Thursday, March 31, 2011

The British town that's banned salt: Shakers taken off chip-shop counters and put out of sight

It began with the food police reducing the number of holes in salt shakers. Now they have gone a step further and removed the shakers altogether to hide them from view.

Fish-and-chip shops, cafes, restaurants, takeaways and curry houses will take salt containers off their counters and table tops under the latest push by a council to cut its residents’ salt consumption. Customers will have to ask staff specifically to hand over the shakers if they want to add salt to their meals.

Stockport council is one of the first councils in Greater Manchester to adopt the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ health initiative. It follows a series of initiatives to reduce the salt added to food by diners.

In 2008 town halls reduced the number of holes in salt shakers from the traditional 17 to five after research suggested this could cut the amount people sprinkle on their food by more than half. Councils ordered thousands of five-hole shakers – at taxpayers’ expense – and gave them away to chip shops and takeaways in their areas.

The scheme has been welcomed by health professionals and celebrity chefs including Paul Heathcote.

But Les Jones, Conservative group leader at Liberal-Democrat-controlled Stockport council, said the move was creating a ‘nanny town’. He said: ‘British people don’t like being ordered around. If you actually want people to use more salt, then tell them not to. It’s a foolish thing to do.’ It could proved to be counterproductive because people did not want to be treated like children, he added.

Diner Paul Edwards, 36, said: ‘It is preposterous. We should all be responsible for our own health – anything less means they’re treating us like idiots. They will be confiscating chocolate bars next.’


Yellow dye used to test Alzheimer's could hold key to living longer -- if you are a worm

A yellow dye used in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease could hold the key to a long and healthy life. Microscopic worms treated with the susbtance, which is used in labs around the world, lived up to 70 per cent longer than expected.

The dye, which is called Thioflavin T, also slowed the symptoms of dementia in worms bred to mimic aspects of Alzheimer’s, the journal Nature reports.

It is thought that it stops a brain protein called beta-amyloid from forming toxic clumps and helps levels of other key proteins stay in balance, something known as ‘protein homeostasis’.

The dye is used to detect Alzheimer’s from samples of brain tissue under the microscope. If it sticks to the beta-amyloid protein, that is a sign that the person had Alzheimer’s.

Professor Gordon Lithgow, of The Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California, said: ‘We have been looking for compounds that slow ageing for more than ten years and Thioflavin T is the best we have seen so far.’

Curcumin, the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, also showed promise as an anti-ageing drug.

Researcher Silvestre Alavez described the finding as ‘an exciting new avenue’ in the search for compounds that slow disease.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mother's milk not so good for you?

Not enough if you are a vegan, apparently

Two vegans who fed their 11-month-old daughter only mother's milk went on trial in northern France on Tuesday charged with neglect after their baby died suffering from vitamin deficiency.

Sergine and Joel Le Moaligou, whose vegan diet forbids consuming any animal product including eggs and cow's milk, called the emergency services in March 2008 after becoming worried about their baby Louise's listlessness.

When the ambulance arrived at their home in Saint-Maulvis, a small village 150 kilometres (90 miles) north of Paris, the baby was already dead. The ambulance workers called the police because the child was pale and thin, weighing 5.7 kilos (12.5 pounds) compared to an average eight kilos for her age.

The baby had only been fed on the milk of her mother, who was aged 37 at the time.

An autopsy showed that Louise was suffering from a vitamin A and B12 deficiency which experts say increases a child's sensitivity to infection and can be due to an unbalanced diet.

"The problem of vitamin B12 deficiency could be linked to the mother's diet," said Anne-Laure Sandretto, deputy prosecutor in the city of Amiens where the trial is taking place.

The couple has been charged with "neglect or food deprivation followed by death" and face up to 30 years in prison if convicted.


Tea helps you get slim -- if you are an Indian rat

Drinking tea could help you lose weight, new research has found - but the effects are cancelled out if you add milk. Scientists have discovered that tea contains high levels of compounds that help to reduce the amount of fat absorbed by the gut and can cut cholesterol. However proteins found in cows' milk neutralise this fat fighting ability.

New research has shown that the compounds, called theaflavins and thearubigins, prevent obesity when given to rats that were also on a high-fat diet.

The researchers now believe this could explain why people in Britain appear not to benefit from the healthy affects of tea despite being among the world's biggest consumers of the beverage.

Dr Devajit Borthakur, a scientist the Tea Research Association, in Jorhat, India, said: "When tea is taken with milk, theaflavins and thearubigins form complexes with the milk protein, which causes them to precipitate.

"It means that we don't get the health benefit from these compounds nor from milk protein. Therefore, it is always advised to take tea without milk."

Scientists at the research centre are now working on developing new breeds of tea with higher levels of these compounds, which are known as polyphenols, while also looking for ways of making them less susceptible to being neutralised by milk.

Their research has shown that low doses of ordinary tea extracts reduced the cholesterol levels in rats while also reducing the levels of fatty acids in the animal's blood stream.

A study by scientists in Japan, which is published this month in the journal of Nutrition, reveals that extracts from tea leaves inhibits the absorption of fat in the gut of rats being fed high fat diets.

These rats also had less fat tissue on their bodies and lower fat content in their livers.

Dr Hiroaki Yajima, a scientist with the Kirin Beverage Company in Japan who carried out the Japanese research, said: "Black tea extracts may prevent diet-induced obesity by inhibiting intestinal lipid absorption."

The fermentation process used to make "black" tea leaves, the most commonly drunk type of tea in the UK, has also been found to boost levels of these fat-fighting compounds compared to green tea, which is unfermented.

The research suggests that despite more attention being paid to the health benefits of green tea, black tea may have greater health-boosting properties which are masked by the tendency to drink it with milk.

British researchers have also found that the type of milk used in a cup of tea can impact on the level of the "healthy" compounds.

Dr Lisa Ryan, a senior lecturer in human nutrition at the Functional Food Centre at Oxford Brookes University, has discovered that skimmed milk decreases the levels of these active compounds far more than whole or semi-skimmed milk.

Her team looked at five different brands of black tea sold in the UK, measuring the activity of antioxidant and polyphenol compounds after adding different types of milk.

She said: "The fat content of milk seems to be buffering the antioxidants and polyphenols. Molecules called caseins bind to the polyphenols and lead to a decrease in their availability for the body and in skimmed milk this happens more.

"Although adding milk does impact on the availability of polyphenols, tea is still a significant source of them."


Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fish-eating Eskimos are healthier

So what is different about Eskimos who eat a more traditional (fish-heavy) diet? It could be more than diet. They might exercise more, for instance.

We have long known that traditional Eskimos are unusually healthy at any given age despite their huge fat consumption. And the recent study below confirms some of that. Saying that it is the Omega 3 component of their diet that causes the better health is however just another epidemiological speculation. Omega 3 might be a marker of heavy fish consumption and a more traditional lifestyle generally while not being the cause of anything. There may (or may not) be something in the fish diet that promotes health but what it is can only be speculated in the absence of a double-blind trial

An amusing note: Eskimos are now Inuit in Canada but are still Eskimos in Alaska! The follies of the human race are unending

A study of Yup'ik Eskimos in Alaska, who on average consume 20 times more omega-3 fats from fish than people in the lower 48 states, suggests that a high intake of these fats helps prevent obesity-related chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

The study, led by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and conducted in collaboration with the Center for Alaska Native Health Research at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, was published online March 23 in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

"Because Yup'ik Eskimos have a traditional diet that includes large amounts of fatty fish and have a prevalence of overweight or obesity that is similar to that of the general U.S. population, this offered a unique opportunity to study whether omega-3 fats change the association between obesity and chronic disease risk," said lead author Zeina Makhoul, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in the Cancer Prevention Program of the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.

The fats the researchers were interested in measuring were those found in salmon, sardines and other fatty fish: docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA.

Researchers analyzed data from a community-based study of 330 people living in the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta region of southwest Alaska, 70 percent of whom were overweight or obese. As expected, the researchers found that in participants with low blood levels of DHA and EPA, obesity strongly increased both blood triglycerides (a blood lipid abnormality) and C-reactive protein, or CRP (a measure of overall body inflammation). Elevated levels of triglycerides and CRP increase the risk of heart disease and, possibly, diabetes.

"These results mimic those found in populations living in the Lower 48 who have similarly low blood levels of EPA and DHA," said senior author Alan Kristal, Dr. P.H., a member of the Hutchinson Center's Public Health Sciences Division. "However, the new finding was that obesity did not increase these risk factors among study participants with high blood levels of omega-3 fats," he said.

"Interestingly, we found that obese persons with high blood levels of omega-3 fats had triglyceride and CRP concentrations that did not differ from those of normal-weight persons," Makhoul said. "It appeared that high intakes of omega-3-rich seafood protected Yup'ik Eskios from some of the harmful effects of obesity."

While Yup'ik Eskimos have overweight/obesity levels similar to those in the U.S. overall, their prevalence of type 2 diabetes is significantly lower -- 3.3 percent versus 7.7 percent. "While genetic, lifestyle and dietary factors may account for this difference," Makhoul said, "it is reasonable to ask, based on our findings, whether the lower prevalence of diabetes in this population might be attributed, at least in part, to their high consumption of omega-3-rich fish."

For the study, the participants provided blood samples and health information via in-person interviews and questionnaires. Diet was assessed by asking participants what they ate in the past 24 hours and asking them to keep a food log for three consecutive days. Height, weight, percent body fat, blood pressure and physical activity were also measured.

The median age of the participants was 45 and slightly more than half were female. The women were more likely than the men to be heavy, and body mass index (height-to-weight ratio) for all increased with age.

"Residents of Yup'ik villages joined this research because they were interested in their communities' health and were particularly concerned about the health effects of moving away from their traditional ways and adopting lifestyle patterns similar to those of residents in the lower 48 states," Makhoul said.

Based on these findings, should overweight and obese people concerned about their chronic disease risk start popping fish oil supplements or eat more fatty fish? "There are good reasons to increase intake of fatty fish, such as the well-established association of fish intake with reduced heart disease risk," Makhoul said. "But we have learned from many other studies that nutritional supplementation at very high doses is more often harmful than helpful."

