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Health Hell in a handcart

Scots politicians (warning, includes swearing)

If it didn’t mean moving away from family and friends, I’d move out of Scotland and go somewhere sunny. Seriously.

Mr Eugenides prints a story from the Mail on Sunday:

Scotland is set to become the first country in Europe to ban alcohol for under-21s as part of a radical shake-up of licensing laws. The controversial crackdown would also see all members of the public limited to only four alcoholic drinks per visit to a pub or club.

Presumably that four-drink limit doesn’t mean four bottles of wine.

As The Devil’s Kitchen puts it in his inimitable way:

I have been spending some time in Glasgow, a city in which you are not allowed to smoke inside public spaces and you are not allowed to drink outside in public spaces. And, from January, all pubs will have to adopt plastic containers instead of serving drinks in a glass. What the fuck is going on?

This country is leading the way in nanny-state, illiberal, totalitarian bullshit; it’s time to get the fuck out.

A bit later…

The daft glass ban has been shelved: it seems that after an “11th hour climbdown” by officials, the compulsory use of plastic glasses will only apply in venues open after midnight and in places with a history of “glassing” attacks.

And another thing…

It’s bad form to rant and rave without offering an alternative, so here’s mine: why don’t we take the radical step of, y’know, enforcing the laws we already have? Like the ones prohibiting the sale of alcohol to underage kids, or the ones about being drunk and disorderly in public, or the ones prohibiting the sale of booze to people who are completely and utterly pissed?

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Health Uncategorised

Science finally catches up with my lifestyle

Good news part one:

For many men, a finding by Oregon researchers sounds too good to be true: an ingredient in beer seems to help prevent prostate cancer, at least in lab experiments. The trouble is you’d theoretically have to drink about 17 beers a day for any potential benefit. And no one’s advising that.

Allow me to introduce good news part two:

Drinking coffee could reduce the risk of alcohol-related liver disease.

A US study of 125,580 men and women over 20 years found a 22% reduced risk of developing alcoholic cirrhosis for each cup of coffee drank per day.

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Health Uncategorised

Burns night

There I was: sitting in the pub, minding my own business, when my leg started to burn. I hadn’t dropped a cigarette on it (smoking ban, remember?), nobody was using a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on it, and it was safely esconced in a pair of jeans. Nevertheless, my leg was burning.

Off to the bogs I trotted, and sure enough, my leg *was* burning. A bit of skin on my thigh, roughly the size of a 50p piece, was showing all the signs of a pretty nasty sunburn – but it hadn’t been in the sun. It was, however, right next to my pocket. The pocket where I keep my burny things!

Actually, I don’t keep burny things in my pocket – just keys. So it had to be something on my keyring – either the little LED torch, or the glow in the dark tag I bought from The Register a few years ago (it’s radioactive, but El Reg promised that it’s perfectly safe – like the glow in the dark dials on a watch). Neither of them seemed to be hot, but when I took them off the keyring and got rid of them, the burning stopped.

I’ve still got the burn (and it definitely *is* a burn, not a scratch, not an insect bite, not chafing from an errant car key), but I’m none the wiser about the cause. Maybe it was acid leaking from the battery in the LED torch, or – more worryingly – maybe there is a hairline crack in the luminous tag, and it somehow managed to give me a radiation burn. It’s all very mysterious.

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Health Uncategorised

Arse malarkey

Ah, the things you find when you’re tidying up your hard disk. Back in 2002 I took the mickey out of various daft Web things for The Friday Thing, and while most of the sites I wrote about are long gone, some still survive – including this excellent cure for depression:

Web Celeb: Hiroyuki Nishigaki
Unlike most of our Web Celebs, Nishigaki’s Web site isnít the source of our mirth: we prefer the page on Amazon.com where you can buy his book. And no wonder: Nishigaki’s book promises to beat depression through the medium of anus constriction.

No, we’re not making this up. The book – How to Beat Depression: If You Constrict Anus 100 Times Everyday. Malarkey? or Effective Way? – exists, and it’s currently sitting at number 33,709 in Amazon’s sales chart.

Rather than paraphrase Nishigaki’s description of his tome, we’ll let the author speak for himself. “I think constricting anus 100 times and denting navel 100 times in succession everyday is effective to good-bye depression and take back youth,” he writes. “You can do so at a boring meeting or in a subway. I have known a 70-year-old man who has practiced it for 20 years. As a result, he has a good complexion and has grown 20 years younger. His eyes sparkle. He is full of vigor, happiness and joy. He has neither complained nor born a grudge under any circumstance. Furthermore, he can make #### three times in succession without drawing out.”

