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Government’s obesity strategy: not worth the paper it’s printed on?

Okay, so the health secretary Andrew Lansley announced the government’s big plans to tackle obesity yesterday, and already just about everyone with something to say on the subject has put the boot in. So I’m not going to join them. Oh alright then. I will. (Imagine sound of my boot making contact with members of the Department of Health’s collective posterior).

Well really, can you blame me? I have rarely read a ’strategy’ that is less strategy-like. The public, apparently, needs to ‘be more honest’ about its eating habits. Oh really? And how, exactly, is that going to solve the obesity crisis? And here’s another thing: does the minister really think that telling people that they eat too much is going to make them change their pot-bellied little ways? Oh please.

Jamie Oliver put it exactly as I would have (if anyone would have asked, that is), describing the so-called obesity strategy as “worthless, regurgitated, patronising rubbish” and “a farce”. Love him or loathe him (and I admit I have a soft spot…), you’ve got to admit he has one hell of a point.

Tell you what: making fruit and veg cheaper than junk food would be a step in the right direction if you really want to encourage people to eat more healthily. But will Mr Lansley take on the food giants in any way, shape or form? Will he heck. Instead, he suggests we stop using public transport and walk to work instead.

Is this the best the government can do? I honestly have no words…

Posted in Food and drink, General health, Weightloss.

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Are you working too hard?

Today’s news about rising unemployment figures in the UK is pretty dismal, I think everyone would agree. But if you’re one of those who are still lucky enough to have a job, then do you feel even more pressure now to perform at work than you used to?

I imagine the answer is ‘yes’. And a new survey by Aviva suggests I might be right. Each day, UK workers are putting in 26 million extra work hours, says the insurance company’s latest Health of the Workplace Report. In fact, six in 10 employees work beyond their contracted hours, the report says, by putting in an average of one and a half hours’ overtime – unpaid, of course – per day. The company has cleverly worked out that means UK business benefit to the tune of £225 million per day in unpaid labour.

Phew. I’m feeling exhausted just thinking about it.

The result of all those extra hours is bad news for health. According to Aviva, 27 percent of those quizzed said they feel tired all the time, 23 percent say they feel really stressed, 15 percent admit to eating junk food as a result of overworking themselves, and 9 percent say they need to smoke or drink to unwind. Only 18 percent say their work-life balance is still good, after taking the extra hours at work into account.

But why do we stay at work after going-home time? It’s not for the love of the job any more, the survey claims, with 41 percent of people staying late because they have too much work and 20 percent admitting they want to impress the boss.

“Working excessively can have a huge impact on people’s mental and physical wellbeing, so anyone who feels they might have a problem, should speak to their manager to address the matter before it becomes a bigger issue,” says head of clinical development for Aviva, Dr Douglas Wright.

“Six per cent of workers actually report they have been off sick as a result of overworking, so it’s very much in employers and employees’ interests to nip any such problems in the bud.”

With jobless figures on a continuously upward trend, it doesn’t seem as if the problems caused by overwork will be nipped in the bud any time soon though, does it?

Posted in General health, Wellbeing.

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Lifestyle and cancer: time to face facts?

Well, well. There was me in my little health journalistic bubble thinking that the link between lifestyle and cancer was pretty well known these days. But I was wrong.

According to a new study by the British Dental Health Foundation, no less, many of us don’t realise that cancer may well be preventable. And yes, before you say it, there are always terribly sad exceptions to this idea – the person who never smoked a cigarette in their life developing lung cancer, for instance. But the evidence is, I believe, overwhelming. You can reduce your risk of cancer – and with some types the link is stronger than others – if you lead a healthy life.

So what did this British Dental Health Foundation survey discover then? Well out of the 10 cancers the survey asked about, just over half of the people involved said skin cancer was the most preventable. That makes sense, doesn’t it? And it’s a testament to the effectiveness of the sun exposure/skin cancer messages that are thrown out every summer (even if many people ignore them).

Lung and mouth cancer were rated the second and third largely preventable cancers, but despite their clear association with the risks of smoking, only 41 percent  and 32 percent respectively of those who were asked identified them as avoidable.

Brain cancer was considered to be the least preventable, followed by breast, prostate and testicular cancer. The World Health Organisation, on the other hand, suggests more than 30 percent of cancers could be prevented ‘by modifying or avoiding key risk factors’ (in other words by not smoking, by eating healthily, by drinking moderately etc.).

