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 October, 2008

Doctors 'unknowingly favour whites'

What absurd data! An internet survey! You could hardly get more unrepresentative data if you tried! The study proves nothing

Doctors subconsciously favor whites over blacks, US researchers said today in a finding that may explain widespread racial disparities in health care in the US. A long line of studies have found that US blacks get inferior care for cancer and a variety of other ailments compared to whites but experts concerned about the disparities have struggled to understand why.

"This supports speculation that subtle race bias may affect health care, but does not imply that it will," said Janice Sabin of the University of Washington in Seattle, who presented the study at the American Public Health Association's annual meeting in San Diego. Ms Sabin said it was too early to know if there was a direct link between the findings and the quality of care delivered to blacks in the US. She said the findings reinforce other studies showing racial bias is common in the general population. "But we have to remember people are not racist if they hold an implicit bias," she said.

Ms Sabin used data from a study of more than 400,000 people who took an online test between 2004 and 2006 about their attitudes on race. More than 2500 of the test-takers said they were doctors. [But were they?]

Rather than overt racism, the test looks for subconscious signs of bias by asking a series of questions. For example, people were asked to quickly say whether photos of blacks and whites were positive or negative. "We don't call what these tests show prejudice. We talk about it as hidden bias or unconscious bias, something that most people are unaware they even possess," said Anthony Greenwald of the University of Washington, who created the test and helped with the study.

Overall, 86 per cent of people who took the test said they lived in the US. Out of 2535 physicians, 76 per cent said they were U.S. residents. Of the entire sample, 69 per cent said they were white, while 66 per cent of those who said they were doctors identified themselves as white. Doctors in all racial and ethnic groups showed an implicit preference for whites versus blacks except for black doctors, who did not favour either group.

"The implicit bias effect among all the test-takers is very strong," Ms Sabin said. "People who report they have a medical education are not different from other people, and this kind of unconscious bias is a common phenomenon." Ms Sabin said the study shows diversity training should be a part of medical education in the US.

Studies have shown blacks in the US are more likely than whites to die from diabetes, strokes, heart attacks and cancer. Some studies have shown this disparity persists when incomes, education and insurance coverage are equal. [And other studies have shown no difference]


Fat kids heavily persecuted in Britain

Some kids are just naturally fat. It's in their genes

At least seven morbidly obese children were taken into care last year by social services. [i.e. removed from their families]. A boy of six who was seriously overweight, a girl of seven with a Body Mass Index three times higher than normal, and an eight-year-old girl who weighed nine stone, were among those taken from their parents. They were joined by a boy of 12 from London who had a BMI of 28 to 60 per cent above the 17.5 average for his age.

The figures were released by councils following a request under the Freedom of Information Act. Dr Colin Waine, former head of the National Obesity Forum Charity, said more needed to be done to monitor vulnerable children before social services were forced to intervene.

Meanwhile, health minister Dawn Primarolo has hailed Disneyland for offering healthy side dishes in its fast food outlets. Ms Primarolo told the Food Standards Agency she wanted to see all food outlets 'making healthy choices a default option'. She also praised Tesco for using the characters Tigger and Mickey Mouse to promote fresh fruit, juice, cereal and yoghurts.


30 October, 2008

Raunchy red?

This would almost certainly apply to first impressions only

Forget that little black dress. Gentlemen really prefer a lady in red. As actress Kelly Brook knows only too well. Blushing in shades of crimson, scarlet or deep rose, a girl is regarded as prettier and more desirable, research shows. She is also more likely to be asked out on a date - and have more money lavished on her during the outing.

What is more, men seem completely oblivious to the effect that a glimpse of red can have on their emotions. The researchers said it appeared they were driven by primal instincts that associate the colour with sex. The study, carried out at the University of Rochester in the U.S., involved a series of experiments in which men were shown a photo of a 'moderately attractive' young woman. In some cases, the colour of the border framing the picture was changed, in other cases the colour of the woman's blouse varied. Red, blue, green, grey and white were tested. In all cases, red was judged the most attractive. The men were much more likely to ask out a woman wearing red. And they estimated they would spend almost twice as much on her as one in blue. Despite the clear effect, the men insisted colour played little role in their choices, suggesting they were oblivious to the power of red.

The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, claims to provide the first hard evidence of 'society's enduring love affair with red'. From the red body paints used in ancient fertility rituals, to the phrase 'red light district' and the red hearts of Valentine's Day, the colour has long been associated with romance. In the animal world, red often signals a female is at her most fertile, with female baboons and chimps blushing conspicuously at this time.

Men are not alone in being attracted to red. The research suggests a man in scarlet is just as irresistible to women.


Scientists discover how to switch obesity cells off

Hurray! Soon we will all be able to eat like hogs and still stay slim -- or have I got the wrong angle on this?

A WORLD-first breakthrough by Melbourne scientists could give them the ability to switch off fat, fuelling hopes of overcoming obesity and a host of weight-related diseases. In the past month tissue engineers at the Bernard O'Brien Institute of Microsurgery have discovered chemicals that act as the switch telling fat cells to grow and multiply. They have also found two drugs, which can switch off fat cells' growth, in the laboratory and will soon begin a long study testing them in rats to see if they could become an obesity treatment.

In other world-first discoveries over the past two years, Bernard O'Brien scientists have developed a technique to grow fat cells into breast and beating heart-muscle tissue. And they are now confident their latest discovery could help to reverse the process. The team is yet to publish its findings and can't release full details or the identity of the signalling enzymes and drugs. However, director of tissue engineering Prof Greg Dusting said the breakthrough could have a huge impact in the fight against obesity and weight-related disease. "We know what those molecular signals are and we have got some molecules that block them," he said. "We can modify these molecules and turn them on to enhance the development of a breast or heart tissue, or we might be able to change those molecules to ones that block those pathways. "It's fabulous and offers all sorts of possibilities. It's what pharmacologists always think about."

Prof Dusting hopes that within two years the animal trials will provide enough information for researchers to know if they can control fat growth effectively. But he warned there was still little idea of what the consequences would be for the body or what would happen to the excess fuel caused by overeating. The institute has already been able to grow a fist-sized lump of fat in a laboratory -- the largest piece of tissue grown through tissue engineering techniques -- but until recent weeks the researchers were unsure exactly how the fat growth was stimulated.

The breakthrough discovery of oxidase enzymes -- which signal fat cell growth -- was made by Prof Dusting and colleague Dr Keren Abberton, in collaboration with Melbourne University. It is believed to be the same process that is triggered by overeating and by fat-rich diets.

The Melbourne University collaboration has seen rats fed a diet of meat pies, chips and doughnuts, increasing their body weight and fat by about 10 per cent over a few weeks. As well as suffering high blood pressure, the fat rats showed an increase in the level of the special oxidase enzyme in both their blood vessels and in their fat deposits, which are also bigger. In the laboratory, the scientists can use drugs to turn the switch on in stem cells derived from fat to produce more fat. In the human and the rat body, the same process is triggered by excessive eating and a fat-rich diet, resulting in excess body fat.

Prof Dusting said fat was being revealed as one of the most active agents in the human body and had an effect on every organ. "We don't know whether it's the central box of something smaller, but the more we look the more we find that fat has an important impact on everything," Prof Dusting said.


29 October, 2008


Psychometricians go to great lengths to maximize the reliability of the self-reports that they use but most medical researchers don't even seem to know that there is a problem there. The revelation below that actual behaviour and self reported behaviour share only 22% of their variance (r=.47) should ring warning bells but it won't

Self-Reported and Measured Sleep Duration: How Similar Are They?

By Lauderdale, Diane S. et al.


Background: Recent epidemiologic studies have found that self-reported duration of sleep is associated with obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and mortality. The extent to which self reports of sleep duration are similar to objective measures and whether individual characteristics influence the degree of similarity are not known.

Methods: Eligible participants at the Chicago site of the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study were invited to participate in a 2003-2005 ancillary sleep study; 82% (n = 669) agreed. Sleep measurements collected in 2 waves included 3 days each of wrist actigraphy, a sleep log, and questions about usual sleep duration. We estimate the average difference and correlation between subjectively and objectively measured sleep by using errors-in-variables regression models.

Results: Average measured sleep was 6 hours, whereas the average from subjective reports was 6.8 hours. Subjective reports increased on average by 34 minutes for each additional hour of measured sleep. Overall, the correlation between reported and measured sleep duration was 0.47. Our model suggests that persons sleeping 5 hours over-reported their sleep duration by 1.2 hours, and those sleeping 7 hours over-reported by 0.4 hours. The correlations and average differences between self-reports and measured sleep varied by health, sociodemographic, and sleep characteristics.

Conclusion: In a population-based sample of middle-aged adults, subjective reports of habitual sleep are moderately correlated with actigraph-measured sleep, but are biased by systematic over-reporting. The true associations between sleep duration and health may differ from previously reported associations between self-reported sleep and health.

Epidemiology. 19(6):838-845, November 2008

Breast scans of no use to young women, says doctor

Good to see this message getting out. There is some reason to believe that ALL routine breast examinations are pointless and may even be counterproductive. See e.g. here

The deaths of Jane McGrath and Belinda Emmett from breast cancer are driving large numbers of young women to have mammograms which may be of no use. Experts have warned the scans bring no benefit for females under 40.

The so-called "Kylie effect" remains around the disease, with overblown public perception of rising rates of breast cancer in younger women and confusion around the best ways to detect it. "It is important to dispel the misconceptions, address unnecessary alarm and provide the facts for this age group," Dr Helen Zorbas, director of the National Breast and Ovarian Cancer Centre, said at the launch of breast cancer awareness day in Sydney. She said women under 40 made up just 6 per cent of the 12,000 females diagnosed with the disease, and rates remained static. However, younger women are more prone to an aggressive form of the disease and have a 39 per cent increased risk of dying.

Diagnoses among young celebrities like pop star Kylie Minogue, fashion designer Heidi Middleton and actress Christina Applegate, and the deaths of Jane McGrath, wife of former Australian cricketer Glenn McGrath, and actress and singer Belinda Emmett, have given the public the misguided impression of an epidemic among the young, she said. "The so-called 'Kylie effect' led to an increase in the number of women who made bookings for mammograms but many of these women were in the under 40 age group, where mammographic screening is not effective," Dr Zorbas said.

Her audience at the launch included Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull and a host of other dignitaries, doctors, scientists and survivors. Screening programs have reduced breast cancer deaths by 30 per cent among women aged 50-69 years, because the small white abnormalities can be detected with relative ease. Younger, denser breasts, however, resemble "cotton wool" in scans, making the lumps unrecognisable. "Early detection for breast cancer in young women relies almost completely on young women themselves, knowing their own bodies and picking up the early signs of the disease," Dr Zorbas said.

A new campaign recommends "breast awareness" for young women, encouraging them to check themselves regularly for lumps using no special technique after international studies found specific checking styles didn't reduce cancer deaths. The retro-style advertisements encourage women to check their breasts as part of everyday life, while drying their hair or waiting for the toast to pop. Studies show women can also reduce their breast cancer risk by up to 30 per cent by keeping alcohol consumption to a minimum, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy body weight.

Mr Rudd told the audience Australia needed to do better in tackling all forms of cancer. "It's time as a nation that we renew our national efforts in what must be a national war against cancer," he said.


28 October, 2008

Sitting down is dangerous!

But jogging is bad for you too because it crunches your joints. And swimming is bad because swimmers drown a lot. And walking outdoors is bad because you might get cancer from the sun. So just DIE!

Physiologists analyzing obesity, heart disease, and diabetes found that the act of sitting shuts down the circulation of a fat-absorbing enzyme called lipase. They found that standing up engages muscles and promotes the distribution of lipase, which prompts the body to process fat and cholesterol, independent of the amount of time spent exercising. They also found that standing up uses blood glucose and may discourage the development of diabetes. You're probably sitting down right now. Well, by the time you're done reading this, you may see sitting in a whole new way!

"Chair time is an insidious hazard because people haven't been told it's a hazard," Marc Hamilton, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Missouri in Columbia, told Ivanhoe.

That's right -- the time you sit in your chair could be keeping your body's fat burning in park! More than 47 million adults in the United States have metabolic syndrome, which causes obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Biomedical researchers from the say the reason so many of us have the condition is because we sit too much!

"The existing data, by numerous studies, are starting to show that the rates of heart disease and diabetes and obesity are doubled or sometimes even tripled in people who sit a lot," Dr. Hamilton explains. One reason, he says, is an enzyme called lipase. When it's on, fat is absorbed into the muscles, but when we sit down, lipase virtually shuts off.

"Instead, the fat will recirculate in the blood stream and go and be stored as body fat or it can clog arteries and cause diseases," Dr. Hamilton says. And it's not a small amount of fat. Plasma samples were taken from the same person after eating the same meal. When they ate sitting down, the sample was cloudy, but when they ate while standing up, it was clear.

"If you can perform a behavior while sitting or standing, I would choose standing," Dr. Hamilton says. That's why he swapped his desk chair for a treadmill. Not ready for that step? "You can have just as much fun watching your kids play if you're standing by the fence, next to a friend who pulls out that aluminum lawn chair and is sitting there," Dr. Hamilton advises.

You can also limit chair time by taking frequent breaks at work to stand and walk around. Stand up while talking on the phone or even while watching TV. Standing also helps shrink your waistline! The average person can burn an extra 60 calories an hour just by standing! "But just avoid the chair is the simple recommendation, as much as you can," Dr. Hamilton says. That's advice worth a standing ovation! Another benefit to standing -- it improves your HDL or good cholesterol levels. People who sat reduced their good cholesterol levels by 22 percent!


At least some food preferences are genetic

So nagging kids to eat broccoli etc. can be very cruel

Summary: In the first study to link taste genes to behavior in children, researchers looked at how natural variations in a recently discovered taste gene affected sensitivity to bitter tastes and food preferences in a group of children and adults. Collecting genetic samples from 143 children and their mothers, the researchers showed moms and kids who had at least one bitter-sensitive region in the gene were generally able to detect even a hint of bitter flavor in a test drink. The same group of children, carrying one or two bitter-sensitive regions of a gene, also preferred higher concentrations of sucrose solutions and had stronger preferences for sweet-tasting food and beverages than did the bitter-insensitive kids.

If you're a parent, chances are you've had a difficult time getting your child to eat certain veggies. The next time your child pushes away his spinach, it may not be that he's being difficult or picky. A new study finds some children may be extra sensitive to bitter tastes.

Abby Plummer is part of a tasting study that looks at the effect of a bitter-taste receptor gene on food preferences. "We genotyped children and mothers -- and by genotyping, I mean we took cheek swabs and got DNA from mothers and children -- and looked for the presence of this bitter taste receptor gene," says Julie Mennella, a developmental Psychobiologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Psychobiologists, who combine psychology and biology, grouped the 143 children and their mothers into three genotypes: PP, AP or AA. The P signifies the presence of the bitter gene. As expected, those with two bitter genes, PP, were the most sensitive to bitter taste. However, mothers and children with the same genotypes did not have the same taste experience. Mennella says, "An interesting thing is that children who carried one of these bitter taste alleles were much more sensitive to the bitter taste than mothers."

Which could be why many children have an aversion to bitter foods like certain vegetables. "Childhood may represent a period of heightened bitter taste sensitivity in some children that lessens with age. That's not to say that as you get older you can't taste bitter anymore, it's just a dampening effect," Mennella says. She hopes her research leads to healthier diets for kids.

The study also found children who had the bitter taste gene preferred higher levels of the sucrose solution they were given in the study. Researchers point out that as we age, life experience begins to override genetic disposition for taste.


27 October, 2008

Pesky: Welfare makes you fat

And that's in a program that focused on making the poor healthier as well

While a poverty-alleviation program launched by the Mexican government that has been modeled in the United States and around the world has led to improved health and cognition outcomes in children, a new study by University of California, Berkeley, researchers says that the cash component of the program has a downside for adults.

The program, called Oportunidades, provides money to impoverished families on the condition that they participate in health-promoting activities, such as getting annual health checkups and attending nutrition and hygiene education seminars. This is in contrast to traditional welfare programs that provide cash to families based solely upon their income or where they live.

The study published today (Monday, Oct. 20) in the Journal of Nutrition found that adults in households that received more cash from the program were more likely to be overweight, obese and have higher blood pressure than those who had received less money over time.

"It's a controversial finding because it suggests that adults are not necessarily spending the money wisely for themselves," said Lia Fernald, UC Berkeley assistant professor of public health nutrition and lead author of the study. "It's not clear why the cash is having this effect, but it could be because people who suddenly have more cash are able to buy more high-calorie soft drinks, alcohol or snacks that they couldn't afford before, though we did not analyze how the money was spent in our study. This result could also reflect trends in the developing world, particularly in rapidly changing economies, of increased availability of foods high in fat and sugar in place of healthier cereals, fruits and vegetables."

The surprising study results come on the heels of an earlier paper, authored by the same UC Berkeley researchers, which showed that overall, the conditional cash transfer program was linked to better health outcomes among adults. The researchers noted that the earlier paper compared adults who had been enrolled in Oportunidades for 3.5 to 5 years with newly enrolled adults who had not yet received any program benefits. In the new study, the authors wanted to specifically examine the role played by money accumulated through the program.

The Mexican government randomly selected communities that were eligible to enroll when the program first launched and allowed the remaining communities to enroll 18 months later. Households who enrolled first thus received more money cumulatively than ones enrolled later.

