disturbed sleep patterns and Type 2 diabetes.' He added that being overweight remained a much greater risk factor than sleep issues.


Popular children earn more money when adults

But nothing trumps IQ

A study by Essex University found that for each extra friend a pupil had a school, their salary was two per cent higher 35 years later. Professor Stephen Pudney, one of the researchers from the university's Institute for Social and Economic Research, used data from America in which groups of schoolboys were asked to name their three closest friends in their final year of High School. The number of nominations received by each pupil was added up.

The boys were then interviewed at regular intervals between 1957 and 2004 to measure earnings and relate the figures to the number of friends. Other factors such as intelligence and family income were also taken into account.

They focused on the senior year because adolescents have "been exposed to interactions in different contexts, from mathematics classes to athletics and extracurricular activities", implying that the pool of individuals who could be nominated was much larger.

Professor Pudney said: "A workplace is a social setting. People have to manage each other and work in teams - you can see why social skills would be helpful." Despite the findings, Professor Pudney accepts that intelligence and length of education still have more impact on earning power than social skills.

The study, which was done in conjunction with the University of Chicago and the Institute for Employment Research in Nuremberg, also found that high school students with above average IQ are more likely to nominate others and to be popular in turn. It remarked: "This comes as no surprise, as relative high ability students might both be more attractive as peers and better understand the opportunities arising from social interactions."

The reported added: "Overall, the estimates show that a warmer family environment during childhood is associated with a significantly higher degree of adolescent social engagement. The strongest of these effects are the positive impact of a close maternal relationship on the friendship in-degree (nominations received) and out-degree (nominations given), and the negative impact of poor sibling relationship on the out-degree. This remarks the importance of the early family environment on subsequent adolescent social life."

Other findings included belonging to a relatively wealthier family did not make a student more popular among his peers while there was also some evidence that being relatively younger was associated with a reduction in the amount of nominations received. Students living in rural and small towns were also more likely to nominate others and to receive nominations.


10 March, 2009

More asthma risk for kids spending hours in front of TV?

I can't find the article listed in the "In press" section of "Thorax" but I suspect more tedious ignorance below. The most reasonable interpretation of the findings: The children of poor people watch more TV and get more asthma

YOUNG children who spend more than two hours glued to the television every day increase their risk of developing asthma, new research shows. A UK study tracked 3000 children from birth to 11.5 years of age, and their parents were also asked to assess their TV watching habits. Six per cent of the children who had no symptoms of wheezing at 3.5 years went on to have asthma by the end of the study.

Children who watched TV for more than two hours a day were almost twice as likely to be in this new asthma group, according to research to be published in the journal Thorax. The study suggests sedentary behaviour in children can spark developmental changes in the lungs.


The secret of long life? It's all down to how fast you react

High IQ is a winner once again

People's reaction times are a far better indicator of their chances of living a long life than their blood pressure, exercise levels or weight, researchers have discovered. Men and women with the most sluggish response times are more than twice as likely to die prematurely.

Edinburgh University and the Medical Research Council in Glasgow tracked 7,414 people nationwide over 20 years in a study which appears to confirm the adage that a healthy mind means a healthy body. The researchers suggest that people's reaction times are a measure of their intelligence, which in turn is an indicator of their body's `system integrity' - how well it is wired together. They said:`Our results suggest that `choice' reaction time, a moderately high correlate of intelligence, is an important risk factor for death from all causes, including cardiovascular disease.'

The study, published in the respected journal Intelligence this week, is the first to look at reaction times and mortality, comparing the results with known risk factors like smoking and drinking. The authors say there is growing evidence that people with higher IQs tend to live longer and healthier lives. While this can partly be put down to differences in lifestyles because more intelligent people are less likely to smoke and be overweight, much of the gap has previously been unexplained.

The 7,414 volunteers in the study have been followed since the mid-Eighties, when their reaction times were measured with an electrical device fitted with a small screen and five numbered buttons. The volunteers had to press the matching button when a number appeared on screen. The time they took to react was measured and averages worked out. Since then, 1,289 have died, 568 of them from heart disease. The researchers then compared the reaction times, smoking habits, weight and other factors of those who had died with those who had survived.

The results showed that people with slow reactions were 2.6 times more likely to die prematurely from any cause. Smoking was the only factor linked to a larger risk of death - as it made it 3.03 times more likely. Physical exercise, blood pressure, heart rate, waist-hip ratio, alcohol consumption and body-mass index all had a lesser effect.

In deaths caused specifically by heart disease, reaction time was the most important factor after blood pressure, this time having a greater effect than smoking. The researchers said: `It has been hypothesised that reaction time, as a measure of speed of the brain's information-processing capacity, may be a marker for bodily system integrity. `This way, slower reaction times, or poorer information-processing ability, might be an indication of suboptimal physiological functioning, which may in turn be related to early death.'


9 March, 2009

Not too bright? Now the blame is on your father

This replicates a recent Israeli study and similar cautions apply. A social rather than a biological explanation for the finding is the most parsimonious. Older fathers will often be men who had difficulty partnering so may well be biologically unfit in various ways and low IQ could easily be one of those ways. So they pass on their low IQ to their kids in the normal genetic way (IQ is two thirds genetic). A social explanation also does best in explaining the finding with mothers. Late-marrying women are overwhelmingly middle class and hence likely to be of higher IQ. So their kids are smarter too. The QBI does not give publication lists for its members so I cannot check the original study but I doubt that he had the IQ data needed to test or control for the social explanation

Children with older fathers seem to perform worse in intelligence tests, according to a study due out this week. They tended to obtain significantly lower scores in a variety of cognitive tests than those born to younger fathers, researchers have found. The results could be controversial. Until recent years it had been thought that it was a mother's age that had most impact on the health and abilities of children. The father's age, by contrast, was thought to be much less important.

The research, led by John McGrath, of the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia, suggests such ideas need rethinking. "The offspring of older fathers show subtle impairments on tests of neurocognitive ability during infancy and childhood," he said. "In light of the trends to delay fatherhood, the clinical implications and the mechanisms underlying these findings warrant closer scrutiny."

Other research has shown linkage between advanced paternal age (men over 35) and an increased risk of neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism and schizophrenia, as well as dyslexia. Such findings prompted James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, to speak of his concern. His son Rufus suffers from schizophrenia and as more is uncovered about its causes Watson has publicly questioned if he is to blame. "I worry that I was 42 with Rufus," he says. "I read that the frequency of schizophrenia goes up with the age of both parents."

The tests, designed to measure the ability to think and reason, also generated a second startling finding - that children with older mothers gain higher intelligence scores. McGrath analysed data on 33,437 Americans born between 1959 and 1965. All were tested at eight months, four years and seven. The data set, despite its age, remains one of the best resources. McGrath also used advanced statistical techniques to remove environmental influences.