The 30 percent preventable statistic sounds on the low side – I remember writing a few years ago, for instance, about US experts who claimed up to 70 percent of cancers could be prevented with the right lifestyle adjustments.

Yet many people are still confused about the issue. So in other words, health charities, the government and – yes, I admit it – health journalists aren’t doing their job as well as they should, are they? Or are many people simply resistant to the idea that lifestyle is very often crucial when it comes to disease risk for some reason or other?

On a lighter note, I’ve just read a story about a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, which suggests women who eat at least two chocolate bars a week appear to have a 20 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those of the same age and weight who rarely or never eat chocolate.

So there is a God!

Posted in Fitness, Food and drink, General health, Wellbeing.

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Give us a smile (if you’re depressed, that is)…

Riskfactorphobes and hypochondriacs alike are going to love the story published in yesterday’s Daily Mail. ‘Could YOU be a victim of smiling depression?’, it asks.

Apparently comedian and all-round national treasure David Walliams recently owned up to the fact that, for much of his life, he’s suffered from depression. And he’s not the only funny person to be so afflicted: Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry and Lenny Henry have all experienced the big D while simultaneously putting on a happy face for the rest of us (or, as the Mail colourfully puts it, they chose ‘to mask their inner torment with a ‘happy’ public persona’).

The problem could be widespread, say experts such as London-based Dr Cosmo Hallstrom, a leading psychiatrist. Apparently the one in 20 statistic for people suffering from depression could be far higher, since so many more are believed to be victims of so-called ’smiling’ depression (the alternative term is high-functioning depression, in case you’re interested).

Let’s be frank. Depression is an incredibly serious illness, that goes without saying. But don’t you often wonder whether the experts – in this case the psychiatrists – will never be happy until the vast majority of the population are being regularly medicated with antidepressants?

Do we have to question whether what we’re really feeling is the blues every single time we crack a smile? I know some people will after reading about ’smiling’ depression (riskfactorphobes, you know who you are).

If you do have a problem with depression, it can be exceedingly difficult to get the treatment you need. One thing you can do for yourself, however, is to arm yourself with as much solid, non-scaremongering information as possible. Find out more at and at Or you could take the Depression Self-Assessment Test at (scroll down the page to get to the link).

But above all, don’t stop smiling.

Posted in General health, Mind/body, Wellbeing, psychology.

Take a walk on the app side

If, like countless others, you are addicted to your iPhone, here’s one of the ways that it could help make you healthier. By taking it out for a walk. Well, that is, if you download a new app called Healthy (imaginative, eh?), developed by O2 Health. Unveiled at Cancer Research UK’s Shine event (the walking night-time marathon that was held on October 1st), Healthy is designed to make walking more fun. And as we all know, 10,000 steps a day is the holy grail of activities, so making it more fun can only be a good thing.

So what does it do? It tracks how far you walk and can display your progress by showing where you’ve walked on a map and telling you how many calorties you’ve burned. Okay, you can get fit and increase your activity levels without it, but here’s the best part. It’s free.

“Healthy is the first consumer-focused product from O2 Health and represents our commitment to using technology to help people live healthy and more active lifestyles,” says Keith Nurcombe, managing director of O2 Health.

The app has the backing of Cancer Research UK too, which can’t be at all bad. “It’s fantastic that O2 Health have launched this app at Shine London,” says Vicki Blake, Cancer Research UK’s Shine event manager. “Walking more is a great way to increase your level of physical activity – and being physically active helps to reduce the risk of cancers of the bowel, breast and womb, as well as other serious diseases.”

So there you are. Download it from the App Store (and if you have an Android phone, a version is in development) and get walking

It’s not every day something comes along that’s good for your health AND doesn’t cost you anything, is it?

Posted in Fitness, General health.

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Flu dangers: not worth spending government cash on?

I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly enjoying this unseasonally hot weather. It’s hard to believe that it’s almost October – and yet Britain is currently sizzling in the sun. Well, we did have a rubbish summer…

And thanks to the unexpected – but welcome – heatwave, it’s also hard to believe that the flu season is just around the corner. I was reminded about just that when I received a press release from the Department of Health today, which points out that millions of people in at-risk groups should be getting their flu jabs right now.

The release suggests that ‘people are playing Russian roulette with their lives every year by not protecting themselves against seasonal flu’. According to statistics that have just been announced, 87 percent of people say they would get holiday jabs before travelling to tropical countries. But only half of under-65s who were advised to get the seasonal flu jab took it up last year.

