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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beware- how a sun and sea holiday will shrink your brain power

According to research, taking a holiday– particularly a sunny one – can lower your IQ. A Health warning- two weeks’ holiday could reduce your IQ by as much as 20 points, but, fortunately, the effect is only temporary.

Holidays, it seems – particularly to sweltering destinations – can impair mental functioning.

The problems begin when you book your holiday online, particularly if this entails a lengthy email exchange. According to a 2005 study by psychologist Glenn Wilson, visiting professor at Gresham College, London, email “bombardment” can reduce IQ by up to 10 points – more than double the effect of smoking a considerable amount of cannabis.

Prof Wilson has labelled the condition “infomania”. Concentration is impaired as sufferers’ minds remain fixed in an almost permanent state of readiness to react to potential incoming messages, as opposed to focusing on tasks in hand.

Even on a good day, the human brain finds it hard to cope with juggling multiple tasks simultaneously, so the email overload further reduces its effectiveness.

Then you actually have to get to your holiday resort.

The stress of modern travel – worries over airport strikes, volcanic ash or whether you’re in the right queue for priority boarding – can increase levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.

This risks damaging cells in part of the brain called the hippocampus, which in turn adversely affects short-term memory and concentration.

Add a restorative drink while airborne and, depending on the beverage, you could drop another 10 to 20 IQ points, according to Alcohol Concern. And you haven’t even checked into your hotel yet.

It is at this point that phrenic Armageddon really kicks in. Research by Professor Siegfried Lehrl of the University of Erlangen in Germany, a specialist in mental performance, suggests that sunbathing and relaxation cause one’s frontal lobes literally to shrivel.

Prof Lehrl says that inactivity reduces oxygen to the brain, which causes the dendrites and axons (parts of the nerve cells involved in sending electrical impulses) to degrade. Add dehydration caused by excess heat, alcohol, or both, and brain cell volume may decrease by up to 15 per cent.

“Fourteen days of complete rest can be enough to bring your IQ down by 20 points – more than the difference between a bright and an average student,” says Prof Lehrl. “Vocabulary shrinks, and we even detect personality changes.”

For men, this loss of intelligence may well be exacerbated by the vision of the opposite sex in bikinis. A 2008 study for The Journal of Consumer Research concluded that merely looking at women in beach garb “instigates generalised impatience in intertemporal choice”.

In layman’s terms, men’s judgment and self-critical faculties are compromised, and, in worst-case scenarios, they will propose to (or proposition) the first girl who winks at them.

At this point, you might be tempted to down a cold beer or a Gin and Tonic at the poolside bar. Don’t!

Researchers at Bristol University discovered that drinking anything overly cold reduces brain power by as much as 10 IQ points, as energy and blood are diverted from the brain to the stomach, to balance the drop in temperature.

So how can you negate the nightmare effects of your dream vacation?

According to Prof Lehrl, you should exercise your brain on holiday for at least 10 minutes a day by playing an intellectually stimulating game (chess or Scrabble, for instance), mitigate inactivity with regular long walks, rehydrate constantly – and chew lots of gum.

Gum? “The part of the brainstem that keeps us alert is constantly stimulated by chewing, as a result of which the attention level rises, as does the flow of blood to the brain.”

If you lack the willpower to follow the professor’s advice, the good news is that, unless you did propose to the first girl who winked at you (and she accepted), the consequences of a vacation are temporary. Four days later, your IQ usually returns to normal.

So next time you see raucous holidaymakers necking beers and mooning passers-by, try not to be too judgmental: they are probably email-overloaded nuclear safety engineers who have neglected to chew gum. Hopefully, they will leave a sensible interval between returning to work and installing their reactor’s control rods.

Breast screening- are women over examined?

Are women being over examined by an over cautious health nanny state? In an uncertain world, we want to believe in the certainty of medicine: that it is omniscient and operates in absolutes. In reality, this is far from the truth. The world of medicine reflects the world we live in; constantly in flux with multifarious contradictions.

Scientists relish this fact. However, for those on the outside, this can be bewildering. We are told one thing one minute, only for it to be ridiculed the next. With its definitions and protocols, medicine serves to give the illusion of stability when, in truth, doctors are all too often unsure.

The furore around breast screening perfectly illustrates this. It began when the Government’s cancer “tsar”, Prof Sir Mike Richards, announced that he is setting up an independent review of the NHS programme.