For McGrath one of the key questions is the underlying biological mechanisms. One idea is that as men age the cells that produce sperm suffer increasing numbers of mutations, which are passed on to an offspring. Why, though, would children born to older mothers tend to have higher intelligence? McGrath suggests this is because women's eggs are formed when they are still in the womb and so their DNA is protected from mutation until they are used.


More benefits of moderate alcohol consumption

I don't know what time it is where you are right now, but as the song goes: it's five o'clock somewhere. So go ahead, have a beer! What better way to toast the good news of a new study that shows even more benefits of alcohol?

The research done at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine shows that those who have a few drinks now and then are less likely to suffer from the kinds of physical ailments that so often limit your independence later in life. 25 percent less likely, in fact.

But don't go crazy at the bar - remember, the key words are "light-to-moderate." In fact, the study also found that people who routinely cross that moderation line were actually MORE LIKELY to have physical limitations that can inhibit their independence as seniors. And so were teetotalers!

But it's nothing new that there's a plus to the moderate intake of alcohol. I've told you about lots of studies that prove the health plusses of responsible drinking. Often, this research focuses on the overall benefits of tipping a daily glass or two - things like an increased resistance to heart disease, certain cancers, and the like. There was even a study that concluded that a daily alcoholic drink may stave off age-related mental decline in women 70 and older.

Now that I've made you nice and thirsty, you're probably wondering what the exact definition of "light-to-moderate" is. This study defined it as less than 15 drinks a week - placing a maximum of five drinks per day for men, and four per day for women. One of the study co-authors explained that it's the daily consumption of at least one drink that helps to prompt alcohol's preventative benefits.

I think it's great that in this day and age where fun is being sucked out of nearly every aspect of our lives that researchers are seeking - and finding - the upsides to having a nice glass of wine, beer, or bourbon. This is the kind of research that must drive the health Nazis in this country up the wall. But the fact is, the evidence of all of these studies can't be ignored. Alcohol can be good for you. Just like coffee, another much- maligned beverage.

And to all those stuffed shirt naysayers, I'd encourage you to sit back, relax, and have a drink. it'll do you some good.


8 March, 2009

New guidelines say two drinks a day increases risk of death

And who do they think is going to be guided by them? This is just more rubbishy "modelling" (Translation: pretentious guesswork) based on equally pretentious epidemiological speculation. All the big Wall St firms had modellers to save them from doing risky things and look where it got them! And none of the climate models predicted that global warming would peak in 1998 and remain flat thereafter either

Two alcoholic drinks a day - the maximum recommended on a regular basis under new national health guidelines - put people at greater risk of death from alcohol than from drowning, being in a pedestrian accident or an accidental fall. The long-awaited [awaited by whom?] guidelines, released yesterday by Australia's top health advice body, warn that the health benefits of alcohol have been overstated, and that someone consuming two drinks a day has nearly one chance in 100 of dying from alcohol-induced injury or illness. That compares with a one-in-683 lifetime risk of drowning, a one-in-403 risk of being in a pedestrian accident and a one-in-125 risk of a fatal fall, the Weekend Australian reports.

World-first modelling of the health risks of alcohol shows that above two drinks a day, the dangers escalate quickly - taking drinkers closer to better-recognised dangers such as car crashes (one in 54), cancer (one in four) and heart disease (one in four).

The guidelines, published by the National Health and Medical Research Council, also recommend that adults drink no more than four drinks on any one occasion. Children and young people under 18, women who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, and breastfeeding mothers, are all advised to avoid alcohol altogether.

The guidelines, which halve limits set in 2001, were greeted enthusiastically yesterday by health groups. [Yea! New ammunition for dictating to others!]

Despite renewed concern from some experts that many Australians might ignore the advice, some organisations called for even tougher steps. The Victorian Health Promotion Foundation called for mandatory health warnings reflecting the new advice to be put on all alcoholic products, while the Cancer Council Australia said it would have preferred the daily drinking limit for women to be halved again, to one drink.

Jon Currie, chairman of the NHMRC committee that compiled the new advice, said the guidelines were "not telling you what you can and can't do", but were instead designed to help Australians make informed choices about health risks. He said the health benefits of alcohol had been exaggerated and that any positive effect could be achieved by consuming just one drink every two days. In addition, any benefit would affect only middle-aged and elderly people. "There is no level of drinking alcohol that can be guaranteed by scientific evidence as being completely safe," Professor Currie said. [There is no way that Prof. Currie's advice can be guaranteed as completely safe, either]

However, the guidelines have already come in for the same criticism they attracted when released in draft form in October 2007, when they were attacked by some experts as too removed from most people's experience. Alex Wodak, director of the alcohol and drug service at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, said the gap between the two-drink recommended limit and many people's habits was such that "I fear these recommendations will be dismissed by many people".


Common chemical found to block HIV in monkeys

A common chemical found in food and cosmetics has been shown to protect monkeys against HIV infection, raising hopes that a similar treatment can be developed for humans. A team of researchers has identified a compound that, when applied as a gel, appears to block the simian version of HIV from being transmitted between monkeys during sexual intercourse. Scientists said that the chemical, which is applied in the vagina, marked an important advance in the field of microbicides - the development of creams and gels designed to prevent HIV from infecting cells. With an Aids vaccine still decades away, there is a growing consensus that microbicides now offer the most realistic drug strategy to control the spread of the disease.

Last week The Times revealed that research into microbicides - in which Britain is a world leader - is to receive more than 90 million pounds from the Government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation over the next five years.

Aids has claimed more than 25 million lives. Of the 16,000 people around the world contracting HIV every day, the majority are infected by unprotected sex, with the greatest incidence in sub-Saharan Africa and India.

In the new study, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that glycerol monolaurate (GML) appeared to interfere with signalling processes in monkeys' immune systems, blocking SIV - the primate version of HIV - at a key stage of potential infection. When HIV enters the body, defence systems unleash a cascade of orders, dispatching so-called T cells to the site of the infection. These cells are then hijacked by the virus, enabling it to proliferate throughout the bloodstream.

Of the ten female rhesus macaque monkeys injected with SIV, none of the five treated vaginally with GML developed the infection - even after four large doses. Four of the five macaques without GML contracted the virus. The paper, published in the journal Nature, concludes that GML breaks a "vicious cycle" of immune-system signalling and inflammatory response in the cervix and vagina. "This result represents a highly encouraging new lead in the search for an effective microbicide to prevent transmission that meets the criteria of safety, affordability and efficacy," the authors said.

Ashley Haase, the lead researcher, said that a long road lay ahead before the microbicide could be verified as safe and effective for humans but hailed the findings. "If GML as a topical microbicide can add to our prevention, it could contribute to saving millions of lives," he said. "Even though it sounds counter-intuitive, halting the body's natural defence system might actually prevent the transmission and rapid spread of the infection."