And the press release goes on. Last year, it says, 602 people died with flu in the UK, with 70 percent of the deaths occurring in young and middle-aged people.

“A five-minute appointment to have the flu jab could save your life,” warns Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer.

But hang on. Didn’t I read the other day that the health secretary Andrew Lansley had, for the second year running, decided running an awareness campaign about flu jabs wasn’t worth the money? At least he has declined to run the campaign, which had been running for years up until last year.

Now I know money is tight, but awareness of flu jabs is obviously far too low. So isn’t the government putting more lives at risk this year?

I suppose it’s up to the press now to do its bit and try to inform people about the availability – and eligibility issues – of flu jabs. So perhaps I should join in.

Certain at-risk groups can get the flu jab for free. This includes pregnant women; the over-65s; people with a long-term condition such as heart or chest problems, liver or kidney disease, asthma or diabetes; people with a neurological condition such as multiple sclerosis or cerebral palsy; and people who are having treatment that may compromise their immune system (ie taking immunosuppressive drugs).

And even if you’re not in one of the at-risk groups, flu jabs are available at many pharmacies for just a few pounds (last year you could get them for under a tenner if you shopped around). It’s a small price to pay for not just getting the flu, but for helping to prevent spreading it to others.

There. And that didn’t cost a penny.

Posted in General health, Wellbeing.

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Weekends – not a good time to be hospitalised (again)

Well tell us something we don’t already know.

Over a year ago, I wrote about a study by Imperial College London that suggested being admitted to hospital at the weekend made you more likely to die than if you were taken ill during the week (see When NOT to get ill (part 2)).

And now, a survey by NHS London suggests that patients admitted to hospital at the weekend have a greater risk of dying than patients admitted during the week.

Hello? Isn’t that the same story?

Well yes, it’s the same, or similar, finding. Different survey though. But even so, talk about an overwhelming case of deja vu. Shouldn’t the powers that be actually do something about this problem, rather than allow researchers to come up with the same findings year after year? How many more times will we have to read these pitiful statistics before someone has the bright idea of sorting it out?

The latest survey – if you really want to  know – suggests 500 lives could be saved a year in London if more staff were employed at hospitals at the weekends, particularly hospital consultants (who allegedly spend an average of just four hours on site at the weekends compared to the 10 hours they are required to be available during the week), and if there was better access to diagnostic scans too.

So, you’re thinking, it all comes down to money, does it? Well in this economic climate, you’d be forgiven for jumping to the obvious cash-related conclusion. But no, according to Matt Thompson, professor of vascular surgery at St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust and the clinical director for the survey, it’s not about lack of money or understaffing – rather it’s a result of current working practices that leave some hospitals with insufficient consultant cover at weekends.

Oh for pity’s sake, pull your fingers out, will you, all you hospital managers out there? This utterly shoddy ‘working practices’ issue is costing far too many people their lives (500 a year in London and goodness knows how many across the nation as a whole). And if Mr Thompson is right, and it’s not about money, then you should all be doubly ashamed of yourselves.

Posted in General health.

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Chocoholics rejoice!

Well I’ve heard everything now. Chocolate – you know, the devil incarnate in terms of blood sugar, weight gain and indeed dental health (plus others, I dare say) – is not only good for your heart (those studies, I’m afraid, are as common as muck these days). But eating it is apparently as good for your fitness levels as exercise too.

WHAT? Am I hearing this correctly?

But wait. Why then, I’m wondering, am I not the female equivalent of Usain Bolt? Hell, I eat enough chocolate (despite being sensitive to caffeine – which means I have to do all my chocolate eating early on in the day or I don’t get a wink of sleep afterwards) to be an Olympic athlete.

Oh hang on a minute. The tests – which suggest a compound in dark chocolate called epicatechin stimulates the muscles in a similar way to intensive exercise – were performed on… wait for it… mice.

Talk about that sinking feeling. I really wish they wouldn’t do that. Get people all excited and then, when you get to the small print, you discover the miraculous effect of whatever you’ve been reading about has been tested on a small laboratory creature, that is. Don’t get me started on animal cruelty either, though these particular mice were fed chocolate, so perhaps I shouldn’t get on my high horse on this occasion.

As countless others have pointed out before me, results of tests that are done on animals can not necessary be replicated in humans. So when I see a study like this one, I just want to spit!

There again, if they’re looking for human volunteers to test the same theory…

Posted in Fitness, Food and drink, General health, Weightloss.

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Anyone fancy a spot of alcohol research?