Before making a public health recommendation, the researchers said that a randomized clinical trial is needed to test whether increasing omega-3 fat intake significantly reduces the effects of obesity on inflammation and blood triglycerides. "If the results of such a trial were positive, it would strongly suggest that omega-3 fats could help prevent obesity-related diseases such as heart disease and diabetes," she said.

The National Center for Research Resources, and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health funded the study, which also involved investigators from the University of California-Davis.


KFC's 1939kj Double Down Burger

Sounds good. I think I'll try one

OBESITY crisis? What obesity crisis? KFC will tomorrow unleash on the market its latest fat-and-sodium laden creation that has done away with the most basic of burger ingredients - the bun.

The Double Down instead has bacon, sauce and two slices of melted cheese between two pieces of deep fried chicken, The Daily Telegraph reported. The 212g original recipe version has 1939kj and 22.3g of fat, while the 232g Zinger version packs 35.7g of fat 2515kj, well more than a quarter of the average daily adult intake of 8700kj.

However, the kilojoule punch is much less than a McDonald's Double Quarter Pounder, which hits a mammoth 3560kj, while Macca's Grand Crispy Chicken is 2510kj.

Leading nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton labelled KFC's Double Down burger "horrifying". In the grips of an obesity epidemic, Australians did not need any more fattening burgers, Dr Stanton said. "Two-thirds of men and more than half of women are overweight [Overweight by what standard? A purely arbitrary standard]. We don't need more of these sorts of things. It's horrifying," Dr Stanton said.

Nutritionist Susie Burrell said it would take an hour of intense exercise to burn off the 1939kj. "It's gross over-consumption because it is above and beyond a regular burger," Ms Burrell said.

KFC said the Double Down should be enjoyed as an occasional treat and part of a balanced lifestyle.

A huge hit in the US and Canada with 15 million sold, the Double Down is being squarely marketed at men in the Down Under marketing campaign. Describing it as one of the "manliest" burgers available, KFC is marking the launch with a "Month of ManTime" in which Aussie men are encouraged to enjoy more time with their mates.


Monday, March 28, 2011

Nutty "science". Now walnuts are a "superfood"

Just the dangerous old antioxidant religion again

Eating just seven walnuts a day could protect your health, research suggests. The Christmas favourites contain almost twice as much antioxidants as any other popular nut, as well as fibre, protein, vitamins and minerals.

Study leader Dr Joe Vinson, from the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania, in the U.S., said: 'Walnuts rank above peanuts, almonds, pecans, pistachios and other nuts. 'A handful of walnuts contains almost twice as much antioxidants as an equivalent amount of any other commonly consumed nut. But unfortunately, people don't eat a lot of them. ‘This study suggests that consumers should eat more walnuts as part of a healthy diet.’

Dr Vinson said eating around seven walnuts a day was best to get the maximum health benefit. Including nuts in your regular diet can reduce the risk of heart disease, certain cancers, and type-2 diabetes, studies have suggested.

Scientists analysed the antioxidant content of nine different types of popular nut, including walnuts, almonds and peanuts.

Dr Vinson's team found that walnuts not only had more antioxidants than other nuts, but more powerful antioxidants. Those in walnuts were between two and 15 times more potent than vitamin E, renowned for its antioxidant properties.

The findings were presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society in Anaheim, California.

Dr Vinson said another advantage of walnuts was that they were usually eaten in their natural state, rather than being roasted. 'The heat from roasting nuts generally reduces the quality of the antioxidants,' he added.

Nuts account for barely 8% of the daily antioxidant consumption in an average person's diet.

Dr Vinson said many people were put off nuts because they were thought to be fattening. But he pointed out that nuts generally contain healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats rather than artery-clogging saturated fat. Eating nuts did not appear to cause weight gain and might even reduce over-eating by making people feel full.


Lost innovation means lost lives

For those with life-threatening diseases or painful chronic conditions, time is not on their side. When promising treatments languish waiting for approval in a bog of bureaucracy, the cost must be reckoned in lost lives and diminished quality of life.
That’s why it’s so alarming that only 21 new drugs gained FDA approval last year. This was a significant decrease from the previous two years — there were 25 approvals in 2009, and 24 in 2008.

Not only are approvals down, so are applications for approval. This fact portends even further declines in annual approvals down the road. With science more cutting-edge today than yesterday and grants for new research in areas from pediatrics to Alzheimer’s at all-time highs, how is it possible that approvals and applications are both dropping?

The FDA’s review process, in the view of many in the medical and biopharmaceutical communities, has become increasingly turgid. The FDA now frequently calls for extra clinical trials, requiring detailed safety plans that necessitate additional doctor and patient education, and an extended review period.

Of the 21 drugs approved in 2010, there were 21 drugmakers to take credit. Not a single company earned more than one approval. From Pfizer to Bristol-Myers Squibb to Eli Lilly to Merck — all of whom were shut-out for approvals in 2010 — the FDA was an equal opportunity rejecter. Analysts estimate 2010′s lost sales due to the FDA’s delays ran upwards of $1 billion.

And the problem is not limited to medicines. The development of tools that tailor treatments to our individual needs are drowning in a sea of endless confusion. Tests and medical that can help detect and prevent disease and eliminate useless or even harmful care are ironically being held up in the name of ‘patient safety.’
Government policy writ large has now begun to stifle innovation in pharmaceuticals. ObamaCare levies tens of billions in taxes on new medical products through 2019. Comparative effectiveness studies required even after FDA approval as a condition for being added to Obamacare benefits, will delay progress too.

Even worse is that FDA regulators are beginning to consider the comparative effectiveness of products and as a result are raising the bar for approval.

Sound far-fetched? It isn’t. Consider the case of $8,000-per-month Avastin, an anti-cancer wonder drug that blocks blood flow to tumors. In 2007, the FDA granted accelerated approval for the use of Avastin for treatment of metastatic breast cancer. It was clear from the Avastin studies then that while many women would not benefit from the drug, a significant minority could live longer and with less pain.

The FDA asked Avastin researchers to evaluate the drug’s risks and benefits on a larger group of patients with the same standards used to approve the drug in the first place. The study confirmed the 2007 results showing benefit to specific groups of women. But the FDA revoked Avastin’s approval for breast cancer treatment because it didn’t extend life on average.

This is not the first time the FDA has changed gears. It yanked Iressa, a lung cancer drug, after post-approval studies looking at average survival showed no benefit. Additional studies were done to identify subgroups and found that patients with a certain genetic mutation lived longer. And last year researchers found that Iressa can prevent pancreatic cancer from coming back after other therapies stop it. Innovation is the result, not of a top-down decision, but by learning from actually using an invention. Taking products off the market therefore undermines medical progress in many cases.

As a result of the FDA’s slow-to-act review process, ObamaCare’s disproportionate taxation of pharmaceutical firms, and this recent Avastin decision, innovation is in a very precarious position. Most medical innovations come from start-ups with limited capital. For all the happy talk about supporting innovation and small businesses, the trifecta of government tactics is doing just the opposite. Just this month, the Director of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development, Kenneth Kaitin, registered his concern: “The question remains whether developers can bring enough new drugs to market at the pace needed to remain financially viable.”

Meanwhile, China, India and Singapore are inviting America’s innovators to set up shop overseas. As the world’s leader — by far — in scientific research investment, the United States must change course and must do so immediately. Not only are we losing innovation, we are losing lives as well.


Sunday, March 27, 2011

More on asthma and Buteyko breathing

An abstract from 1998 below. Conclusion: It works but nobody knows how

Buteyko breathing techniques in asthma: a blinded randomised controlled trial

By Simon D Bowler et al.


Objective: To evaluate the effect of Buteyko breathing techniques (BBT) in the management of asthma.

Design: Prospective, blinded, randomised study comparing the effect of BBT with control classes in 39 subjects with asthma. The study was conducted from January 1995 to April 1995.

Participants and setting: Subjects recruited from the community, aged 12 to 70 years, with asthma and substantial medication use.
Main outcome measures: Medication use; morning peak expiratory flow (PEF); forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1); end-tidal (ET) CO2; resting minute volume (MV); and quality of life (QOL) score, measured at three months.

Results: No change in daily PEF or FEV1 was noted in either group. At three months, the BBT group had a median reduction in daily beta2-agonist dose of 904 µg (range, 29 µg to 3129 µg), whereas the control group had a median reduction of 57 µg (range, - 2343 µg to 1143 µg) (P = 0.002). Daily inhaled steroid dose fell 49% (range, - 100% to 150%) for the BBT group and 0 (range, - 82% to +100%) for the control group (P = 0.06). A trend towards greater improvement in QOL score was noted for BBT subjects (P = 0.09). Initial MV was high and similar in both groups; by three months, MV was lower in the BBT group than in the control group (P = 0.004). ET CO2 was low in both groups and did not change with treatment.

Conclusion: Those practising BBT reduced hyperventilation and their use of beta2-agonists. A trend toward reduced inhaled steroid use and better quality of life was observed in these patients without objective changes in measures of airway calibre.


New injectable drug hailed as milestone in fight against skin cancer

A breakthrough cancer drug hailed as the first to prolong the lives of patients with melanoma as been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

The injectable drug Yervoy, known chemically as ipilimumab, has been given the go-ahead to treat late-stage melanoma.

The drug only worked in a small proportion of patients studied, and on average they lived just four months longer than patients given older medications. But experts say it's milestone in treating the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Melanoma is the fastest growing form of cancer in terms of new diagnoses. Its growth is attributed to longer life expectancies and increased use of indoor tanning by young people. About 68,000 people in the U.S. were diagnosed last year and 8,700 patients died, according to the American Cancer Society.

'Clearly this is not a home run, but it's a solid base hit,' said Tim Turnham, director of the Melanoma Research Foundation. 'And because we see other things in the pipeline, we think this is the first in a series of important new therapies for melanoma.'

