“When will they ever learn?”

That question, the last line of that  lovely old song, “Where have all the flowers gone?” came to my mind the other day, on reading a news item in the paper, under the title of  “Dramatic fall in sperm count”. Now before you try to work out the connection between disappearing flowers and falling sperm count, I’d better admit that there isn’t one, except that the news caused me a great sense of deja vu, of having been here before, and of no lessons having been learnt.

“Sperm counts in the Western world have fallen by almost 60% in the past 40 years,” I read. Although this study didn’t look into reasons for the fall, (why ever not?) previous  research had linked the problem to everything from stress, obesity and – wait for it – exposure to pesticides. Yes, I remember that previous report of some years back; it concentrated on the damage caused by pesticides and stated that the highest sperm count in Europe belonged to Danish organic farmers who didn’t use anything ending in -cides. This led to some frivolous comments about the likely boost to the Danish tourist industry caused by this disclosure, but that was all that happened. Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides have continued to be used lavishly, leading my local greengrocer to liken his lettuces to Rolls Royce cars, as, he explained, both were sprayed seventeen times.

Since then, according to this new report , things have got worse. “I think health authorities should be concerned,” said the lead researcher, noting with surprise that sperm counts were not falling nearly as fast in the developing world. As a non-scientist citizen, using ordinary common sense, I don’t find this surprising: farmers in the developing world simply can’t afford agro-chemicals, hence they remain healthier. Clearly, powerful substances used to kill pests remain on the non-organic  fruits and vegetables that we eat, and equally clearly they continue to do a bit of killing inside the body, hitting sperm hard in men, and who knows what in women.

“We have a huge public health problem that was until now under the radar,” the lead researcher added. I fear it’ll remain there. Scientists keep issuing well founded warnings about hazards to public health, decision makers keep  ignoring them. They also ignore the importance of diet in in the same area and the damage caused by chemical-rich but nutrient-poor junk food,  but  complain about the horrific cost of looking after an increasingly sick, largely overweight population. According to psychology textbooks, after the age of seven children understand the link between cause and effect; can it be that our politicians, policy makers and, above all, our medical Establishment have all somehow missed that connection?

Here are just two examples of how little food is considered in the health-disease equation, although it’s the only substance besides air that we consume from our first to our last breath. The first example comes from a booklet issued by Age UK, advising older people how to enjoy life while ageing. It’s all good stuff about exercise, satisfactory social connections, sound sleep and so on, and somewhere a mere six lines mention the importance of a good diet, adding that “beans are a good source of zinc”. That’s it.  Put it in your pipe and smoke it, of course metaphorically, because smoking is bad for you, too.

The second example comes from my recent thorough examination, a kind of human MoT, at my GP’s surgery. The nice nurse asked innumerable questions, examining my various functions and abilities, and ended the session – without asking anything about my daily food intake. When I asked whether that major subject didn’t figure in her list, she looked surprised and shook her head. (I described that meeting in detail in a recent blog.) No, diet wasn’t included, she said, and wished me well. This omission at the very heart of my health care was depressing and made me ask once more, somewhat despairingly, “When will they ever learn?”

Not that I’ll wait for that. Excuse me while I go and prepare my large, fresh, crisp, beautiful and totally organic dinner. Bon appetit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orphans, unite!

You have nothing to lose but your illusions – about the caring nature of our Government. With apologies for paraphrasing Karl Marx’s famous battle cry, let me suggest that we, the vast, helpless crowd of taxpayers are the orphans in need of wise counsel, care and leadership from our politicians, after all that’s partly what we pay them for, yet that is precisely what we are not getting. It took the catastrophic fire at Grenfell Tower in West London to make this clear, through the disclosure of how ministers had stubbornly ignored repeated expert warnings of fire risks in high rise buildings. Yes, that fire  could have been prevented; but once it had happened, the initial official response turned out to be inadequate as well. Will there be urgent expert action to prevent similar disasters in other tower blocks? Watch out for it. But don’t hold your breath.