A new charity has been launched today called Alcohol Research. Sounds like a hoot, doesn’t it? But as much as my twisted imagination would like to think so,  it’s not an excuse for a bunch of charity workers to get together and have regular boozing sessions. Far from it.

The charity has been set up to tackle some of the problems created by alcohol misuse in the UK. And if you’re into scary statistics, here’s one: the cost to the taxpayer of dealing with the consequences of excessive drinking is estimated to be around £7.3 billion. Blimey, that would help offset some of the national deficit, wouldn’t it? Forget austerity measures, let’s just stop people drinking themselves into oblivion.

The charity has kicked off with a study on the great British public’s attitude to a minimum pricing policy for alcohol – something this government has been talking about (but critics say isn’t worth the paper the recommendations are written on).

And guess what? Most of those who took part in the research weren’t just sceptical about raising the price of booze, but they didn’t fully understand the policy and its implications. Hmm, you don’t say.

Where you stand on minimum pricing depends on your relationship with alcohol, though, doesn’t it? If you are a non-to-moderate drinker who’s worried about the damage excessive alcohol consumption is doing to society (not to mention the economy) in general, then you’re probably going to be for it – in fact, you’re probably one of those who think the current thinking doesn’t go far enough.

If you’re more than fond of a tipple or four on more than the odd occasion, of course you’re not going to want prices to go up.

And if you’re a drinks manufacturer who sells cheap booze by the bucket-load to discount stores and supermarkets, you’re probably not going to be happy about any minimum-price-per-unit plans either.

So what’s the solution? You tell me. And don’t mention it to the alcohol researchers, but I’m just off for a G&T…

Posted in Food and drink, General health.

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NHS myths busted. Really?

Well I never. I’ve just received an, er, interesting press release from the Department of Health that’s so incredible, I’m going to reproduce it in it’s entirety. It’s entitled simply TOP MYTHS and I’m sure its aim is to answer the government’s critics. But doesn’t it achieve quite the opposite? Call me a cynic, but this latest missive only makes me more convinced that all our fears about how the health service may change under the coalition will be realised. In full.
I particularly like the comment that claims the NHS is being privatised are ‘ludicrous scaremongering’. Such strong, emotive language (not jut scaremongering, but ludicrous scaremongering) makes me think of that old saying: the lady doth protest too much. Or is that the cynic in me popping up again?
So here it is, completely unedited. Enjoy (for want of a better phrase)…
MYTH: The Health Secretary will wash his hands of the NHS
The Bill does not change the Secretary of State’s duty to promote a comprehensive health service.
MYTH: Bureaucracy will increase significantly
We are abolishing needless bureaucracy, and our plans will save one third of all administration costs during this Parliament.
MYTH: You are introducing competition in the NHS
Competition will not be pursued as an end in itself. We have said that competition will be used to drive up quality, and not be based on price. Nor will we allow competition to be a barrier to collaboration and integration.
MYTH: You are privatising the NHS
Claims that we aim to privatise the NHS amount to nothing more than ludicrous scaremongering. We have made it crystal clear, time and again, that we will never, ever, privatise the NHS.
MYTH: Private patients will take priority over other patients
The NHS will always be available to all, free at the point of use and based on need and not the ability to pay. Nothing in our proposals will enable private patients to “leapfrog” to the front of NHS waiting lists.
MYTH: NHS hospitals will be managed by foreign companies
Even if independent sector management is used, NHS assets will continue to be wholly owned by the NHS. And there would be rigorous checks to ensure that any such independent provider is reputable and fit for purpose.
MYTH: The Bill hasn’t had proper scrutiny
The Bill has so far spent longer being scrutinised than any Public Bill between 1997 and 2010 – 40 Committee sittings, and over 100 hours of debate. Even Opposition MPs acknowledged that every inch of the Bill has been looked at.
MYTH: The NHS doesn’t need to change
The NHS does need to change to meet future challenges of an ageing population and rising costs of treatment. The independent NHS Future Forum confirmed the NHS must change to safeguard it for the future.
MYTH: You are introducing EU competition law in the NHS
The Bill does not change current UK or EU competition legislation or procurement legislation or the areas to which they apply.
MYTH: These plans were not in the Coalition Agreement
The Coalition Agreement clearly said doctors, nurses and health professionals will be handed freedom to decide what is right for their patients; that we will establish an independent NHS board; that patients will be in charge over their care; and that we will cut the cost of NHS administration by a third to reinvest into the front line.

Posted in General health.

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