Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Wacky idea

I expected the date of the article below to be April 1, but it wasn't! There are any number of isotopes. Are they all the same? If this were serious science at least the class of isotopes would have been identified. As it is, it looks like just another bit of pseudo-scientific health-nuttery

Indulging in an isotope-enhanced steak or chicken fillet every now and again could add as much as 10 years to your life. Scientists have shown for the first time that food enriched with natural isotopes builds bodily components that are more resistant to the processes of ageing. The concept has been demonstrated in worms and researchers hope that the same concept can help extend human life and reduce the risk of cancer and other diseases of ageing, reports Marina Murphy in Chemistry & Industry, the magazine of the SCI.

A team led by Mikhail Shchepinov, formerly of Oxford University, fed nematode worms nutrients reinforced with natural isotopes (naturally occurring atomic variations of elements). In initial experiments, worms' life spans were extended by 10%, which, with humans expected to routinely coast close to the centenary, could add a further 10 years to human life.

Food enhanced with isotopes is thought to produce bodily constituents and DNA more resistant to detrimental processes, like free radical attack. The isotopes replace atoms in susceptible bonds making these bonds stronger. 'Because these bonds are so much more stable, it should be possible to slow down the process of oxidation and ageing,' Shchepinov says.

The isotopes could be used in animal feed so that humans could get the "age-defying" isotopes indirectly in steaks or chicken fillets, for example, rather than eating chemically enhanced products themselves. Shchepinov says an occasional top-up would be sufficient to have a beneficial effect.

Ageing experts are impressed with the isotopic approach. Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge-based gerontologist, says it could be very relevant to the rates of several chemical and enzymatic processes relevant to ageing 'It is a highly novel idea,' he says. 'But it remains to be seen whether it can be the source of practicable therapies, but it is a prospect that certainly cannot be ruled out.'

Charles Cantor, a professor of biomechanical engineering at Boston University, said: 'Preliminary data indicates that this approach can potentially increase lifespan without adverse side effects. If this is borne out by further experiments the implications are profound.'

Isotopes could also be used in pet food or as a means to protect workers or soldiers from radiation. Deuterium, a natural isotope of hydrogen (with one proton and on neutron rather than just one proton) could be used routinely. Previous successes in extending lifespan have involved withdrawing food to the point of near starvation, a process called caloric restriction.


Plastic panic

It started innocently. A mother on my local parenting email list here in New York asked a question about weaning her baby from the pacifier. Moms and dads in my neck of the woods are a good natured lot and soon began a lively exchange of war stories, of pacifiers lost on long haul flights, of binkies exchanged for coins by the `pacifier fairy' and how the dentist says they rarely affect teeth, so one shouldn't worry. And then someone, half in jest, mentioned that she had read somewhere that pacifiers cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and wasn't that just absurd? Debate and speculations ensued: `It was the plastic ones'; `No, the rubber ones'; `They don't make that kind any more'; `What about the silicon ones?'; `Actually the real threat is plastic baby bottles'.

The story emerged in the form of cut-and-paste quotations with links to articles on the internet and went something like this: When plastic containers are heated, they break down, leaching a dangerous toxic chemical into the foods stored in them. The nasty chemical, bisphenol-A (BPA), supposedly mimics the effects of the hormone estrogen causing cancers, impaired immune function, premature puberty, obesity, diabetes and ADHD.

By coincidence a new study from the Environmental California Research and Policy Center purported to show that the levels of BPA leaching from baby bottles were far higher than previously reported and recommended 11 `simple and easy changes' to help parents avoid exposing their children to toxic chemicals, including: avoiding canned goods and foods wrapped in plastics, buying aluminium or stainless steel sippy cups, selecting only plastics displaying the numbers one, two or five in the triangular recycling symbol on their undersides, while avoiding those displaying the number three (number four was not mentioned) and never allowing children to put plastic toys in their mouths.

And then things got a little torturous. It seems there are only a few local places that sell aluminium-lined sippy cups. Glass baby bottles, though aesthetically pleasing, are heavy and breakable. And it's all a bit pricey. One woman got prepared to throw out every last plastic cup, plate and utensil. In the playground, parents joked nervously about the damage already sustained over months of wanton plastic gnawing. Scary stuff - if it was true. Except that the evidence was as flimsy as the wrapper on a juice box straw.

This particular scare traces its roots back to a 1998 study by Frederick von Saal, a researcher and environmental activist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. His work with mice exposed to low levels of BPA seemed to show side effects including the early onset of puberty in female mice and increased prostate weight in males.