GML exists naturally in the human body and is already licensed for use in cosmetics and toiletries and as an emulsifier in foods. Each dose of GML used in the experiment cost less than a penny.

Today's paper follows results from a preliminary trial, released last month, which suggest that another gel, PRO2000, may reduce the chances of women contracting HIV by a third. The findings - the first positive results for a microbicide - raise the prospects of success for a second, larger, trial of the same drug, run by Imperial College London, which is due to finish in August.

Describing the new monkey research as exciting, Professor Andrew McMichael, director of the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, said: "This is an inexpensive compound that could be used in humans and clinical trials are very likely to follow."

Dr Adriano Boasso, research fellow at Imperial, urged caution. "This treatment was tested on a relatively small number of animals and several years of research are still needed to determine whether this approach will eventually develop into a prospective preventive drug," he said.


7 March, 2009

Fruit juice with added goodness may be bad

FRUIT juices containing added extras such as herbal supplements or antioxidants do not have significant health benefits and may actually be harmful to some people, Australia's leading consumer group says. An investigation by Choice has found juice with extras such as aloe vera, echinacea, ginkgo, ginseng, spirulina, barley grass and wheat grass did not contain enough of the extracts to have any meaningful health impact.

Choice spokesman Christopher Zinn said the low levels could actually be an advantage because some extracts at higher doses were not necessarily safe. He said gingko could interfere with other medications such as anticoagulants while anyone suffering high blood pressure should take ginseng only in small doses and pregnant women should not take it at all. "In our view the use of medicinal herbs in products like juices should be banned unless specific approval is given after a proper safety assessment, an idea which our food regulator has abandoned," he said.

Juices promoting extra antioxidants were also a concern, with no evidence that taking antioxidants as a supplement provided any preventative benefit for cancer or heart disease. "Apple juice has only 14 per cent of the antioxidant capacity you'd get from actually eating an apple," he said. "The juice market is rife with claims which are not matched by reality and it's often best to stick to the whole fruit or vegetable."

Mr Zinn said the juices with added extras were also more expensive than those without. "Many of the products, which go by names such as Kickstart, Energy Lift and Green Recovery, are mostly inexpensive apple juice with a few added extras," he said. One juice from Berri which claimed to contain "over 30 per cent of your daily needs" of omega-3 fats in fact contained only eight per cent of the Heart Foundation's recommended daily dose for men, he said.


How a simple injection could halt diabetes in children

A jab to prevent children developing diabetes came a step closer last night following a British breakthrough. Studies show a common tummy bug is strongly linked to childhood diabetes, which can shorten life and lead to blindness, heart disease, kidney failure and amputation. The findings could lead to a vaccine that would protect against the bug and 'drastically reduce' the prevalence of childhood, or type 1, diabetes.

The studies focused on enteroviruses - a family of more than 100 bugs that cause vomiting, diarrhoea and cold symptoms. The first showed that enterovirus infection of the pancreas is much more common in children with type 1 diabetes than those without. Researchers from the University of Brighton, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, and the Peninsula Medical School in the South West of England found that more than 60 per cent of diabetic pancreases studied had traces of the bug. But it was hardly spotted in those without the disease, the journal Diabetologia reports.

The finding suggests infection plays a key role in the development of the disease. It is thought that enteroviruses trigger a rogue immune response that destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas in those genetically vulnerable to diabetes. Further work on the role of enteroviruses could lead to the development of a jab which would 'drastically reduce' the number of people developing diabetes, said the researchers. Type 1 diabetes affects around 300,000 in the UK, including 20,000 children under 15.

Professor Adrian Bone, of Brighton, said: 'There has been a lot of evidence about peaks of diabetes following outbreaks of viral infections but this is the first direct link. 'What nobody else is done is put the viruses at the scene of the crime. It is extremely exciting. 'If you can narrow it down to a specific virus or small family of viruses, then you are in the business when it comes to developing vaccines.'

Professor Noel Morgan, of the Peninsula school, said: 'The next stages - to identify which viruses are involved, how cells are changed by infection and the ultimate goal to develop a vaccine - will lead to findings which we hope will drastically reduce the number of people around the world who develop type 1 diabetes.'

Dr Alan Foulis, of Glasgow, said: 'With 250,000 sufferers, the idea of a vaccine and being able to prevent this disease would be my life's work.'

A second study, by Cambridge University, has linked a gene called IFIH1, type 1 diabetes and enteroviruses, the journal Science reports. Karen Addington, of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, said the studies would give fresh hope to those with type 1 diabetes. She added: 'This life-threatening condition requires a lifetime of painful blood tests and insulin injections. Incidences are increasing by four per cent each year. Research such as this brings us closer to curing this condition.'

Dr Iain Frame, of the charity Diabetes UK, said: 'The next steps to identify the viruses and find out what they are doing to the infected cells will be hugely exciting and will take us a step closer to preventing type 1 diabetes.'


6 March, 2009

Official guidelines on how to treat heart problems largely based on weak evidence and expert opinion

The number of recommendations in the American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology (AHA/ACC) clinical-practice guidelines have progressively increased over time, but these recommendations are often based on weak evidence and expert opinion, a new study, published in the February 25, 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has shown.

Among guidelines reporting an update in recent years, the number of recommendations has increased 48% from the first to the current version, with the largest increase in recommendations for which there is conflicting evidence and/or a divergence of opinion about the efficacy of a procedure or treatment (class 2). In addition, roughly half of all recommendations are based on expert opinion, case studies, or standard of care rather than on data from multiple clinical trials or meta-analyses.

"It's a sobering result," lead investigator Dr Pierluigi Tricoci (Duke Clinical Research Institute, Durham, NC) told heartwire. "Almost half of the recommendations have a level of evidence C, meaning they have no supporting evidence or just a little supporting evidence. This means that situations where we are sure of what to do are small in number, while the situations where we are not so sure of what to do are the majority."

In this study, the investigators wanted to assess how the guidelines changed since the AHA/ACC began publishing clinical-practice guidelines more than 20 years ago. The guidelines currently use a grading system based on the level of evidence and class of recommendation. The level of evidence—A, B, or C—includes a description of the existence and types of studies available supporting the recommendation and expert consensus. The class of recommendation—1, 2, 2a, 2b, and 3—indicates the strength of the recommendation based on an objective judgment about the relative merits of the data.

From 1984 to 2008, the ACC/AHA issued 53 guidelines on 22 topics for a total of 7196 recommendations. Among these guidelines, 24 were disease-based, 15 were for interventional procedures, and 14 were for diagnostics. The disease-based and interventional-based guidelines were updated approximately every five years, while the diagnostic-procedure-based guidelines were updated eight years after the last publication.