He has also ordered that patient leaflets, which explain the screening programme, be rewritten to take into account claims by some experts that the benefits have been exaggerated.

Understandably, this has prompted widespread confusion. The issue of breast cancer is always emotive. When I worked in breast surgery, I saw first hand the horrors of this disease on sufferers and their families, and it is vital that we do everything we can to treat and prevent it. But the debate over screening has been raging for some time within the medical community. I remember attending a lecture on this issue when I was at medical school more than 10 years ago.

The NHS screening programme was introduced by the Thatcher government following the 1987 Forrest Report, which recommended a national screening programme for breast cancer for women aged between 50 and 74. The report was based on the most up-to-date research.

But, since then, by comparing countries that have a screening programme with those that don’t, evidence has emerged suggesting that the steady fall in mortality in Western countries is not due to the screening programme, but to improved treatment and service provision.

If this is shown to be true – and it’s still a big if – then this would mean we are needlessly screening thousands of women. And there is an argument that many of the tumours detected by screening would not actually have developed into a life-threatening cancer.

For every screening test, whatever the disease, there is a margin of error. How good a test is can boil down to two things. The first is sensitivity, which measures how good the test is at giving a positive result in those who have the disease. The second is specificity, which refers to how many of those tested are disease-free and test negative.

Now, if you act on the results every time a test records a positive – in the case of breast cancer by doing invasive surgery or giving radiotherapy or chemotherapy – the sensitivity and specificity has to be very high (as near to 100 per cent as possible) to warrant a national screening programme. If it’s not sensitive enough, you’ll be giving women false reassurance when, in fact, tumours are being missed. Similarly, if it’s not specific enough, you’ll be needlessly treating people, with all the associated risks that treatment brings. It is this that is concerning some experts.

They argue that women are being over-diagnosed and over-treated because screening is not specific enough. It can pick up breast abnormalities that may look worrying when biopsied but are actually harmless. It’s a balancing act between saving lives and not causing harm by needless treatment. While doctors are used to adapting to changes in evidence, this is little consolation to women who worry about the disease.

It is perfectly sensible to have an independent review of the research, but I can’t help but think of the women who have had treatment,or are facing treatment, or those who are deciding if they should go for screening. The fact that the current debate waging in the medical establishment is part of the reflexive process that underpins science is of little comfort to them.

Let’s deal firmly with those who fail in patient care

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley should be congratulated – and it’s not often I say that – for his announcement last week that widespread spot checks on hospitals and care homes will be introduced in a drive to improve standards.

The checks will be undertaken by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). It comes after the Government reviewed the findings of the first wave of unannounced visits to care of the elderly wards in the summer. Over half the hospitals inspected had problems, particularly in relation to issues around patient dignity.

Spot checks are the way to tackle this and weed out bad practice and serious failings. But, they will only have any meaning if the CQC – often felt by those campaigning for improved standards as toothless – act on what they find. We don’t need endless reports and bureaucratic stalling. If it will work, the CQC will have to use its muscle. Those in charge of wards and hospitals found to be failing must be held accountable and dealt with firmly.

Bupa calls for urgent action over care home crisis

Ray King, chief executive of medical group Bupa, has called for a “chronic underfunding” of the care homes system to be addressed “urgently”.He warned that the NHS may face a “bed blocking” crisis unless fees paid to care home operators such as Bupa rise.

Mr King said the number of care home places in the UK will fall unless operators get “fairer fees”.

His comments came as he unveiled a sharp rise in Bupa’s overall global profits, but a fall in the UK division.

About 70% of Bupa’s 18,000 care residents, in its more than 300 homes, are paid for by local authorities- and local authorities pay for well over half of England’s 390,000 care home residents.

But Mr King said operators are seeing a real terms fall in fees as authorities’ budgets come under pressure.

Bupa believes there could be a 100,000 care home bed shortfall within 10 years, if investment in the sector is not increased and current funds are not ring fenced.

This could put pressure on the NHS to take in people who would normally go into care homes.

Bupa, which is a provident company with no shareholders, said its global care services division lifted revenues by 1% to £589 million and profits by 2% to £67.7 million in the half year to June.

But the UK care arm saw a “marginal” fall in profits and occupancy, a situation that could worsen.

Mr King said: “We are calling for the chronic underfunding of the social care system to be urgently addressed. At the absolute minimum, there must be a real terms increase in funding for local authority purchased care home places over 2012-15.”