The study linked people's receipt of greater amounts of cash with higher body mass index, higher diastolic blood pressure and a higher prevalence of overweight and moderate to severe obesity in adults. In their analysis, the study authors controlled for other factors that could have influenced the results, such as length of time enrolled in the program, age, gender and education level.

"Our paper is in line with something that other economic studies have found: As people come out of poverty, they spend money on foods that can lead to obesity," said study co-author Paul Gertler, UC Berkeley professor of economics and health services finance. "It is interesting to note that in other work, we find the cash component of the program lowers obesity in young kids. One possible reason for this difference is that adults are using increased cash to provide protein and micronutrients for their children, whereas they are purchasing soda, alcohol and junk foods for themselves."

The researchers noted that the initial and central aim of the Oportunidades program was to improve health and development outcomes for children, a goal that the program has largely achieved. The impact of the program's components on adult health, however, has been a matter of debate.

"It's not unusual for adults to make better health and nutrition decisions for their kids than they do for themselves," added Fernald. "It's also possible that healthier foods and beverages are not available in the rural and impoverished regions where the Oportunidades program operates, and so adults may not have adequate access to sufficient resources for the whole family."

When the researchers factored in the length of time individuals were enrolled in the program, they noticed that those enrolled the longest - 5 years - had slightly better health outcomes than those enrolled for only 3.5 years. While the differences were not consistently significant statistically, the researchers pointed out that the trend, at least, was in the right direction.

Combined with the results from the earlier study showing that adults in the program had lower blood pressure and lower body mass index, the new findings suggest that the program's non-cash interventions - screening for chronic diseases and educational classes - seem to be counteracting the negative effects of extra income, the researchers said.

Launched in 1997, Oportunidades serves more than 5 million Mexican families and has been replicated in more than 20 developing countries. In 2007, New York City established the first conditional cash program in the United States that was modeled after Oportunidades. "Our data suggest that if cash is given to adults unconditionally, with no health education or promotion component to balance it out, it could cause an increase in obesity and hypertension for adults," said Fernald. "What this study shows is that a strong focus on health education and prevention is a really critical part of any cash transfer or welfare program targeting adults."

The paper was also co-authored by Xiaohui Hou, an economist at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C., who was a graduate student at UC Berkeley while the study was conducted.


New 'miracle' pill for insomniacs

It will however probably be safe for only 99.99% of users so will have to be banned. That's what happened to rimonabant, after all

Insomniacs will soon be able to literally turn off their wakefulness switch with a pill that leaves no drowsy after-effects. The new-generation drugs being developed by Sydney researchers specifically target receptors controlling the sleep-wake cycle rather that sedating the whole brain. The drug temporarily suppresses orexin, the brain's wakefulness protein, to induce sleep.

Professor Ron Grunstein, head of sleep research at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research, said early findings on the new pills were "exciting". "They seem to cause people to wake up refreshed and they don't seem to have the hangover effects that some of the others (sleeping pills) do," he said. "It's targeted in a very specific way using new information about how the sleep system works, whereas with the older medications we had a more general sedation of the brain."

Another advantage to the new treatment is that there have been no reports of dependency issues in users - unlike those who take current sedative drugs.

Normally we alternate between two types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM or deep sleep. Current sleep medications increase deep sleep but reduce REM sleep. Disturbed REM sleep has been linked to impaired brain performance. The new drugs boost both types, which is hoped to improve the quality of sleep.

More than a third of Australians suffer from intermittent insomnia, triggered by stress, anxiety, depression, jet lag or shift work. More severe, chronic insomnia affects one million people, rendering them unable to function properly for years. The condition is most common in older people and women. Hormonal changes, alcohol and medicine or drug use can also cause insomnia.

The Woolcock Institute is trialling the new drug to determine whether it results in a better night's sleep and next-day performance in insomniacs. Researchers are in the final phase of trials, with participants undertaking overnight sleep studies, memory tests and electronic diaries. Professor Grunstein expects the new generations of sleeping pills will be made available to the public within the next two to three years.


26 October, 2008

Some users of slimming drug at risk of psychiatric disorders

One hundredth of one percent is a worry?? I would have thought that a drug which 99.99% of people use without suffering severe side-effects was a triumph of safety! All drugs have side-effects. I know one lady who had acute renal failure after taking the common antibiotic Keflex (cephalexein). Maybe we should ban that too! And aspirin would never have been approved under current guidelines

An anti-obesity drug that has been prescribed to 97,000 people in the UK doubled the [tiny] risk of psychiatric disorders in those who took it, the European Medicines Agency has found. The EMA has decided that the benefits of the drug Acomplia - which has been licensed in Europe since June 2006 - no longer outweigh the risks, and have advised doctors to no longer prescribe the drug. In a trial of 36,000 this summer, five of those taking the drug [i.e. 0.01%] committed suicide, compared to only one of those taking the placebo.

Acomplia, whose active substance is rimonabant, has been available on the NHS since June this year. It works by suppressing the appetite. During clinical trials, one third of patients lost more than 10% of their initial bodyweight in a year. Nearly two thirds of patients lost over 5%. The drug is prescribed for people who are clinically classified as obese, or those who are overweight and suffer from problems like type 2 diabetes and a high cholesterol.

Warnings about the side effects of the drug-- which can cause depression-- have been known since the drug was introduced. It is only now however, that it has been decided that these side effects make the drug too dangerous to prescribe. Following a re-evaluation of the drug, the EMEA said that "there is an approximate doubling of the risk of psychiatric disorders in obese or overweight patients."

The EMEA, and their UK counterpart the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), have recommended that the drug is no longer prescribed, and said that those currently on the drug- thought to be about 20,000 in the UK- should consult a doctor about their treatment. The MHRA is alerting healthcare professionals about the recommendation. The MHRA said: "Patients who may be at highest risk of psychiatric reactions cannot be identified reliably. Therefore, further restrictions on the use of this medicine would be unlikely to reduce the risk to an acceptable level."

There are three main anti-obesity drugs prescribed in the UK- Acomplia, Sibutramine, and Orlistat. Acomplia is prescribed in for about 9% of cases, whereas Orlistat, approved by the EMEA in July 2007, is prescribed in 66% of cases. The manufacturer of the drug, Sanofi-Aventis, said: "Sanofi-Aventis will comply with the European authorities' request to temporarily suspend the marketing authorisation of Acomplia in obese and overweight patients and will make every effort to actively support patients and healthcare professionals in this process." They said that the drug had provided "significant clinical benefits to patients" and that 700,000 people worldwide had used the drug.

Dr June Raine, Director of Vigilance and Risk Management of Medicines at the MHRA said : "Most medicines work well and are acceptably safe and most people take medicines without suffering any side effects. The MHRA and the EMEA work together to continuously monitor the safety and quality of medicines after they have been licensed, and use a range of approaches to minimise risk. "In the case of Acomplia these measures have not proved to be effective in clinical use.


A stroll in the park is as good at calming children as Ritalin, study finds

This does not seem to have been double-blind so could well be a Rosenthal (experimenter expectation) effect

A stroll in the park could be just as effective for treating hyperactive children as drugs such as Ritalin, a study has revealed. Troubled youngsters showed significant improvements in concentration levels after what researchers called 'a dose of nature'. A 20-minute walk in green surroundings gave improvements on a par with a daily dose of drugs for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD.

Record levels of medicines are being dished out to hyperactive children on the NHS. Latest figures show GPs wrote more than 535,000 prescriptions for anti-hyperactivity drugs last year - more than 10,000 a week. The figure has doubled since 2002. Critics have accused doctors of using such drugs as a 'chemical cosh' to calm thousands of youngsters thought to have ADHD, a condition that makes them inattentive or boisterous and unable to concentrate at school. Roughly one child in every classroom is thought to be affected by ADHD.

In the latest study, researchers at the University of Illinois took a group of 17 hyperactive children on three walks in a park, town centre and residential area. The children stayed off their medication that day so researchers could be sure any benefit was from the environment alone. The youngsters were tested on their powers of concentration after each walk.

After strolling in green areas, their scores were improved by as much, if not more than, when they took prescription drugs. But the same children did not get any benefit from walking through town centres or residential streets. Researcher Andrea Faber Taylor said: 'The greenest space was best at improving attention. 'We calculated the size of the effect in our study and compared it with the size of effect in a recent study involving medication. 'We were surprised to see the "dose of nature" had effects the same size or even larger than those of drugs. 'We can't say for sure that two hours of outdoor play will get you this many days of good behaviour. But we can say as little as 20 minutes could potentially buy you an afternoon, or a couple of hours, to get homework done.'

Andrea Bilbow, from the National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service, said it was a well-known fact that fresh air and exercise could calm down a child.

But she stressed: 'You cannot possibly alter the structure of the brain by going out and looking at trees. There is no good evidence that this is as effective as drug treatment.'


25 October, 2008

The secret to happiness? Having at least 10 good friends

Very mixed up! They first admit that direction of cause is unknown then speak as if it is known. All that the study tells me is that happy people tend to have a loose definition of what constitutes a friend

In love, two is company and three's a crowd. But in friendship, ten is the magic number. Being able to count at least ten people as friends makes us happy, researchers say. But those with five or fewer are likely to be miserable with their lot, they claim. Their study of hundreds of men and women also found that contented sorts tend to have lots of close friends and regularly make new ones.

While it is not clear whether our friends make us happy or we make friends because we are happy, the researchers say it is clear we should nourish our friendships.

Psychologist Richard Tunney said: 'Whatever the reason, actively working on friendships in the same way as to maintain a marriage is a prerequisite to happiness.' Dr Tunney, of Nottingham University, quizzed more than 1,700 people about their satisfaction with their lives and the state of their friendships. Those with five friends or fewer had just a 40 per cent chance of being happy. In other words, they were more likely to be unhappy than happy.

Ten was the first number at which people were more likely to be happy than unhappy. Happiest of the lot were those with dozens of friends, according to the study, which was carried out for the National Lottery. For women, this meant having 33 friends; for men, the figure was 49.

Dr Tunney said: 'People who were extremely satisfied with their lives had twice the number of friends of people who were extremely dissatisfied.' Women tended to have fewer friends than men but formed tighter bonds.

Interestingly, the study found that childhood friends are no more likely to make us happy than people we become close to later in life. Lottery winners, however, had a different take on life. They tended to be happier than others despite spending their time with a small circle of old friends. This could be because they trust those they've known for longest. Alternatively, financial security may allow them to lavish more time and attention on those who matter the most to them.

The analysis also showed Brummies [inhabitants of Birmingham] to be the happiest people in Britain, with an average 29 friends each and a 75 per cent chance of happiness. Most miserable are the people of Brighton. Despite an average friend total of 42, residents have just a 56 per cent chance of happiness.

Dr Tunney, who describes himself as happy and having a lot of good friends, said factors such as a high cost of living could be behind the city's poor rating. 'Brighton is a very gregarious city, so maybe there is more pressure to have social networks than elsewhere,' he said, adding: 'I spent three happy years in Brighton when I was younger. I would be quite happy to live by the sea.'


One brain cell may reverse muscle paralysis

Sounds hopeful

Activation of a single brain cell may be enough to help restore muscle activity in the arms of paralysed patients with spinal cord injuries, scientists say.

Chet Moritz of the University of Washington and colleagues rerouted control signals from the brains of temporarily paralysed monkeys directly to their muscles. The brain region utilized was an area known as the motor cortex, which controls movements.

The research, published in the Oct. 16 issue of the research journal Nature, has potential for the future treatment of spinal cord injury, stroke and other impairments affecting movement, according to the group.

The researchers explained that they created artificial pathways for the signals to pass down. As a result, muscles that lacked natural stimulation after paralysis regained a flow of electrical signals from the brain. The monkeys were then able to tense the muscles in the paralysed arm, a first step towards producing more complicated goaldirected movements.

The team argues that a neuron, or brain cell, previously not associated with movement could be "coopted" to assume a new control role. This has implications for future brainmachine interface machines, devices designed to translate thoughts into physical movements by harnessing the electrical activity of neurons.

Brain-machine interfaces are an important tool for the study of brain injury and motor control, but the machines have so far focused on exploiting populations of neurons rather than single cells, Moritz and colleagues noted.


24 October, 2008

Fatties eat faster. So what?

Once again the direction of causation is assumed below. They assume that eating faster LEADS TO people being overweight. The perfectly reasonable possibility that strong food needs cause people to eat faster is not considered. So the implied claim that making people slow down will make them slimmer is simply a non-sequitur

People who eat quickly and eat until full are three times more likely to be overweight, according to a study published today on the website of the British Medical Journal. Researchers from Osaka University in Japan studied over 3,200 men (1,122) and women (2,165) aged 30–69 between 2003 and 2006 to examine whether eating until full and speed of eating were associated with being overweight.

Until the last decade or so most adults did not have the opportunity to consume enough energy to enable fat to be stored, but this has changed with the increased availability of inexpensive food in larger portions, fast food, fewer families eating together and eating while distracted.

Professor Hiroyasu Iso, Osaka University, Osaka, Japan and colleagues, sent the study’s participants a diet history questionnaire about their eating habits including questions about eating until full and their speed of eating. They found that around half (50.9%) of the men and just over half (58.4%) of the women said they ate until they were full. Just under half (45.6%) of men and 36% of women said they ate quickly.

The group of participants who said they ate “until full and ate quickly” had a higher body mass index (BMI) and total energy intake than those who did not “eat until full and did not eat quickly”. Results showed that men and women in the “eating until full and eating quickly” group were three times more likely to be overweight than the participants from the “not eating until full and not eating quickly” group.

The report says: “In conclusion, eating until full and eating quickly were associated with being overweight in Japanese men and women, and the combination of the two eating behaviours may have a substantial impact on being overweight.”

In an accompanying editorial, Elizabeth Denney-Wilson from University of NSW and Karen Campbell from Deakin University, both in Australia, said the findings demonstrated how current eating patterns may contribute to the current epidemic of obesity. “Clinicians should recognise that behavioural counselling, using cognitive therapy, can help in the management of this aggressively “eat more” food environment,” says the editorial.

The authors call on doctors to work with parents to encourage healthy eating habits in their children like eating slowly, serving appropriate portion sizes, and eating as a family in a non-distracting environment.


New drug raises hope of reversing multiple sclerosis in early stages

Sounds good. Might work on Alzheimers too

A step change in the treatment of multiple sclerosis is heralded today by the first study to suggest that a drug can stop the disease in its tracks and even reverse its progress. A trial of the medicine, known as alemtuzumab, has found that it offers benefits that are “better by a country mile” than other treatments for MS, and that it is effective for a much wider cross-section of patients.

The results offer hope that thousands of people who suffer from MS will eventually be able to control the condition, which causes nerve damage, loss of mobility, blindness and cognitive decline.

Scientists cautioned, however, that alemtuzumab will not be available outside clinical trials for about five years, and that it is suitable only for patients with early-phase MS. Those in whom the disease has already been diagnosed are unlikely to benefit.

When people with early-stage MS were treated with alemtuzumab, their condition improved significantly more than those on beta interferon, the best treatment available now, across three standard clinical indicators.

The drug reduced the number of MS attacks by 74 per cent, and the progression of disability by 71 per cent, when compared with beta interferon. Patients on alemtuzumab also showed recovery of brain function, so that they were less disabled at the end of the three-year study than at the beginning, while those on beta interferon continued to decline. Almost every patient taking alemtuzumab improved, whereas about half of MS patients show no response to beta interferon.

Scientists behind the research said that if the findings were repeated in a larger sample it would promise a revolution in MS care within five years, though only for patients who had yet to develop much nerve damage. “It is a landmark, a step change,” said Alistair Compston, Professor of Neurology at the University of Cambridge, who led the study. “It is more effective than beta interferon by a country mile, and the efficacy is so high that we hope it will represent the definitive treatment if used in the right people.”

Alasdair Coles, another member of the team, said: “It is our view that alemtuzumab offers the most effective treatment for relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis described to date. The ability of an MS drug to promote brain repair is unprecedented. We are witnessing a drug which, if given early enough, might effectively stop the advancement of the disease and also restore lost function by promoting repair of damaged brain tissue.”

The study, which is published in The New England Journal of Medicine, was a phase 2 trial, conducted on 334 patients as the first test of the drug's efficacy. Two phase 3 trials, of 600 and 1,200 patients, are now under way and positive reports will be needed from these before it can be licensed. Alemtuzumab was also shown to have some potentially serious side-effects, which means that patients who take it will have to be monitored by their doctors. One patient taking the drug died of a brain haemorrhage after developing an autoimmune condition that destroys a clotting agent in the blood, and two others were successfully treated for the same disorder.

Lee Dunster, head of research at the MS Society, said that the charity was delighted at the results. “This news will rightly bring hope to people living with the condition day in, day out.”


23 October, 2008


Some strange results in the study below but to people of Greenie faith it is all clear. The results below make no sense at all if you think pollution has anything to do with premature birth. Which suggests that pollution had nothing to do with it and we are looking at a random result. If pollution caused premature delivery, such deliveries should have been rarest after the pollution was all gone. Instead they find that such births were rarest in an intermediate state of pollution! The wonders of faith!

Preterm Birth After the Utah Valley Steel Mill Closure: A Natural Experiment

By Parker, Jennifer D. et al.