Among guidelines with at least one revision, the number of recommendations increased 48% from the first guidelines to the most recent version. The increase in recommendations was driven primarily by increases in the number of class 2 recommendations—those with conflicting evidence and/or divergent opinions. Of the 16 current guidelines reporting levels of evidence, just 11% of recommendations were classified as evidence A, those based on data from multiple clinical trials or meta-analyses. Just under half of the recommendations, 48%, were based on expert opinion, case studies, or standards of care (level of evidence C).

Among the class 1 recommendations of guidelines reporting level of evidence, just 19% had a level of evidence A. There was also wide variation across the different specialties, with the disease-based and interventional-based guidelines having slightly better levels of evidence than the diagnostic-procedure guidelines. Roughly 70% of the recommendations within the valvular-heart-disease guidelines are evidence level C, with just one recommendation with evidence based on clinical trials. Heart-failure, secondary-prevention, and unstable-angina guidelines had the most recommendations based on clinical trial data or meta-analyses, or evidence level A. "Some fields are in better shape than others, but this is a general problem afflicting all the fields of cardiology," said Tricoci.

Ignore the guidelines altogether

In an editorial accompanying the published study [2], Drs Terrence Shaneyfelt and Robert Centor (University of Alabama School of Medicine, Birmingham) write that the "overreliance on expert opinion in guidelines is problematic," particularly since the guideline committees come to the table with implicit biases, values, and goals that aren't typically disclosed. Moreover, too many current guidelines are marketing- and opinion-based pieces, "delivering directive rather than assistive statements," they add.

In addition, they argue that guidelines are not patient-specific enough to be useful and do not allow for individualization of care, instead adopting a one-size-fits-all mentality. Moreover, there are simply too many guidelines on the same topic. The editorialists write that if the guidelines continue to exist, they need to undergo major changes, including limiting committee members with financial ties to industry or other potential conflicts of interest. Guideline development should also be centralized under a governing body to reduce bias and redundancy, something that might be achieved by allowing the US Department of Health and Human Services to oversee their drafting.

"However, it seems unlikely that substantial change will occur because many guideline developers seem set in their ways," write Shaneyfelt and Centor. "If all that can be produced are biased, minimally applicable consensus statements, perhaps guidelines should be avoided completely. Unless there is evidence of appropriate changes in the guideline process, clinicians and policy makers must reject calls for adherence to guidelines."

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Fewer calories=less weight, regardless of carb, fat, or protein content

And in any case the weight loss is small and soon reverses

It may be one of the most commonsense observations ever to be validated in a diet study: people lose weight if they eat fewer calories, regardless of where those calories come from. That's the upshot of a two-year study by Dr Frank Sacks (Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA) and colleagues, published in the February 26, 2009 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

After two years, 811 overweight adults randomized to one of four heart-healthy diets, each emphasizing different levels of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, showed similar degrees of weight loss. On average, patients lost 6 kg in six months, but gradually began to regain weight after 12 months, regardless of diet group.

According to Sacks, the research should help quell some of the debate—fostered by decades of research and fad diets—over what types of foods should be emphasized to produce weight loss. "Research has looked at whether carbohydrate is more satiating than fat, or whether protein is more satiating than carbohydrates, or whether overeating fat puts more fat in the belly than overeating carbohydrates, etc," Sacks explained. "So what's concerned colleagues of mine on the nutrition guideline panels in the past is the possibility that if we say that a 40% fat diet is okay, that maybe that would lead to weight gain. But where this study is going to be helpful is in saying 40% fat, 20% fat, it doesn't matter. If people can maintain a calorie deficit no matter what type of diet they were on, they're going to lose weight."

Sacks, who is incoming chair of the AHA's Nutrition Committee, acknowledged that nutrition advice in the past has worried too much about fat in the diet. "I'm very concerned that we maintain the focus on calories and keep the focus off percent calories from fat," he said.

An editorial accompanying Sacks et al's study applauds the duration of the study and the low dropout rate but takes a dimmer view of the weight loss achieved in the study and the ability of dieters to adhere to their diets over time. "Even these highly motivated, intelligent participants who were coached by expert professionals could not achieve the weight losses needed to reverse the obesity epidemic," Dr Martijn B Katan (VU University, Amsterdam, the Netherlands) writes. "The results would probably have been worse among poor, uneducated subjects. Evidently, individual treatment is powerless against an environment that offers so many high-calorie foods and labor-saving devices."

Sacks, speaking with heartwire, defended what he insisted was "clinically meaningful" weight loss in his study, emphasizing that many people achieved far greater losses than the average figure. Eckel, by contrast, was less sanguine, pointing out that an average weight loss of 3.5 kg at two years represents the best-case scenario, since real-life interventions rarely live up to the research setting.

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5 March, 2009

Study of TV and children's intelligence

This is a most amusing report. As we all know, our "betters" hate anything popular, from Coca Cola to cellphones to TV -- and are always trying to find some evidence that such things are bad for us. So they must have been mightily peeved at the results of their latest piece of research. It's a wonder that they reported it honestly, as a matter of fact. Too many people must have known about it for them to fake it.

What they found was that it does no harm to little kids if they watch a lot of TV. What a teeth-grinder! So they disown their own study and say that "other research" shows TV to be bad! What a laugh!

Harvard research scientists from The Centre on Media and Child Health yesterday released a study which debunked claims that watching TV under the age of two could improve a child's language and visual motor skills. This is the first long-term study to look at the link between infant TV viewing and their language and visual motor skills in their first three years.

Lead author Dr Marie Evans Schmidt said although her study failed to find that moderate TV watching damaged children's development she urged parents to exercise caution given other recent research. "Certainly some of those would suggest that infants watching TV are at increased risk for obesity, sleep disturbances and possibly attention problems," she said. "When parents make decisions of what's best for their families, they have to look at the body of research and I think that there is more evidence of harm than benefit."

Dr Schmidt, who has two daughters aged three and nearly two, understands that controlling television viewing can be challenging, particularly for parents of more than one child. "Certainly, with the three year old I'm much more flexible so long as she is watching educational TV," she said. "I prefer that my younger one not watch very much at all. But I will admit that she's got more exposure than her sister did because sometimes her sister's watching while she's not taking her nap."

A recent analysis of 78 studies of TV viewing spanning 25 years found TV can do more harm than good for infants yet some toddlers spend up to 40 per cent of their waking hours watching TV.


US system to rate health therapies

"Harder on Cancer, easier on you," proclaims the banner on the University of Florida Proton Therapy Institute website, a pitch to men scouring the Internet for advice on prostate cancer. This type of radiation treatment targets tumors more precisely than X-rays, the site claims, reducing side effects. But a study found that though proton beam therapy is at least five times as expensive as other forms of radiation, only a few small, brief studies have examined its effectiveness. There was no evidence that it was better at curing prostate cancer, and insufficient evidence that it was superior at preventing side effects.

With US healthcare spending on track to nearly double in the next 10 years to $4.4 trillion, the federal government is building a system to study the relative benefits of different treatments for diseases. The economic stimulus package contains $1.1 billion for "comparative effectiveness research," a down payment on a project that could ultimately cost hundreds of billions of dollars. The legislation also creates a council in the Department of Health and Human Services to coordinate the work.