Our politicians seem to be fully occupied with bickering and practising U-turns among themselves. This reminds me of J.C.Bossidy’s  pleasant verse, stored in my treasured collection of useless information:

“And this is good old Boston, / The home of the bean and the cod,/Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots,/ And the Cabots talk only to God.” Substitute your (un)favourite politicians for the Lowells and the Cabots, leave out the Divinity, and you get a pretty good idea of why we’ve become orphans, left to our own devices without as much as a whiff of official guidance.  Just look at two important topical problems we are faced with at this very moment, mainly in Southern and  South-East England. One is the unprecedented heat wave. Right now, at 11.40 a.m. in London, the temperature in the sun has reached 40 degrees Centigrade, equalling high fever in the human body. Moreover, this morning the  BBC weather report mentioned very high UV levels in the sunshine. Now that’s the dangerous component of sunshine that causes bad sunburn at best and skin cancer at worst. As a former melanoma sufferer, I would expect the powers that be to pull out all the stops and use all available channels to warn people against sunbathing, at least between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,  in order to avoid boosting the skin cancer statistics, especially because some popular sunscreens are known to be of limited use. Do we get any guidance from high above? Not a word.

The second huge problem is the lasting drought in the South-East. As an organic gardener, I am painfully aware of its consequences. And I recall another similar arid spell in 1976, when the then Conservative minister John Gummer, now Lord Deben, did a great job of making us save water. He asked us to stop washing our cars, not to use sprinklers or run the tap while brushing our teeth. He even composed a little ditty about when to flush the loo and when to let it wait until – well, the next time. I don’t know how many people followed his lead – I certainly did – but at least there was a lead, a member of the Government actually connected with the general population. Which the current one is definitely not doing. We might just as well not be here.

But we are here. And there’s a lot of us wanting something better. No, I am not advocating anything drastic, it’s far too hot for that and besides I dislike harsh actions. We’ll just have to start a countrywide non-material  DIY movement. Wake up the grassroots, so to speak (yes, I know it’s a mixed metaphor.). Get informed, use sound judgment and act. Grow up. Let’s shake off the traditional passivity, encouraged by the Welfare State, which expects someone else, preferably High Up, to do the necessary. Let’s stop saying “Mustn’t grumble” – yes, we must and follow up the grumble with peaceful action. There’s already a spreading international lay medical movement to empower patients and  make them sufficiently well-informed to take responsibility for their own health. The same principle of taking responsibility can be applied to other areas of life, too. We have unprecedented access to swift, free means of boundless communication, to spread information and coordinate action.  Let’s use it all.

And stop being helpless orphans. After a while it does become a bore.

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Condition Excellent

Last week I had a phone call from the local GP surgery where I am registered. “Please come in for a session with the practice nurse,” said the receptionist, as instructed by my doctor, and gave me an appointment. I cherish my doctor, a serene, unflappable woman who has accepted long ago that I was a somewhat irregular but, on the whole, harmless patient, so if she wanted me to see the practice nurse, she must have had a good reason for it.

Well, the reason was that patients over a certain age had to have an annual inspection, a kind of human MoT test, and I had reached that age. (Namely?  Of course you may ask. Except I won’t answer.) The nurse turned out to be young, bright, friendly, and  welded to her computer screen from which she read out a long list of questions. She enquired about my eyesight and hearing – both o.k. – and sundry other bits, pieces and functions  of the body, including my weight. That has been 8 stone, or 50 kg, for the past thirty years – surely I deserved a small medal for that? But none was offered, and when we ran out of physical factors she switched to examining my mental state.

Now this was real fun. She gave me three words, “Banana, sunrise, chair” to see whether I could remember them later. I immediately visualised a banana seated on a chair and admiring the sunrise, so after five minutes I was able to repeat her words. I could have told her about real memory lapses causing real trouble, when for instance I can only remember somebody’s first name, the surname having fallen into what the French call “a hole in one’s memory”, or when the safe place where I had put an important document had become so safe that even I couldn’t find it. But the nurse moved on. She asked me to draw a clock face. I did, complete with hours and clock hands pointing at ten past eleven.  “Oh, I wanted to ask you to put it at ten past eleven,” she said, sounding disappointed. Sorry, can’t help being psychic. Or something.  I hoped she’d ask me to draw a cat, as I am pretty good at that, but the drawing was over, and I was only requested to count backwards from twenty to one. Obviously she found this as idiotic as I, so we both laughed and left it at that.