Background: Prior studies have linked the Utah Valley Steel Mill closure that took place between August 1986 and September 1987 to improvements in several health outcomes. So-called natural experiments ease concerns over confounding and exposure misclassification, concerns that are common in studies of air pollution and pregnancy outcome.

Methods: We compare birth outcomes for Utah mothers within and outside the Utah Valley, before, during, and after the mill closure.

Results: Mothers who were pregnant around the time of the closure of the mill were less likely to deliver prematurely than mothers who were pregnant before or after; effects were strongest for exposure during the second trimester. Preterm birth within the Utah Valley did not change during the time of mill closure. No patterns for birth weight were observed.

Conclusions: These results support other studies that have found effects on preterm birth of air pollution exposure early in pregnancy.

Epidemiology. 19(6):820-823, November 2008

Here we go again: "Tips to stay sane are based on hard evidence"

This article does not cite the research behind it but I am pretty certain it will all turn out to be epidemiological. Which makes the evidence very soft indeed. Mental ill health is caused by lack of social participation? Isn't it more likely that people who are mad to start with participate less well socially? Etc., etc.

The audience for Foresight's science futures work is usually government policymakers, but this project has advice for individuals too, including its "five-a-day" for mental wellbeing. They might sound like pure Pollyanna; but they are based on evidence in a paper commissioned by Foresight from the New Economics Foundation.

"Connect with the people around you" reflects compelling evidence of the importance of social interaction. Surveys show that the most significant difference between individuals with mental ill-health and those without it is social participation.

"Be active" is another recommendation with a compelling evidence base. For children, action is essential for thinking and learning. Studies of large groups of individuals born at the same time show that physical activity protects against cognitive decline and against depression and anxiety. Even bouts of exercise of less than ten minutes can make a difference.

"Take notice" is about being aware of sensations around you and of your own thoughts and feelings. Being in this state of "mindfulness" promotes mental wellbeing.

Being aware of what takes place in the present can help to reinstate life priorities, an important consideration for those who have been buffeted by ill-fortune. Think of it as a way of rebooting the mind through joy in the here and now.

"Keep learning" is also strongly backed by evidence. Statistical analysis of group studies shows that learning, almost without regard to subject, is the single greatest predictor of mental wellbeing. It impacts on one's self-esteem, resilience and sense of purpose.

"Give" is perhaps the most surprising of the five-a-day. In one experiment, committing an act of kindness each day for six weeks was associated with an increase in wellbeing.

Increasingly, the Government listens to Foresight. Its recommendations on obesity were included in policy within six months. It will be interesting to see whether Gordon Brown will do the same with this report.


22 October, 2008

Web Surfers Have More Brain Power?

Haven't these deadheads thought of the possibility that people who take up web surfing might tend to have more complex minds to start with??

People who spend time surfing the web may be building brain power at the same time. A new study from the University of California, Los Angeles reveals middle-aged and older adults who use the Internet may trigger centers in their brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning.

Researchers performed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan as experienced and non-experienced participants searched the Web and performed book-reading tasks. Both exercises activated the brain in both groups, but there were some major differences. Web-savvy participants who searched the Web activated areas in their brain responsible for decision-making and reasoning. They also showed twice the amount of brain activity than those with little Internet experience.

Compared with simple reading, the Internet's abundance of choices forces people to make decisions about what to click to find out more information. "A simple, everyday task like searching the Web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older," Gary Small, M.D., principal investigator and a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, was quoted as saying.

Researchers say you may want to add surfing the web to the list of other brain teasers, such as crossword puzzles and Sudoku. "Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function," Dr. Small explained. "The study results are encouraging that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults."

FROM: American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, published online October 14, 2008


Study Shows Dad Involvement Means Higher IQ, More Success for Kids

Sorry to upset a good cause but what about the possibility that high IQ fathers might be more likely to take an interest in their children and that the high IQ of the children concerned is simply due to its being genetically transmitted? IQ is HIGHLY heritable genetically

Ned Holstein, MD, MS, Executive Director of Fathers & Families, has an interesting new piece on an English study which found that father involvement has a large, positive effect on children's intellignce and success. Holstein writes:
Published in the summer of 2008, this study looked at all the children born in Britain in a single week in March, 1958. When the children were eleven years old (1969), the mothers were asked, "How involved is the father in the management of the child?" In the same year, the children took an IQ test. Finally, the researchers looked at the children's upward social mobility at age 42 (year 2000).The researchers found some very interesting results:

The fathers' involvement in 1969 was "equal to mother" in 62 percent of the cases;

Children with high father involvement had significantly higher IQs at age 11 than those with low father involvement;

By age 42, children with high father involvement had shown substantially more upward mobility than those with low father involvement;

Fathers tended to be slightly more involved with sons than daughters, but when they did engage equally with daughters, the positive effect was just as great as for sons.

21 October, 2008

Here we go again: Does drinking alcohol shrink your brain?

More stupid epidemiology. Brain size and IQ are correlated so what the findings probably show is that dumb people drink more. What is refreshing to note however is that the small size of the differences found is mentioned

What's good for the heart may hurt the brain, according to a new study of the effects of alcohol. People who drink alcohol -- even the moderate amounts that help prevent heart disease -- have a smaller brain volume than those who do not, according to a study in the Archives of Neurology. While a certain amount of brain shrinkage is normal with age, greater amounts in some parts of the brain have been linked to dementia. "Decline in brain volume -- estimated at 2 percent per decade -- is a natural part of aging," says Carol Ann Paul, who conducted the study when she was at the Boston University School of Public Health. She had hoped to find that alcohol might protect against such brain shrinkage.

"However, we did not find the protective effect," says Paul, who is now an instructor in the neuroscience program at Wellesley College. "In fact, any level of alcohol consumption resulted in a decline in brain volume."

In the study, Paul and colleagues looked at 1,839 healthy people with an average age of about 61. The patients underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the brain and reported how much they tippled. Overall, the more alcohol consumed, the smaller the brain volume, with abstainers having a higher brain volume than former drinkers, light drinkers (one to seven drinks per week), moderate drinkers (eight to 14 drinks per week), and heavy drinkers (14 or more drinks per week).

Men were more likely to be heavy drinkers than women. But the link between brain volume and alcohol wasn't as strong in men. For men, only those who were heavy drinkers had a smaller brain volume than those who consumed little or no alcohol. In women, even moderate drinkers had a smaller brain volume than abstainers or former drinkers.

It's not clear why even modest amounts of alcohol may shrink the brain, although alcohol is "known to dehydrate tissues, and constant dehydration can have negative effects on any sensitive tissue," says Paul. "We always knew that alcohol at higher dosages results in shrinking of the brain and cognitive deficit," says Dr. Petros Levounis, M.D., director of the Addiction Institute of New York at St. Luke's -- Roosevelt Hospital Center, who was not involved in the study. "What is new with this article is that it shows brain shrinking at lower doses of alcohol."

However, the study did not demonstrate that the smaller brain volume actually impaired memory or mental function, notes James Garbutt, M.D., professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And the differences between brain volumes in drinkers and nondrinkers were quite small -- less than 1.5 percent between abstainers and heavy drinkers. "We're talking very small differences here," says Dr. Garbutt, who was not involved in the study. "We're not seeing 10 to 20 percent shrinkage." However, he says, reduction in brain mass is an interesting finding. "But we have a long way to go to figure out the implications of it."


Just one of glass of wine a day increases women's risk of breast cancer

Findings about alcohol derived from a campaign against it should be treated with a saltmine full of salt

Drinking just one large glass of wine a day increases the chances of developing breast cancer by a fifth, say experts. The amount of alcohol in measures regularly served in wine bars and pubs pushes up the risk of cancer by far more than most women realise, it is claimed. A large glass of wine is the equivalent of three units of alcohol at 12 per cent strength. Drinking two glasses raises the risk by more than a third and it doubles for women who consume nine units or three glasses a day compared with those who do not drink.

However, Government research reveals that four out of five women are ignorant of the breast cancer risk. The findings from the Know Your Limits campaign represent a total of more than four million women who are regularly putting their health in danger.

Doctors believe rising rates of breast cancer are being fuelled by soaring levels of drinking among women, as there has been a steady increase in breast cancer cases in the last ten years when rates should have been falling, or at least reached a plateau, because of mass screening.

Only obesity levels - which are also linked to breast cancer - have shown the same kind of upward trend over the last decade. Around 44,000 British women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and it claims 13,000 lives. Previous research suggests that binge drinking - five or more drinks on one occasion - can double the risk of breast cancer.

It is unclear how drinking alcohol promotes breast cancer but it may work by raising levels of the sex hormone oestrogen in the body. Drinking alcohol is one of the few identified risk factors for developing breast cancer, although the biggest risk factor is increasing age. Four out of five breast cancers diagnosed in the UK occur in women over 50.

Dr Sarah Cant, Policy Manager at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: 'Drinking moderate or high levels of any type of alcoholic drink has many health consequences, including an increased chance of breast cancer. 'Although many factors might affect our risk of getting breast cancer, limiting how much we drink is one thing we can do to try to reduce that risk.'

Public Health Minister-Dawn Primarolo said: 'It's shocking, even for me, to see the potential risks of drinking over recommended guidelines in black and white. 'One large glass of 12 per cent wine takes a woman to her recommended daily limit in just one drink. 'Knowing the potential health consequences enables women to make choices that can reduce their risk of developing breast cancer.'

A separate survey published by Breakthrough Breast Cancer also shows women wrongly blame their genes for getting cancer. A strong genetic history of breast cancer is to blame in only 5 per cent of all breast cancer cases, but nearly two-thirds of women over the age of 50 believe the disease 'runs in the family'.



This is a 1999 study but bears repeating

Hormone replacement therapy before breast cancer diagnosis significantly reduces the overall death rate compared with never-use among 984 breast cancer patients

By H Jernstrom et al.

Nine hundred and eighty-four breast cancer patients were interviewed regarding exogenous hormonal use. This represents a random sample of breast cancer patients in Southern Sweden referred to the Department of Oncology at Lund for treatment between 1978 and 1997 (excluding 1980 and 1981) with a 100% follow-up. Ever-use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) prior to diagnosis was significantly associated with a longer overall survival in women with their breast cancer diagnosed at ages 45 and above, relative risk (RR) of dying 0.73 (95% confidence interval (CI) 0.62-0.87; P = 0.0005). Ever use of HRT prior to breast cancer diagnosis was significantly positively associated with overall longer survival after adjustment for T-stage, N-stage, M-stage, year of diagnosis and age at diagnosis, RR of dying 0.78 (95% CI 0.65-0.93; P = 0.006). Hormone replacement therapy use and oestrogen receptor positivity were independently significantly associated with overall longer survival, P = 0.005 and P < 0.0001, respectively, in one model. HRT use and progesterone receptor positivity were also independently significantly associated with longer overall survival, P = 0.003 and P = 0.0003, respectively, in another model. The mode of diagnosis was known in 705 women. Mammography screening was not more common among HRT users compared with never-users, where this information was available. Both mammography screening and HRT use were independently associated with longer survival, P = 0.002 and P = 0.038 respectively.


20 October, 2008

Coffee can make women's breasts smaller: Swedish study

Coffee is banned from my place with immediate effect!

Women who drink a lot of coffee may see their breasts become more petite, according to the results of a new Swedish study. Around half of all women possess a gene shown to link breast size to coffee intake. "Drinking coffee can have a major effect on breast size," said Helena Jernstrom, a lecturer in experimental oncology at Lund University.

But while a regular brew appears to have a somewhat deflationary aspect, there is also one very positive effect in that coffee reduces the risk of breast cancer. Women with an average weight but big breasts and a high number of mammary glands run an above average risk of developing breast cancer.

Previous studies have shown that women can reduce this risk by drinking at least three cups of coffee a day. Jernstrom wanted to know if there was a further correlation: If drinking coffee and breast size were both connected to the risk of developing breast cancer, could there also be a link between coffee and cup size?

Studies carried out on almost 270 women showed that there was indeed a clear connection between coffee and smaller breasts. The results of Jernstrom's findings have been published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Source. (H/T Mike Pechar). The underlying academic article is here. Abstract follows:
As breast volume may be associated with heart cancer risk, we studied the relationship between breast volume, CYP1A2*1F and coffee intake. Among healthy premenopausal non-hormone users, 3+ cups per day was associated with lower volume only in C-allele carriers (Pinteraction=0.02), which is consistent with reports that coffee protects only C-allele carriers against breast cancer.
This is, I am afraid, another epidemiological finding, so the question is whether the C-allele mediates behavioral or other characteristics that are the real cause of the observed association. Are they big users of illegal drugs, for instance? Are they prone to ill health generally? Breast size can vary in response to a number of factors so the causal pathway between the allele and breast size may not be direct.


There have been many studies showing this -- from Terman & Oden in the 1920s on. But I think there is some point in noting the recent high quality study below which also shows that.

More Intelligent, More Dependable Children Live Longer: A 55-Year Longitudinal Study of a Representative Sample of the Scottish Nation

By Ian J. Deary et al.

ABSTRACT-The associations of childhood intelligence and dependability with adult mortality were examined in 1,181 people who were representative of the Scottish nation. Participants were born in 1936 and were followed for mortality from 1968 through early 2003. Higher intelligence and greater dependability were independent, significant predictors of lower mortality: With both factors entered together, the hazard ratio (HR) was 0.80 (95% confidence interval, CI: 0.65-0.99, p= .037) per standard deviation increase in intelligence and 0.77 (95% CI: 0.63-0.94, p= .009) per standard deviation increase in dependability. Children in the lower half of the distributions for intelligence and dependability were more than twice as likely to die compared with those who scored in the top half for both these measures (HR = 2.82; 95% CI: 1.81-4.41). Studied together for the first time in a representative sample, these two psychological variables are independent life-course risk factors for mortality. It is important to discover the mechanisms by which they influence survival.

Psychological Science, Volume 19 Issue 9, Pages 874 - 880, 2008

New Discovery Has Been Made About How Antioxidants Attack Cancer Cells

But do they attack normal cells too? They seem to shorten your life!

There's a new reason, and a big one, to think that we benefit from free-radical-inhibiting antioxidants. We've long thought that by reducing free radicals, antioxidants can help prevent cancer, of course. But a recent experiment at Johns Hopkins and published in the March 14 issue of Science shows how antioxidants may be doing much more: interfering with the growth of cancers that are already established, and potentially, even reversing them once established, by knocking out communications signals between cancer cells that encourage cells to grow and divide. Those communications signals turn out to be... free radicals, which the cancer cells often produce in abundance. Runaway cell division was actually slowed when cancer cells were introduced to the antioxidant N-acetyl-L-cysteine, under experimental conditions. This now demonstrates the existence of a mechanism that can allow a simple antioxidant to slow down or reverse a cancer that's already in place.

Genetically altered connective tissue cells expressing the cancerous H-RasV12 gene, together with non-cancerous cells were used in the study. The cancer cells produced an abundance of superoxide, a well-known free-radical. But cells' Ras or Rac1 genes produced proteins that blocked this signal and kept the cell from turning cancerous, as did doses of other protein inhibitors. However, it was considered more significant that antioxidants could also inhibit runaway cell proliferation.

At least in the case of cancers produced by the model H-RasV12 gene, other cells are influenced to become cancerous "at a distance" if free radicals or protein-inhibitors aren't present in sufficient numbers to step in and stop the process.

Kaikobad Irani cautiously summarizes his research by saying that "Control of signaling pathways involving oxidants may explain why some antioxidants appear to prevent development of certain cancers." If you're equally inclined to caution, you may wish to make sure you're getting plenty of antioxidants.

There are plenty of sources of antioxidants in a good diet, of course, but by far the most potent and effective antioxidant known to science is as cheap and available as a long, dark night: that is, melatonin. Turning your light switch to the off position earlier, keeping it off longer, and making sure that you are always sleeping in real darkness are excellent natural ways to boost your melatonin production. Even occasional changes in your routine, staying up for a couple of extra hours, can reduce your melatonin for weeks, just as jet lag does.


19 October, 2008

Drug abuse a 'cause not effect' of social problems

A bold claim in the heading above. But the last sentence below contradicts the heading. The study is an epidemiological one so it is the last sentence that should be heeded. The article is not yet on line at the journal site but a preprint is available here. It is pleasing to see that obvious confounds such as social class and IQ have been controlled for but many other confounding variables are possible -- particularly in the personality realm. That tendency to risk-taking (for instance) could both cause you to take drugs early and also get you into other trouble is fairly obvious but was not measured in the study. It would have been more interesting to present a fuller psychological and sociological profile of those kids who do take up drugs early.

Drug or alcohol abuse among children under the age of 15 is a cause and not an effect of a host of health and social problems, research has suggested. Early drinking and drug-taking raise the future risk of addiction, teenage pregnancy, failure at school, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) and crime, independently of other factors that might predispose to these outcomes, scientists have determined.

The findings, from a study that followed people for 30 years, are particularly significant because they indicate that drug and alcohol abuse at a young age probably contributes directly to subsequent problems. While the link is known from previous research, scientists have struggled to tell whether early substance abuse is a cause of later behavioural and health troubles, or a symptom of deprived social or family circumstances that also explain these issues.

