Friday, September 19, 2003

TV as moral lecturer

As if Eastenders and other UK soaps didn't have enough politically-correct storylines, now BUPA wants scriptwriters to stop characters from smoking so much, and get them to eat better, too. The whole point about British soaps is that they are supposed to be realistic. Sixty-year olds don't eat five portions of fruit and veg, quit smoking and indulge in 30 minutes moderately vigorous exercise. But watch this space. This is public service television, after all.

BBC NEWS | Health | Soaps accused of unhealthy habits

Age-old ignorance on breast cancer

Further to earlier discussion on this site about how strongly cancer is associated with age, the charity Breast Cancer Care have revealed the results of a survey which show that three-quarters of women over 50 do not realise that breast cancer becomes more common with age. In fact, 80 percent of breast cancer occurs after the age of 50.

But why would people assume that breast cancer is linked to age? No-one talks about age in relation to cancer. They would much rather talk about 'preventable' behaviours than about the fact that in many respects, cancer is indicative of bodily breakdown.

BBC NEWS | Health | Breast cancer ignorance revealed

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

Not just better health reporting, but less

A new report from the King's Fund by Anna Coote and Roger Harrabin notes how the way in which health is reported is completely skewed, focusing on crises and unusual risks as newsworthy rather than reflecting the real risks to our health. For example, reports of vCJD and SARS in the UK were vastly higher than the number of deaths from these conditions would appear to warrant, while the reverse would seem to be true for risk factors like smoking and obesity.

The basic observation the report makes about media coverage is correct. There was little point in the media telling us all about SARS, for example, when there was only one real case of it in the UK, except as an item of foreign news. But this is where the analysis goes awry. The authors conclude that the media is inherently sensationalist and what we need is more coverage of the 'correct' message: quit smoking, watch what you eat, exercise more etc. In fact, what we really need is less coverage of health issues full stop.

The public does not need a daily diet of health stories. In the past, an occasionally-referenced medical encyclopaedia was sufficient for most families. We had such a book in our house - 'Enquire Within (About Everything)'. There were thirty pages on common maladies, and some uncommon ones, too. But alongside information on mumps and measles was stuff about diptheria, tuberculosis and rickets, and most of the content of that book would now be utterly redundant.

What we don't need is the 'alternative risk' scenario put forward by Coote and Harrabin. The dangers of obesity, sunbathing and mobile phones are largely fictitious. Smoking regularly is a problem, but nobody seriously needs that pointed out to them anymore than it has been.

And blaming the media misses the important changes that have occured in society. Why do so many newspapers and TV programmes carry substantial health segments? People are watching and reading this stuff because they are feeling more isolated and vulnerable than ever before. Hence, the obsession with the self. The media may exacerbate these trends, but they didn't create them.

Health in the News: Risk, reporting and media influence, King's Fund

Refried brains

New Scientist has got an interview with Mays Swicord, one of the leading researchers into the effect of RF radiation on human cells. He has concluded that any effect is tiny - causing heating of about 0.1oC. This is much smaller than other heating effects and is highly unlikely to be harmful. Other possible effects identified have never been replicated.

'On the World Health Organization (WHO) website you'll find a database set up by the IEEE (the US Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) containing thousands of papers, reports and reviews since 1950, all of them about non-ionising radiation in some way. Almost 1300 of them are peer-reviewed publications dealing with the issue of biological effects. Of course, a lot of them report that radiation does have an effect. But I don't know of one that is confirmed or replicated by independent researchers,' he says.

He continues: 'After 35 years in this business, I must conclude that there is nothing there. What else can I conclude? Even when people say, "we've found something new", you go back to that database and you'll find people have already done something related and haven't been able to prove it as a predictable phenomenon.'

Mobile phones are not harmful. Relatively cheap mobile phones are wonderful gadgets and extremely useful tools. But if we wring our hands with worry every time some useful new thing comes along, we will undoubtedly slow human progress.

It's good to talk, New Scientist

Monday, September 15, 2003

A ripe old age

We are living longer and healthier lives than ever before, according to Professor Raymond Tallis of Manchester University. Life expectancy at birth has risen by 4.7 years for mean and 3.5 years for women in the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, the good professor goes on to say that things could get even better if we stopped smoking, ate heathily, exercised more etc. While average life expectancy would certainly improve if cigarette smoking was eradicated, the other factors he discusses are, at best, of much more limited value and, at worst, make no difference at all.

Outlook for living to healthy old age improving, Reuters Health, 12 September 2003

Affairs of the heart

There have been many causes put forward for heart disease. But your sexuality?

That is the claim put forward by researchers from the University of California San Francisco. They questioned equal numbers of lesbians and heterosexuals and found that lesbians were fatter than straight women. Apparently, lesbians are less likely to be concerned about their weight, or to see themselves as overweight. The researchers conclude that since people with a higher weight-to-height ratio (body-mass index) are more likely to suffer from heart problems, then lesbians must be more likely to suffer from them, too.

Firstly, the extrapolation is extremely tenuous. For example, if lesbians were 10 percent more likely to be overweight, and overweight people were 10 percent more like to suffer heart disease, the increase risk to lesbians is one percent. Even then, the link between weight and heart disease is only significant when people are very substantially overweight. Hardly the kind of thing to lose sleep over.

Secondly, what a screwed-up society we live in where there is constant angst about women being told to conform to unrealistically-thin body images, only to condemn lesbians for being comfortable about their weight!

Lesbians 'have higher heart disease risk', BBC News, 13 September 2003