The FDA has only approved two other drugs for advanced melanoma, the last of which was more than 13 years ago. Neither drug has been shown to significantly extend patients' lives.

Ipilimumab is part of a group of targeted cancer medicines that harness the body's immune system, instead of attacking the disease with outside chemicals like chemotherapy.

The drug works by blocking a molecule linked to melanoma called CTLA-4, which interferes with the protective activity of white blood cells. When the molecule is blocked, the cells behave normally and help fight off cancer.

Yervoy's side effects may include diarrhea, swelling of the colon, rash and fatigue, the Associated Press reports. The FDA said severe to fatal immune reactions, such as inflammations of the colon and small intestine, liver, and skin,occurred in 12.9 percent of patients during clinical trials.

The agency has asked its makers Bristol-Myers Squibb to create a risk evaluation strategy designed to identify and reduce the risks associated with the drug.

FDA approved the drug based on a Bristol-Myers study of 676 people with advanced, inoperable melanoma who had already failed two other treatments, giving them a very short life expectancy.

They were given one of three treatments: ipilimumab by itself, ipilimumab combined with another immune-stimulating treatment, or the immune-stimulating treatment alone. The average survival was 10 months with ipilimumab and just over six months with the others.

Mike Brockey of Frederick, Md., was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma in 2008 and tried both conventional and alternative medicines before starting therapy with ipilimumab last September. He took the drug four times every three weeks and says his latest scans show that his tumors are inactive. Mr Brockley said: 'This is the first time in two years I had a sense that anything was going in the right direction.'

Bristol said it would disclose pricing details of the drug in the coming months.


Saturday, March 26, 2011

A Breathing Technique Offers Help for People With Asthma

Buteyko was ridiculed for many years in the West -- in a typical rejection of anything outside familiar parameters. The anecdotal evidence in favour of the technique was so strong, however, that a few trials have now been done -- with striking results. Buteyko techniques also seem to have been quietly adopted as an option in many mainstream asthma clinics

I don’t often write about alternative remedies for serious medical conditions. Most have little more than anecdotal support, and few have been found effective in well-designed clinical trials. Such trials randomly assign patients to one of two or more treatments and, wherever possible, assess the results without telling either the patients or evaluators who received which treatment.

Now, however, in describing an alternative treatment for asthma that does not yet have top clinical ratings in this country (although it is taught in Russian medical schools and covered by insurance in Australia), I am going beyond my usually stringent research criteria for three reasons:

* The treatment, a breathing technique discovered half a century ago, is harmless if practiced as directed with a well-trained therapist.

* It has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of many people with asthma, while saving health care dollars.

* I’ve seen it work miraculously well for a friend who had little choice but to stop using the steroid medications that were keeping him alive.

My friend, David Wiebe, 58, of Woodstock, N.Y., is a well-known maker of violins and cellos, with a 48-year history of severe asthma that was treated with bronchodilators and steroids for two decades. Ten years ago, Mr. Wiebe noticed gradually worsening vision problems, eventually diagnosed as a form of macular degeneration caused by the steroids. Two leading retina specialists told him to stop using the drugs if he wanted to preserve his sight.

He did, and endured several terrifying trips to the emergency room when asthma attacks raged out of control and forced him to resume steroids temporarily to stay alive.

Nothing else he tried seemed to work. “After having a really poor couple of years with significantly reduced quality of life and performance at work,” he told me, “I was ready to give up my eyesight and go back on steroids just so I could breathe better.”

Treatment From the ’50s

Then, last spring, someone told him about the Buteyko method, a shallow-breathing technique developed in 1952 by a Russian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko. Mr. Wiebe watched a video demonstration on YouTube and mimicked the instructions shown.

“I could actually feel my airways relax and open,” he recalled. “This was impressive. Two of the participants on the video were basically incapacitated by their asthma and on disability leave from their jobs. They each admitted that keeping up with the exercises was difficult but said they had been able to cut back on their medications by about 75 percent and their quality of life was gradually returning.”

A further search uncovered the Buteyko Center USA in his hometown, newly established as the official North American representative of the Buteyko Clinic in Moscow.

“When I came to the center, I was without hope,” Mr. Wiebe said. “I was using my rescue inhaler 20 or more times in a 24-hour period. If I was exposed to any kind of irritant or allergen, I could easily get a reaction that jeopardized my existence and forced me to go back on steroids to save my life. I was a mess.”

But three months later, after a series of lessons and refresher sessions in shallow breathing, he said, “I am using less than one puff of the inhaler each day — no drugs, just breathing exercises.”

Mr. Wiebe doesn’t claim to be cured, though he believes this could eventually happen if he remains diligent about the exercises. But he said: “My quality of life has improved beyond my expectations. It’s very exciting and amazing. More people should know about this.”

Ordinarily, during an asthma attack, people panic and breathe quickly and as deeply as they can, blowing off more and more carbon dioxide. Breathing rate is controlled not by the amount of oxygen in the blood but by the amount of carbon dioxide, the gas that regulates the acid-base level of the blood.

Dr. Buteyko concluded that hyperventilation — breathing too fast and too deeply — could be the underlying cause of asthma, making it worse by lowering the level of carbon dioxide in the blood so much that the airways constrict to conserve it.

This technique may seem counterintuitive: when short of breath or overly stressed, instead of taking a deep breath, the Buteyko method instructs people to breathe shallowly and slowly through the nose, breaking the vicious cycle of rapid, gasping breaths, airway constriction and increased wheezing.

The shallow breathing aspect intrigued me because I had discovered its benefits during my daily lap swims. I noticed that swimmers who had to stop to catch their breath after a few lengths of the pool were taking deep breaths every other stroke, whereas I take in small puffs of air after several strokes and can go indefinitely without becoming winded.

The Buteyko practitioners in Woodstock, Sasha and Thomas Yakovlev-Fredricksen, were trained in Moscow by Dr. Andrey Novozhilov, a Buteyko disciple. Their treatment involves two courses of five sessions each: one in breathing technique and the other in lifestyle management. The breathing exercises gradually enable clients to lengthen the time between breaths. Mr. Wiebe, for example, can now take a breath after more than 10 seconds instead of just 2 while at rest.

Responses May Vary

His board-certified pulmonologist, Dr. Marie C. Lingat, told me: “Based on objective data, his breathing has improved since April even without steroids. The goal now is to make sure he maintains the improvement. The Buteyko method works for him, but that doesn’t mean everyone who has asthma would respond in the same way.”

In an interview, Mrs. Yakovlev-Fredricksen said: “People don’t realize that too much air can be harmful to health. Almost every asthmatic breathes through his mouth and takes deep, forceful inhalations that trigger a bronchospasm,” the hallmark of asthma.

“We teach them to inhale through the nose, even when they speak and when they sleep, so they don’t lose too much carbon dioxide,” she added.

At the Woodstock center, clients are also taught how to deal with stress and how to exercise without hyperventilating and to avoid foods that in some people can provoke an asthma attack.

The practitioners emphasize that Buteyko clients are never told to stop their medications, though in controlled clinical trials in Australia and elsewhere, most have been able to reduce their dependence on drugs significantly. The various trials, including a British study of 384 patients, have found that, on average, those who are diligent about practicing Buteyko breathing can expect a 90 percent reduction in the use of rescue inhalers and a 50 percent reduction in the need for steroids within three to six months.

The British Thoracic Society has given the technique a “B” rating, meaning that positive results of the trials are likely to have come from the Buteyko method and not some other factor. Now, perhaps, it is time for the pharmaceutically supported American medical community to explore this nondrug technique as well.


Melanoma sufferer back from brink of death

This is VERY encouraging news

TO look and listen to Daniel Roper you would never think that a month ago he was at death's door. Melanoma had spread through his body and the Melbourne man, 25, was given two days to live, the Herald Sun reported.

But at the 11th hour a US drug company, hospital ethical boards and brave doctors gave Mr Roper a long shot at life - an experimental course of drugs. Overnight on February 28 he recovered and, just four days later, he walked out of the Austin Hospital.

"I felt like I was going to burst," he said. "It was literally overnight that the fluid started draining and all the signs started moving in the right direction. The speed of it was just amazing."

He had learned only in December that melanoma had spread through his body and by January his spine, liver, lungs and ribs were riddled with tumours.

His only hope was a transfer to the Austin Hospital, where an experimental drug combination, which switches off the cancer gene, BRAF, and disables its driver, MEK, was scheduled for trials in a few weeks. Only 60 people in the world, and five in Victoria, are being selected for the world-first trial.

But Daniel suddenly deteriorated and he blew up with a massive infection in his abdomen.

He had 19 litres of fluid drained from his body in two days, and as he slipped away calls were made across the globe to bring the Victorian part of the trial forward. His situation was so dire that his mother Helen's hope wasn't that he would survive, but that he would hang on for a few more days until his sister arrived from the US. "I could see him going in front of my eyes. I have been nursing for 30 years and I knew he wasn't going to last," Mrs Roper said.

The long-term success of the drug - and Mr Roper's prognosis - is unknown.

The Austin's head of cancer medicine, Prof Jonathan Cebon, said the effort required just to get Daniel the chance of taking the drug was as remarkable as its effects. GlaxoSmithKline fast-tracked approval in the US and the Austin's ethics committee paved the way for the experiment to begin. Specialists fast-tracked weeks of tests so he could be ready in just 24 hours.

In a twist of fate, the randomised trial allocated Daniel to the control group, meaning he received only the BRAF drug, but it was enough to save his life. "It was a race between us and the disease," Prof Cebon said.

Mr Roper's hope now is that the Austin regains its $45 million in state government financing.


Friday, March 25, 2011

A bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment?

Groan! The usual rubbish interpretation of what causes what that we have come to expect of the epidemiological literature: People in dumb jobs tend to be working class and class is second only to age as a pervasive predictor of poor health. The claim (below) that dumb jobs CAUSE poor mental health is not only speculation but is bad speculation. By far the most probable cause of the correlation observed is that poor people are more likely to have bad mental health. Job may have nothing to do with it

AUSTRALIAN research that reveals being miserable in a job is worse for your mental health than being unemployed is making headlines around the world.