The new study, led by Candice Odgers, of the University of California, Irvine, favours the former hypothesis - that "drugs are bad for kids", rather than "bad kids do drugs". Dr Odgers, who conducted the research while at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College, London, said: "Findings from this study are consistent with the message that early substance use leads to significant problems in adolescents' future lives - that drugs are bad for kids - versus the alternative message that young adolescents with a history of problems are just more likely to use drugs early and experience poor outcomes - that bad kids do drugs.

"Even adolescents with no prior history of behavioural problems or family history of substance use problems were at risk for poor health outcomes if they used substances prior to age 15. Universal interventions are required to ensure that all children - not only those entering early adolescence on an at-risk trajectory - require an adequate dose of prevention." [And what would that be? A hit on the head, perhaps??]

In the study, which is published in the journal Psychological Science, Dr Odgers investigated a set of 1,000 young people who were born in the New Zealand town of Dunedin in 1972 and 1973. She found that those who used drugs or alcohol before the age of 15 were between 2.4 and 5 times more likely than their peers to have experienced health or social problems later in life. The effect applied to dropping out of school, becoming addicted to drugs or an alcoholic, having a criminal convicion, becoming pregnant as a teenager, and testing positive for an STI.

Early use was classified as taking drugs or drinking alcohol on numerous occasions, buying them, or using them at school. This eliminated anyone who drank alcohol at home, or who tried the substances on a one-off basis.

Dr Odgers also compared children deemed at high risk of poor health and social outcomes, such as those with prior behavioural problems or from broken families, with low-risk children.

Low-risk children who used drugs or alcohol early still tended to finish secondary school. However, they remained between 2.7 and 3.8 times more likely to have experienced one of the four other social and health problems.

The results, Dr Odgers suggested, mean that it is important to try to prevent early drinking and drug use among all children, not just those from high-risk backgrounds.

Almost 50 per cent of adolescents who used alcohol or drugs before the age of 15 could not have been identified based on child behaviour problems or family risk factors, she said.

The study is indicative of a causal effect, but does not prove it, because children were not randomly assigned to drug-use and non-drug-use groups.


British aspirin study attacked

Generalizing from diabetics to all people certainly is pretty crazy. The belching professor just got carried away with the importance of her own work, it would seem. She may be right but her work does not prove it

A specialist has urged patients to keep taking prescribed aspirin, labelling a UK study questioning its benefits as "potentially dangerous". Australian Medical Association Queensland cardiology spokesman David Colquhoun said the Dundee University study which questioned the benefits of daily aspirin to ward off heart attacks was "too small" to guide medical practice.

The study, led by Jill Belch, of the Institute of Cardiovascular Research, involved more than 1200 patients aged over 40 with diabetes and evidence of artery disease who had not suffered a previous heart attack. It found that after eight years there was no overall benefit from aspirin or antioxidant treatment in preventing heart attacks or death. "If you're taking aspirin for secondary prevention because you've had a heart attack or stroke, or have a circulatory problem, then it works," Professor Belch told the Daily Mail. "But it doesn't work if you have none of these problems."

But Associate Professor Colquhoun said previous research had shown "clear unequivocal benefits" in preventing heart attacks in the middle-aged. "Doesn't this professor . . . read the literature?" he said. "To say we have to reassess the place of aspirin in individuals is silly. "This should not make any difference to the way we treat patients. This type of study, I find, is potentially dangerous in the sense that the wrong message can be sent. "It adds nothing to helping us as clinicians but it can help cause confusion in the community. We don't want people to stop taking aspirin."

Professor Belch said there was widespread prescribing of aspirin in diabetes despite the lack of evidence to support its use. But studies showed it could double the risk of stomach bleeding from an ulcer. "Unfortunately, aspirin has side-effects and it's one of the biggest reasons for admission to hospital for drug-related adverse reactions, mainly gastrointestinal bleeding. "Although the risk is relatively small, the numbers taking aspirin is large so it's a major problem."

However, Professor Colquhoun said the very low dose daily gave patients only an "extremely low" chance of internal bleeding.


18 October, 2008

Rain makes you fatter

There could be something in this but if so the Brits should be hugely fat. It rains all the time there. But they seem to be about average for weight, in fact

SUNSHINE not only makes you feel good, but now it has been revealed that it has powers of weight loss, as rain can cause people to gain weight. While it may be the only good news for the drought-ravaged farmers, a team from Aberdeen University found miserable weather made it harder for dieters to shed weight.

They found those who were overweight had lower levels of vitamin D - which is created when the body is exposed to sunlight. The amount of vitamin D in the blood influences the functioning of a hormone called leptin, which tells the brain when the stomach is full. The obese produced a tenth less vitamin D than those of average weight.

Heavy rain, particularly in rural areas, also raises the risk of catching the potentially fatal bug E-coli. The concern is that farmers' slurry contains E.coli O157 bacteria from cattle muck; heavy rain can wash the slurry into streams and form puddles; the bacteria can then be found in mud stuck to boots, or spread by pets.

The Daily Mail reports that people with old injuries maintain that their scars ache when the weather is threatening and the low atmospheric pressure can induce premature labor. Monica Seles, the tennis star who was stabbed in the back during a tennis tournament in Germany, told one interviewer that her scar would tingle when rain was coming.


Obese take less pleasure in eating

This sounds paradoxical but could be right. That differing brain response patterns could predict weight gain over as short a period as one year sounds fishy, though

OBESE people may have a diminished ability to experience the pleasure of eating, prompting them to overindulge to boost their satisfaction, according to a new study. The study, published this week in the journal Science, found that obese individuals may have fewer pleasure receptors in their brains, requiring them "to take in more of a rewarding substance such as food or drugs to experience the same level of pleasure as other people,'' said Eric Stice, a psychology researcher at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin and lead author of the study.

In a throwback to humankind's evolutionary past, the human brain releases the "pleasure chemical'' dopamine, a reward to the body for consuming life-sustaining nutrition. But the researchers theorise that weak "reward centres'' in the brain prompt obese people to eat more. "The research reveals obese people may have fewer dopamine receptors, so they overeat to compensate for this reward deficit,'' said Mr Stice, who has studied eating disorders and obesity for almost two decades.

Although past research has shown that biological factors play a major part in obesity, the study is one of the first to positively identify factors that increase people's weight gain risk in the future.

The researchers from UT, worked alongside scientists from the Oregon Research Institute, and brain scientists from the Yale University School of Medicine, Connecticut. Using a technique called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), researchers examined the extent to which pleasure receptors in individuals were activated in response to a taste of chocolate milkshake versus a tasteless solution. The participants were next tested for the presence of a genetic variation linked to a lower number of the dopamine receptors. Researchers then tracked changes in the test participants' body mass index over a one-year period.

The results, said Mr Stice, were key for understanding weight gain and to helping at-risk individuals. "Although people with decreased sensitivity of reward circuitry are at increased risk for unhealthy weight gain, identifying changes in behavior or pharmacological options could correct this reward deficit to prevent and treat obesity,'' he said.


Another summary of the above work is given below, followed by the journal abstract:

What are the factors that increase an individual's risk of future weight gain? It has been hypothesized that obese individuals may have an underactive reward circuitry, which leads them to overeat in an effort to boost a sluggish dopamine reward system. Using brain imaging, Stice et al. (p. 449) discovered a relationship between activation of the striatum and ingestion of a tasty calorific liquid compared with a neutral liquid that could differentiate between obese and non-obese individuals. This differential activation was accentuated in individuals bearing the A1 allele of the dopamine D2 receptor gene, which is associated with reduced dopamine transmission in the striatum. This relationship predicted an individual's weight gain when measured a year later.


Relation Between Obesity and Blunted Striatal Response to Food Is Moderated by TaqIA A1 Allele

By E. Stice et al.

The dorsal striatum plays a role in consummatory food reward, and striatal dopamine receptors are reduced in obese individuals, relative to lean individuals, which suggests that the striatum and dopaminergic signaling in the striatum may contribute to the development of obesity. Thus, we tested whether striatal activation in response to food intake is related to current and future increases in body mass and whether these relations are moderated by the presence of the A1 allele of the TaqIA restriction fragment length polymorphism, which is associated with dopamine D2 receptor (DRD2) gene binding in the striatum and compromised striatal dopamine signaling. Cross-sectional and prospective data from two functional magnetic resonance imaging studies support these hypotheses, which implies that individuals may overeat to compensate for a hypofunctioning dorsal striatum, particularly those with genetic polymorphisms thought to attenuate dopamine signaling in this region.

Science 17 October 2008: Vol. 322. no. 5900, pp. 449 - 452

17 October, 2008

Blood test finds coronary disease

Genetic markers predict coronary artery disease, Duke doctors say. Those pesky genes again! How odd that eating fruit and vegetables has no such predictive power!

A simple blood test could soon replace expensive and invasive exams to detect coronary artery disease. The test, announced Wednesday by doctors at Duke, is being developed after the discovery of genetic markers that show the presence and intensity of blockage in coronary artery disease, said a Duke cardiologist who co-authored research on the link. Such a blood test could save millions of dollars annually by allowing some patients to avoid risky procedures in which catheters are inserted into patients' arteries.

"I think it is a big deal," Dr. William E. Kraus, a Duke cardiologist, said in an interview Wednesday. "What we want is a test that tells us the status of your disease today and if what you have is heart disease." Kraus' research was published in the medical journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Genetics.

Current detection of the disease -- the leading cause of death in the United States and a top killer in North Carolina, with 23,610 deaths in 2006 -- can require expensive tests such as echocardiograms, stress tests and imaging techniques that use radiation. "A blood-based test to diagnose coronary artery disease would be less invasive and risky and would prevent patients from [receiving] radiation exposure," Kraus said in a statement.

Raleigh retiree Robert Sharpe said going directly from a blood test to having a catheter inserted would have been an improvement over what he went through before two recent heart surgeries. "It would have been a whole lot easier," said Sharpe, 74, who now stays in shape at the Institute of Lifestyle & Weight Management in Raleigh. "I had a stress test and all of that."

The finding that 14 specific genes tend to accompany the narrowing of arteries arose from research by Duke and CardioDx, a molecular-diagnostics company in California that helped fund the study. It's based on the examination of genes in 41 heart patients, some from Germany and some from Duke. Together, the 14 genes form a "signature" that indicates the presence of coronary artery disease, but may not be a cause or effect of the disease, researchers said.

Two Triangle cardiologists not involved in the research said it looks promising, but noted the small number of cases involved. Patients from a variety of backgrounds will be tested in larger trials under way at 28 sites across the United States. "If these findings hold for this broad group of population, the test could prove to be a valuable supplement in our management and treatment of patients with coronary heart disease," said Dr. Sidney Smith, a UNC-Chapel Hill cardiologist.

Dr. Joe Falsone, an invasive cardiologist at Wake Heart & Vascular Associates, called the discovery "potentially exciting news." "We could probably use this as a screening tool for patients we thought were at high risk," Falsone said.


Leading geneticist Steve Jones says human evolution is over

Human evolution is grinding to a halt because of a shortage of older fathers in the West, according to a leading genetics expert. Fathers over the age of 35 are more likely to pass on mutations, according to Professor Steve Jones, of University College London. Speaking today at a UCL lecture entitled "Human evolution is over" Professor Jones will argue that there were three components to evolution - natural selection, mutation and random change. "Quite unexpectedly, we have dropped the human mutation rate because of a change in reproductive patterns," Professor Jones told The Times.

"Human social change often changes our genetic future," he said, citing marriage patterns and contraception as examples. Although chemicals and radioactive pollution could alter genetics, one of the most important mutation triggers is advanced age in men. This is because cell divisions in males increase with age. "Every time there is a cell division, there is a chance of a mistake, a mutation, an error," he said. "For a 29-year old father [the mean age of reproduction in the West] there are around 300 divisions between the sperm that made him and the one he passes on - each one with an opportunity to make mistakes. "For a 50-year-old father, the figure is well over a thousand. A drop in the number of older fathers will thus have a major effect on the rate of mutation."

Professor Jones added: "In the old days, you would find one powerful man having hundreds of children." He cites the fecund Moulay Ismail of Morocco, who died in the 18th century, and is reputed to have fathered 888 children. To achieve this feat, Ismail is thought to have copulated with an average of about 1.2 women a day over 60 years.

Another factor is the weakening of natural selection. "In ancient times half our children would have died by the age of 20. Now, in the Western world, 98 per cent of them are surviving to 21."

Decreasing randomness is another contributing factor. "Humans are 10,000 times more common than we should be, according to the rules of the animal kingdom, and we have agriculture to thank for that. Without farming, the world population would probably have reached half a million by now - about the size of the population of Glasgow. "Small populations which are isolated can evolve at random as genes are accidentally lost. World-wide, all populations are becoming connected and the opportunity for random change is dwindling. History is made in bed, but nowadays the beds are getting closer together. We are mixing into a glo-bal mass, and the future is brown."


16 October, 2008

Evangelists for assorted food religions

Amazing how they get people to pay more on the basis of mere assertion

The buffet offers a variety of pizzas, with whole wheat crust, organic toppings and hormone-free cheese. The salad bar includes some greens and vegetables grown without pesticides in a nearby garden. And the chef even takes special requests from vegetarians, those wanting gluten-free food or even an extra slice of free-range meat.

This isn't a restaurant in one of Kansas City's trendy neighborhoods, but a cramped room in the basement of the Kansas City Academy, a private school for 6th-12th graders in the city's Waldo district. The Academy is one of three Kansas City-area private schools that participate in Bistro Kids' Farm 2 School program, which is committed to improving students' health by offering lunches from organic, natural, locally-grown food.

"It's really, really good," said sixth-grader Peter Imel, while chomping away on pizza. "When I first heard about it, I thought, 'OK, maybe, maybe not.' But it's better than any restaurant I've been to."

Kiersten Firquain, owner/operator of Bistro Kids, passionately believes that typical school lunch fare such as high-fat, nutrient-poor cheeseburgers, nachos and hot dogs is damaging the mental and physical health of the nation's children. Health and nutrition experts agree, saying poor dietary habits are a contributing factor in dramatic increases in childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, asthma and high cholesterol. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the number of overweight children from ages 6-11 has more than doubled in the last 20 years and tripled in those aged 12-19.

Schools across the country are responding by adding more fruits, vegetables, salads and healthier alternatives to menus. But few have gone as far as Firquain wants to go. She advocates providing lunches using foods free of additives, hormones, antibiotics and trans-fats. And she believes the ingredients should, as much as possible, come from local producers.

For Farm 2 School, Firquain uses several sources within a 200-mile radius of Kansas City, such as small family farms and organic bakeries. The rest she orders through Ball's Food Stores, which promotes locally grown foods.

Besides eating the healthy lunches, the program also educates students about the food cycle by bringing farmers and producers to the schools, teaching nutrition classes, growing school gardens and encouraging recycling.

While Firquain's is the first for-profit business in Kansas and Missouri promoting the farm-to school ideals, the concept has been gaining traction across the country since 2000, when a national Farm To School program started. More than 2,000 school districts have some facet of a farm-to-school program, although most are not offering full meals but have selective products in the schools or bring in food producers for education efforts.

Schools - particularly public schools - face several obstacles before starting a farm-to-school program, advocates say. Many schools do not have the kitchen facilities or skilled labor needed to provide more than heat-and-serve meals. "Schools often don't see food or cafeterias as a major investment," said Anupama Joshi, co-director of the national Farm To School network. "It's really sad because research has shown that the food we serve our kids can help them facilitate learning and is tied to performance."

But the top barrier for both public and private schools is money. Public school districts are reimbursed $2.57 by the federal government to provide a free meal, Joshi said, but most districts say a meal costs an average of $2.88. Firquain said some public schools have told her they have $1 left for food after they pay administrative costs.

Firquain said she currently works only with private schools, partly because of costs but also because of the bureaucracy and red tape in public school districts. But she said she eventually wants to serve 10-12 schools in the region, or about 1,000-1,200 students a day, with half of the schools targeting at-risk populations. "We don't want to serve food only to kids who can afford to pay for it, but get it into the populations that need it most," she said.


Brain shrinks even with a glass or two

Alcohol is good for you, bad for you, good for you, bad for you, good for you, bad for you. I doubt that I will hear the end of that indecision in my lifetime

THAT after-work glass of red wine may be less medicinal than you thought: researchers have found that drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol shrinks the brain. Brain volume naturally decreases by nearly 2 per cent per decade as people age, but scientists had speculated that moderate alcohol intake could slow this process, by improving heart function and bloodflow.

But US researchers have dealt a blow to that theory, finding a "significant negative linear relationship" between the amount of alcohol someone consumes and the space their brain takes up, The Australian reports.

While men were more likely to drink alcohol, the researchers examined magnetic resonance imaging scans of drinkers' and non-drinkers' brains, and found the association was stronger in women. They speculated this could be due to women's smaller stature and greater tendency to feel alcohol's effects.

The study, which was based on an analysis of drinking habits and brain volume in nearly 2000 US adults between 1999 and 2001, found that while the brains of people who never touched alcohol occupied nearly 78.6 per cent of their cranial space on average, this dropped to about 78.2 per cent in people who previously drank but had since quit, and dropped again, to just under 77.8 per cent, for moderate drinkers. Heavy drinkers were lower still, at 77.2 per cent.

Brain size shrank by an average of 0.25 per cent going from one drinking category to the next highest, which was larger than the average annual decline normally associated with ageing of 0.19 per cent.