But how this research will be used is politically contentious - and is likely to grow more so as new studies are conducted, and policy makers and insurers decide whether care that is not deemed most effective should be covered by Medicare or private insurance. The program has become a talking point for Republican critics of the stimulus plan, who argue that it is a step toward rationing healthcare. Cutting costs will probably be one of the major topics at a White House summit on healthcare that President Obama plans on Thursday.

Drug and medical device manufacturers, as well as some patient advocacy groups, say they support such research so doctors and patients can make better decisions about treatment. But they say the research should not determine whether procedures or drugs will be paid for by Medicare or private insurers. They lobbied vigorously - and successfully - to keep out language suggesting that it could be used to cut the cost of healthcare. "Medicare denials of coverage could have a devastating effect in terms of one-size-fits-all determinations that could make it very, very difficult for patients to find alternatives," said Rick Smith, vice president of policy for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Dennis Smith, a senior research fellow in health economics for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said restricting treatment options based on a government-run board's interpretations of research could result in a kind of "cookbook medicine" that ignores individual differences that make medicine "an art as well as a science." "Healthcare is full of stories of doctors trying to do something better for their patients because what they had wasn't working," he said. "My concern is that comparative effectiveness, in the hands of government, starts stifling that kind of innovation."

But unless there are financial incentives to channel patients toward the most effective treatments, it is unlikely that the research alone will cut health costs significantly, Douglas W. Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office, testified last week before the Senate Finance Committee. And proponents of comparative cost effectiveness, including health insurance companies and large businesses, say the United States cannot afford to ignore the potential for savings. The nation already spends more on healthcare than every other industrialized country, and health expenses will account for one-fifth of the economy a decade from now, more than twice the proportion in 1980, according to government estimates.

Rising health costs make it harder for US businesses to compete globally, crowd out other government priorities, and consume workers' wages. A number of other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia, have created comparative effectiveness panels.

Massachusetts General Hospital has developed a rating system for the clinical and cost effectiveness of various medical treatments. Dr. Steven Pearson, president of the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review at the hospital, said the question "is whether we as a society are going to get serious about judging whether something that is a teeny bit better but vastly more expensive is a wise way to go." The institute, which conducted the review of the scientific literature on proton beam therapy for prostate cancer, found little evidence favoring proton beam over other kinds of radiation, even though payers typically paid $50,000 to $80,000 for proton beam therapy, compared with $10,000 for the implantation of radioactive seeds, or $20,000 for radiation therapy using an X-ray technology.

"Our system is not set up to look at whether the evidence suggests that paying so much more for proton beam therapy makes sense for anybody," Pearson said. Instead, hospitals and clinics have the reverse incentive - to channel patients to the most expensive treatments, he said.

Karen Ignagni, president of America's Health Insurance Plans, an association of health insurers, said one way insurers could take the results of the research into account may be to offer a tiered system that requires patients to pay more for treatments that are seen as less cost-effective. The most cost-effective drugs may not work for everyone, though, said Joff Masukawa, senior director of government relations and public policy for Shire Ltd., which makes specialty biopharmaceuticals. Assigning a cost-effectiveness grade to a drug or therapy could eventually discourage drug companies from pursuing innovative drugs that treat rare diseases or help relatively few patients, he said.

Proponents of comparative effectiveness research acknowledge that studying the relative value of different therapies does not always yield straightforward answers. Thomas Lee, network president of Partners Community HealthCare Inc. and an associate editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, points to a study in the journal's current issue that compared the effectiveness of bypass surgery and angioplasty for patients with advanced coronary disease. The researchers found that the rate of complications was lower for bypass surgery, but that was not the end of the story. Most of the complications with angioplasties were experienced by patients who had returned for repeat procedures; meanwhile, the rate of stroke for bypass patients is much higher.

"They answers you get may or may not be clean and simple," Lee said, "but at least you will get reliable answers to important questions - as good as we can get - and patients and insurance companies will be able to make better decisions."

The money included in the stimulus package for comparative effectiveness research may be just the beginning. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, filed legislation last year that would create a nonprofit corporation to oversee a vast research operation, underwritten by a small surcharge on private health insurance. Baucus, who will play a leading role in the healthcare debate in the coming months, argued forcefully for robust research in a policy paper he issued late last year that was intended to lay the groundwork for a sweeping overhaul of the healthcare system this year.

Researchers are already preparing to apply for research grants funded by the stimulus money. Anthony Zietman, a radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, is part of a team that wants to compare two or three different kinds of radiation therapies for prostate cancer, including proton beam. Such work, he said, is urgently needed. "We've got to help patients sort their way through this morass of options," he said. "If these new technologies are better - prove it. If it's worth the cost, we should pay the cost. If it's not worth it, we should dispense with them or not cover them."


4 March, 2009

Material success and social failure?

More junk epidemiology below. The authors find less social dysfunction in Nordic countries and in Japan and say that is because incomes are more equal there. So, like nearly all epidemiologists, they make causal inferences from correlational data -- which you cannot logically do. They allegedly spent 30 years arriving at their conclusions so I am sorry to say that it took me approximately two minutes to see an alternative explanation for their findings: ethnic diversity. Japan to this day has few immigrants and the Nordic countries have only recently begun to have a large immigrant population. And as Robert Putnam has famously shown, social homogeneity expands trust and co-operation. So there is less social dysfunction because people feel happier and safer and more co-operative in a country where most people are like them.

And, without looking at it in detail, I am guessing that the same applies to U.S. States. States with the largest minority populations (the South?) have the highest level of social dysfunction.

How nasty of me to undermine so quickly conclusions that so suit the prejudices of the Left! But even if all of the explanation that I have just given is wrong, the point still stands that "correlation is not causation". You learn that in Statistics 101 but if you are a grand epidemiologist, you are allowed to ignore that, apparently. And BOTH of us could be wrong. There could be some third process at work generating the numbers concerned. Assigning causes from epidemiological data is always mere speculation

It is common knowledge that in rich societies the poor have shorter lives and suffer more from almost every social problem. Likewise, large inequalities of income are often regarded as divisive and corrosive. In a groundbreaking book, based on 30 years' research, Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at The University of Nottingham together with co-author Kate Pickett from the University of York, go an important stage beyond either of these ideas to demonstrate that more unequal societies are bad for almost everyone within them - the well-off as well as the poor.

Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett forcefully demonstrate that nearly every modern social and environmental problem - ill-health, lack of community, life, violence, drugs, obesity, mental illness , long working hours, big prison populations - is more likely to occur in a less equal society, and adversely affects all of those within it.

