Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Scientists under pressure for a good story

Journalists might be about a popular as estate agents and politicians but most of us understand how difficult it is to do the job properly these days when content is just words and pictures to go between the ads.

The other day I saw a story saying that depression can cause Alzheimer's Disease. Now I've been engaged in a lifelong battle with depression and have a memory like the proverbial wire-meshed kitchen utensil so you can imagine I leapt on this like Silvio Berlusconi on a showgirl. But closer examination showed that this was actually a trial for a drug to treat Alzheimer's and that the patients in question were all over 55 and had a mild cognitive impairment to begin with. It's easy to oversimplify in the search for something newsworthy, especially as today's multi-platform, multi-tasking journalists are expected to produce more stories in less time.

No wonder the over-worked hack is a target for the hoaxer. There's a hoax health study that's been doing the rounds since at least 2000 suggesting that looking a women's naked breasts is good for a man's health. It still appears in the media from time to time. But it's not just tabloids and desperate for anything websites and bloggers who can be hoaxed. There was much laughter this week as the editor of the Open Information Science Journal was forced to step down after his title published a hoax paper full of computer-generated goobledegook from an organisation styling themselves CRAP (Centre for Research in Applied Phrenology).

But it doesn't stop there and this is the worrying part for those of us who rely on science for our 'evidence'. Check out the survey showing that as many as third of scientists admit to fiddling their data. In the desire for headline-making, funder-pleasing, career-enhancing research, scientists appear to be under similar pressures to media editors. Are research scientists the new estate agents?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Should we rename breast cancer?

Looking through the press cuttings for this month's exceptional Men's Health Week, I came across the story of Nicky Avery from Southend. At 27, he is believed to be the youngest man to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. He's now campaigning for the disease in men to be renamed. He says: 'I want to get the terminology changed so men get checked if they find something. For men it’s such a taboo and so many men don’t know they can even get it. I want the name less feminine so I say call it what it is – chest cancer.'

Indeed, many will be surprised to learn that men can get breast cancer. But they can. Would changing the name make a difference? Would the 300 men affected every year seek treatment more quickly if it had a more neutral name?

Clearly it's an issue. I've heard of doctors writing 'chest wall cancer' rather than 'breast cancer' on men's death certificates which puts the disease on the same taboo level as suicide. A recent survey shows that men are 70% more likely to die of cancer than women and not going to the doctor soon enough is clearly a factor in this. But with breast cancer it's not just men who are reluctant to present with a lump, women are too because, as one man with breast cancer put it to me: 'for a woman the loss of a breast is a loss of a part of her personality as well as part of her body'. If changing the name encouraged just a handful more men and women to seek treatment sooner it would be worth it.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Did stress kill Michael Jackson?

Is it really possible to die of stress? Both Paul Gambaccini and Yuri Geller have fingered it as a possible cause of Michael Jackson's shockingly premature death. If you look at his much mediatised life it certainly makes sense.

Talking about Jackson's proposed concerts later this year, Gambaccini told the BBC: 'I always doubted that he would have been able to go through that schedule, those concerts. It seemed to be too much of a demand on the unhealthy body of a 50 year old. I'm wondering that, as we find out details of his death, if perhaps the stress of preparing for those dates was a factor in his collapse.'

Certainly work-related stress can kill. The Japanese even have a word for 'death from overwork' – Karoshi. In 2007, the government published its highest karoshi figures ever.

The great Gambo's comments reminded me of a TV programme I saw the other day about biologist Robert Sapolsky, a guy who has devoted his life to measuring stress in monkeys. His research shows that monkeys lower down the hierarchy a) tend to die younger and b) have higher stress levels. Asked to explain the death rates, he points out that it can't be smoking, drinking too much or poor diet as all the monkeys eat the same food. He puts it down to stress.

You might counter that Jackson was a multi-millionaire and hardly at the bottom of the food chain. I'd say that when it came to media treatment 'Whacko Jacko' was very much at the bottom of the food chain. The bullying he's been subjected to by the press down the years is not at all unlike that meted out every day to the weaker baboons by the alpha-males and those eager to please them. Many people have complained about the stress heaped on Susan Boyle by the media and rightly so. Michael Jackson, whatever he might have done, was clearly no less mentally frail.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We need better food not more exercise adverts

Eating too much makes you fat. That's June's tip of the month on malehealth. Wow. Hardly going to knock MPs expenses out of the headlines.

Except that this research proves that just because a lot of people say something doesn't make it true. The research knocks for six the commonly held notion that the USA is fat because its citizens both don't do enough exercise and eat too much. No, it is purely the latter. Food alone is responsible. Lead researcher Dr Boyd Swinburn of the World Health Organisation says Americans have been eating much more but physical-activity levels haven't really changed all that much.

The trouble is with this thesis is that food industry don't like it. They have played the 'reduced physical exercise' card for all it's worth. It's their 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card. Talk about getting off the hook. Every hamburger ad, every soft drink commercial is accompanied by a strapline exhorting us to get active. Now we know that it's the mountains of crap food and fizzy pop doing all the damage. Voluntary organisations and government rightly keen to 'work with industry' now need to find the courage to demand that the food industry do more and that means changing their products and the way they sell them. The WHO research proves there is no alternative.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Videos for Scott Pearson's column

This month's videos from Scott (June 2009).

The Burpee:

Dumbbell Swing

Clean techniques

It Boyles down to responsibility

That Susan Boyle might have a breakdown was surely about as predictable as Simon Callow being a tad arrogant or Piers Morgan coming over a just a wee bit insincere. Do we really care what release form or whatever Susan Boyle signed? When is TV going to take responsibility for the mental health of the people that reality TV propels to fame and then every bit as swiftly dumps with a smug smirk? I don't think there's anything more to say really.