15 October, 2008

White wine 'as good as red' for hearts

Note the contrast with this recent study, which says that white wines give no benefit. There are so many people studying this that apparently significant findings will from time to time emerge by chance alone. As always, there seems to be a reluctance to look at the bottom line here: Traditional wine drinking countries do not have an especially long life expectancy. So even if wine does you good in some ways, it may harm you in others. I believe France has a high incidence of liver cirrhosis, for instance. Two of the longest life expectancy countries are Iceland and Australia -- neither of which were traditionally wine-drinking cultures, though wine has made inroads in recent years. I mainly drink Scotch myself so I am sure that must be good for you!

The health benefits of a glass of red wine are well known, but new research has found a tipple of white could also protect the heart. Rats that were fed the equivalent of one or two glasses of white wine by researchers from the University of Connecticut in the US found their hearts suffered less damage during cardiac arrest than those fed water or grain alcohol, according to New Scientist. The benefits from the white wine were similar to those found after animals ingested red wine - or the wonder ingredient found in grape skin - resveratrol. Previously, it was believed only wine made using grape skin could prevent heart damage.

"The flesh of the grape can do the same job as the skin,'' molecular biologist Dr Dipak Das said. "In lab rats that suffered heart attacks, the animals that received wine or polyphenols experienced less heart damage, compared to rats fed water or straight liquor. "Their blood pressure and aortic blood flow plummeted less drastically as well.'' Molecular tests of heart cells suggest white wine protects mitochondria.

Director of the Hatter Institute for Cardiology Research, Professor Lionel Opie, in South Africa, agreed Mr Das' evidence proved white wine protected lab rats, but said human heart attacks occur from blood clots and diseased arteries and not necessarily mitochondrial failure. Other experiments in dogs showed benefits from red wine, but not white, Prof Opie said.

But Dr Das expects similar studies to soon prove white wine's worth. "We can safely say that one to two glasses of white wine per day works exactly like red wine,'' he said.


Fat people get worse treatment than drunks and junkies

Fat people are treated worse than alcoholics or drug addicts by society, according to the television presenter Anne Diamond. The former breakfast TV host, who once underwent radical surgery in her battle to lose weight, claimed obesity in Britain has reached crisis levels so quickly that the public do not understand it and stigmatise the seriously overweight. She said the cost of treating illnesses linked to obesity, such as diabetes and heart disease, will bankrupt the National Health Service unless action is taken to help people lose weight. But she added that she feared a likely Conservative government will only blame fat people for their size and not help tackle the problems of poor diet and lack of exercise that lie behind it.

Miss Diamond, 54, who made her name presenting TV-AM in the 1980s, returned to television in 2002 on Celebrity Big Brother having put on 5 stones. She weighed almost 15st when she appeared on ITV's Celebrity Fit Club in 2006, but during filming admitted she had undergone surgery to help her lose weight, having a gastric band fitted to reduce the amount of food she could eat. Miss Diamond is now writing a book about the global obesity epidemic and chaired a discussion at the National Obesity Forum's annual conference in London on Tuesday.

New research suggests three quarters of British adults are already overweight or obese, 10 per cent more than previously feared, with the NHS spending o4.2bn on treating diseases linked to weight last year. Miss Diamond said: "Obesity is one of those things that is hugely stigmatised in society, but the more we talk about it, the more we get it into the open. "We are much more sympathetic to credit card addicts, alcoholics and drug addicts than the obese.

"I think it's because obesity is fairly new - there have always been fat people but they stand out and it's easy to bully them. It's happened so suddenly, in the past 20 to 30 years for adults and in the past five for children. "Most people hate being fat, and just because they fail to lose weight doesn't mean they are lazy - it just means it's difficult."

More here

14 October, 2008

British school pupils are banned from eating tomato ketchup as part of "healthy" eating drive

Ban: Tomato ketchup has been banned from the canteen in a string of Welsh primary schools and replaced with a sauce the cooks make. Primary schools in the Vale of Glamorgan, South Wales, have removed the sauce because it contains 'too much salt and sugar'. The move has been branded 'daft' by some parents. Last week Marmite was banned from school breakfast clubs by Ceredigion Council, in Mid Wales, because of its salt content.

Sharon Chapman, 47, whose eight-year-old son Rory attends Peterston-Super-Ely Primary School said: 'He came home from school and said "We can't have ketchup any more". 'He can live without it and the healthy meals at the school are fantastic, but this seems one step too far. 'Tomato ketchup contains lycopene, which is good for you, but they say it's got a high level of salt and sugar. 'While it's not something you complain about, it seems a bit daft.'

Vale of Glamorgan Council leader Gordon Kemp said: 'It's all part of the healthy-eating programme and I think our council is one of the leading authorities in Wales in this respect.' A Welsh Assembly Government spokesman said: 'We do not tell local authorities not to serve ketchup in schools. 'It is for local authorities to ensure that their school meals are as balanced and healthy as possible.'


'How I weaned my son off Ritalin and proved discipline is better then drugs'

Earlier this year, Yvonne Dixon's 14-year-old son Jake turned to his mother during the car journey home from school and said calmly: 'If I was still on Ritalin, I think I would have killed myself by now. 'I used to think about throwing myself headfirst through a window. I would sit in my bedroom and cry all the time. 'I didn't want to worry you - I didn't think I could tell anyone what I was feeling.'

Jake, who lives with Yvonne, 44, a nurse, and his stepfather John, a 44-year-old retail manager, is one of the 5 per cent of children diagnosed with ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. What is remarkable about Jake is that he appears cured.

His mother doesn't think that is because he spent three years on Ritalin and a similar drug, dexanphetamin, but is down to old-fashioned discipline. 'I know some parents and medical experts may scoff, but I have seen a miraculous change in my son,' says Yvonne. 'It hasn't been an overnight change, just a steady and consistent improvement in his behaviour over the past six years since I took him off Ritalin.'

Yvonne, who lives in a four-bedroom house in Ingoldsby, Lincolnshire, had been told Jake would have to be educated in a special school and need support for the rest of his life. Instead, he is now a bright, articulate teenager who attends a mainstream school and has learned to curb his impulses. 'He holds up a time-out card in class when he feels himself becoming agitated and his concentration goes,' says Yvonne. 'His teacher lets him walk about outside until he feels himself calming down. He is in control of his condition, instead of the other way round.'

Once branded as 'hopelessly disruptive', Jake is taking Btec courses in advanced maths, IT, engineering and travel & tourism. He spends his spare time mending computers for friends and family. And yet he was condemned to a life of chemical dependency from the age of four.

'He was like a zombie on Ritalin,' says Yvonne. 'It was as if all the life had been taken out of him. 'He would rock himself backwards and forwards, crying. All the drug did was keep him quiet and sitting still in class - he didn't learn anything. 'Then, on the way home, tears would be sliding silently down his face. He was utterly miserable. 'I'd relied on the medical profession - of which I am a part - to give me the best advice. 'But I looked at Jake and thought: "This can't be right. You can't go on like this".'

Yvonne believes Ritalin is used to stop children making a nuisance of themselves in overcrowded classrooms. 'It's a scandal,' she says. However, she accepts Jake has problems. As her second child - she has a 19-year-old daughter - she knew there was something different about him before he was a year old. 'There was no eye contact,' she says. 'He didn't like being touched or hugged, and he developed an obsession with lightbulbs. 'He did not take any interest in toys and would never sit still.'

Jake did not speak until he was three, so Yvonne called in a speech therapist. 'She said he was OK, but he'd wake at 5am and take all of his clothes out of the drawers, peel off the wallpaper and once took all the fronts off his chest of drawers.

'His father was in the RAF and was away a lot when Jake was young. 'I do think the stress of coping with our son had a bearing on our marital problems, but it wasn't the whole story. 'It certainly made our time together more fraught because Jake constantly interrupts when you are talking - he can't read social interaction.'

The couple separated when Jake was three, but she claims this did not overly affect him because he does not become emotionally engaged with other people. However, his behavioural problems were all too apparent at nursery. 'He'd run around knocking all the cups out of the other children's hands. The staff would strap him into a chair to keep him still.

'In the past, children like Jake would have just been called naughty, but I believe there is a chemical imbalance in their brains - perhaps they have too much adrenaline. 'What I firmly do not believe is that they should be prescribed powerful drugs.'

At four, Jake was referred by his GP to a paediatrician at Grantham hospital. 'She told us he had ADHD and OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Very convenient labels, but I still don't believe they should be controlled by drugs,' says Yvonne. Despite grave reservations, but exhausted by Jake's behaviour and lack of sleep, she agreed to have him put on dexanphetamin. 'This drug, like Ritalin, works on the chemical balance of the brain and has the effect of calming down a child immediately.

'He took it twice a day and the effect was instant. He was like a zombie. 'At first, he would calm down and then, as the effects left him, he went into withdrawal and became utterly miserable. It was terrifying.' A year later, under the advice of the paediatrician, Jake was taken off this drug and put onto Ritalin. 'The effect was the same. I moved him from a big state primary into a village school, but they couldn't cope. 'He just sat there in class, drugged up and learning nothing. It was heartbreaking.'

When Jake was eight, his mother took him off Ritalin. 'I tried an additive-free diet, fish oils and other so-called cures, but nothing worked. He went back to being hyperactive and running round and round,' she says. A year after her divorce, Yvonne had met John, who became her second husband. He took a no-nonsense approach to Jake. 'We decided the way forward was good, old-fashioned discipline.

'In the past, I might have been guilty of giving in to Jake, because he was so persistent. 'I was tired and it was easier to let him race around than try to contain him.' Yvonne created a set routine for Jake: every morning, he gets up at the same time. He is expected to tidy his room and lay out the breakfast things. He has to make eye contact and reply to questions. Manners are vital. 'He has to say please and thank you. I never raise my voice to him, and the atmosphere in the house is always calm,' says Yvonne. 'Everything happens in a specified sequence of events. 'Coming home from school, he has a cup of tea, a snack and then is allowed to go to his bedroom and work on his computer. 'Bedtime is always at the same time, after a bath and reading a book.

'We operate a reward system - if he is late or becomes agitated, he is not allowed to work on his computers. He has learned to control his own behaviour. 'It sounds easy, but it has been a long, slow road. We've had lots of setbacks, because if he can't have what he wants immediately, he could get frustrated. 'But he has learned that I am not going to change my mind and give in to him. 'I have given him boundaries and discipline, and it has worked miracles on his behaviour. The time-out system works at home, too. 'If he feels he is becoming agitated, he has to sit down or go for a walk until he calms down.'

More here

13 October, 2008

Another example of making mountains out of pimples

I regularly characterize medical research as making mountains out of pimples so another example of it might help reinforce what I mean by that. I mentioned this study on the 10th so I will not reproduce it again. Instead I want to point out that its conclusions, although correct, were not only trivial but rather misleading.

What was found was that autism was 7 times more common among mathematics students at Cambridge university than it was among students in other fields at that university. But how was that finding arrived at? It was arrived at by taking 378 mathematics students and comparing them with a group of 414 non-mathematics students. And there were 7 autistic people in the mathematics group but only one autistic person in the other group. So the "7 times" conclusion was totally correct. But was it important?

It was in fact totally trivial. What was really found was that the incidence of autism among students at Cambridge was very rare -- even among mathematics students. Putting it another way, it is very rare for mathematics students to be autistic. Only 1.8% of them were autistic in fact. And putting it that way gives roughly the opposite impression to the impression given by the original report. What the original report presented as interesting is in fact of no importance whatsoever.

And that sort of finding is absolutely typical of what is reported in epidemiological research. In fact it is a much stronger finding than is generally reported. Where a 700% difference was reported above, a 50% difference would be about the average in epidemiological research (Note the 60% mentioned in the article immediately below). Most epidemiological research is the modern-day equivalent of the old mediaeval debate about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin: An argument about trivia.

Red wine 'reduces lung cancer risk in smokers'

Interesting that men only were looked at. Does the same hold for women? It should if the causal chain assumed below is accurate. White wine is to some degree a "ladies drink" so maybe it is testosterone differences that caused the small effect described below. Perhaps the red-wine/white-wine difference arises because white-wine consumption is greatest among men who are more limp-wristed. I cheerfully admit, however, that my favourite wine at the moment is a Sauvignon blanc

Drinking red wine could reduce the risk of lung cancer among smokers and ex-smokers, research suggested yesterday. Smokers who drank at least a glass of red wine daily were 60 per cent less likely to develop lung cancer than non-drinkers, a study found. However, white wine did not reduce the risk in the same way.

Studies examining the relationship between lung cancer and alcohol consumption have had mixed results, Dr Chun Chao of Kaiser Permanente Southern California in Pasadena and her colleagues told the journal Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. Much of this research has failed to adjust for factors like social status that can influence alcohol use and lung cancer risk.

In the current study, Chao and her colleagues looked at 84,170 men aged 45-69 years old. Between 2000 and 2006, 210 of them developed lung cancer. After accounting for age, education, income, exposure to second-hand smoke, body weight, and other factors, the researchers found that their lung cancer risk steadily decreased with red wine drinking, with a two per cent drop seen with each additional glass of red wine a man drank per month. No other type of alcoholic beverage, including white wine, was associated with lung cancer risk.

For men who were heavy smokers, the reduction in risk was greater, with a 4 per cent lower likelihood of developing lung cancer seen for each glass of red wine consumed per month.

Research has shown that wine drinkers may have healthier lifestyles and tend to have more education and higher income than non-wine drinkers, the researchers said. But the fact that reduced lung cancer risk was seen only with red wine, not white, 'lends support to a causal association for red wine and suggests that compounds that are present at high concentrations in red wine but not in white wine, beer or liquors may be protective against lung carcinogenesis,' Chao and her team say.


12 October, 2008

Attractive myths

It long ago became clear to me from my own research and its reception that the popularity and attractiveness of a theory had much more to do with acceptance of it than the evidence for it. See e.g. here. Indeed, the evidence seemed to be quite irrelevant if a particular theory was very attractive to most people in the field. My observations were in psychology but the theory that a low fat diet is beneficial is a close equivalent in medicine. So I am pleased to read now that one group of researchers thinks headline-grabbing scientific reports are the most likely to turn out to be wrong

IN ECONOMIC theory the winner’s curse refers to the idea that someone who places the winning bid in an auction may have paid too much. Consider, for example, bids to develop an oil field. Most of the offers are likely to cluster around the true value of the resource, so the highest bidder probably paid too much.

The same thing may be happening in scientific publishing, according to a new analysis. With so many scientific papers chasing so few pages in the most prestigious journals, the winners could be the ones most likely to oversell themselves—to trumpet dramatic or important results that later turn out to be false. This would produce a distorted picture of scientific knowledge, with less dramatic (but more accurate) results either relegated to obscure journals or left unpublished.

In Public Library of Science (PloS) Medicine, an online journal, John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist at Ioannina School of Medicine, Greece, and his colleagues, suggest that a variety of economic conditions, such as oligopolies, artificial scarcities and the winner’s curse, may have analogies in scientific publishing.

Dr Ioannidis made a splash three years ago by arguing, quite convincingly, that most published scientific research is wrong. Now, along with Neal Young of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland and Omar Al-Ubaydli, an economist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, he suggests why.

It starts with the nuts and bolts of scientific publishing. Hundreds of thousands of scientific researchers are hired, promoted and funded according not only to how much work they produce, but also to where it gets published. For many, the ultimate accolade is to appear in a journal like Nature or Science. Such publications boast that they are very selective, turning down the vast majority of papers that are submitted to them.

The assumption is that, as a result, such journals publish only the best scientific work. But Dr Ioannidis and his colleagues argue that the reputations of the journals are pumped up by an artificial scarcity of the kind that keeps diamonds expensive. And such a scarcity, they suggest, can make it more likely that the leading journals will publish dramatic, but what may ultimately turn out to be incorrect, research.

Dr Ioannidis based his earlier argument about incorrect research partly on a study of 49 papers in leading journals that had been cited by more than 1,000 other scientists. They were, in other words, well-regarded research. But he found that, within only a few years, almost a third of the papers had been refuted by other studies. For the idea of the winner’s curse to hold, papers published in less-well-known journals should be more reliable; but that has not yet been established.

The group’s more general argument is that scientific research is so difficult—the sample sizes must be big and the analysis rigorous—that most research may end up being wrong. And the “hotter” the field, the greater the competition is and the more likely it is that published research in top journals could be wrong.

There also seems to be a bias towards publishing positive results. For instance, a study earlier this year found that among the studies submitted to America’s Food and Drug Administration about the effectiveness of antidepressants, almost all of those with positive results were published, whereas very few of those with negative results were. But negative results are potentially just as informative as positive results, if not as exciting.

The researchers are not suggesting fraud, just that the way scientific publishing works makes it more likely that incorrect findings end up in print. They suggest that, as the marginal cost of publishing a lot more material is minimal on the internet, all research that meets a certain quality threshold should be published online. Preference might even be given to studies that show negative results or those with the highest quality of study methods and interpretation, regardless of the results.

It seems likely that the danger of a winner’s curse does exist in scientific publishing. Yet it may also be that editors and referees are aware of this risk, and succeed in counteracting it. Even if they do not, with a world awash in new science the prestigious journals provide an informed filter. The question for Dr Ioannidis is that now his latest work has been accepted by a journal, is that reason to doubt it?


Sugar could keep prejudices under control??