The remarkable data the book presents and the measures it uses are like a spirit level which we can hold up to compare the conditions of different societies. It reveals that if Britain [Which has always received lots of immigrants and which as a consequence now has a large and troublesome minority population] became as equal as the average for the four most equal of the rich countries (Japan, Norway, Sweden and Finland), levels of trust might be expected to increase by two-thirds, homicide rates could fall by 75 per cent, everyone could get the equivalent of almost seven weeks extra holiday a year, and governments could be closing prisons all over the country.

The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, shows us how, after a point, additional income buys less and less additional health, happiness and wellbeing. The issue is now community and how we relate to each other. This important book explains how it is now possible to piece together a new, compelling and coherent picture of how we can release societies from the grip of pervasive and schismatic dysfunctional behaviour, a picture which will revitalise politics and provide a new way of thinking about how we organise human communities. It is a major new approach to how we can improve the real quality of life, not just for the poor, but for everyone.

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How that 'healthy' fruit juice could give you liver failure- or worse

When the cat allergy I suffered as a teenager seemed to have reappeared at the end of last year, I went to the GP for advice. I couldn't face the prospect of getting rid of my beloved moggy, so I wanted an allergy test to see if he really was the problem. While I waited for an appointment for the test, my GP prescribed the non-drowsy antihistamine Fexofenadine hydrochloride and told me, in a casual way, to avoid grapefruit juice.

I started taking the drug and my symptoms disappeared. A month later, I was craving my favourite juice and had forgotten the GP's warning. Within two days of drinking grapefruit juice, my heart was racing and, having previously suffered from arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), I became anxious. My doctor diagnosed the problem immediately as a bad interaction between grapefruit juice and the drug.

Who could imagine something that seems so healthy could harm you? Bad reactions to all fruit juices - but grapefruit juice in particular - are seen as so serious that you're meant to report them to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The most serious case was when a healthy 29-year-old man was prescribed an antihistamine twice daily for a year to treat hay-fever. He drank two glasses of grapefruit juice, took his drugs, became ill shortly afterwards and dropped dead after the interaction between the juice and the drug interfered with his heart rhythm. Other bad reactions can be as serious as liver failure if grapefruit juice interacts badly with cholesterol drugs, or dangerously low blood pressure if you're on drugs for, ironically, high blood pressure. Sometimes, with antibiotics for example, the drug will simply cease to work. There can be bad interactions with statins and some cancer drugs, too.

I usually give up wine in January, but, alarmed by what I'd been told, I haven't had grapefruit juice this year. How can fruit juice have such an effect? It seems some contain higher levels of the chemical naringin, a natural flavour, which causes too much of certain drugs to be absorbed into the bloodstream. An enzyme in the gut that usually partially destroys the drug as it is absorbed is effectively knocked out by the naringin - transforming a safe medication into a potentially toxic overdose. It's not only naringin that's to blame; other chemicals called furanocoumarins which are found in juice can cause problems.

Grapefruit, with its high levels of both, is the main culprit, but orange and apple juices also contain damaging chemicals that can combine badly with drugs. These include anti-cancer drugs such as etoposide, the beta blockers atenolol, celiprolol and talinolol, and the antibiotics ciprofloxacin, levo-floxacin and itraconazole. The good news is that eating grapefruit segments is thought to be safe - it is the concentration of the chemicals in the juice that is responsible for adverse reactions.

The link between adverse drug reactions and fruit juice was made in 1991 by a Canadian pharmacologist, yet some drug manufacturersare still giving patients insufficient warning about the risks, say experts. 'Every medicine that carries a risk of interacting with fruit juice should carry a warning in the patient information leaflet of every prescription. But this just isn't happening,' says Munir Pirmohamed, professor of pharmacology at Liverpool University and a specialist in adverse reactions.

Kelly-Ann Prime, a cardiac nurse with the British Heart Foundation, says: 'We know grapefruit juice and some statins react badly. A trial of one called Sinva showed that even small amounts of grapefruit juice increased the likelihood of side-effects, including leg cramps and stomach problems. There aren't enough warnings about the possible effects of grapefruit juice and statins, so patients need to be careful and aware.'

However, Professor Pirmohamed stresses that you should not suddenly stop taking prescribed medicine. 'We wouldn't want patients to take themselves off beneficial medication without good cause just because there's no mention of fruit juice in the leaflet - they should always talk to their doctor.' So, if you are taking any medication, stay off the juice until you've seen your GP.


3 March, 2009

Milk could help prevent Alzheimer's Disease

This report is preliminary to the completion of a proper double blind trial so the crucial evidence is not yet in. The main finding so far appears to be that B12 is most easily absorbed from milk

Drinking two glasses of milk every day could help protect against memory loss and Alzheimer's disease in old age, according to research. Scientists working at the University of Oxford have discovered that milk is one of the best sources of a key vitamin thought to reduce the neurological damage to the brain that can lead to forms of dementia. Elderly patients with low levels of the vitamin, known as B12, suffer twice as much shrinkage of the brain as those with higher levels of the substance in their bodies, the researchers found.

They now hope that increasing the intake of vitamin B12 among the elderly could help to slow cognitive decline. They are conducting a clinical trial that aims to show that it may be possible to treat memory problems in the elderly with vitamin supplements. They also believe it may be possible to protect people against devastating degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, which affects 150,000 new patients every year in the UK, by improving their dietary intake of the vitamin.

Professor David Smith, from the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing, said drinking just two glasses of milk a day would be enough to increase levels of vitamin B12 to an adequate level. He said: "There are 550 people who come down with dementia, mainly Alzheimer's, every day in the UK - it is a major epidemic. "These patients have had nerve cells that have died, so it is unlikely we are ever going to be able to find ways of repairing that damage or treating them with drugs. "Instead we have to look at preventing it in the first place. Our study shows that consuming around half a litre of milk or more per day, and it can be skimmed milk, could take someone who has marginal levels of B12 into the safe range. But even drinking just two glasses a day can protect against having low levels."

Vitamin B12 is one of the eight B vitamins and is found mainly in meat, fish and dairy products. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, revealed that while meat contained some of the highest levels of the vitamin, it was poorly absorbed by the body when eaten. Instead Professor Smith, together with colleagues at Oslo University and Bergen University, in Norway, found the highest levels of vitamin B12 absorbed by the body came from milk, despite having lower B12 concentrations than meat. Around 55 per cent of the vitamin in milk entered the blood stream. Fish provided the second highest source of the vitamin, followed by other dairy products.

Professor Smith said: "In meat, B12 can be tightly bound to protein and this bond has to be broken down by acid in the stomach before the body can use it. "Older people have lower levels of acid and so it is much harder for them to get B12 from certain foods. In milk, the binding is readily reversible."

Brain scans of patients who have a vitamin B12 deficiency have revealed that they suffer more brain loss, or atrophy, than those with higher intake of the vitamin.

