Rethink Health - January 2011

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That Wolf Again

It has become one of the markers of winter. The retirement of Sir Liam Donaldson has changed nothing. We are again being warned of "pandemic" flu and many more of us, we are told, should be queuing up for vaccination.

This does seem to be hugely exaggerated. Swine flu was never a major pandemic, and is if anything less prevalent this year than last. The confirmed swine flu death toll was 474 up to April 2010. So far this year about 30 people have died, nine of whom were children. Most people who catch it recover with rest, and many are so little disturbed that they have no idea they were ever infected. So herd immunity is spreading.

However, that is not all. Considerably more people this year are affected badly enough by respiratory illness to require intensive care in hospital. 80% of these are aged 16-65, those older and younger 10% each. Most of these are overweight or obese, some asthmatic or pregnant. (More space has been prepared for flu beds this year so some of the increase may represent better availability.)

Our starting point is always the same, that sudden death and acute serious illness tend to peak between December and March. A lot of people survive difficult chronic medical conditions for decades, but eventually succumb at this time of year. Flu may be one of the immediate causes of the crisis, but the underlying weakness of the victim is what kills them.

The real pandemic, it seems to me, is this loss of general resistance and vitality. I have marveled for years that people who eat badly get away with it for so long. They don't all get fat, either. Commonly they find themselves reliant on regular prescribed medication, sometimes from quite early in adulthood but most commonly from about 50 onwards. They are not often to be found camping half way up a hill, or walking a long-distance trail. They come insidiously to rely heavily on social support and motorised aids of all sorts. The latest must-have seems to be the electric buggy.

My forecast is that, whatever the annual winter scourge may be, it will regularly affect a larger proportion of younger people, reared on junk and deeply anaesthetised by television. Obesity will continue to feature prominently.

Public Health officials have the wrong wolf in their sights. It will not cower before vaccination. Patent remedies will not touch it. We cannot catch, bin and kill a junk existence!

Aspirin and Cancer

This is one of those stories that defies intuition. 

In the New Year's Day edition of The Lancet, Volume 377, Issue 9759, Pages 31 - 41, five distinguished epidemiologists published a review of over 25,000 patients who had taken part for 5 or more years in studies of the effect of aspirin on cardiovascular disease. Half had been randomly assigned aspirin, half a placebo. 

It appears from their findings that regular daily aspirin in any dosage for 5 years or more reduces the risk of any cancer by 34%, and of bowel cancer by up to 59% (depending on the precise measure). Gender and smoking made no difference, but the benefit was larger in the older age-groups. 

And yet aspirin irritates, and can ulcerate, the skin of the bowel! It also thins the blood enough to cause unwanted bruising quite commonly.

I am left wondering what this really means. I will not myself begin taking aspirin, since I still consider that proper nourishment and careful digestion provide much more comprehensive protection. And I doubt somehow that aspirin will prove to protect people who neglect their health in other respects. Could it be that participation in studies of this kind has sharpened the participants' focus on their health? If so, one would expect them to smoke less than the average, which is not clear from the summary of the paper. I do know, from my contact with the aviation community, that relatively slight but timely attention to health can have great long-term benefits.

For me, the jury is out on whether we should endure bruising and stomach irritation in return for this potential benefit. My instinct is that some other factor will prove to underlie this striking result. I shall watch this space.


On a more modest scale altogether, I can at last announce the publication during December of my own research on fluoride consumption in the UK. It appeared in the International Journal of Fluoride Research, Volume 43(4) pages 204–212. 

This was long delayed while I tried to persuade the Department of Health or Food Standards Agency to publish it themselves, since it was their own data I had used. In the end,  I bowed to pressure to get it considered by the EC as part of a review of chemicals in food. They will only accept studies that have appeared in a peer-reviewed journal.

I don't expect anyone to rush out and buy this as bedtime reading! I do hope it will provoke better studies than mine, to confirm or refute my tentative conclusion - that drinking fluoridated water gives most people too much fluoride.

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