My condition, she declared, was excellent, I could pass for someone ten years younger. And yes, thanks, that was all. Did she have no more questions to ask? Why no, none. “But you didn’t ask me about my diet,” I said. “Surely, what I eat every day of my life has a big impact on my condition!” She looked baffled. No, diet didn’t figure on her list. I didn’t want to upset her, but my blood pressure rose at yet another example of how official medicine ignores the vital importance of nutrition, how during six years spent at medical school, I am told, only some four hours are devoted to the subject of  diet. And here was this nice young nurse at the beginning of her career – would she reach its end in the same state of abysmal ignorance she was in now?

Not if I could help it. I told her that I was 85% vegetarian, adding only tiny amounts of cheese, fish and two eggs a week to my organic wholefood intake, which greatly surpassed the official requirement of five portions of fruit and veg a day. It didn’t cost more than a diet based on junk food, which with added snacks and fattening empty calories was truly expensive, and it kept me, in her words, in excellent condition. If I lived on white toast, margarine, baked beans, tinned fruit and six cups of tea with two sugars  –  “Oh , I see,” she said. “But that’s what a lot of patients in your age group eat.  And they are … quite well.” She stood up and moved towards the door. The audience was over.

I wonder what she will tell my doctor about our meeting, but I bet that my doctor won’t be in the least surprised by what she hears.

 

 

 

 

The Wednesday Census

In the area of West London where I live, the Council’s huge lorries appear every Wednesday to collect our rubbish and recyclables. The latter are supposed to be sorted  into their large colour-coded bags: white for plastics, green for garden waste, blue for paper;  additionally, there is a large dark green box for all else. Bags and box must be put out by 7 a.m., which is a bit of a bore, but at least it lets me glimpse some neighbours in their dressing-gowns and slippers.

So far so dull, but please stay with me, the real story starts here. The Council’s lorries don’t arrive until later, so I have time for a morning walk, which is more than just exercise: it serves as my systematic study – anthropological fieldwork, if you like – of my neighbourhood. Like many parts of London, it is distinctly un-neighbourly, but my inoffensive research gives me a unique insight into the personal habits and lifestyle choices of its unknown inhabitants.

All I need to do is to walk along slowly and inspect the contents of the green boxes. What  variety, what precise indications they offer! To start with, we seem to have quite a few serious drinkers among us; boxes bursting with wine and spirit bottles week after week make me worry about the livers of those who had emptied them. But then green boxes full of soft drink bottles, cartoons and multiple containers of sweets and salted crisps are not reassuring, either. The venerable experts who periodically issue official warnings about the ravages of alcoholism and obesity need only join me on my morning walk to see the proof of the problem close up. Booze and junk food rule o.k., warnings go unheeded, and the cash-strapped struggling NHS has to pick up the bill.  As a disillusioned doctor friend of mine said the other day, the food industry and the pharmaceutical industry are in cahoots: the former makes us sick and then passes us on to the latter for the rest of our lives. After thirty years in general practice I expect he knows what he is talking about.

No, I’m not a health nut. I just like good fresh food and refuse to pay for expensive over- packaged  rubbish. A box I pass is full of tins. I mean brim-full. The tin on the top had contained new potatoes in salty water – heavens above, at a time when fresh new potatoes are at their sweet youthful best, tasting fantastic if gently steamed, coated in butter, sprinkled with fresh parley – oh, sorry, sometimes I do get carried away, although my research should be dispassionate and neutral. I’ll try to cool it. Honest.

Besides disclosing their owners’ food and drink consumption, the boxes also betray some aspects of their characters. There are some meticulous individuals who organise their rubbish so neatly that it looks like a still life worth photographing; I don’t expect the dustmen notice its awesome symmetry before chucking it into the collective hell of their lorry. In these exemplary well organised boxes small carton wrappers sit in plastic bags, old socks and other textiles ditto, used batteries are segregated from carefully folded packaging material, and the box itself is clean and shiny. I fantasize about the house behind the box: all spotless, not a rug out of place, small objects resting at right angles on a polished table —- it’s too perfect for comfort, let me out of there!