Professor Smith and his team found in a separate study that even elderly patients eating enough vitamin B12 to be considered to have normal concentrations of vitamin B12 were at risk of increased brain atrophy. He found that those in the lower third of the normal range suffered twice as much brain loss, about one per cent a year, than those who had higher concentrations of the vitamin in their bodies.

It is thought that vitamin B12 is essential for maintaining the sheath that forms around and insulates nerve cells. Without adequate levels of the vitamin, this sheath cannot be kept in a good functional state, leading the cells to malfunction and die. Previous studies by the group have indicated that chocolate and wine may have a similar effect.

Professor Smith said: "There is a beautiful dose effect with foods that contain high levels of vitamin B12, but the causal relationship with cognitive function is far from clear and we need more work on this. "We are currently preparing to unmask a two-year trial of 180 people over the age of 70 with memory problems, who were either given Vitamin B12 or a placebo. "We have been taking volumetric MRI scans to look at whether the vitamin treatment has slowed down the atrophy in the brain. "We need to do more clinical studies on vitamin B12 before we can start offering advice to help protect against dementia and cognitive decline, but until then prudence would suggest adopting a healthy lifestyle and a diet that is high in vitamin B12."

Alzheimer's disease has recently been thrown into the spotlight after author Terry Pratchett, 60, announced in 2007 that he has been diagnosed with a rare form of the disease called posterior cortical atrophy. He has since donated more than $1 million to the Alzheimer's Research Trust and become a high profile campaigner for Alzheimer's research. Around 700,000 people in the UK live with dementia.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, welcomed the latest research but said it was vital more research into Alzheimer's disease received funding. She said: "With vitamin B12 deficiency a common problem among elderly people in the UK, and further links between this deficiency and dementia, these findings will be of particular interest close to home and could encourage us to move dairy products higher up on the shopping list."


Curtains and pyjamas to become weapons against superbugs

Hospital curtains, bedding, and even patients' pyjamas could become weapons in the war against hospital superbugs

A study has found that an antimicrobial treatment, which could be incorporated into dozens of surfaces on the ward, can kill MRSA on contact, reducing the risk of infection between patients. Scientists hailed the discovery by researchers from Imperial College London as a "very significant" step in the war on hospital superbugs which kill 10,000 people a year. The study found the product was 1,000 times more potent than its rivals in eliminating MRSA, and could be used on dozens of surfaces, creating environments which eradicate bugs instead of harbouring them. Paint, light switches, medical equipment, staff uniforms and even pens and paper could be treated with Cliniweave, which uses a technique invented by a British company to incorporate an antimicrobial compound into textiles.

The five-year study, published in the International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, found that within 60 minutes the treatment eliminated MRSA entirely. In tests on three rival treatments, the bug continued to multiply. The agent in Cliniweave works by destroying the enzymes in existing bacteria and preventing their multiplication.

Professor Mark Enright, professor of microbiology at Imperial College London, which carried out the study, said: "The results are very promising; a fabric that can kill bacteria on contact could be a really significant way to reduce levels of infections in hospitals". The leading infection expert said professionals had long known that different parts of the ward could form "hotspots" for infection, but said treatments for surfaces had shown limited effectiveness until now.

Separate research published by The Lancet found that in hospital wards tackling superbug outbreaks, MRSA could be detected on dozens of surfaces. Of the sites tested, 41 per cent of bed linen was found to be contaminated, along with 40 per cent of patients' clothing, and 27 per cent of furniture, including bed frames.

Nottingham University Hospitals trust have now begun replacing curtains on 100 wards at two sites with fabric treated with the product, which has already been introduced to wards at hospitals run by Blackpool, Fylde and Wyre Hospitals trust.

Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of microbiology at Aberdeen University, said the study findings appeared to be "extremely significant". He said: "We know that MRSA is often found on surfaces in hospitals, and anything that we can do to reduce the number of places from where patients can become contaminated should be pursued when so many lives are at stake."

Prof Enright said his team were now seeking funding to carry out further research to establish the effectiveness of the product in hospitals, where it could be used to treat as many surfaces as possible. "We want to carry out a trial using two intensive care units, where we can treat as many fabrics as possible - the staff uniforms, the bedding, the paint on the walls - to see how far we can reduce the risk of infection," he said.

George Costa, managing director of Intelligent Fabric Technologies (IFT), which invented Cliniweave, said the technology meant antimicrobial treatment could be incorporated into dozens of textiles ranging from paint to plastic. IFT part-funded the peer-reviewed research, but played no part in the design of the study, or in carrying out the work or interpreting the findings.

While the risks of infection with bugs such as MRSA can be reduced if those who come into contact with patients have washed their hands, environments harbouring bugs leave staff, relatives and patients at constant risk of picking up new bacteria which can infect wounds and get into the bloodstream, sometimes proving fatal. Latest annual figures show there were more than 1,500 deaths linked to MRSA in NHS hospitals in 2007, although the number of infections has since begun to fall.

Figures published in December showed the number of infections reduced by one third in 2008, after new measures were introduced by hospitals to promote hygiene. Latest annual figures show in total almost 10,000 people died from hospital infections, including MRSA and Clostridium Difficile.


2 March, 2009

Drinking two cups of black tea a day can 'help ward off ovarian cancer'

The International Journal of Gynaecological Cancer appears to have no internet presence so this study is a bit hard to judge but it seems to be rubbish. The finding appears to be that American women who drink tea have less cancer. But coffee is America's drink so these were probably pretentious middle class women and middle class women are healthier anyway

Researchers believe drinking two cups a day cuts women's risk of ovarian cancer. Drinking tea can cut the risk of ovarian cancer by up to a third, researchers have said. A study found women drinking at least two cups a day of black tea had a 30 per cent drop in risk. It is thought antioxidant compounds found in tea - catechins and theanins - contribute to improved blood vessel function.

The study was carried out in the U.S. with 414 women, half of whom had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. The findings were released in the International Journal of Gynaecological Cancer before the start of ovarian cancer month in March. This aims to raise awareness of the disease, of which there are more than 6,600 new cases in the UK each year. About 4,400 women die each year from the illness, which claims the lives of more than 85 per cent of patients when found at a late stage. But detection in the early stages means 95 per cent of sufferers will survive.

Dr Catherine Hood, from the industry-backed Tea Advisory Panel, said an earlier Swedish study involving over 61,000 women made similar findings. It showed those who drank two or more cups of tea daily had a 46 per cent lower risk of the disease compared with those who never or seldom drank tea.

Alex Ford, chief executive of The Eve Appeal, which supports patients with gynaecological cancers, said women should be aware of the signs of ovarian cancer, especially those over 50. She said: `Traditionally, early diagnosis was difficult as experts didn't agree on the symptoms and they are easily mistaken for other, much more common and less serious conditions. `But there's been more research, and scientists and doctors have agreed on what advice to give women.'

It has been previously found that the health benefits of tea are not affected by adding milk.