Pretty absurd. Almost certainly a random result. We await replication. Note that stereotyping has long ago been shown to be strongly influenced by reality. So the results could be interpreted as showing that people high on sugar had less access to their memories

A spoonful of sugar could help the bigotry go down. Sweet drinks can have an effect in keeping prejudices under control, researchers claim. The reason, they believe, is that a sugar rush provides the brain with the fuel it needs to suppress unpleasant opinions. 'Ensuring people have sufficient energy for self-control may help to improve their ability to control both prejudice and use of stereotypes in their day-to-day life,' they say.

The anti-Alf Garnett effect of sucrose was discovered by giving a group of students lemonade. Some was sweetened with sugar, the rest a calorie-free version with an artificial sweetener. The men and women were then shown a picture of Sammy, a young man who was said to be gay, and asked to write for five minutes about what he did during a typical day.

The researchers counted how many times each person used words about Sammy from a list of 58 traits or characteristics associated with the stereotype of gay men, including feminine and artistic. Results show that those who had the sugary drink used far fewer stereotypes in their essays than those who had the artificial sweetener. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, also showed that sugar's effect was greatest in the most prejudiced. 'The findings suggest a link between glucose levels and the expression of prejudice and the use of stereotypes,' it said. 'People with lower glucose levels are more likely to use stereotypes when describing others and, if they are high in prejudice, are more likely to make derogatory statements.'

The researchers, from Amsterdam University and Florida State University, believe the glucose derived from sugar provides the brain with the energy needed to keep objectionable thoughts to ourselves. The theory is based on the idea that most people, even those with high levels of prejudice, exercise some level of control over public expressions of their views.

The researchers said: 'When people engage in the act of trying to control public expressions of prejudice or the use of stereotypes, they consume the energy required for self-regulation. 'However, once the energy source is restored to normal levels, people regain the ability to control conscious responses towards others. 'Because self-control depends on processes that consume glucose as an energy source, people who have lower levels of blood glucose may be more likely to express prejudice.'


11 October, 2008

Midwives found to aid babies' survival

I am all in favour of midwives. I even married one once. So I am favourably disposed to the view that midwives do a good job. I have to point out again, however, that the causal chain is assumed rather than proven below. The finding probably tells us more about the sort of women (healthier women? Women who have previously given birth easily?) who choose midwife-assisted birth rather than anything else

WOMEN who are cared for by midwives rather than GPs or obstetricians are less likely to lose their babies within the first six months of their pregnancies, an international review of mat-ernity services has found. Researchers gave no reasons for the shock finding, taken from an analysis of 11 trials involving more than 12,200 women in four countries, but a spokeswoman for the Australian College of Midwives, Hannah Dahlen, said women who were seen by the same midwife during pregnancy, labour and birth usually felt more supported and less anxious, leading to reduced risk of miscarriage.

That explanation has frustrated the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which says its members provide the same level of continuous care to their patients and could not be held accountable for miscarriages or stillbirths that occurred so early in pregnancy. "One third of women see private obstetricians and we all give continuity of care," the college's president, Christine Tippett, said yesterday. "I am on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week and I deliver about 90 per cent of my women. I think it is drawing a very long bow to link miscarriages before 24 weeks with continuity of care. Most miscarriages occur because of foetal or chromosomal abnormalities and there is no evidence to suggest the mode of care makes any difference."

The analysis, which is the largest undertaken in the world, also found that women in midwife-led models of care were less likely to be admitted to hospital during pregnancy, have instrumental deliveries, episiotomies or require analgesia and were more likely to have spontaneous vaginal births, feel in control during labour and better able to initiate breastfeeding.

Dr Dahlen said the analysis, published by the Cochrane collaboration, considered the gold standard of assessing medical evidence, proved that midwife-led models of care had no adverse outcomes and many benefits. "If this was a tablet, it would be mandatory that all women have it, but instead we have to deal with all this shroud waving by obstetricians. Now we know the evidence for their claims just isn't there," she said.

The Australian College of Midwives has long argued that better use of midwives would reduce the national caesarean rate, now at 31 per cent, cutting the number of people taking up operating theatres and beds in wards. However, the analysis showed there was no significant difference between the two groups when it came to caesareans, despite a recent Australian study which indicated surgery in midwife-led care occurred 4 per cent less often than under medical models. "Not many people realise that women having babies accounts for the largest single use of our hospitals every year, so if we want to … look after people on waiting lists, we should be looking at how we can provide good primary care to healthy pregnant women instead of channelling them into surgical theatres in their tens of thousands," the Australian College of Midwives vice president, Chris Cornwall, said.

The analysis also showed there was no significant difference between the two groups when it came to foetal deaths after six months gestation, length of labour, induction, intervention, premature births and admissions to neonatal intensive care units.


Marketers jump on superfoods fad

Experts say "superfoods", touted by marketers as miracle products, are about to hit Australian shelves in the race for our consumer dollars. In the UK, more items are added to a growing list of so-called superfoods with regular monotony - sometimes on the back of a small and dubious study. Cherry juice last month was hailed as the latest wonder drink after research found a 250ml glass offered the same health benefits as eating 23 portions of fruit and vegetables. The study also found it contained more anti-oxidants than five portions of peas, tomatoes, watermelon, carrots and banana.

Making it on to the "superfoods" list is a marketer's dream. UK sales of blueberries, for instance, have skyrocketed by 132 per cent since 2005, while salmon sales increased by 31 per cent in the same period. Spinach sales also have risen, likewise beetroot. Expensive exotic fruits and berries often are deemed to be in the same category as acai and noni fruit, boosting sales.

Adelaide-based physician and author of the best-selling CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet, Dr Peter Clifton, has heard it all before and warns to be sceptical. "I think it will come here as well," he said. "But it's very difficult to describe any food as a superfood. They all have relatively weak physiological effects. Compared with a drug, food is a very, very weak thing, so be very cautious, rather than believe the marketers."

He and co-author Dr Manny Noakes, have just released another book, The CSIRO Healthy Heart Program. That lists superfood categories - fish and omega 3 fatty acids, low-fat dairy foods, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and oils and seeds - rather than singling out any one food. "I do think it is an overstatement to talk about superfoods and we do need to be careful about talking about food rather like snake oil," Dr Noakes said. She also singles out another buzz-word for scepticism. "There's no proven benefit of anti-oxidants in food at this point in time." she said. "There may be something in it but none of the studies has shown any proven benefit from increasing anti-oxidants in diet."

Both authors maintain the best way to health and happiness is a balanced diet including fruits and vegetables. Cancer Council nutrition spokesman Terry Slevin says, despite Australia's food regulations, marketers may be able to dub their product as a superfood provided there is some form of substantiation. "In terms of the current regulations, it might have to be tested in court but I'm pretty sure the term itself is not specifically banned," he said.


10 October, 2008

Autism genes can add up to genius

No surprise: Intellectual gifts and certain brain disorders are closely related. Autistic people often have exceptional abilities in non-social fields

Some people with autism have amazed experts with their outstanding memories, mathematical skills or musical talent. Now scientists have found that the genes thought to cause autism may also confer mathematical, musical and other skills on people without the condition. The finding has emerged from a study of autism among 378 Cambridge University students, which found the condition was up to seven times more common among mathematicians than students in other disciplines. It was also five times more common in the siblings of mathematicians.

If confirmed, it could explain why autism - a disability that makes it hard to communicate with, and relate to, others - continues to exist in all types of society. It suggests the genes responsible are usually beneficial, causing the disease only if present in the wrong combinations. "Our understanding of autism is undergoing a transformation," said Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, director of the autism research centre at Cambridge, who led the study. "It seems clear that genes play a significant role in the causes of autism and that those genes are also linked to certain intellectual skills." parent association between autism and intellectual gifts in specific fields. This has made autism a hot topic in popular culture, from films such as Rain Man, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, to books such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.

Some people with autism have become renowned for their creativity. The British artist Stephen Wiltshire, 34, was mute as a child and diagnosed with classic autism. He began drawing at the age of five and soon completed cityscapes. One of his feats was to draw a stunningly detailed panoramic view of Tokyo from memory after a short helicopter ride. He has since opened a gallery.

Autism and the related Asperger's syndrome are among the commonest mental afflictions, affecting about 600,000 Britons. Boys are four times as likely as girls to develop it. Autistic people can have special skills but they also tend to suffer from anxiety, obsessive behaviour and other problems that far outweigh any advantages.

The fact that autism runs in families shows that it is partly genetic in origin, but evolutionary theory suggests genes causing such a debilitating conditions ought to have been weeded out of the population. The Cambridge study hints at why this has not happened, suggesting that with variations in the way they are combined, such genes are beneficial.

On their own, such studies have to be treated cautiously because the numbers involved are small. In the Cambridge study, seven of 378 maths students were found to be autistic, compared with only one among the 414 students in the control group. Other studies, however, have found similar patterns. Baron-Cohen, whose cousin Sacha Baron Cohen is the comic actor behind the Ali G and Borat characters, said: "Separate studies have shown that the fathers and grandfathers of children with autism are twice as likely to work in engineering. Science students also have more relatives with autism than those in the humanities."

His research, set out last week in a meeting at the Royal Society, coincides with separate research showing nearly a third of people with autism may have "savant" skills. Patricia Howlin, professor of clinical child psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London, studied 137 people with autism; 39 of them (29%) possessed an exceptional mental skill. The most common was outstanding memory. She said: "It had been thought that only about 5%-10% of people with autism had such skills, but nobody had measured it properly, and it seems the number is far higher. If we could foster these skills, many more people with autism could live independently and even become high achievers."

The idea that autism may have positive aspects is finding favour among some of those with the condition. Some resent being labelled disabled and have begun describing those without autism as "neurotypicals" to make the point that they could be the ones missing out. Professor Allan Snyder, director of the centre for the mind at the University of Sydney, said: "Autism ranges from the classical picture of severe mental impairment at one end of the spectrum to Nobel prize-win-ning genius at the other. Both extremes have core autistic features, such as preoccupation with detail, obsessional interests and difficulties in understanding other people's perspectives."

Temple Grandin, 61, was diagnosed with autism as a child and is now professor of animal sciences at Colorado State University. She said: "People with autism have played a vital role in human evolution and culture. Before computers it would have taken someone with an autistic-type memory to design great cathedrals, while scientists such as Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein show every sign of having been autistic. The world owes a great deal to those who design and programme computers, many of whom show autistic traits."

For Baron-Cohen the next step is to find the genes linked with autism; he is working with Professor Ian Craig of King's College to scan the DNA of hundreds of autistic people - and of mathematicians. For latest papers on autism research, go to

A concert at the Savoy Theatre in London's west end will tonight showcase musicians with autism, and an exhibition starting tomorrow at London's Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in the Mall features the art of people with autism. For details go to Autism Art and Music Details at:

The Autism Research Centre has produced The Transporters, a DVD-based animation that helps autistic children to learn about emotions by looking at faces on mechanical vehicles. The Transporters DVD (aimed at children with autism) is available online at


Chemotherapy drug `is safer cure for testicular cancer'

Sounds very good news

A single injection of a chemotherapy drug can cure a common type of testicular cancer, researchers say. Carboplatin, which is often used to treat ovarian and lung cancer, can replace radiotherapy to cure early-stage seminoma, which mainly affects men in their 40s, a study has found. The drug is being hailed as a "safer cure" for the cancer by experts, with fewer long-term risks.

Testicular cancers are usually either seminomas or nonseminomas. About 40 to 45 per cent of testicular cancers are early-stage seminomas - accounting for 800 cases each year in Britain. Patients are usually first treated with surgery to remove the testis where the disease is detected, but the cancer can develop in the other testis in one in 20 men.

Patients given carboplatin experienced fewer side-effects and were able to return to their normal lives earlier than those undergoing radiotherapy, prompting experts to hail the treatment as a "safer cure" for seminoma. In the largest trial for the disease, funded by the Medical Research Council, a carboplatin injection was used to treat 573 patients with early-stage seminoma and compared with two or three weeks of daily radiotherapy, the standard treatment, given to 904 patients. Of the patients given carboplatin, 5 per cent relapsed - virtually all within three years - and after further successful treatment, none had died from their testicular cancer.

Ben Mead, honorary senior lecturer in medical oncology at the University of Southampton, who led the study, said: "We were pleased by the results of this huge trial. Giving patients a carboplatin injection rather than radiotherapy is less unpleasant with fewer long-term risks."


9 October, 2008

'St John's Wort plant as effective as Prozac for treating depression', say scientists

The above heading is unduly positive. The actual conclusion of the researchers was: "Current evidence regarding hypericum extracts is inconsistent and confusing. In patients who meet criteria for major depression, several recent placebo-controlled trials suggest that the tested hypericum extracts have minimal beneficial effects while other trials suggest that hypericum and standard antidepressants have similar beneficial effects". It has usually been said in the past that the plant is good for minor depression but not major depression and that conclusion does not appear to have been unduly disturbed by these results

It has long been a happy alternative for those reluctant to pop pills for depression. But the herbal extract St John's wort now has more than just cheerful converts to testify to its mood-lifting powers. In what is billed as the most thorough study of the plant, scientists have found it is just as effective as Prozac at treating depression. It also had fewer side effects than many standard drugs used to help those battling despair.

Researchers compared the effects of the plant hypericum perforatum - popularly known as St John's Wort - with placebos or a wide range of old and new antidepressants, including those from the new generation of SSRI drugs, such as Prozac and Seroxat. The findings could prompt more GPs to prescribe St John's wort. In Germany, it is commonly given to children and teenagers.

Experts do not know exactly how the plant lifts depression, although most believe it probably works by keeping the chemical serotonin, which is linked to positive moods, in the brain for longer.

The study's lead author, Dr Klaus Linde, from the Centre for Complementary Medicine in Munich, pooled data from 29 studies involving 5,489 patients with mild to moderately severe depression. 'Overall, the St John's wort extracts tested in the trials were superior to placebo, similarly effective as standard antidepressants, and had fewer side effects than standard antidepressants,' he said. But he pointed out that St John's wort products available in health food shops and chemists differed greatly and some may be more effective than others. 'Using a St John's Wort extract might be justified but products on the market vary considerably, so these results only apply to the preparations tested,' he explained.

The findings were published by the Cochrane Library, which specialises in systematic reviews of research studies. A separate study has found St John's wort, available in countless health shops, is the only alternative medicine proven to have an effect. Others, including ginseng, liquid tonic, cat's claw, gingko biloba and royal jelly, had no firm base in evidence and could be dangerous when taken with other drugs, according to the study by St James' University Hospital in Leeds.

Some other studies however have indicated that St John's wort may interfere with the effectiveness of the contraceptive pill. Other reported effects have included dizziness, tiredness and hair loss.

The extract has become a popular alternative to antidepressants such as Prozac and Seroxat in recent years following fears over the safety of SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor) drugs. Doctors have been told not to prescribe most SSRIs to under-18s because of an increased risk of suicide. Experts have also said they could not rule out a suicide risk to older users.

Another study found that pregnant women who take SSRI drugs were at risk of having babies with birth defects such as cleft palates and heart problems. Four out of five GPs have admitted overprescribing Prozac and similar drugs. They blamed a lack of suitable alternatives, including behavioural therapy and social care as well as medicines.


Geeks not hunks 'get women into bed'

This is not very strong data but it may be a straw in the wind. There is a large gap between what people say and what they do

REVENGE of the nerds has struck in real life - with research suggesting intelligence - and not good looks - boosts the chances of getting women into bed. The study, published in New Scientist magazine, found when it came to both one-night stands and long-term relationships women go for geniuses over dumb hunks. While women looking for husbands searched for signs a man might be a good provider and father, when it came to flings they wanted little more than good genes.

Social psychologist Dina McMillan said sub-consciously women erred on the side of over-caution when it came to one-night stands. "There's no surprise that there's a biological tendency to want smart kids and even one time can get you pregnant," she said.

Rather than ask women to rate qualities they seek in men, as other studies had done, the North Carolina study had men perform tasks on camera which were then rated by women.

Jason Mullen, 34, has a degree in computer science and now runs New South Wales IT support company North Shore Nerds. "A girl said to me once that a guy doesn't have to look like Brad Pitt but there needs to be some kind of physical attraction. Guys are definitely like that so it's fair and reasonable for women to be like that as well," he said. "I think it's a biological thing for women to be attracted to men that will be able to provide for them." His friend Cassandra Garvey, 34, said women in their 30s were more likely to choose smart men in case it led to something more.


8 October, 2008

Study Suggests Fan Use Cuts SIDS Risk for Babies

Middle class mothers are healthier and maybe they use fans more. The SIDS/fan link is just speculation

Using a fan while a baby is sleeping appears to significantly cut the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS, according to new research published Monday. Researchers at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif., compared 185 babies who died from SIDS in 11 California counties between 1997 to 2000 with 312 normal infants from similar socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds who lives in the same counties. Mothers were asked several questions about fan use, pacifier use, room location, sleep surface, the type of covers over the baby, bedding under the infant, room temperature and whether a window was open.

The study, which is being published in the October issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that using a fan cut the risk of SIDS by 72%. The use of a fan in a room with a temperature higher than 69 degrees Fahrenheit was associated with a 94% decreased risk of SIDS compared with no fan use. It's the first study to look at ventilation in babies' rooms and SIDS risk.