So I land straight in the opposite reality:  a box containing an unholy mess of things, all mixed up, chaotic and inevitably messy, too, for the unrinsed jars and bottles drip stuff onto crunched up newspapers and unflattened containers, and a single dirty slipper sits on top of a broken plastic toy.  This, too, should be photographed and widely shown as an example of how not to handle one’s rubbish, but that’s beyond my remit. And then I suddenly remember once seeing the woman who lives in that house: she has remained memorable for standing at her front door in the scruffiest garment I’d ever seen, with hair and shoes to match, and even her cat looked distinctly ungroomed. It was depressing, but  it proved that the contents of green boxes disclosed the truth about the people who had filled them.

There is also the pleasure of seeing the wildly different house numbers owners draw or paint on their boxes. Some are highly fancy, glittering with gold paint; others are plain black and official looking, yet others are surrounded by carefully coloured floral decorations, possibly drawn by a child of six. By the time I finish my morning census I feel as if the neighbourhood had become less buttoned up, more friendly, certainly not secretive.  Moreover, it amuses me to think that I know rather a lot about a lot of people who  know nothing about me. (Careful, now: this is supposed to be a detached social experiment, not an ego trip.)

What about my own green box? Well now, let me see…

 

 

 

 

On Re-Inventing the Wheel

I am not a professional researcher, but as a writer and journalist I have done a great deal of research, even long before St.Google descended from a virtual heaven to make the job easier. One of my basic rules was first of all to establish what had been said or written on my subject in the recent – or remote – past. This seemed simple common sense, or as Sherlock Holmes would have put it, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

And so I was surprised to read the other day that, according to a huge research project involving 163,363 participants, people who suffer from anxiety or depression have an increased risk of dying from cancer. The report contained the resounding conclusion that “There is growing evidence that psychological stress has an impact on physical health”. Eh? Pray, what else is new? Hadn’t those no doubt well-funded researchers looked at the evidence that, far from growing, had symbolically grown to the size of Mount Everest a long time ago?

Never mind that Hippocrates and Galen (3rd century A.D.) had written about this, Galen stating categorically that melancholy women were more likely to develop breast cancer than cheerful ones, and that the history of medicine has ever since contained countless similar conclusions. Let’s just look at the two outstanding figures of the recent past whose work had sparked off  an avalanche of related studies: the psychologist Lawrence LeShan and the neuroscientist Candace Pert. LeShan, author of “Cancer As a Turning Point”, has often been called the father of psycho-oncology, the discipline that aims to improve the patient’s lifestyle, psychological state and oncological profile in order to waken his or her self-healing ability. Candace Pert, the author of “Molecules of Emotion –  Why You Feel the Way You Feel” has done pioneering work in developing psycho-neuro-immunology, PNI for short, the scientific explanation of how one’s psychological state strengthens or undermines the immune system which, in turn, determines whether we remain healthy or fall sick.

It’s all there, it’s all available even to lay people, like myself; how can professional researchers ignore it all, and say daft things about “growing evidence”? Doesn’t the global scientific community exchange information as a matter of course, to avoid duplication and the waste of scarce funding? I won’t attempt to answer my own questions, if no-one else will. But I have a fantasy of a pre-Stone Age ancestor of ours sitting on a hill, watching a tree trunk rolling down to the valley below, and wondering whether something similar, maybe cut to size, might help to…..

I must admit that all the above has lessened my respect for researchers, especially for a group that a while ago scrutinized the popularity of coffee shops in Glasgow. They eventually discovered that people tended to stay away from the shops where the quality of the coffee and/or the service was no longer up to scratch.

Well now, isn’t that amazing?

 

Some Thoughts on Health and Money

At a time when the gap between the super-rich and the poor is getting dangerously wide, it’s good to hear that Mark Zuckerberg, the billionaire founder of Facebook and his wife are giving $3bn  to medical research over the next ten years, to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” in their children’s lifetime. It’s a nice gesture,  suggesting that perhaps capitalism has a more acceptable face, too, yet after a few moments of feeling nice about it,  I begin to experience some doubts.