How suncream made from coffee could prevent skin cancer

This is interesting but only an early-stage finding

Suncream made from coffee, chocolate or tea could one day prevent the most common form of skin cancer, researchers say. A study has shown that caffeine protects the skin against ultraviolet rays from the sun - and reduces the risk of cells becoming cancerous. In laboratory tests, caffeine encouraged UV-damaged cells to 'commit suicide' but left healthy cells undamaged, a team of American researchers report.

Skin cancer is the fastest growing form of the disease in the UK. Rates have quadrupled for men, and tripled for women in the past 25 years. Each year 8,000 cases of malignant skin cancer - the most dangerous form - are diagnosed, leading to almost 2,000 deaths.

Past studies have suggested that drinking plenty of coffee can reduce the risk of skin cancer by one third, while animal tests have shown that caffeine encourages damaged skin cells to self-destruct. The latest research at the University of Washington in Seattle - reported in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology - looked at the effects of caffeine on human cells after they were exposed to UV light.

Scientists found that caffeine interferes with a key part of the cell's internal clock called 'checkpoint' ATR-Chk1. This helps monitor the cell as it divides. If it spots DNA damage during the division cycle, it stalls the cycle to allow the DNA to be repaired, or orders the cell to self-destruct.

Dr Paul Nghiem, who led the research, said: 'These data suggest that topical application of caffeine or another ATR-Chk1 pathway inhibitor, perhaps in a sunscreen or after-sun preparation, could be investigated as an approach to minimise or reverse the effects of UV damage in human skin.'


1 March, 2009

Coke's no joke, says cancer research report

This is pure ideology. Coca Cola is attacked because it is popular. I know of no double-blind study which shows a significant connection between Coca Cola consumption and cancer. There have been various scare theories but evidence always seems to be regarded as superfluous. The World Cancer Research Fund is in any case a corrupt body that finds only what it wants to find -- as we see here and here. I imagine that scares are a great help in raising money for "research". WCRF representatives certainly put out scares with great frequency

A "war on Coke" should be part of a global push to fight cancer, according to a report from the peak international anti-cancer body. Cutting the consumption of sugary drinks by half is a key recommendation of the World Cancer Research Fund report.

It says almost a third of cancer cases are preventable and are caused by sedentary habits and an unhealthy diet. It recommends that people drink less alcohol and eat less meat and more vegetables.

It also comes out against dietary supplements, despite their anti-cancer claims, because not enough is known about their effectiveness or side effects.

The report was welcomed by Craig Sinclair, director of the Cancer Council Victoria's Cancer Prevention Centre. He said it was the most authoritative advice yet on how to cut cancer rates. Mr Sinclair estimated that up to 5200 cases of cancer a year in Victoria could be prevented by simple improvements to lifestyle and diet.


The Mediterranean diet no longer prevails

The writer below notes that Italians are fat and blames it on their deserting their traditional diet. But I am not sure that the Mediterranean diet was ever said to be slimming. I grew up among Italians and in my 65-year-old recollection, Italians both male and female have always been mostly barrel-shaped from middle-age on. It was always attributed to the fattening qualities of spaghetti

How many times have you heard of the benefits of the Mediterranean diet? Been told that if you eat like the Italians you will live forever, be healthy and - more importantly - fit into that size 10 dress that's been in your wardrobe for the past 20 years? When I moved to Tuscany I hoped to be let in on the secret, but if I'm honest I just expected to be continuously in competition with the thin and beautiful Italian women, envying their clear skin and glossy hair. I strongly believed that the sight of chubby teenagers rammed into skinny, hip-hugging jeans and builders' bottom cleavage had been left behind with the rain and the smog of London. Was I in for a shock!

The truth of the matter is that 42.5 per cent of Italian men and 26.6 per cent of Italian women are overweight: 10.5 per cent and 9.1 per cent respectively are obese. But the most unpalatable aspect is the data for children. A survey of Europe last year by the International Association for the Study of Obesity showed Britain at the top of the chub charts, but closely followed by Mediterranean countries (Cyprus, Malta, Italy and Spain). One third of Italian children aged six-nine are overweight or obese and 25.4 per cent of the 10-13 age group. And the future does not look good: by 2025 the Italian Obesity Society estimates that child obesity will triple, arriving at 12.2 per cent overall.

So where have we gone wrong? Why is everyone recommending the Mediterranean diet when the Med is the second-highest area in Europe for child obesity? The sad truth is that not even the Italians are following the Med diet, having traded in their olive oil and salads for burgers.

In July 2008 a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine compared the Med diet with two other diets: the low-carb and the low-fat. Out of the 322 participants (86 per cent of which were men) the Med diet resulted in a loss of 10lbs, compared to the 12lbs lost through the low-carb. Among the women however the Med diet resulted in a weight loss of 8.4lb more than the low-carb one.

The traditional Mediterranean diet, high in legumes, cereals, fruit, vegetables and fish and low in meat and dairy products, combined with cholesterol-lowering olive oil and antioxidant red wine, was regarded as the ideal way to eat. I say "was", as the new generation, used to convenience foods and hamburger chains, has started counteracting the many years of good eating. And with the added stress of the credit crunch the average family simply cannot afford the "luxury" of healthy eating.

Mum needs to work, meaning she no longer has time to fulfil the traditional role of "mamma", taking time and paying attention to cooking healthily for her family. And this isn't the only culture change that has had an effect. Contrary to popular belief the overweight and obese Italians can be found mainly in the South. This has been found to be due to their inactivity, and perhaps to the fact that despite that inactivity these are the Italians most likely to still be eating as much as their field-working grandparents did. Only 20.9 per cent practise a sport. Only 28.2 per cent take any physical activity at all, while 39.8 per cent lead completely sedentary lives. While the North has more readily embraced the lifestyle of the 21st century as far as office jobs and long commutes are concerned, they also seem more likely to join a gym or take up a sport.

Any 30-year-old English woman like myself shudders at the distant memory of freezing on a wet and windy netball court wearing nothing but navy knickers and a T-shirt, being told that jumpers are for wimps and that cold builds character. PE lessons may have seemed merely a form of torture dreamt up by sadistic head-teachers, but it is sadly lacking in Italian schools.

The government is trying to turn the tide, but it's not an easy job. Schools, places of employment, and most importantly, parents need to take responsibility to make a change. Italy, a country that so far has tried to hold onto its history, culture and tradition is finally bending to the will of a gluttonous and lazy future, and all the negative aspects that today's lifestyle brings with it.

The days of red-faced farmers' wives cooking delicious home-made, fresh food from dawn, cleaning the house all day while their husbands toil the land, easily burning off their wine-soaked, olive oil-fuelled long lunches, are being replaced by long, stationary office-hours, frenetic commuting and a quick sandwich for lunch. And in the meantime, I will continue cycling, walking and taking my Pilates lessons - even if it is just to feel smug on the Tuscan beaches in summer!