The study caused some initial concern, but so far no other peer-reviewed study has been able to replicate von Saal's results. Scientists commissioned by the Food and Drug Administration, the European Community and the Japanese Ministry of Health have all tried and failed. Finally, last year, the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis released its report reviewing the studies of BPA and found that there is `no consistent affirmative evidence of low-dose BPA effects for any endpoint'. (2) Among the inconsistencies they pointed to were: the effects seen in mice don't occur in rats; effects seen in small numbers of mice aren't observed in studies of larger numbers of mice; no studies have been done on animals more closely related to human beings; human exposure to BPA is typically significantly lower than even the low levels used in lab experiments on rodents. Furthermore, they pointed out that while estrogen and BPA share some similar properties, they aren't exactly the same; large doses of the hormone estrogen, for instance, have been shown to cause cancer, while large doses of BPA do not.

You might think this information, coupled with the fact that many of today's parents used plastic containers throughout their own childhoods with no apparent ill effects would be reassuring enough. But parents don't get off that easily. `It's all about exposure over time', one mother explained. `There is no way, in our society, to completely protect ourselves or our children against the dangerous toxins in plastics, cleaning products, pesticides etc. So my attitude is: do what you can, but don't make yourself nuts.' And yet, the hyper-awareness of risk that has come to define parenting today seems uniquely suited to accomplish just that....

And while it might be tempting to label New Yorkers as the `most neurotic and obsessive parents in the world', as Manhattan gossip-mag did, anxieties like these are ubiquitous. In the past month alone, every major parenting magazine in the country ran a story about toxins in the environment. Mothering magazine, a publication all about `natural family living', regularly advises parents about the dangers of vaccines, ultrasounds, epidurals, pesticides, non-organic baby clothing and other products.

One mom told me: `I was just talking with a friend yesterday about the new studies about fish, which now say the advice to avoid it while pregnant (due to mercury) is wrong, and that children born to women who did not eat fish during pregnancy are at risk of lower IQ's! I'm one of those who avoided most fish during pregnancy. It really is crazy making!' ....

In the end, perhaps the best thing we can do is to accept that though we will love our children for all time, we can't keep them safe for all time. Nor should we feel obliged to try. To be a parent is to discover the world anew alongside our children. Whether they experience the world as something to be embraced or as a threatening place riddled with hidden dangers and risks depends on how we, the parents, approach it. That, at least is something all of us can control.



Just some problems with the "Obesity" war:

1). It tries to impose behavior change on everybody -- when most of those targeted are not obese and hence have no reason to change their behaviour. It is a form of punishing the innocent and the guilty alike. (It is also typical of Leftist thinking: Scorning the individual and capable of dealing with large groups only).

2). The longevity research all leads to the conclusion that it is people of MIDDLING weight who live longest -- not slim people. So the "epidemic" of obesity is in fact largely an "epidemic" of living longer.

3). It is total calorie intake that makes you fat -- not where you get your calories. Policies that attack only the source of the calories (e.g. "junk food") without addressing total calorie intake are hence pissing into the wind. People involuntarily deprived of their preferred calorie intake from one source are highly likely to seek and find their calories elsewhere.

4). So-called junk food is perfectly nutritious. A big Mac meal comprises meat, bread, salad and potatoes -- which is a mainstream Western diet. If that is bad then we are all in big trouble.

5). Food warriors demonize salt and fat. But we need a daily salt intake to counter salt-loss through perspiration and the research shows that people on salt-restricted diets die SOONER. And Eskimos eat huge amounts of fat with no apparent ill-effects. And the average home-cooked roast dinner has LOTS of fat. Will we ban roast dinners?

6). The foods restricted are often no more calorific than those permitted -- such as milk and fruit-juice drinks.

7). Tendency to weight is mostly genetic and is therefore not readily susceptible to voluntary behaviour change.

8). And when are we going to ban cheese? Cheese is a concentrated calorie bomb and has lots of that wicked animal fat in it too. Wouldn't we all be better off without it? And what about butter and margarine? They are just about pure fat. Surely they should be treated as contraband in kids' lunchboxes! [/sarcasm].

Trans fats:

For one summary of the weak science behind the "trans-fat" hysteria, see here. Trans fats have only a temporary effect on blood chemistry and the evidence of lasting harm from them is dubious. By taking extreme groups in trans fats intake, some weak association with coronary heart disease has at times been shown in some sub-populations but extreme group studies are inherently at risk of confounding with other factors and are intrinsically of little interest to the average person.