A team from the Centre for Mental Health Research at The Australian National University in Canberra analysed data from more than 7000 people to find that jobs offering little control, poor recognition and low pay were at greater risk to mental health than no job at all.

The ANU findings have hit the headlines in more than 100 media outlets around the world including Forbes, Bloomberg, CNN, Time, the UK Express, Toronto Sun, Los Angeles Times and Irish Times.

The research team claim the findings have huge implications for prevailing government social policies that promote “the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal wellbeing.”

Using data collected in surveys since 2001, the ANU team looked at two key areas –the quality of the jobs held by participants and the state of their mental health in the preceding month leading up to their taking part in a survey.

Head of the research, ANU associate professor Dr Peter Butterworth, reported the team’s findings and methodology in the journal, Occupational Environmental Medicine.

“We looked at four different aspects of work in our study: whether people were working in highly complex and demanding jobs, whether they had a say in how they did their work, whether they considered they received fair pay for their efforts, and whether they felt secure in their job,” he said.

The mental health score was based on asking participants to describe their levels of anxiety, depression, happiness and feelings of calm in the month preceding the survey.

Employed people had an average score of 75.1. Those who moved from unemployment to a good job increased their score by 3.3 points above average and those taking a bad job saw their score drop 5.6 points below average. Remaining unemployed led to a drop of one point.

The ANU researchers say the findings have significant implications for prevailing government social policy that promotes “the notion that any job is better than none as work promotes economic as well as personal wellbeing.”

The study concludes that “psychosocial job quality is a pivotal factor that needs to be considered in the design and delivery of employment and welfare policy.”

The research follows the release of other studies showing job satisfaction levels in Australia are at a critical low right now.’s Hidden Hunters report was released last week to show job satisfaction levels are at their lowest since the research began four years ago.

Carried out by The Acid Test, the research looks at the triggers that “push” people out of one job and “pull” them into another.

Long hours, getting more work done with fewer resources and the reluctance of organisations to increase salaries were key “push” factors.

The 2011 survey of more than 1000 people found that 37 per cent were actively looking for a new job and 82 per cent were open to offers.

A separate global study conducted by Gallup Consulting including 2000 Australian has found most employees are “just going through the motions” at work right now.

The study found 61 per cent of workers were emotionally detached from work. A third of those not engaged had taken at least three sick days in the past month compared to only 11 per cent of engaged workers.


The Modern Liberal Bureaucrat

Does this sound like a real administrator, or a parody of an Orwellian government planner?

"In order to force choice into the market, we have to limit one choice that's overconcentrated."

"We might discourage businesspeople from going into a certain type of business."

"I don't think we can make the argument of unemployment over public health."

"You have to train people as to what may be beneficial to them."

Well, it's a real guy. Meet Bernard Parks, Los Angeles councilman and advocate of banning new fast food restaurants in certain areas of LA. He thinks that nefarious fast food enterprises are moving into his neighborhood and flourishing, and that somehow, even though they're flourishing, most people don't want them there!

Here's the truth: the fast food restaurants do well because people like them. Parks complains that you shouldn't be able to set up a new fast food restaurant when there are already three on neighboring streetcorners. Well of course you should be able to! And if people don't want you there, they won't come to your restaurant, you'll lose money and close. That's not how it's working in District 8, which he represents. The fast food enterprises are successful because people like them.

Oh, and another note: there are actually fewer fast food restaurants per capita in District 8 than there are in the rest of Los Angeles.

Everything above comes via ReasonTV's newest video, in which they make Bernard Parks look like a buffoon.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Warmer Weather May Be Linked to Worsened Heart Health

Marvellous the speculations that the hearts of a group of elderly Bostonians can inspire! If this were serious science, the authors below would go to places where it really is hot for their data -- but it's no great mystery why they don't. I grew up in such a hot place (tropical Far North Queensland in Australia) and I can assure everyone that we don't die of heart attacks in our youth there. And there have been some very good lifespans among my older relatives. I even have a living nonagenarian aunt. Generations of my family have lived there and we would certainly know if we were living in an unhealthy place.

Note that the population in Far North Queensland originates mainly from the British Isles so public health measures (clean water etc.) are similar to those found throughout the developed world. We are a rather good control group for assessing the effects of warm climate per se

Rising temperatures and pollution levels may act together to worsen heart health, a new study suggests.

The results show high temperatures in the summer months in a U.S. city are associated with a decrease in heart-rate variability, or how regular the time between heartbeats is, which acts as a measure of how well the heart is working. Previous studies have linked low heart-rate variability to an increased risk of death following a heart attack.

Temperature was more likely to affect cardiovascular function when ozone levels were high, the researchers say.

The findings are particularly concerning in light of the changes global warming is predicted to bring.

"Given that global warming is likely to increase both heat waves and ozone formation, such an interaction may be important for public health," said study researcher Cizao Ren, of the Harvard School of Public Health. (While ozone in the upper atmosphere protects Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation, in the lower atmosphere it's a primary component of smog and acts as a lung irritant.)

The study involved 694 elderly men (average age 73 years) who lived in Boston. Participants had their heart-rate variability measured at least once between November 2000 and December 2008. The researchers also analyzed temperature and air pollution data from the surrounding area up to 20 days prior to the participants' examinations.

The researchers found an association between temperature and heart-rate variability in the warm season, but not the colder months. One reason for this may be that people tend to stay indoors in the winter months, where the temperature is often controlled with heating.

Previous studies have found higher temperatures can increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, and this effect is exacerbated by air pollution. But the new study suggests what might be happening on a biological level to cause problems.

Air temperature and ozone may influence the way the automatic nervous system functions. The automatic nervous system is a part of the central nervous system that helps the body adapt to its environment, according to the American Heart Association. It regulates body functions, including the heart's electrical activity and airflow into the lungs. Heart-rate variability is an indicator of automatic nervous system function, Ren said.

Air pollution may cause problems with reflexes in the airways to the lungs. In addition, higher temperatures may make the body more sensitive to toxins, such as ozone.

The researchers note the study involved elderly men in one part of the United States, and the findings may not be representative of the population as a whole.

The study was published in the March 8 issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology.


Obsessive 'healthy' eaters risking their lives with eating disorder orthorexia

Food faddists are hurting people -- with their various false gospels

Extreme diets and fitness regimes are putting one in ten women at risk of malnutrition and even death, experts have warned. The obsessive behaviour, which has been given the name orthorexia nervosa, is an eating disorder that has only recently been identified. It also affects one in 20 men.

Sufferers typically cut out entire food groups – often in the mistaken belief they are unhealthy or their bodies are intolerant to them – thereby depriving themselves of essential nutrition and vitamins. At the same time many over-exercise, leaving themselves weak or even emaciated.

Orthorexia has become increasingly common among women in their 30s. Many start off following celebrity fad diets such as the maple syrup detox diet, used by Naomi Campbell and Beyonce.

Cheryl Cole has championed the blood group diet, whose supporters believe different blood groups affect the body’s ability to break down certain foods.

Experts warned sticking to rigid rules was not just putting health at risk but can put a strain on relationships as people avoid eating at friends’ houses or restaurants.

The key difference between orthorexia and other common eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia is that sufferers do not necessarily set out to lose weight but end up doing so because of a misguided belief that they are leading healthier lifestyles. Those most at risk are teenagers who are under pressure from unrealistic role models and exposed to advertisements for healthy eating and diets.

The National Centre for Eating Disorders said it had received 6,000 calls about orthorexia over the past year. It has not collated figures previously but said this represented a ‘concerning rise’ in the number of inquiries.

NCFED psychologist Deanne Jade’s estimate that one in ten women is affected by the disorder is based on her own findings over a career lasting 30 years. No official figures have been collated yet as it is only in recent years that orthorexia has been identified as a health concern. She said: ‘Orthorexia is a hidden disorder which is disguised by the healthy eating tag. ‘I am recognising it in more people year on year... in the community generally and among the people who come to see me.

‘Often people who take an interest in being healthy become overwhelmed by the conflicting information. People start cutting out food groups, like meat, and become convinced they are “intolerant” to other food groups, like wheat and dairy, so they cut those out too. ‘It is rising among young people because they are impressionable to what they read in magazines and what they see on TV.’

The term ‘orthorexia’ was coined in 1997 by Californian doctor Steven Bratman, who combined the Greek ‘orthos’, meaning ‘correct or right’, with ‘orexis’ – appetite.

Removing dairy products from the diet can lead to a deficiency in calcium, which is needed for strong bones and teeth as well as the proper function of muscles and the nervous system.

Avoiding meat deprives the body of an important source of protein and iron. Protein contains amino acids, the body’s building blocks, which help cells to grow and repair. Lack of iron causes anaemia, lack of energy, breathlessness and poor concentration.

Glenys Jones, of the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Centre, said concerns about certain foods were fuelling the problem. ‘If there is anything negative about a food they will cut it out forever,’ she added. ‘I saw a person who cut out broccoli because she had seen an article saying she could get a disease from it.’


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Sufferers blame stress for breast cancer, despite no scientific link

The article below is quite sensible about stress so it is a pity that the authors are so positive about other dubious causes of cancer. Contrary to their assertions, for instance, some big studies show that fat women get LESS breast cancer

STRESS is often blamed for breast cancer despite no scientific proof of a link. And while many point to stress they also commonly overlook other lifestyle-related issues - such as smoking and obesity - where there is a clear link to the cancer. These are the key findings of research which took in the views of almost 1500 Australian breast cancer survivors.

It found just over four in 10 (43.5 per cent) believed there was a factor which contributed to their cancer and, among these women, more than half (58.1 per cent) blamed stress. The women also pointed to previous use of hormone therapy (17 per cent), a family history of cancer (9.8 per cent). Two per cent attributed their cancer to other lifestyle factors.

"It is concerning that only two per cent of the women in the study attributed their breast cancer to lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise and alcohol consumption," said Christine Bennett, chair of the Bupa Health Foundation Steering Committee which part-funded the study. "There is scientific evidence that being overweight, smoking and excessive alcohol are risk factors."