SIDS, or a sudden and unexplained death of a baby younger than 1, kills about 2,500 infants annually and is the leading cause of death in that age group. While the cause of SIDS is unknown, one theory is that babies rebreathe exhaled carbon dioxide trapped near their airways from bedding or sleeping on their stomachs.

Since the mid-1990s it's been recommended that infants be placed on their backs to sleep rather than their stomachs. That recommendation, along with others such as sleeping on a firm mattress and avoiding soft bedding, was linked to a more than 50% decline in SIDS deaths from 1992 to 2003.

The lead researcher, De-Kun Li, explained that fan use increases air movement in a baby's bedroom which could protect babies from rebreathing carbon dioxide. "If parents want to take an extra measure they should consider using a fan," he said. Dr. Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist, stressed that using a fan isn't substitute for placing babies on their backs to sleep.

Marian Willinger, Special Assistant for SIDS Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said the findings on fan use were interesting that need to be replicated. "It cannot be emphasized strongly enough, however, that there is no substitute for the most effective means known to reduce the risk of SIDS: always placing infants for sleep on their backs," Dr. Willinger said in a statement.

Since 2005, it's also been recommended that infants use a pacifier. In 2005 Dr. Li released research from the same group of women used in fan study showing use of a pacifier cut the risk of SIDS by 90%. That finding helped back up recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics on adding pacifiers to the list of recommendations to cut SIDS risks.

The study also looked at whether windows were open or closed. Babies who slept with an open window less likely to die from SIDS compared to babies who slept with a closed window, but the finding wasn't considered statistically significant. The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and Kaiser Permanente.


Organic Food Offers Little More Than Peace of Mind

Organic food is more likely to carry pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli

Jami Nelson always tried to eat healthy and take good care of her body, so she was stunned to learn she had breast cancer at the age of 25. Her cancer now in remission, the 26-year-old nurse is much more careful about what she eats. Nelson said she chooses only organic milk and meat despite their higher cost because of the way they are produced, without antibiotics and added hormones.

Organics give her peace of mind, and Nelson is willing to pay more to get it. But some experts say that's all she'll get - that there's nothing healthier or better about organic food. Alex Avery, director of research and education for the Hudson Institute`s Center for Global Food Issues and author of "The Truth About Organics," said there are several misconceptions about organic food that make people believe it is healthier and better for the environment. `'It's a total con," said Avery, a plant scientist by training. "There is not a shred of science" to back up claims that organic is safer or more nutritious, he said.

To display the "USDA Organic" seal, a product must be produced and processed according to USDA standards, and at least 95 percent of its ingredients must be organically produced. That means growers can't use most conventional chemical pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage sludge-based fertilizers. Animals must be fed organic feed, cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones and must have access to the outdoors. Genetic engineering and ionizing radiation also are prohibited.

But standards for labeling organically-produced agricultural products don't address food safety or nutrition, just how the food is grown. Organic food is more likely to carry pathogenic bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, because of the type of fertilizer that organic farmers use, Avery said. He also said that some of the natural pesticides used in organic farming are quite toxic. For example, organic farmers are allowed to treat fungal diseases with copper solutions and remain within guidelines. Copper, which is toxic, is the 18th most used pesticide in the U.S. and stays in the soil forever, unlike modern biodegradable pesticides.

Avery singles out organic milk in particular as being no better, saying labs have not found "one detectable difference whatsoever." Despite this, he said, his wife is the only woman in her circle of mothers with young children who serves her kids conventional milk.

Avery said that not only isn't organic always healthier for consumers, its perception of being friendlier for the environment isn't always true, too. Although many organic crops require less energy in terms of fertilizer in production, conventional farms can produce more food and use less energy.

But Holly Givens, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Association, which represents the $17 billion organic industry in North America and has 1,700 member businesses, said that there are real benefits to choosing organic options. "Many consumers see a link between agricultural practices and the health of the earth, and how those systems are interconnected with human health," Givens said. For example, organic practices she said help protect water supplies and counter the effects of global warming by keeping carbon in the soil. Healthwise, she said, consumers avoid pesticide residue and toxic chemicals. "They see organic products as a solution, not as part of the problem," Givens said. "Organic fits in with the desire to lead a more healthful life."

The jury is still out on whether organic is safer or more nutritious. Chris Kilham, a self-described medicine hunter who travels the world in search of traditional, plant-based medicines, said smaller studies show certified organic food to be more nutritious and contain more Vitamin C, Vitamin A and other antioxidants. "We know with absolute certainty that organic foods are more nutritious," Kilham said. "Nobody can find any studies that show less nutrition."

For nutritionists, such as the Mayo Clinic's Jennifer Nelson, the decision for people to eat organic is a personal one. Nelson said organic isn't better or worse. "It means it's just as good." She warns consumers that produce isn't safer if its organic or conventional when it comes to foodborne illnesses: Organic foods, despite some misconceptions, still must be cleaned properly and cooked appropriately. Nor is it necessarily healthier if the food is cooked or processed in an unhealthy way (think organic potato chips).

Givens concedes that certified organic labeling does not necessarily mean the food is safer, but she does believe that the healthy soil associated with organic food leads to healthier plants and healthier livestock. As for safety, Givens said there have been no studies comparing the prevalence of foodborne illnesses in organic versus conventionally grown food.

But the numbers show that despite these unknowns, the popularity of organic food has been on the rise. According to Packaged Facts, an industry research firm, estimates of 2008 sales of natural and organic food and beverages will continue at a double-digit growth rate to reach $32.9 billion, despite a faltering economy. "A lot of people will give up almost anything before they give their kids food they don't feel comfortable with," said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, an organic industry watchdog group. "Organic food is a bargain when you look at the total impact on environment and health."

Despite his concerns, even Avery concedes that organic food is here to stay. He's cut back to part-time at the institute. "There's no money in being on the common sense side against a very popular bandwagon," he said.


7 October, 2008

Oh Dear! More flawed logic. A British upper class lady writing below ignores the role of social class

Personality traits are highly heritable so what was probably found in the research was that upper class mothers had greater self-confidence and that they expected more of their children. That their children had greater self-confidence could therefore have been a matter of simple genetic inheritance, not a product of expectations or anything else

A study by the University of London reported last week in New Scientist magazine revealed that determined mothers, in particular, tend to produce ultra-confident daughters. This has been widely misinterpreted to mean that becoming the modern-day equivalent of an old-fashioned stage mother is a good thing. What the study actually shows is the importance of having confidence in your children, which is not remotely the same thing as being pushy: it is arguably the exact opposite. Have confidence in their abilities, the study concludes, and they will have few issues with self-esteem.

This does not mean forcing them to do five A-levels. It means not snorting and saying, “Yeah, right,” when your child announces she would like to be foreign secretary; and it also means, surely, leading by example, which probably means working – because it’s harder to be ambitious and confident when you’re milling about vacuuming or putting a load of washing on.

A closer look at the study reveals that there were 300 boys and girls involved, born in 1970. When the children were aged 10, their mothers were asked at what age they believed their child would leave school – a question chosen to illustrate each mother’s belief in her child’s capabilities [And which would have correlated highly with the mother's class rank] . Twenty years later the children themselves answered questions designed to measure their self-confidence.

Those whose mothers had high hopes for them were more likely to report that they felt in control of their lives by the age of 30. The answers also showed that the self-esteem of the women was linked to their mothers’ belief in them as they were growing up, regardless of other factors such as class and education. In addition, a mother’s own confidence and ambition were deemed likely to have rubbed off on her daughter.

I’m stumbling along in the dark like everybody else when it comes to child-rearing, but this study makes perfect sense to me. I was fortunate enough to have a mother [Her mother was an obviously clever Indian lady who married -- several times -- into the upper strata of British society] who thought my ambitions were a bit low-key – when I wanted to be a nurse, she said I should be a doctor; when I wanted to learn Italian, she asked what was wrong with Arabic or Chinese; when I said I might be a journalist, she wondered what on earth was wrong with me – what about the Nobel for literature? She was not remotely pushy – I don’t recall her ever looking over my homework – but she had absolute faith in me.

I don’t ever look at my own children’s homework either (in some circles this is akin to child abuse) because they are perfectly intelligent teenagers who don’t need their mummy to help with commas or write their essays for them on the sly, and I have absolute faith in them. They spend a lot of time just sort of hanging out. No doubt they could be honing their intellects instead of going to see bands or drawing cartoons. But they are their own creatures, for better or worse – not some tragic experiment in creating the version of myself that I’d have liked to be.

Everyone wants the best for their children, whether they are pushy parents or the more shambolic kind. I may be completely allergic to pushiness, but I don’t deny that it has its advantages. Where it fails is in creating confident, relaxed, well-rounded people who are socially at ease wherever they may land. Which is to say, happy people. Tell your children to aim high and let them get on with it.


The writer above is India Knight. Her mother was certainly a clever lady. The Christian name "India" is the sort of name one does find in British upper class circles but could also be portrayed as a frank admission of her Indian origins. The daughter is similarly clever (as one would expect from someone who writes regularly for "The Times"). Her surname "Knight" is adopted from one of her eminent stepfathers. I do not mean to mock the lady, however. Her devotion to her severely handicapped child shows great character. I actually admire how she has made her way so well in British society.

Australia: No mercy even for the littlies

Fat phobics want to harass 3-year-olds

COMPULSORY health checks at daycare centres will be considered to target Queensland's spiralling obesity epidemic, Health Minister Stephen Robertson says. The measure is one being considered by the State Government as it targets preventative lifestyle diseases - smoking, obesity, alcohol and sun exposure - which are clogging the state's health care system and costing almost $5 million in funding annually.

Mr Robertson said details on how such a plan would be carried out had not yet been discussed but it was hoped parents could be given information about warning signs of bad health in their children. "We haven't decided how we're going to provide for greater screening of our young people," he said today. "I want to look at a range of options but compulsion should always be the last measure that you look at. "Education is always preferred but I want to look at the best ways to get these messages through and change some unfortunate behaviours."

He said Queensland had some of the nation's highest rates of obesity, smoking and sun exposure and individuals had to start taking responsibility. The Government had set the target of making Queensland the healthiest state, he said. But it could not "sit down with families on a Friday night when they watch the footy and order the pizza".

Mr Robertson said it was "frightening" how many children were being affected by the avoidable and chronic disease Type 2 diabetes because of bad diets and inactive lifestyles. "That's a terrible indictment on us as a community and we need to take some drastic steps to turn that around," he said. But the Health Minister said he disagreed with another suggestion put forward of a user-pays health system for the obese.


6 October, 2008

Researchers explore amnesia, sex link


Growing evidence suggests a puzzling relationship between sexual intercourse and a temporary amnesia that occasionally ensues, researchers say. In a new study, doctors at the University Hospital of Puerta de Hierro, Spain, described six such cases, involving men and women between 42 and 60 years of age, that passed through their institution.

The precise mechanisms behind the sex-amnesia link "are unknown," they wrote, describing the cases in the Sept. 1630 issue of the Spanish-language research journal Revista de Neurologia. But a relation between the two occurrences "appears increasingly more often in the literature. We draw attention to the need to take sexual activity into account" as a possible cause for the disorder.

The amnesia usually goes away within a few hours, so "reassurance, based on clear diagnosis, is the most important treatment," wrote A.J. Larner of the Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Liverpool, U.K., in a study published in the February issue of the Journal of Sexual Medicine.

The form of amnesia in question is called transient global amnesia. It is defined as a passing episode of short-term memory loss without other signs or symptoms of neurological impairment. Patients are unable to absorb any new information during the episodes, and sometimes temporarily forget some of the past as well.

The patients seen at the University Hospital -- four men and two women -- were brought there about 30 minutes to two hours after having sex, the physicians wrote. Their amnesias lasted from two to six hours, during which the patients displayed symptoms such as asking the same questions repeatedly despite having received answers.

Many other causes behind transient global amnesia have been described, the researchers wrote, including pain, anxiety, changes in temperature, exercise, diagnostic testing and long-distance flights. The first published medical reports of a sex/amnesia link came in 1979, said the Spanish researchers; a few dozen additional cases have been described since then. The steadily building number, they wrote, "makes one suppose that it is not as uncommon as generally believed."

Larner wrote that the amnesias probably are due to a disruption of blood flow in the brain, but more precise explanations have been lacking. The Spanish researchers noted that in four of the six cases they studied, patients suffered from high cholesterol, high blood pressure or both. Researchers with the University of Genoa, Italy, suggested in the October 2003 issue of the journal Neurological Sciences that in two cases they had studied, the popular erectile-dysfunction drug Sildenafil, or Viagra, may have been involved. The drug works by expanding blood vessels.


Australia: Fatties to pay for own medical care

Obese people in Queensland may have to pay for their own healthcare under a State Government plan as the annual cost of treating preventable diseases hits $5 billion. Queensland's health system spends almost $5 billion a year treating preventable medical conditions caused by obesity, smoking, alcohol and sun exposure.

Alarming new Queensland Government figures reveal so-called "lifestyle diseases" also cost the Queensland economy a further $22 billion in lost productivity and social factors, including lost earnings and the cost to carers. The cost of treating these preventable conditions will wipe out 57 per cent of the state's record $8.35 billion health budget for 2008-2009.

The Government says enough is enough and it is time for individuals to take more responsibility for their health. Conservatives in the State Government have put forward a plan that includes a user-pays health system for the obese. Smokers are already targeted through a "Fit 4 Surgery" campaign, which requires them to quit the habit before being treated. It's also considering compulsory health checks for three and four-year-olds at childcare centres around the state.

The plan is to spot any signs of chronic disease early and provide advice to parents. "We're facing a tsunami of chronic disease in the coming years, thanks to lifestyle changes and our rapidly ageing population," Queensland Health Minister Stephen Robertson said.

"Queenslanders need to realise they face an increasing financial burden from preventable chronic diseases," Mr Robertson said. "If Queensland continues its current rates of population growth, economic growth and public health spending, by 2042 the entire state budget will be consumed by health," he said. "That's why we need to tackle this upsurge in chronic disease before it overwhelms us."

Mr Robertson said preventative health care was "absolutely" the responsibility of individuals, as much as government.


5 October, 2008

Live from the obesity crisis ground zero: Your fearless correspondent embedded in Rotherham disguises himself as a banana to meet our Minister of Food

By British humourist, Giles Coren. I laughed as soon as I saw who was writing this piece. I enjoy him as much as I enjoyed his late father (Alan Coren) in the now sadly vanished "Punch" magazine. I am so glad that the Coren humour seems to be hereditary. You may have to "get" British humour to be amused as I am, however. He's utterly crazy! It is, of course satire

Compared with all the other columns you will have read this week, this one may come as a bit of a surprise. Indeed, it may well be unique as a media entity, tout court, in not having been constructed from the floor of the Conservative Party conference, the US election campaign trail, or the New York Stock Exchange.

Astounding though it may seem, I have not been out sneaking around the lavatories of the International Conference Centre in Birmingham to get a real sense of how many Tory delegates wash their hands after widdling (in order to bring my own special brand of wit and insight to the conference coverage), nor have I been interviewing bagel vendors on Wall Street so as to create colourful prose about how declining pretzel sales presage fiscal Armageddon.

I am not writing this on a laptop from my seat on Barack Obama's plane, only seven rows behind the man himself, from where I am able almost to see the actual ears of the man who may become the first black US president - thus giving my prose added urgency and weight - nor am I reporting live from the McCain Oven Chips HQ in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, whence I can bring you a hilarious sideways look at the US election through the eyes of the frozen potato people who coincidentally share the name of one of the candidates (a candidate who, funnily enough, looks just like a potato, except with smaller eyes).

Unique among columnists this week, I am not “on the ground” anywhere at all (isn't it marvellous how the self-aggrandising locational tics of the war correspondent have sneaked into the general reporter's argot?), I am just sitting here, poking through the newspapers in search of something that can be written about from a suburban desk in the weary gap between breakfast and lunch - anything but the US election, the financial crisis and the Tory conference.

Hang on, is that the phone? Rats. That was the new Saturday editor of The Times. She says that Jamie Oliver was mean about fat people in Rotherham in a television programme on Tuesday. He's set up some sort of Ministry of Food and she wants me to get down there pronto and sketch the scene on the, er, ground.

Rotherham, October 3, 16.43 BST

Here at obesity crisis ground zero the air is thick with the smell of saturated fat burning on dirty griddles. I'm in Rotherham, which I think is in Scotland somewhere. Anyway the people are enormous and talk funny and it's cold.

I'm here to get a real sense of Food Minister Jamie Oliver's campaign to do something excellent relating to food, make people thinner or less spotty or something, and the best way, as we know, is to embed oneself on the ground and just get a real flavour of...Bang!

None of us knows what that explosion was, but I have taken cover under a table with all the other journalists while we wait for the all-clear from the security forces. My heart is going like the clappers, largely because I have done nothing but stand around drinking bad filter coffee for the past four hours. Many of us are now copulating furiously in a bizarre response to the feeling that this may be our last hour on Earth.

17.36 BST

The all-clear has been sounded. Apparently the explosion was down to a deprived fat kid blowing up a Monster Munch bag for larks. This is a sad, forgotten corner of the world and such cynical pranks are what pass for fun around here. But you should have seen the kid: three tons if he was a stone. One of those grotesque little porkers with a great big, pink head so squishy that his eyes looked like someone had poked them into Play-Doh with a screwdriver. His hair was shaved in a number one crop because these people are so poor that they cannot afford scissors, and he wore a baggy grey tracksuit that made him look like a snowman on the melt.