Yes, we’re wondering what #### means too. We think it might be something to do with sex. “He also can have burned a strong, beautiful fire within his abdomen,” writes Nishigaki. “It can burn out the dirty stickiness of his body, release his immaterial fiber or third attention, which has been confined to his stickiness. Then, he can shoot out his immaterial fiber or third attention to an object, concentrate on it and attain happy lucky feeling through the success of concentration.”

Amazingly, people have shelled out hard-earned cash on Nishigaki’s epic – and not all of them are pleased with their purchase. David Emory is far from happy. “I am afraid I must chime in and say that I didn’t find this book very helpful,” he writes. “It was recommended by my doctor, whom I now regard as somewhat of a quack. One of the more ludicrous claims the books makes is that constricting one’s anus _more_ than the 100 times per day recommended is not suggested and can lead to health problems. I can say with absolute assurance (pardon the pun… continuing) that constricting the anal muscles MANY more times than simply one hundred times daily has had no adverse effect on me whatsoever. In fact, I’m constricting it right now as I write this, and I’ve been doing it all day, almost non-stop. Certainly totalling upwards of 1000 times.”

Most readers’ comments are positive, though. “I just recieved this book not a week ago, and man! are my buns feeling great,” writes Will. “My life has been given a good jumpstart. I feel like the good old captian [sic] Buns O’ Steel himself!”

Nishigaki explains: “If you don’t know concentration, which gives you peculiar pleasure, your life looks like hell.” Or as reader Joshua Beall puts it, “You probably have to be a little warped to buy this book.”

Amazon link

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Health

Doctors attack NHS homeopathy

There’s a good letter in Today’s Times from doctors who urge NHS trusts to stop paying for alternative medicine. As Tim Worstall puts it:

If as and when double blind trials are done to show that “alternative” treatments work, they then stop being alternative and become conventional, evidence based medicine. Which is as it should be. If rich idiots (or even poor idiots) which to waste their money on healing crystals, let them do so. The rest of us can then have our tax money spent on crystals that actually work: like the lutetium oxide ones that are at the heart of an MRI scanner.

Sorry, I hit publish before adding this bit: I don’t have a problem with people going for homeopathy, but when the NHS can’t cope with conventional medicine – stuff with a proven effect – then the last thing trusts should be doing is paying for quackery. If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know of my own experiences with rationing: despite my GP agreeing that I needed an MRI scan and then back surgery, my local NHS trust wouldn’t fund the scan because my back injury wasn’t life threatening. I was lucky: thanks to generous relatives and a book deal I was able to scrape together the money to go private, and I’m largely okay now.  Had I stuck with the NHS, I’d still be crippled.

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Health Media

Journalists are bad for your health, again

As I’ve mentioned before, some of the health articles in magazines are wrong at best and dangerous at worst. The current issue of womens’ title R contains a particularly blatant example: under the banner headline “Is Salad Making You Fat?” it spends three pages singing the praises of the Novo Programme.

The Novo Programme is new and very scientific. You send off a sample of your blood for analysis – along with £350 – and the report comes back detailing the foods you should avoid. It is, of course, bullshit. Apparently we’re all intolerant of various foods, and particles of those foods whizz around the bloodstream playing merry hell with your immune system. This makes you fat.

Bulllllllllllllllllllllllllllllshiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!

The Novo Programme isn’t new at all; it’s a revised and rebranded version of the Nutron Diet, which pops up every few years under a new name. Which? Magazine investigated it back in 1994, and concluded that it’s a con: they sent in two samples and got two completely different sets of results, which was strange as both samples were from the same person and were drawn at the same time. More worryingly, the samples were from someone who actually had a serious allergy; the oh-so-scientific tests didn’t spot it in either sample.

What’s particularly galling about the article is that all the stuff about Novo/Nutron above took less than a minute to find in Google, and yet over three pages there wasn’t a single sentence rebutting the Novo Programme’s claims. There’s plenty of case studies, though, and they all go something like this:

I’ve tried all kinds of diets before and they didn’t work, but the Novo Programme did! The tests came back and I discovered that I can’t eat X, Y or Z! So I cut them out of my diet and blam! I lost weight!

Typically X will be something innocuous such as lettuce, but Y & Z will be processed/junk foods and chocolate. Oh, and the Novo Programme also forbids alcohol for the first two months. Do people lose weight? Of course they do, but it’s because they’re not eating junk food or drinking booze.