Women aged under 40 were more likely to believe there was a reason for their breast cancer.

Dr Bennett said that while the exact causes of breast cancer were unknown, studies into the effect of stress on the body and looking for potential triggers of breast cancer did not reveal a link. And despite commonly-held views to the contrary, there was "no scientific evidence that points to stress as a cause of breast cancer".

The Bupa Health Foundation and Well-Being after Breast Cancer Study and was led by Robin Bell, Deputy Director of the Women's Health Research Program at Monash University and Alfred Hospital. Professor Bell said it showed women often responded to a breast cancer diagnosis with a new resolve to improve their overall health, usually through improved exercise.

This was beneficial, she said, although women should be wary of making changes which could be counter-productive in the fight against cancer - such as removing all dairy products from the diet. "Cutting out dairy products may remove some fat from the diet but it could have a negative effect on the bone health of women who, due to some cancer treatments, are already at risk of osteoporosis," Prof Bell said.

Of those who blamed stress, Prof Bell said, the women could also feel a sense of mistaken guilt that they should have acted sooner. "If doctors are aware of this guilt, they will be in a better position to help women address their feelings and overcome their distress," Prof Bell said.

The research is published in the March edition of the journal Psycho-Oncology.


Aging brains not so decayed

Perhaps it’s out of a sense of panic but sometime in middle age we begin to develop the ability for bilateralisation — when faced with a perplexing problem, to use both sides of our brain instead of one.

One of the first scientists to spot this was Dr Cheryl Grady, a neuroscientist at the University of Toronto. In the early Nineties she observed the ageing brain with positron emission tomography (PET) scans. These measure changes in blood flow as brain regions activate, and Grady wanted to find out if an older brain acted in the same way as a younger one in routine tasks such as matching faces.

She assumed they’d be much worse and muster fewer brain cells. But to her surprise, the older adults performed just as well as the younger ones, and they consistently used more of their brains, not less. Older adults used their brains in a new way. They tapped into the same brain circuits as the younger adults, but they also recruited an additional region — their powerful frontal cortex, the front of the brain which is responsible for problem solving.

We have two frontal cortex, one on each side of the brain (known as hemispheres). Just a few years after Dr Grady’s discovery, another study found that while young people switched between sides, older adults used them both at once.

An intriguing aspect of this two-brain phenomenon is that it’s not the weakest brains that do this but the most capable who resort to this trick. It’s as if the best and the brightest older brains, accustomed to being held in the highest esteem, simply refuse to give in. As Grady herself concludes: ‘The higher the education, the more likely the older adult is to recruit frontal regions, resulting in better memory performance.’


Despite long-held beliefs that we become less clever as we age, there’s mounting evidence to suggest the contrary — that we become cleverer.

How can that be? How can we possibly be cleverer and be putting the bananas in the laundry basket and unable to remember why we’ve come to the hardware store?

One of the longest, largest and most respected life-span studies, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, was started in 1956 and has systematically tracked the mental powers of 6,000 people for more than 40 years.

Led by Sherry Willis, a psychologist, the study has found that people function better on cognitive tests in middle age, on average, than they do at any other time tested.

The abilities that Willis and her colleagues measured include vocabulary — how many words you can recognise and find synonyms for; verbal memory — how many words you can remember; number ability — how quickly you can do multiplication, division, subtraction, and addition; spatial orientation; perceptual speed — how fast you can push a button when you see a green arrow; and inductive reasoning — how well you solve logical problems.

What the researchers found is astounding. During the span of time that constitutes the modern middle age — roughly 40 through to the 60s — the people in the study did better on tests of the most important and complex cognitive skills than they had when they were in their 20s.

In vocabulary, verbal memory, spatial orientation, and, perhaps most heartening of all, inductive reasoning — people performed best, on average, between 40 and 65.

Top performance was reached a bit earlier for men, who peaked in their late 50s, while women’s scores kept climbing into their 60s.


It’s said that the true test of a human brain is its ability to figure out other human brains. And research shows that judgment does improve with age. Thomas Hess, a psychologist at North Carolina State University, has done studies of what he calls ‘social expertise’, which he finds peaks in midlife, when we are far better than those younger and older at judging the true character of others.

By middle age, we not only have more years of experience, but the brain cells devoted to navigating the human landscape turn out to be exceptionally durable.

Scanning studies show that parts of the brain that deal more with regulating emotion shrink less quickly than other areas as we age. And it’s that mix of emotional control, mental prowess, and life experience that helps us make the right calls.

David Laibson, from Harvard University, has done fascinating studies in the emerging field of ‘neuroeconomics’ — how people use their brains to make financial decisions — and he, too, finds we’re most adept at this in middle age.

When confronting complex money issues, such as mortgages or interest rates, those in middle age make the best choices; in fact, our economic judgment is best in our 50s.

It may be what holds the areas of the brain together that’s also important. This is known as the white matter, which is made up of myelin — the fatty outer coating of the trillions of nerve fibres. Myelin acts like insulation on a wire and makes the connections work.

This layer of fat, some experts believe, is what makes the brain work so well in middle age. Scan studies of the brains of men aged 19 to 76 have found that in two crucial areas of the brain, the frontal lobes and the temporal lobes — the region devoted to language — myelin continued to increase well into middle age, peaking, on average, at around 50, and in some, continuing to build into the 60s.


Many of us grew up dreading old age and its chronic disappointments. But what actually happens is that our moods get not worse but better.

I must say, this idea seemed more than odd to me at first. In the thick of middle age myself, cheeriness is not the first word that comes to my mind. But as we get older we actually react less to negative things — we know this thanks to scans of the amygdala, a small, primitive part of the brain that decides how we are going to react to a situation.

The amygdala’s default setting is pretty much to respond negatively. But now brain scans have suggested that our amygdalae respond less and less to negative stimuli as we age. Our brains, in some automatic way, begin to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative.


Tuesday, March 22, 2011

McDonald's-only runner Joe D'Amico finishes in top 30 top at Los Angeles marathon

A reminder that "junk" food is a value judgment, not a scientific description. McDonald's food has a full range of nutrients

A MARATHON runner who vowed to eat only McDonald's in the 30 days leading up to the Los Angeles Marathon has beaten his own personal best time at the event and finished 29th overall. Illinois man Joe D'Amico ran the marathon in two hours, 36 minutes and 13 seconds, last Sunday beating his previous personal record by 41 seconds, the Chicago Sun-Times said.

"It went just as I planned," Mr D'Amico said after completing the 42.1km race. "The course was much tougher than I expected and the wind and rain didn't help, but I felt strong."

In the month leading up to the marathon, D'Amico ate 99 meals at McDonald's. His typical daily intake consisted of hotcakes and an Egg McMuffin for breakfast, a grilled chicken burger and a large Coke for lunch, and a hamburger and fries for dinner.

He allowed himself to drink water and take a daily multivitamin and a runner's supplement.

He said he took on the personal challenge because he loves McDonald's and running, and but insisted he was not trying to make a point. His effort garnered more than 23,000 Facebook fans and raised $US27,000 for Ronald McDonald House Charities.

Mr D'Amico said his wife chose the restaurant where they ate last night. "We managed to walk past a couple of McDonald's restaurants after the race without stopping," he said. "I'll probably be back in a McDonald's sometime next week."


Mothers who drink in early pregnancy 'more likely to have unruly children'

Ho hum! Just the usual class effect. Dumb working class mothers are more likely to booze and their kids take after them

Teenagers are more likely to be unruly, aggressive and badly behaved if their mothers drank early in pregnancy, researchers claim. The risk of anti-social behaviour rose threefold among 16-year-olds whose mothers drank as little as one alcoholic drink a day during the first three months of pregnancy.

A U.S. study of almost 600 youngsters analysed rates of ‘conduct disorder’ at regular intervals from their birth. Conduct disorder was defined as a pattern of behavioural problems that included aggression towards people and animals, destruction of property, deceitfulness, theft and serious rule-breaking.

The risk of ‘lifetime’ bad behaviour patterns went up threefold with one or more drinks a day compared with drinking less, or abstaining. There was no extra risk linked to drinking at a later stage in the pregnancy. Dr Cynthia Larkby, from the University of Pittsburgh, monitored 592 children from birth to age 16, half of whom were African-American with the other half white.

Information was collected about the drinking habits of the children’s mothers, including quantity, frequency and the pattern of alcohol use.

The scientists wrote in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: ‘From a clinical perspective, prenatal alcohol exposure should be considered as another risk for conduct disorder. ‘The next steps in research should be to define the interactions between prenatal exposures, environmental factors, and heritability. This would allow a more complete picture of the relations between prenatal alcohol exposure and conduct disorder.’

The issue of how much is safe to drink during pregnancy has caused controversy in recent years. In 2007 the Department of Health published guidance saying pregnant women should avoid drinking alcohol altogether, as should those trying to conceive. This replaced previous guidance which said it was safe for pregnant women to drink one to two units of alcohol per week.

The Government said its update was not based on new research, but was introduced to provide consistent advice to all women.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence also advises women to avoid alcohol in the first three months of pregnancy. Heavy drinking in pregnancy is linked to foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in children, which can cause a range of physical, mental and behavioural problems.

Previous U.S. research has suggested that later behavioural problems in children may be linked to drinking during pregnancy.

However, a study from University College London last year found light drinking by pregnant women – one or two units of alcohol a week - was linked to children who were better-behaved than those whose parents had abstained from alcohol.

It showed the risk of behavioural and emotional problems among toddlers increased for mothers who were heavy drinkers – those having at least one drink a day or a binge session of six drinks or more during pregnancy.

Half a pint of ordinary-strength beer counts as one unit, while a small glass of wine equates to one or one-and-a-half units depending on the alcohol content.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Tooth loss increases the risk of a stroke?

Mainly because poor people have their teeth pulled rather than filled, I would think. Poor people have worse health generally

Tooth loss increases the risk of a stroke many years later, according to a new Japanese study, and underlying gum disease may be to blame. Researchers have calculated that those with fewer than 24 of their own teeth (adults should have 32) are 60 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke.