Jamie Oliver said of the diet here in Rotherham: “I've been to Soweto and I've seen Aids orphans eating better than that.” And I can see his point. This kid was way more disgusting to look at than those African babies with the balloony stomachs and the flies in their eyes.

18.07 BST

Like Jamie Oliver, I've seen the ravages wreaked on their people by monsters such as Richard Mugabe and Goran Ivanisevic, but even I was unprepared for what I saw when benefit-scrounging single mum Natasha opened the bottom drawer of her fridge: chocolate bars and sweets!

It was horrific. Where does she keep the frisee? Ha ha. No, she's working class. She doesn't eat lettuce. According to one “insider” (actually it was the cab driver who took me from the airport, we proper sketchwriters always put in a bit about what the cab driver said; he's usually the only person we talk to apart from the hooker in the hotel bar), she feeds her children kebabs and chips every day instead of making fresh polenta and stuff. Which even Richard Mugabe doesn't do.

19.03 BST

This is hard. One of Jamie's producers comes in with a special “no-bread sandwich”, and a half a dozen locals - so fat you could render them down and grease the wheels of commerce for a century - gather round to poke and touch like people in the Amazon when they see a white person, such as Kate Adie or someone. “It's from Pret A Manger in London,” says the girl. “It's carb-free and helps me stay thin enough to hold on to my job in television.”

The local people - so fat you wonder if they'll ever drop below $100 a barrel again - look baffled. “Job?”, they mouth. “What's a job?” It's so sad. Now that they've closed the pits, these people haven't even got ponies to eat.

19.57 BST

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Rotherham” - if you'll forgive my paraphrasing of Thomas Coleridge. We colour writers always quote a poem at this stage to lend our vision a bit of heart. No, but seriously, this is the town where those mums pushed pies and chips under the school fence when Jamie was trying to make their children eat healthy food in his last show. Bombing is too good for them. They're so fat that they're actually wearing out the ground so fast that by 2035, according to Jamie's researchers, Rotherham will be 1,000ft below sea-level.

20.09 BST

Finally, the great man himself, James Fitzgerald Millhouse Oliver, arrives, ten hours late, in a motorcade, flanked by armoured elephants, no, wait, those are local security guards. The other journalists gather round, but your correspondent is more original than that. I disguise myself as a banana (the first time I have gone native since I reported from Shepherds Bush in a full burka on what it was like to be constantly mistaken for John Simpson) and press through the throng.

Mistaking me for a harmless piece of fruit, Jamie comes over to say hello (it is the first piece of fruit he has seen in Rotherham). And guess what? He's actually quite fat. Ha ha! Talk about irony.

This is Giles Coren, for The Times, on the ground in Rotherham.

And it is indeed from The Times -- a top-quality newspaper that also manages to be a treasure-trove of British humour. British writers seem to be able to put an amusing spin on almost anything

4 October, 2008


Does that sound a bit crass? It is in fact just a plain English translation of the study below

Ethnic Variations in Mammographic Density: A British Multiethnic Longitudinal Study

By Valerie A. McCormack et al

It is not known whether the 20-30% lower breast cancer incidence rates in first-generation South Asian and Afro-Caribbean women relative to Caucasian women in the United Kingdom are reflected in mammographic density. The authors conducted a United Kingdom population-based multiethnic study of mammographic density at ages 50-64 years in 645 women. Data on breast cancer risk factors were obtained using a questionnaire/telephone interview. Threshold percent density was assessed on 5,277 digitized mammograms taken in 1995-2004 and was analyzed using multilevel models. Both ethnic minorities were characterized by more protective breast cancer risk factor distributions than Caucasians, such as later menarche, shorter stature, higher parity, earlier age at first birth, and less use of hormone therapy, but they had a higher mean body mass index; the last four factors were associated with lower mammographic density. Age-adjusted percent mammographic densities in Afro-Caribbeans and South Asians were 5.6% (95% confidence interval (CI): 3.5, 7.5) and 5.9% (95% CI: 3.6, 8.0) lower, respectively, than in Caucasians. Lower densities were partly attributed to higher body mass index, less use of hormone therapy, and a protective reproductive history, but these factors did not account entirely for ethnic differences, since fully adjusted mean densities were 1.3% (95% CI: -1.3, 3.7) and 3.8% (95% CI: 1.1, 6.3) lower, respectively. Ethnic differences in mammographic density are consistent with those for breast cancer risk.

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(4):412-421


This seems to be a generally well-conducted study but the usual doubts about inferences have to be raised. Does it just show that healthier people exercise more? Could be

Daily Total Physical Activity Level and Total Cancer Risk in Men and Women: Results from a Large-scale Population-based Cohort Study in Japan

By Manami Inoue et al.

The impact of total physical activity level on cancer risk has not been fully clarified, particularly in non-Western, relatively lean populations. The authors prospectively examined the association between daily total physical activity (using a metabolic equivalents/day score) and subsequent cancer risk in the Japan Public Health Center-based Prospective Study. A total of 79,771 general-population Japanese men and women aged 45-74 years who responded to a questionnaire in 1995-1999 were followed for total cancer incidence (4,334 cases) through 2004. Compared with subjects in the lowest quartile, increased daily physical activity was associated with a significantly decreased risk of cancer in both sexes. In men, hazard ratios for the second, third, and highest quartiles were 1.00 (95% confidence interval (CI): 0.90, 1.11), 0.96 (95% CI: 0.86, 1.07), and 0.87 (95% CI: 0.78, 0.96), respectively (p for trend = 0.005); in women, hazard ratios were 0.93 (95% CI: 0.82, 1.05), 0.84 (95% CI: 0.73, 0.96), and 0.84 (95% CI: 0.73, 0.97), respectively (p for trend = 0.007). The decreased risk was more clearly observed in women than in men, especially among the elderly and those who regularly engaged in leisure-time sports or physical exercise. By site, decreased risks were observed for cancers of the colon, liver, and pancreas in men and for cancer of the stomach in women. Increased daily physical activity may be beneficial in preventing cancer in a relatively lean population.

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(4):391-403

3 October, 2008


The critique below is based on Bayesian statistics, which are fine in theory but difficult in application. Nonetheless, there is little to question in what they say below about the excessive credence given to statistical significance in medical research -- or in psychological research, for that matter.

I myself favour a much simpler approach but one that will endear me to very few epidemiologists. I favour a survey-wise rather than a contrast-wise error-rate approach. That sounds more profound than it is. I am simply saying that we should have much higher standards for significance when an observed relationship is just one of many fished out of a large matrix of correlations: "Data dredging", as it is called. Most of what is reported in the epidemiological literature would fall to non-significance if that approach were applied.

Let me give a rough example: A survey that obtained data on 100 variables would not be terribly unusual. But such a survey would give rise to nearly 5000 (100 x 100 /2) unique relationships (correlations). But the conventional level of probablity for accepting significance is 5%. So on chance alone nearly 250 (5%) of those 5000 correlations would rate as "significant". And lots of such correlations have been reported as "significant" in the epidemiological literature. Random associations have been reported as if they tell use something!

Sadly, that malpractice is most unlikely to change. Given the relatively few large databases available, it is part and parcel of epidemiology, in fact. Meta-analyses (looking at a whole lot of different research reports together) have some potential to overcome the problem but I won't depress people any further by going into the large problems of meta-analyses. I can point to some shocking ones!

I myself was rather subject to similar temptations in my published research. I often administered large surveys and based quite a few articles on correlations observed in that single survey. The sort of relationships that I routinely dismissed as too weak to enable any positive inferences would however have been greeted with something approaching a Nobel prize had they been observed in epidemiological research. I used to accuse my fellow psychologists of making mountains out of molehills but in medical research they routinely make mountains out of pimples!
Effect of Formal Statistical Significance on the Credibility of Observational Associations

John P. A. Ioannidis

The author evaluated the implications of nominal statistical significance for changing the credibility of null versus alternative hypotheses across a large number of observational associations for which formal statistical significance (p < 0.05) was claimed. Calculation of the Bayes factor (B) under different assumptions was performed on 272 observational associations published in 2004–2005 and a data set of 50 meta-analyses on gene-disease associations (752 studies) for which statistically significant associations had been claimed (p < 0.05). Depending on the formulation of the prior, statistically significant results offered less than strong support to the credibility (B > 0.10) for 54–77% of the 272 epidemiologic associations for diverse risk factors and 44–70% of the 50 associations from genetic meta-analyses. Sometimes nominally statistically significant results even decreased the credibility of the probed association in comparison with what was thought before the study was conducted. Five of six meta-analyses with less than substantial support (B > 0.032) lost their nominal statistical significance in a subsequent (more recent) meta-analysis, while this did not occur in any of seven meta-analyses with decisive support (B < 0.01). In these large data sets of observational associations, formal statistical significance alone failed to increase much the credibility of many postulated associations. Bayes factors may be used routinely to interpret "significant" associations.

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(4):374-383

Childhood obesity a myth, say Australian food advertisers

How pesky of them to look at the evidence for popular claims!

The advertising industry has denied there is any link between food advertising and childhood obesity. At a federal Parliamentary inquiry into obesity in Australia held in Brisbane today, MPs were also told that advertising standards prohibited food being advertised as healthy in Australia. Australian Association of National Advertisers executive director Collin Segelov claimed CSIRO research, yet to be released, would show no significant increase in childhood obesity since the last study in 1995. "I'm not only arguing that advertising is not the cause of a childhood obesity epidemic, but that there is no epidemic," Mr Segelov said.

"The incidence of obesity amongst schoolchildren in Australia has shown no significant increase since 1995 [The findings in the USA are similar]. "This makes the notion of an obesity epidemic, as continually put forward by academic activists and others - quite irresponsibly in my opinion - quite misleading, if not an utter nonsense." Mr Segelov said food advertisers remained committed to a broader, more holistic approach to obesity.

Foundation for Advertising Research founder Glen Wiggs said an Australian food standard specifically forbade the use of the word "healthy" in food product advertising. Professor Wiggs said the repeal of the standard had been delayed again and again, but was now scheduled for April next year. He told AAP that research from England indicated advertising only affected food choices by children in a modest way, and their parents held far more sway. Advertising was an easy and cheap research target for authorities, but very little research was undertaken into how the home affected food choices, he said. "Children tend to imitate their parents," Prof Wiggs said.

Mr Segelov told the committee that once the food standard that currently prohibits the labelling of a Tasmanian apple as healthy was dropped, it would be imperative for advertisers to promote healthy products. He said television advertising bans would not work because advertisers would merely switch platforms, and children were already moving from television to other forms of "screen time" - the internet and pay TV.

Comment is being sought from the federal Department of Health and Ageing on the latest nutrition survey.


2 October, 2008


But not unhealthy kids or dumber kids. Isn't reality nasty? It keeps upsetting people's nice simple theories. Are you surprised that you have not heard of this one from the media?

The study below was notable for the high degree of statistical control used so is not readily criticized

Maternal Smoking during Pregnancy and Children's Cognitive and Physical Development: A Causal Risk Factor?

By Stephen E. Gilman et al.

There remains considerable debate regarding the effects of maternal smoking during pregnancy on children's growth and development. Evidence that exposure to maternal smoking during pregnancy is associated with numerous adverse outcomes is contradicted by research suggesting that these associations are spurious. The authors investigated the relation between maternal smoking during pregnancy and 14 developmental outcomes of children from birth through age 7 years, using data from the Collaborative Perinatal Project (1959-1974; n = 52,919). In addition to adjusting for potential confounders measured contemporaneously with maternal smoking, the authors fitted conditional fixed-effects models among siblings that controlled for unmeasured confounders. Results from the conditional analyses indicated a birth weight difference of -85.63 g associated with smoking of ~20 cigarettes daily during pregnancy (95% confidence interval: -131.91, -39.34) and 2.73 times' higher odds of being overweight at age 7 years (95% confidence interval: 1.30, 5.71). However, the associations between maternal smoking and 12 other outcomes studied (including Apgar score, intelligence, academic achievement, conduct problems, and asthma) were entirely eliminated after adjustment for measured and unmeasured confounders. The authors conclude that the hypothesized effects of maternal smoking during pregnancy on these outcomes either are not present or are not distinguishable from a broader range of familial factors associated with maternal smoking.

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(5):522-531


The authors below are far too polite to say that but that is what their findings show. Dreadful of me to put it so bluntly, isn't it?

Use of Multiple Imputation in the Epidemiologic Literature

By Mark A. Klebanoff and Stephen R. Cole

The authors attempted to catalog the use of procedures to impute missing data in the epidemiologic literature and to determine the degree to which imputed results differed in practice from unimputed results. The full text of articles published in 2005 and 2006 in four leading epidemiologic journals was searched for the text imput. Sixteen articles utilizing multiple imputation, inverse probability weighting, or the expectation-maximization algorithm to impute missing data were found. The small number of relevant manuscripts and diversity of detail provided precluded systematic analysis of the use of imputation procedures. To form a bridge between current and future practice, the authors suggest details that should be included in articles that utilize these procedures

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(4):355-357

1 October, 2008

ARE TALLER PEOPLE HEALTHIER? And the role of calorie restriction

The study below found that taller people are healthier but seem not to realize that this is a fairly common finding. They attribute their findings to nutrition -- arguing that food shortage stunts growth -- which it does. So they say that the tall women in their Korean sample are healthier because they were better nourished while growing up.

I should take the time to look up the studies but the height/health correlation has also been found in Western countries where there are little or no food shortages so I think a genetic explanation is more likely to be the real explanation for their findings. Calorie restriction in fact seems generally to lead to LONGER life so using it to explain SHORTER life is drawing a long bow

Adult Height and the Risk of Mortality in South Korean Women

By Yun-Mi Song and Joohon Sung

To evaluate the association between adult height as a surrogate marker of childhood circumstances and the risk of mortality, 344,519 South Korean women aged 40-64 years categorized into six height groups were prospectively followed for mortality between 1994 and 2004. In Cox proportional hazards regression with adjustment for behavioral and biologic risk factors, there was an inverse association between height and total mortality; mortality risk decreased 7% for each 5-cm increment in height. The association did not materially change after adjustment for behavioral factors and adulthood socioeconomic factors or after full adjustment for all available covariates. When height-associated risks of death from specific causes were evaluated in a fully adjusted analysis, a 5-cm increment in height was associated with lower risks of death from respiratory diseases, stroke, diabetes mellitus, and external causes (hazard ratios were 0.84 (95% confidence interval (CI): 0.74, 0.96), 0.84 (95% CI: 0.80, 0.88), 0.87 (95% CI: 0.80, 0.96), and 0.88 (95% CI: 0.83, 0.94), respectively) and with a higher risk of death from cancer (hazard ratio = 1.05, 95% CI: 1.02, 1.09). Given that adult height reflects early-life conditions, the independent associations between height and mortality from all causes and specific causes support the view that early-life circumstances significantly influence health outcomes in adulthood.

American Journal of Epidemiology 2008 168(5):497-505

Social class dictates cancer risk

Some cancers are more common in the rich and some are more common in the poor. Rather good evidence that there are tradeoffs whatever you do. Reducing one risk may expose you to another, different, risk

Cervical and lung cancer are more common in poor people while rates of breast cancer and melanoma are higher in the wealthy. A detailed analysis of the incidence of these four different kinds of cancer, carried out on more than 300,000 English cancer patients and published today in the open access journal BMC Cancer, describes the effects of socioeconomic group, region and age.

Lorraine Shack at the North West Cancer Intelligence Service and a team of researchers working on behalf of the United Kingdom Association of Cancer Registries used information from all eight English cancer registries from 1998 to 2003. They compared the rates of these four cancers with variations in deprivation. The data were further categorised by the person's age.

As Shack describes, "We looked at all invasive cases of lung cancer, cervical cancer, malignant melanoma of the skin and female breast cancer. The deprivation statistics were based on average levels of socioeconomic status in the patient's local area."

Malignant melanoma and breast cancer were most common in more affluent groups. According to the authors, the variations in breast cancer rates may be because "Women from affluent socioeconomic groups are more likely to have their first child at a later age, have fewer children in their lifetime and take hormone replacement therapy. Each of these factors is associated with a slightly higher incidence of breast cancer."

The higher incidence of melanoma in the more wealthy groups may be partially explained by holidays abroad and the resulting exposure to UV. However, the authors highlight that sun bed use may have an impact across all socioeconomic groups, particularly in the young, "It is difficult to estimate sun bed use as most salons are private and poorly regulated. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that sun bed use is increasing in England, particularly for teenagers and young adults. Sun parlours tend to be clustered in areas of deprivation."

The study also found that the highest rates of lung and cervical cancer occurred in the most deprived groups. The higher incidence of lung cancer in the deprived groups is squarely blamed on smoking, "Smoking is strongly associated with socioeconomic status and over 80% of lung cancer cases can be estimated to be attributable to smoking."

Worryingly, the authors found the greatest difference in lung cancer rates between socioeconomic groups in people under the age of 65, possibly suggesting that the more deprived groups continue to smoke while the wealthier groups have quit smoking.

The study provides further evidence of the link between wealth and cancer risk. Research such as this has a crucial role to play in tailoring government screening programmes, and other preventative measures, to local needs.