As I wrote back in December:

we want a quick fix, a miracle drug, a magic bullet. That such things rarely, if ever, exist doesn’t stop newspapers from levelling entire forests to bring us articles expounding the virtues of assorted quackeries.

This really bugs me. If I write something that isn’t up to scratch, the worst that can happen is you’ll find that a program can’t export in a particular file format or needs a bit more RAM than I’ve suggested. If health writers write bad articles, their advice can damage your health. And R isn’t the only offender: in the sunday papers last weekend, there was yet another article banging on about St John’s Wort that listed all its benefits but didn’t mention that it’s bad, bad news for pregnant women or anyone taking blood-thinning drugs such as Warfarin.

Let me put it another way: you’re getting more reliable health information from a balding, binge drinking, heavy smoking, lazy-arsed Scots techno-blogger than you’re getting from supposed health experts. Does that scare you? It scares the hell out of me.

Categories
Health Media

Journalists are bad for your health

The Guardian’s Bad Science Awards give a well-deserved kicking to some of the charlatans, snake oil salesmen and clueless hacks who fill page after page of our newspapers with health news that’s wrong in many cases and completely invented in others. But it also raises a serious point: journalists are bad for your health.

There are exceptions, of course – the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, for example, does a wonderful job of skewering health hackery in the aforementioned Bad Science column; some of the health correspondents for the more serious newspapers are incredibly knowledgeable – but in many cases, the people who write health stories and features for newspapers and consumer magazines have qualifications in writing, not in medicine. That’s why every day or so there’s a “cure” for cancer, and why every drug is a “miracle drug”.

Incidentally when I mention a product or health issue here, it’s not from a position of knowledge: I’m as clueless as, well, a youngish hack on a newspaper writing a story about the latest health fad, desperately trying to write 500 words on something they don’t really understand on a half-hour deadline.

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that if you go to the doctor he or she won’t tell you what you want to hear. We don’t want to be told to change our diets or our lifestyles, to take more exercise or to cut down on the things that are bad for us; we want a quick fix, a miracle drug, a magic bullet. That such things rarely, if ever, exist doesn’t stop newspapers from levelling entire forests to bring us articles expounding the virtues of assorted quackeries.

Before his death, John Diamond began writing Snake Oil, a broadside against some of the quackery that’s printed without qualification in newspapers. He recalls a visit to the GP when he was suffering “one of the routine bouts of vague and minor mental and physical distress which strike most men as they slip out of young manhood”:

What I needed was somebody to tell me to stop working fifteen-hour days and playing twelve-hour nights; what I wanted the doctor to say was “Ah! Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome! Take this linctus twice a day for a week and you’ll feel better again.”

In many cases, newspapers do just that: Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome makes a better story than “stop overdoing it, you silly sod”.

The list of examples is depressingly long. Faddy diet after faddy diet, alternative treatments that are presented as cast-iron cures when the evidence for their efficacy is questionable at best and entirely absent at worst, “breakthrough” after “breakthrough”. Soon afterwards, the backlash. For example, Goldacre writes:

The Daily Mail… made big meat of a scientific study proving that the Atkins diet worked. The study, which only lasted six months, showed that the Atkins group lost just 4% more weight than the control group. A month later the paper turned on the Atkins diet as a result of a passing comment from an expert who had worked for the carbohydrate-peddling Flour Marketing Board.

Do you remember the Zyban hype, and the Zyban scares? They’re fairly typical of how tabloid and middle-market newspapers report health stories.

First, the hype: a new miracle drug stops people smoking, by removing the desire to smoke. It’s amazingly effective! It’s the drug everyone who’s tried and failed to stop smoking has been waiting for! Hallelujah! Look at all of these case studies! Zyban changed their lives!

Such claims were largely lifted from press releases – and when Zyban was made available on the NHS, GPs were inundated. But as GPs tried to explain to their patients, Zyban wasn’t a miracle cure: its success rate was one in three – still double that of nicotine replacement therapy, but hardly miraculous – and for it to be effective, you also needed to take part in counselling sessions. There was also a serious risk of side-effects: where most drugs have side effects that affect 1 in 1,000,000 people, Zyban’s side-effects seemed to affect 1 in 1,000.

(I have first-hand knowledge of this: I took Zyban and it plunged me into the worst depression I’ve ever experienced.)

Soon afterwards, the backlash came. Zyban is dangerous! It’s killing people! It’s plunging Scottish hacks into severe depression! It doesn’t stop everyone from smoking!