Stroke is caused by a disturbance of blood supply to the brain.
The most common type is an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood vessel that normally delivers oxygen and nutrients to the brain is blocked. An haemorrhagic stroke is when a blood vessel bursts, causing bleeding into the brain.

In any stroke the nerve cells in the affected area of the brain may die within minutes of being denied oxygen, leading to impairment of bodily functions. An estimated 150,000 people have a stroke in Britain each year, leading to about 53,000 deaths annually.

In the new study, researchers at Hiroshima University looked at the dental conditions of 358 patients and found that stroke patients in their 50s and 60s had significantly fewer remaining teeth than did patients in the same age groups who had been treated for other conditions. The number of teeth remaining was also significantly lower among stroke patients in their 50s than in the general population of the same age.

The researchers then analysed results from four separate studies. They found that having 24 or fewer teeth increased the risk of stroke by 57 per cent compared with those with 25 or more teeth. The researchers also took into account a range of other risk factors associated with stroke, including smoking habits, obesity and alcohol use.

'This review suggests that tooth loss may be related to both ischemic and haemorrhagic strokes,' says Dr Mitsuyoshi Yoshida, who led the study.

Some studies have suggested a link between periodontal disease and heart disease. Periodontal diseases range from gum inflammation to diseases that damage the tissue and bone that support the teeth. Gum disease is one of the main causes of tooth loss after the age of 40.

The mouth is brimming with bacteria, which contributes to the sticky, colourless plaque that binds to teeth. Brushing and flossing helps get rid of plaque.

Research into heart disease has shown that micro-organisms associated with gum disease have been found in atheromas - accumulation of calcified material - in the arteries of patients. It has been suggested that toxins in these micro-organisms damage cells in the lining of the arteries.

One theory is that periodontal disease may cause inflammation in the arteries and brain tissues, and cause greater amounts of compounds involved in clotting.

Dr Sharlin Ahmed of The Stroke Association says: 'It is believed that oral bacteria can contribute to the furring up and narrowing of artery walls, which could result in a stroke. Oral bacteria could also attach to fatty deposits in the arteries, which can lead to a blood clot and could result in a stroke.'


An interesting infographic below

I was rather pleased to see that 5% of Americans are redheads. The Irish influence, I guess


Sunday, March 20, 2011

Avandia under fire again

This is just part of a war on drug companies. Anything successful or popular is hated. I covered this issue in detail a year ago, where I noted what the research available then showed:

"In other words, a survey of the strongest data available showed that taking Avandia increased your risk of having a heart attack from 1.05% to 1.46%, an increase in risk of less than one half of one percent -- which is vanishingly trivial compared to the risks we take in most things we do. Given the large sample size, however, the result is statistically significant, if not significant in any other sense. If we were to reject such small risks as that we would have NO drugs on the market because all drugs have some adverse side-effects.

But here's the real kicker. Read the last clause in the abstract above. What it means in plain English is this: Although Avandia takers had a minutely greater risk of having heart attacks, the "extra" heart attacks DID NOT KILL THEM. Avandia takers were no more likely to die from a heart attack than anybody else!"

The effects noted in the report below would appear to be equally inconsequential

A study of 810,000 people, published today online in the British Medical Journal, found that those taking Avandia were 23 per cent more likely to suffer congestive heart failure and 14 per cent more likely to die while on it, compared to a similar medication. In addition, they were 16 per cent more likely to have a heart attack.

Last September the European Medicines Agency (EMA) suspended the licence for the drug, after 10 years on the market, saying the evidence of its harmful effects had tipped the balance against it being prescribed.

Today's study is further evidence supporting that decision. It analysed the results of 16 separate studies in 810,000 patients, of which 429,000 were on Avandia (also known by its generic name rosiglitazone) and 381,000 were on Actos (also known as pioglitazone). Most were over 60. The drugs both belong to a class that help control blood sugar levels in patients with Type 2 diabetes.

It found that Avandia could have led to an extra 431 deaths per 100,000 people on Avandia, an extra 170 heart attacks and an extra 649 cases of heart failure.

Dr Yoon Kong Loke, a lecturer in pharmacology at the University of East Anglia, who led the study, warned that although the drug had been withdrawn in the UK patients could still be affected by it. He said: "We don't know yet if stopping taking the drug at once gets rid of the increased risk of heart disease or if the effect lasts over a long period of time. "It is possible that symptoms may develop years afterwards. These are studies that need to be carried out in the future because Avandia has not been around all that long."

Manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, Avandia was once one of the best-selling drugs in the world, with annual sales peaking at £3 billion in 2006. It is still available on a restricted basis in the US.

A GSK spokesman said that the meta-analysis contained disimilar studies that should not have been combined, a view taken by the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) in the US last July. She continued: "It is important to note that there are no head-to-head clinical studies with cardiovascular outcomes results between the two medicines.

"GSK believes that definitive conclusions about differences in cardiovascular data of the two medicines are hard to make in the absence of long-term trials directly comparing both medicines.

"GSK stands behind the safety and efficacy of Avandia when used appropriately. Since 2007, results from six randomized clinical trials with data related to the cardiovascular safety of Avandia have been reported. "Taken together, these trials showed that Avandia does not increase the overall risk of heart attack, stroke or death."


Why a steak for pregnant mothers could stop babies crying

In Britain and Australia, black yeast extracts (Marmite; Vegemite) are a popular sandwich spread and are known for their high B12 content. Do British and Australian mothers have babies who are eight times less likely to fret than mothers elsewhere? I think it would have been noticed by now if that were so

Mothers-to-be who boost their intake of a vitamin found in steak during the first three months of pregnancy are up to eight times more likely to have babies who cry less, researchers suggest.

The B12 vitamin occurs naturally in red meat, fish and dairy products and is already known to help the development of the brain and nervous system in unborn children. It also helps prevent dementia, heart disease and even fertility problems later in life.

Mothers-to-be who boost their intake of vitamin B12, found in steak, during the first three months of pregnancy are up to eight times more likely to have babies who cry less, researchers suggest

Now the latest findings by researchers suggest pregnant women who consume only low levels of B12 may have babies whose nervous systems have not fully developed. They say it means a hormone in the brain which lulls babies to sleep may not be released properly, causing infants to cry for longer periods of the day.

The study, published in the journal Early Human Development, involved nearly 3,000 pregnant women. Each had a blood test during their first pre-natal appointment at three months, which measured the amount of B12 in their blood. Once their babies were born, they recorded how often they cried, and for how long.

The researchers found that those women whose test results showed they had the least B12 were up to eight times more likely to give birth to a child who cried for prolonged periods than those who had the most. On average, five per cent of mothers lacking B12 had a distressed baby while just over one per cent of women with the most B12 reported their baby cried excessively.

The researchers, from the Public Health Service in the Netherlands, concluded: 'This study provides first evidence for an early nutritional origin in infant crying behaviour. 'The results suggest infants born to women with a low B12 status during pregnancy are at a higher risk for excessive crying behaviour in their first months of life.'

The researchers suggest that a lack of B12 may affect how much of a supportive tissue known as myelin, which surrounds and protects the nerve cells, is produced in the brain. Less myelin could cause irritability, they suggest. They also say B12 could affect sleep cycles because low levels prevent the release of the body's sleep hormone, melatonin.

Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, said: 'This is an interesting relationship and one which needs to be looked at further.'

But nutritionist Yvonne Bishop-Weston warned: 'Meat comes with saturated fats which can hinder the body's use of essential fats needed for the baby's brain and nervous system development.'


Saturday, March 19, 2011

Fatter but living longer?

A strong hint that the obesity "crisis" is a load of garbage

Britons are living longer than ever before despite concerns about obesity and health problems, a leading scientist has claimed. Average life expectancy has soared to 80-years-old - an incredible eight years more than it was in the 1970s.

The figure is even higher than the U.S.- the country with the highest spending on health care - where people live to on average 78.4 years. [The U.S. figure includes blacks -- where the leading cause of death among teenage males is gunfire]

Increasing life expectancy proves that as a nation we are eating more healthily than ever before [So why is obesity increasing??] and paying more attention to our bodies, professor David Leon says. But Professor Leon warns that unless more is done to tackle obesity among the current generation of youngsters life expectancy could slip back into the 1970s.

'The message here is really to look at how well we have been doing and not squander it. Contrary to what people believe, the USA does not have better life expectancy. 'Despite what many may have assumed, and without being complacent, current trends in European life expectancy are in a positive direction.

'But while the European experience since 1980 underlines the centrality of the social, political and economic determinants of health, many intriguing and important questions remain unanswered about the drivers of these extraordinary trends.'

Professor Leon, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, concluded that in the last five years, most European countries have been improving for the first time in decades - although the gap between East and West remains entrenched.

He added deaths from cardiovascular disease in the UK had seen 'some of the largest and most rapid falls of any Western European country, partly due to improvements in treatment as well as reductions in smoking and other risk factors'.

Fewer infections during childhood thanks to immunisation and better nutrition are also believed to have helped people grow taller and stronger.

Writing in an editorial in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Professor Leon compares life expectancy in western Europe with eastern Europe and the US. He said that the US was at the same level as the lowest of any Western European country, despite spending more per capita on health care than any other country in the world, with the rate for women increasing at a much slower pace than Western Europe.

In 2007, average life expectancy in the US was 78 years compared to 80 in the UK. In 2008, British male life expectancy stood at 77.9 and female life expectancy stood at 82.0, while Russian men could expect to live to 61.8 and women to 74.2, data from the World Health Organisation and the Human Mortality Database revealed.

Professor Leon praised the higher life expectancy and said it was partly due to some of the good work of the NHS. But he warned that long-term effects of obesity on cancer rates and children have yet to be seen. 'The big uncertainty is what will be the health impact of a generation of chubby kids growing into obese adults and what happens when they get to 60', he told the Daily Express. 'That is an experiment that has never been done before.'