Caesareans operations to be offered due to midwife shortages

Caesareans are to be offered to all pregnant women who ask for them, new guidelines state, amid concerns that some are too scared to give birth naturally on Britain’s overstretched labour wards. A lack of support is leading to “traumatic” natural births, say experts, resulting in women fearing a repeat experience.

Studies show that up to 10 per cent of women in Britain suffer from a serious fear of natural childbirth, called tokophobia.

Now the National Institute for Curbing Expenditure (NICE) is recommending that women should always have the right to a caesarean, even if they have no physical or mental health need.

The guidelines, state: “For women requesting a CS [caesarean section], if after discussion and offer of support (including perinatal mental health support for women with anxiety about childbirth), a vaginal birth is still not an acceptable option, offer a planned CS.”

Malcolm Griffiths, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at Luton and Dunstable Hospital, who chaired the guidelines development group, said most women were not interested in having a caesarean.

“It is a major operation, about as major as a hysterectomy,” he said.

Nonetheless, 25 per cent of births in Britain are now by caesarean. Between a third and a half of them are pre-planned.

Figures show that rates in Nordic countries are much lower, at about 15 per cent.

Many obstetricians want the UK rate to come down, but believe that is impossible without better midwifery services.

Mr Griffiths said: “I think probably key to the difference is support during labour, with one-to-one midwifery care and support in Nordic countries.”

Better midwifery care was “key to reducing the caesarean rate”, he added.

Nina Khazaezadeh, a consultant midwife at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and a member of the guidelines panel, said some women opted for caesareans because they feared childbirth after a “traumatic” first experience in an understaffed ward – a condition known as “secondary tokophobia”.

She said: “We might see a rise in secondary tokophobia where women have already had a birth that they have found very traumatic, and the perceived lack of support will have had an impact on their decisions for the next pregnancy.”

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: “There is very clear evidence that one-to-one support in labour reduces caesarean rates”.

However, she welcomed the new Nice guidelines, saying it was “absolutely acceptable” that a woman who feared childbirth should be offered a caesarean.

Coincidentally, the RCM publishes a new report today claiming that England faces “massive midwife shortages” and needs another 5,000 of them.

Even though numbers have increased since 2001, they have “failed to keep pace with the rocketing number and increasing complexity of births”, it warns.

The number of births has risen by 22 per cent in a decade, with midwives having to deal with 120,000 more in 2010 than in 2001.

Mothers also tend to be older and heavier than in the past, which both raise the chance of complications.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive of NCT, said: “Most women want a straightforward birth, some need a caesarean. When women are treated with respect, and are offered support and information tailored to their concerns, very few of them will choose a caesarean birth unless there are clear health reasons.

“However, our services fail women badly at the moment, with midwifery numbers well below the level required to guarantee safe and satisfying care.”

She went on: “If caesarean rates go up following the change to the guidelines, it will be evidence that women are not getting the quality of midwifery support they need.”

The guidelines do recommend that a woman requesting a caesarean should be made to talk about her fear of childbirth before an operation is granted.

Caffeine in sunscreen could protect against skin cancer

Putting caffeine in sunscreen could provide greater protection against skin cancer new research suggests. Scientists believe the chemical found in coffee absorbs ultraviolet radiation when applied to the skin and prevents tumours after exposure to sunlight.

They found in experiments that mice were slower to develop skin cancer if they were genetically engineered to suppress a particular enzyme, as caffeine does.

Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the academics say their findings suggest that the protective effects of sunscreen could be enhanced by adding caffeine.

“Combined with the extensive epidemiologic data linking caffeine intake with decreased skin cancer development, these findings suggest the possibility that topical caffeine application could be useful in preventing UV-induced skin cancers.

“An additional appealing aspect of topical application of caffeine is that it directly absorbs UV and thus also acts as a sunscreen, potentiating the efficacy of topical UV protection.”

Commenting on the research, Prof Dot Bennett, Professor of Cell Biology at St George’s, University of London, said the team had made “interesting progress” but went on: “The authors suggest adding caffeine or related molecules to sunscreens. First one might want to check there is no adverse effect of caffeine on the incidence of other cancers, especially melanoma (pigmented skin cancer), which kills over four times as many people as squamous cell carcinoma. But caffeine lotion might promote tanning a little, since this family of molecules stimulates pigment cells to make more pigment.”

Previous research has suggested that drinking coffee could reduce risk of developing skin cancer, as caffeine appears to kill off cells that have been damaged by ultraviolet radiation from the sun before they become cancerous.