True enough, some people did die while taking Zyban – by 2001, the toll was 18 people out of the 1,000,000 Brits taking the drug. Most of those deaths were unlikely to be connected to Zyban – people whose doctors urge them to stop smoking because of serious heart disease or other severe health problems, people with underlying and undiagnosed health problems and so on – and people also die while taking nicotine replacement therapy, or going cold turkey, or while merrily puffing away on a cigarette, or while living a virtuous, smoke-free life.

The truth about Zyban is that it’s neither a miracle cure nor a tool of the grim reaper: it’s a drug that in the right circumstances and with the right support and attitude, can improve someone’s chances of stopping smoking; its side effects can be nasty, and it should be prescribed with caution. But “new drug slightly improves your chances of binning the cigs, but you’ll still need determination and willpower; it isn’t suitable for everybody and you really need to talk to your GP about it” doesn’t make a good headline.

You can see the same trends in other health stories: the Atkins diet, MMR jabs, cosmetic or eye surgery, miracle homeopathic treatments, magic drugs that shift weight, improve your skin and make your hair glossy, and so on. The hype is usually based on press releases and the excitable claims of people with something to promote – self-appointed health gurus, pharmaceutical companies, beauty firms – and the backlash is the inevitable result of the products, services or treatments failing to live up to the ridiculous claims parroted from the original press release, or made by a well-meaning but clueless “expert”. Most of these stories are flatly contradicted soon afterwards: coffee kills you, coffee is good for you, no, coffee kills you, oops, we meant it’s good for you… and so on.

In many cases the problem is that the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is reading. Goldacre again:

The Daily Express [declared] in September that “recent research” has shown turmeric to be “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.

One of the most worrying developments is the way in which information about alternative treatments is often presented. If that information you’re given is wrong, it could kill you. As Goldacre explains:

Ah, Susan Clark of the Sunday Times (What’s the Alternative?), how I love her. This time she’s giving advice about which natural substances are safe to take with warfarin. First, she bemoans the dearth of research on the subject. Then she ignores the useful stuff in what we do know. “As a simple guideline, patients who are taking warfarin should avoid any natural remedies that have an action on the cardiovascular system.” I have no idea where that idea came from: but warfarin is famous for being interfered with by other drugs. St John’s Wort, for example, is a very popular drug – herb, collection of drugs in a plant, whatever – that reduces the plasma concentration of warfarin, along with phenytoin and rifampicin: that’s not because they’re active on the cardiovascular system, that’s probably because they interfere with liver enzymes, which means it makes them work harder. Those enzymes also break down warfarin, so if they’re working harder, they break down the warfarin more too, so there’s less of it around in your blood, and you’re more likely to have another nasty clot and die. Likewise, ginseng reduces the plasma levels of warfarin, so they shouldn’t be mixed either. And lots of others.

This is serious. He continues:

In a recent study, 2,600 patients on warfarin were sent a questionnaire on what alternative therapies they took: 1,360 responded (believe me, that’s a high response rate) and a whole 19.2% of those responders were, it turned out, taking one or more complementary therapies. Ninety-two per cent of them hadn’t thought to mention this to their doctor. Only 28.3% of all respondents had even thought that herbal medicines could interfere with prescription drugs. Because hardly anybody’s telling them.

That doesn’t mean that all of the claims made by alternative health “experts” are without merit; the problem is the way in which they’re reported. As Diamond points out:

Alternative medicine in Britain is a business with a turnover of billions of pounds and an establishment all of its own, a business which gets regular and often uncritical coverage in most of our popular papers and magazines, which regularly makes – or allows to be made on its behalf – remarkable claims for its abilities, which are often untested, let alone proven, which has no independent body monitoring its activities and which from time to time kills its customers as a direct result of the advice or actions of its practitioners.

Of course, traditional medicine often kills its customers too – and not just when your GP is Harold Shipman. But to become a GP or a hospital consultant you need to undergo years of intensive study followed by a tough apprenticeship, and you need to stay on top of developments in medicine.

A quick quiz for you. You’re ill – who do you ask for advice?

(a) a qualified medical professional who spends all day every day dealing with health issues
(b) a journalism graduate whose last assignment was comparing lipsticks
(c) a self-appointed health guru with a mail-order PhD
(d) Big Dave down the pub

I’m a simple soul: if my car’s knackered I call a mechanic, if the central heating packs up I’ll call a plumber, and if I want advice on interviewing techniques, subheadings or newspaper style I’ll ask a journalist. But if I’m sick, I’ll go to the doctor.