Professor Leon said that longer life expectancy heralded certain problems such as an added burden on the state through pensions and the NHS. There are also concerns on a global level about the increasing population combined with a shortage of food, space and natural resources.

Life span can also depend on several factors including location. Although the average Briton now lives to 80 this can be much lower in poorer areas where the average life expectancy was 75.8 in 2008 compared with 80 for wealthier regions.

And earlier this week it was revealed that on the Gurnos estate in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales the average life expectancy for men is just 58.8 years. There was found to be a ‘culture of despair’ in the former iron and coal town where men don't care about living long healthy lives - because their quality of life is so poor. The grim figures revealed by the local Public Health Board are blamed on poor diet, heavy smoking and a high suicide rate due to unemployment.


Peanut terrorists must be stopped!

Despite protests by angry parents, a school in Florida is standing behind its decision to implement new regulations to protect a first grade student suffering from a severe peanut allergy.

Students at Edgewater Elementary are required to wash their hands and rinse their mouths out before entering the classroom each morning and after lunch. Teachers, who monitor the daily rinsing, must also ensure that desks are being continually wiped down with Clorox wipes. The school has banned all peanut products, eliminated snacks in the classroom and prevented outside food at holiday parties. And last week a peanut-sniffing dog was brought into the school.

District spokeswoman Nancy Wait of Volusia County Schools said the school is legally obligated to take these safety precautions because of the Federal Disabilities Act. “It would be the same thing as putting a handicap ramp for a student that is physically disabled. The only difference with this is that is affects other students,” she told

But some parents are saying it is taking away from their children’s learning time.

“On average, it’s probably taking a good 30 minutes out of the day. That’s my child’s education. Thirty minutes could be a while subject,” Carrie Starkey told

On Thursday she and other parents protested outside the school, picketing with signs that said, “Our Kids Have Rights Too.”
Experts say the school may have gone too far and that there are easier ways to protect the child.

“I have never seen anything like this,” said allergist Dr. Scott Sicherer with the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network or FAAN, an organization that monitors national food allergy issues. “There are many guidelines on how to manage food allergies in schools… things like no food sharing. There are plenty of relatively simple things the school could put in place that aren’t burdensome,” said Sicherer.

But David Bailey, the father of girl with life threatening food allergy, says that if his daughter even smells peanuts, her reaction could be fatal. "We've fought very hard to put certain things in place… to keep her alive… in school," he told MyFoxOrlando. "She's already a cast-out. She can't do things that most kids can do."

While the school’s actions may seem drastic and invasive the school says it must protect the health of the student. “It may seem like an inconvenience but this student registered her disability at the beginning of the school year and we have to do these things to give her a safe learning environment,” said Wait.

Since the protest was held last week, parents will be looking for some sort of compromise from the school administration. “We understand that they need to protect this girl, but these measures are just extreme. Procedures need to be set in place, but not procedures that will take away from our children’s education,” said Starkey.


Friday, March 18, 2011

The Roots of the Vaccine Panic

Do vaccines cause autism or other neuro-developmental disorders? Scientists know that vaccines don't, but the idea lingers everywhere -- on talk shows and blogs and in conversations between parents and their child's pediatrician. It lingers because many people in this country and elsewhere think that vaccines just might not be good for us.

In two books that tell the story of the panic over vaccines, Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, argue that bad people pursuing careers or fame or ratings or God knows what became purveyors of falsehoods that duped otherwise decent people into thinking vaccines could harm their children. That duplicity has led parents to make bad decisions -- not to vaccinate their children or to vaccinate them on a non-recommended schedule -- which turn out to be potentially deadly not just for their own children but for others.

How we got into this mess is the focus of both Mnookin's The Panic Virus and Offit's Deadly Choices. The casts of characters overlap, but the emphasis of each is different. Ironically, the journalist (Mnookin) focuses more on the malefactors of science, while the scientist (Offit) focuses more on the malefactors of the media. But each has a special distaste for the one closest to him: Mnookin for the journalist David Kirby, who helped sell the belief that mercury in vaccines caused an epidemic of autism, and Offit for the pediatrician Bob Sears, who willy-nilly invented a "new and improved" vaccination schedule.

As good as these books are, they don't help us fully understand why the anti-vaccine movement caught on. They are missing a sense of the desperation felt by parents when their children begin showing signs of autism. They also fail to appreciate the role that science itself has played in leading people to expect simple explanations of complex phenomena. Together, the desperation and the belief in simple answers have had deadly results.

Although the background story is complicated, the source of the vaccine panic is basically this: The prevalence of autism has increased spectacularly over the past 20 years, and although scientists can explain about 50 percent of the increase, they cannot account for all of it. As a result, a vast network of advocates, epidemiologists, scientists, junk-scientists, clinicians, quack-clinicians, celebrities, geneticists, expert witnesses for hire, snake-oil salesmen, playboy models, comics, charlatans, blog writers, and parents have entered the debate, developing their own or selling others' theories.

The two such theories highlighted in these books are that the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is dangerous for children either because the measles-vaccine virus resides in the intestines of some children, leading to inflammation, leaky gut, and consequent developmental delays, or that the MMR vaccine contains thimeresol, a mercury-containing preservative, which leads to developmental delays. The first theory is biologically implausible, the product of crooked science conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The second has been falsified.

As both Offit and Mnookin note, the idea that vaccines are dangerous is not a new belief. It has been around for as long as vaccines have existed. Offit is clearest in explaining the underlying paradox: The belief that vaccines are bad for us is enhanced by their success. Men and women in their 50s and younger have no real memory of polio. Their children and grandchildren have had no experience with measles or rubella. As kids, my generation used to fear tetanus, which we were sure led to slow starvation because our jaws would lock shut midsentence, but I haven't met any children with this phobia in decades. I vividly remember my daughters' disbelief when reading Little House on the Prairie that Mary could go blind from scarlet fever.

All these obscure diseases have, like the bubonic plague, been banished to faraway places or distant pasts, and people in the United States have forgotten all about them. So they have naturally forgotten that these diseases can also lead to blindness, paralysis, brain damage, or death. Offit is brilliant at pointing out the absurdity of anti-vaccine activists' argument that vaccines are superfluous because they prevent us from catching diseases that people no longer catch.

In the history of the eradication of the "diseases of childhood," vaccines have played a role. They have not played the leading role in lives saved. Long before the first baby was jabbed with the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) or the MMR vaccine, mortality rates for diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles had steadily declined. In 1900, the death rate from diphtheria was 40.3 per 100,000. For whooping cough and measles, it was 12.2 and 13.3 per 100,000, respectively. By the end of World War II, all three were around 1 in 100,000. The same declines can be observed for diseases for which we have no vaccines.

Hygiene and improved nutrition are the real heroes in the war against disease, though neither Offit nor Mnookin points this out. It would make their credible arguments more credible if they didn't claim vaccines saved the world all by themselves. But both authors do stress that what vaccines have done is as remarkable as nutrition and hygiene reducing the mortality rate by 500 percent; in some cases vaccines have reduced the rate to essentially zero -- which is why people no longer fear the diseases that used to kill children. Instead, they fear vaccines.

If parents want to be fearful, they should fear unintentional injuries, which account for as many deaths of 1- to 4-year-olds as the next six leading causes combined. Or they can fear obesity. But as with the link between smoking and cancer, it is hard to see the link between gulping down a few donut holes and chronic illness later in adulthood. In contrast, many parents see a direct link between vaccination and autism. In fact, some even saw the link before it could have happened. Jenny McCarthy, for example, is reported by Offit to have asked her son's pediatrician right before her son was given the MMR vaccine, "That's the autism shot, isn't it?"

Human-interest stories abound in both books. All of the leading culprits in fear-mongering about vaccines appear so sneaky and craven that the reader wonders what could possibly motivate them aside from fame and fortune. True believers, though, are often motivated by their belief even if the belief makes no sense (to us). Deeper insight into the worlds of others comes from recognizing this fact. Neither book, however, despite nods in this direction, gets quite deep enough.


The MMR vaccine is routinely given to children in the United States when they are between 15 and 18 months old. At 15 months, most children toddle well, use three or more words regularly, and laugh at funny things. Some can sing, and a few can walk up stairs and walk backward. Two months later, most toddlers have doubled their word use, climb around and explore their environment, and enjoy imaginary games. They also know how to throw a tantrum when they are frustrated, respond to simple directions, play with toys, and stack a few blocks. As every parent knows, these are fantastic developments, but seen in this aseptic light, they are pretty modest achievements.

Many children with autism will miss these milestones. Even so, many children who appear to their parents and even their pediatricians to be developing normally but are later diagnosed with autism seemingly regress around age 2, losing their few words and social skills. Sometimes the regression is associated with a fever or seizures, sometimes not. Sometimes it appears suddenly, and sometimes it is only slowly pieced back together from parental recall.

Whether sudden or not, the regression is terrifying for parents. For many of them (but not all), the temporal simultaneity of the vaccine and the descent into autism cannot be just a chance event. It seems the vaccine caused their child's autism. As pointed out in the Vaccine Court Omnibus Hearings, beautifully described by Offit, the fact that experts can identify an array of developmental abnormalities in children from video taken well before their MMR vaccine, which neither parents nor pediatricians could see because they are not trained to do so, doesn't matter to parents looking for causes.

The strategy that parents are using to account for cause is no different from the theory that some autism epidemiologists have been using to account for increased autism prevalence. If all of a sudden, something happens (like increased autism prevalence), it cannot (ordinarily) be caused by something that happened afterward. So autism scientists have raced to identify the change over the past few decades that has led to the rising prevalence of autism.

Here, too, junk science competes with serious work. Because some articles have suggested that artificially generated electromagnetic radiation causes autism, parents have eliminated wireless computers in their house, disconnected alarm clocks, and thrown away their microwave. Because some economists have argued that autism is the result of "television watching due to precipitation" and that "seventeen percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s is due to the growth of cable television," some parents have thrown away their TV or moved to less rainy climates (where their children can spend time outdoors, exposing themselves to overhead power lines, which have been variously associated in comparably questionable science with such diverse health outcomes as "breast cancer, decreased libido, fatigue, depression, birth defects, reproductive problems, heart disease, stress headaches, trouble sleeping, and many other symptoms. Yikes").