In the new experiment, researchers at Rutgers University in the US genetically engineered mice to have a reduced function of ATR, an enzyme that “rescues” damaged cells. Caffeine is known to suppress ATR, causing the damaged cells to die rather than turn cancerous, so the mice were mimicking its effect.

When the mice were exposed to UV light, the modified ones developed tumours three weeks later than unmodified ones.  After 19 weeks, the subject mice had 69 per cent fewer tumours than the unmodified ones.

Calorie counts to be added to the menus by MacDonalds and Starbucks

With fast food outlets piling on the calories a new initiative was launched this week for food retailers to label the amount of calories that they are selling. The government wants us all to think more carefully about what we eat, to stem rising obesity rates.

It is asking fast food and other restaurant chains to put calorie and other nutrition information on menus.

McDonald’s is on board and has installing calorie content displays for every item of food and drink that it sells in all of its 1,200 restaurants. Starbucks has also signed up to the government’s responsibility deal.

Dietitian Helen Bond says the figures might come as a surprise to some: “People don’t necessarily realise what they are consuming. Without clear calorie labelling, it is easy to see how someone might consume – without any guilt – an entire day’s calories in just one sitting.”

Calories are a measure of energy, so the number of calories tells you how much energy is in the food. Although most people say calories the actual measure is kilocalories, shortened to kcals
Men = 2,500 kcal
Women = 2,000 kcal
Children aged 5-10 = 1,800 kcal

The trick to keeping within the daily limits, she says, is knowing what choices to make.

The average adult male should consume no more than 2,500 calories a day, and women no more than 2,000 calories a day, according to guidelines.

So, if you go to Starbucks for a coffee and pick an Americano, which contains 17 calories, you will still have lots of your daily calorie allowance left for meals.

But pick a Starbucks’ Signature Grande Hot Chocolate loaded with whipped cream and 556 calories and you’ll wipe out up to a quarter of your allowance.

If you are feeling peckish at the same time and decide to buy a Fairtrade chocolate chunk shortbread to go with your hot chocolate, you’ll hit half of your quota for the day as a woman. Even a skinny muffin will add 344 calories to the total.

Yet a fruit salad from Starbucks will only set you back 95 calories.

Similarly, go to McDonald’s and buy a large cappuccino and a grilled chicken and bacon salad for your lunch and the calorie count will be 285. But opt for a Big Mac with large fries and a milkshake and you’ll have consumed 1,450 calories.

Comparison of Recommended daily intake and fast food items:

Starbucks Grande Caffe Americano = 17 kcal;
Starbucks Grande Latte (with whole milk) = 223 kcal;
Starbucks Signature Grande Hot Chocolate (with whole milk and topped with whipped cream) = 556 kcal;
Starbucks fruit salad = 95 kcal;
Starbucks skinny peach and raspberry muffin = 344 kcal;
Starbucks chocolate chunk shortbread fairtrade = 508 kcal;

McDonald’s Large Cappuccino = 120 kcal;
McDonalds Large Coca-cola = 210 kcal;
McDonald’s Large chocolate milkshake = 500 kcal;
McDonald’s Grilled Chicken and Bacon salad = 165 kcal;
McDonald’s large french fries = 460 kcal;
McDonald’s Big Mac = 490 kcal

Ms Bond says: “You can see how things can quickly top up. If someone was to eat 500 extra calories a day above the recommended amount every day for a week, they would put on about a pound of weight.”

If this pattern continues for weeks or months on end, it is easy to see how someone starting at a healthy weight could become overweight or obese.

But it’s not just the number calories that we should be concerned about, it’s also how much salt, fat and sugar is in the food that is important.

“It’s true that calories are calories regardless of where they come from, but you are more likely to pile on the weight if you eat energy dense food – stuff that’s high in fat,” she explains.

If you eat a gram of carbohydrate, this equates to four calories. But a gram of fat equals nine calories.

“So if you eat 100g (3.5oz) of chips, that would be about 190 calories, which is twice as much as 100g of boiled potatoes.”

Ms Bond says it is possible to still enjoy fast food and stay healthy. One way is to make sure you keep track of what you have consumed and compensate if you need to by having a lean salad in the evening instead of a calorie-rich meal.

“Having calories displayed in restaurants and on food packaging will make a difference to those who want it to. It empowers people to make choices and take control of their own health. And it might make some people reconsider what they are eating.”

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