Yikes is right. The "science" here is as good as the science behind the idea that vaccines cause autism. Using the same methods, one could show that frozen yogurt, emo music, tofu, beets, sun-dried tomatoes, or anything else that has increased over the same time period as autism is a potential risk factor. The mistake here is to confuse correlated time series with cause.

It is also a mistake not to take this bad science more seriously. Modeling is important. Should it surprise us that if scientists are confusing correlated time series with cause that parents are doing it as well? That two things happen at the same time does not mean that one caused the other. The most famous example of this is the idea that storks bring babies into the world. Babies come from people. People live in houses and houses have chimneys and storks roost in chimneys so the more people the more babies, houses, chimneys, and storks. It is easy enough to lay the blame on malfeasant scientists and publicity hounds, but when ordinary scientists pursue news stories instead of properly specified models, things can go awry quickly. And in the case of autism science, they often have.

The bad science that causally associates vaccines with autism has led to dangerous changes in parental decision-making. Some children (not statistical abstractions) have died because they contracted whooping cough or measles. In California, rates of vaccine refusal (politely called vaccine exemption) have skyrocketed, threatening the loss of "herd immunity" in many communities. If a few children aren't vaccinated, they are unlikely to contract the disease, but if many are not, the disease may race through a community, threatening a mass epidemic.

Both books feature the real people whose children have been harmed or killed by diseases otherwise avoidable. So the decision to skip a vaccination differs from the decision to switch to battery-powered alarm clocks. Because the diseases that vaccinations prevent pass from person to person (except for tetanus), failure to vaccinate -- that is, free riding on the positive vaccination decisions of others -- is dangerous to everyone.

Mnookin makes an important argument about science: It is self-paralyzing. The problem is that it can never prove anything, just falsify the theories of others. Scientists can say that the idea that vaccines cause autism is not supported by the extant evidence but not that vaccines cannot possibly cause autism. They could, perhaps, in some unknown way in interaction with some unknown variables. And in that little space of enchantment reside the David Kirbys of the world who exploit the humility of science to create the doubt and uncertainty that allows conspiracy theories to flourish. Science needs to speak with a stronger voice to overcome both the assault on reason of anti-science crusaders and the indifference to reason of journalists who train the public to believe that every issue has two sides.

Both books are thrillers. They are true stories after all. The malfeasant doctors, publicity-seeking journalists, blinded activists, and confused celebrities do and say things that are truly shocking. Jenny McCarthy really does tell Oprah that her science is "mommy instinct," and Dr. Bob really does make up a new vaccination schedule.

Even so, telling a one-sided story is difficult. To fill out the pages, Mnookin travels down vaguely related rivers to discuss heuristics and cascades; Offit shows how the "self-interested" decision to refuse vaccination leads to a tragedy of the commons and then, most important, why the decision is only seemingly self-interested. Offit's book has a broader focus than Mnookin's. And Mnookin is a bit breathless for my taste. Offit is in the middle of the controversy. He is, after all, a character in the Mnookin book and reportedly requires bodyguards at talks. It seems as if some of the people who choose not to vaccinate their children feel so strongly about it that they want to harm Offit. They should read his book.


Closed medical minds?

There's a lot of it about. New approaches are often resisted

Last July, we reported on the battle by MS sufferer Mark Walker to have a controversial new treatment not recognised in Britain. Here, he tells how his condition has improved since having it abroad:

My wife’s reaction when she touched my feet on July 1 2010 was unexpected but very welcome. “They’re the same temperature and nearly the same colour,” Natasha announced excitedly. I should explain that my right foot has felt cold to the touch and been purplish in appearance for many years.

The day before, I had undergone a controversial treatment at a clinic in Athens and this was tantalising evidence that something had changed in my body as a result.

I am 51 years old and I have multiple sclerosis (MS). The first symptom – double vision lasting several weeks – developed in November 1991, although I did not receive a definitive diagnosis until April 1997. By 2000, I had accumulating symptoms including numbness, balance and bladder problems and a general feeling that, while it might not be yet apparent to my friends, MS was slowing me down in every way.

In January 2003, I was hit by physical and mental fatigue so debilitating that I could hardly get out of bed. I was forced to give up my much-loved job as a management consultant with IBM, something that left me depressed. I have never recovered sufficiently to return to work. Despite treatment with conventional drugs and therapies, my MS progressed steadily, with mobility on my right side increasingly impaired, and I have had several serious relapses when symptoms have increased in severity. As a qualified pharmacist, I have used my scientific knowledge to research the disease and its management thoroughly. I am what doctors call an “expert patient”. After 20 years of living with MS, I am willing to try any safe, logical therapy.

It was in October 2009 that I first heard about Professor Paolo Zamboni, director of the Centre for Vascular Diseases at the University of Ferrara in Italy. In 2005, his wife Elena was diagnosed with MS, and he embarked on a personal mission to discover everything he could about the disease, from medical literature dating back 100 years to the use of state-of-the-art body scanning techniques.

He concluded that the MS was, in part, a vascular disease caused by restricted, blocked, malformed or twisted veins or vein valves in the neck and trunk. A small clinical study appeared to back his claims. He named the syndrome “chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency” (CCSVI – see box) and set about developing treatment to unblock – or “de-stenose” – the veins so that healthy blood flow was restored. He claimed a dramatic improvement in his wife’s condition and that of other MS patients he treated.

News of Zamboni’s theory and treatment spread within the MS community via chatrooms and websites, leading hundreds of people around the world to seek the treatment, known as venoplasty (similar to angioplasty, in which a balloon is inserted into a blood vessel and inflated to remove a blockage).

In June last year I was interviewed by The Daily Telegraph about my battle – and failure – to obtain a diagnosis of, and treatment (if required) for, CCSVI in Britain and my decision to seek help abroad. Neurologists at my local hospital, the John Radcliffe in Oxford, claimed that it was not ethical or prudent to even attempt to diagnose CCSVI because of doubts about Zamboni’s work. Quite why it wasn’t “ethical” to use a safe, non-invasive diagnostic procedure (colour Doppler sonography) – which I was willing to pay for – to look at my veins continues to baffle me.

So I took my quest for venoplasty to a clinic in Athens which had treated many MS patients for CCSVI. You are reading the update on the treatment and my condition that readers were promised in that article.

I was the 45th MS patient to be seen by Constantinos “Costas” Kartkaletsis, a consultant vascular surgeon. After an initial examination, blood tests and a chest X-ray, he explained that a catheter would be inserted into the femoral vein in my groin and guided into my main trunk and neck veins. I was injected with anti-coagulant and put on a drip. I would have a local anaesthetic only and be fully conscious for the whole procedure.

I could feel the balloon inflating inside my veins but there was no pain. Restrictions were diagnosed in four major veins (the azygos vein, hemi-azygos, and the left and right internal jugular veins) in the trunk and neck, and all were treated using balloon venoplasty over three hours.

I had not expected any immediate impact, but Natasha’s surprise at the improved condition of my feet next morning left me elated. I could not explain what had happened but something had changed. Mr Kartkaletsis was interested in Natasha’s observation but he has a policy of treating restricted veins rather than commenting on any change in MS symptoms following treatment.

Back home, I planned complete relaxation for two months. I decided not to try to record frequent changes but to note trends on a monthly basis, as MS symptoms can vary daily.

At the end of the first month I felt my concentration had improved. People with MS use the term “cog fog” to describe the deterioration in cognitive functioning. Friends noticed that I no longer needed regular naps and that I focused better on conversations. After three months, I felt I was functioning mentally at least as well as I was a decade ago.

There were other changes, too: I’d had neuropathic pain (caused by damage to the nervous system) in my right leg for many years. That went and has not returned. After years of not recalling my dreams – an observation reported by many with long-term MS – I have, for the past six months, remembered them again. My need to get up at night to urinate also improved slightly, from three to six times to one to three times a night – something much appreciated by my wife.

My walking and balance have not changed over the past six months, and I still rely on my Musmate walking aid and trekking poles to get about. But, on the plus side, my osteopath David Harsant, at Oxfordshire’s Multiple Sclerosis Therapy Centre, who made extensive notes before and since the procedure, reports gradual improvement in muscle tone, stiffness and spasm in my neck and back. He says my neck muscles felt ''matted, congested and were indistinguishable.’’ but after the venoplasty ''the matted sensation reduced and the palpability of individual muscles increased”.

Professor Zamboni has reported that some patients may require repeat treatments if their veins “re-stenose” after venoplasty. Vascular specialists are defining the best way to diagnose restricted veins, the veins to check, the best size, position, pressure and duration of ballooning. I expect to undergo another procedure when the method is finalised.

CCSVI remains a controversial diagnosis, as does its treatment. However, MS patients are at the forefront of spreading the word and the internet is making that easier. I have watched a doctor from Kuwait present his work on CCSVI to vascular specialists in New York, and heard an interview with a research neurologist who has collated doctors’ reports on CCSVI. Expert patients like me are frustrated by the refusal of the MS establishment in Britain – neurologists and the MS Society – to accept the existence of this condition and consider testing for it. Since I went to Athens, testing for CCSVI and balloon venoplasty has become available to private patients at a clinic in Glasgow. The package costs £7,990 and there is already a waiting list.

Would I recommend the treatment to other MS patients? I would certainly encourage those with progressive MS to think about balloon venoplasty. There is a small risk of vein injury but, based on doctors’ web reports on 2,000 people treated, I believe there is a chance that it may slow or halt progression of the disease. I was lucky that the cost of private treatment was not prohibitive but sadly this is not the case for many. I have tried explaining to neurologists and vascular doctors why CCSVI syndrome should at least be considered as a possibility in patients with MS but to no avail. Only my caring, supportive GP was prepared to listen. Medical journals refuse to publish patients’ point of view – I know because I’ve tried that, too. One has to ask what the neurology establishment is so frightened of: opening the veins of those with MS or opening their own minds.