It’s not just that $3bn sounds less impressive if set against, for instance,  the $6bn to be spent over five years by the British Wellcome Trust; it’s the grandiose aim of the donation that bothers me. All diseases? Is there anyone who can even begin to list them? Another generous billionaire, Bill Gates, has been spending billions over 15 years on trying – and failing – to wipe out nothing more than malaria or polio, never mind the whole blooming lot. Surely Mr Zuckerberg (German for Sugar Mountain) should think up a less ambitious project to support?

And while I am in the mood for cutting things down to manageable sizes, allow me to jump on my hobby-horse whose name is prevention, the poor relation of the cure and management of disease. “Prevention is not sexy,” says a disillusioned doctor friend of mine, “so no-one is taking it seriously.” And yet and yet the evidence is piling up to show that an alarming lot of our diseases are caused by ourselves out of sheer ignorance, or as a result of having poisoned the world which now, in turn, is poisoning us. There is nothing new about this: poor lifestyle, suicidal diets, obesity, too much alcohol, stress & co. add up to a litany piously recited by official voices, but there is no official action to rein in the misbehaviour of the food industry, to name only one major culprit. Cynics claim that Big Food is in cahoots with Big Pharma: if you consume enough processed stuff, you are bound to end up with a fistful of prescriptions for the rest of your life. Elementary, my dear Watson.

Maybe so. But what’s more alarming, because less obvious, is the piecemeal emergence of new health hazards. For instance we’ve just been told that dementia has overtaken heart disease as the biggest cause of death in England and Wales, a staggering development – how come, what has changed to cause this rise? The next day a newspaper report provided a possible answer. According to some researchers, particulate matter, typically released by diesel engines, can enter human brains, suggesting that there is a link between traffic pollution and dementia. Magnetite, a by-product of traffic pollution, has been found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, and there’s evidence that people living in areas with high levels of airborne pollution are more likely to get the disease. Ironically, diesel has been promoted for years now as being less harmful to health  than petrol…

Another example of the hidden link between innovation and health damage cropped up some years ago, when a Europe-wide research programme tried to establish the cause of poor sperm production by otherwise healthy males. In the end the men with the best sperm production, both in quantity and quality, turned out to be Danish organic farmers, namely men who never worked with herbicides, pesticides, fungicides or anything else ending with -cides; nor did they eat food treated with those same agri-poisons, which were hailed as the essential tools of modern farming, leading to bigger yields and healthier plants.  Since then the popularity of organic foods, guaranteed to be poison-free, has grown enormously, but it’s still a minority trend. As far as the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals are concerned, they keep producing ever stronger poisons, as  weeds and pests adapt sufficiently  to the current range to survive them. Never mind the humans who are the last link in the toxic food chain.

We’ve made a real mess of things, and surely trying to undo the damage and prevent further disasters should have absolute priority in medicine. But it hasn’t. Perhaps it never had. I recall a cartoon, used many years ago  by that great medical maverick Denis Burkitt, whenever he gave a talk on the need for prevention. The cartoon showed an overflowing hand basin with both taps full on, and two doctors in white coats busy mopping up the flooded floor, but not turning off the taps. “You get paid more for mopping up,” was Burkitt’s devastating comment.

Despite all this, I hope Mr Zuckerberg’s project will do some good in the hellishly difficult area of health in our not so brave new world.

 

 

 

 

Include Me Out

“Join the Rebellion!” is the eye-catching motto on the posters I’ve been noticing recently in London, but the message is weakened by the accompanying images of some obviously respectable  middle-class men and women who are supposed to be its intrepid heroes. Ah, but the aim of this rebellion is not to overthrow the Government or abolish the House of Lords overnight: it tells us to su2c, namely Stand Up to Cancer and “kick it off its perch”. Now that’s  a gem of a mixed metaphor; try as I may, I can’t picture that most dreaded disease in any shape that would enable it to sit on a perch, like a parakeet or, more appropriately, a vulture. Besides, has cancer become a global epidemic, which is how the WHO officially described it two years ago, because until now we haven’t stood up to it? We are not told.

However, we are told  how to become heroes of the rebellion. “Join us, pledge your support. Fundraise however the hell you want. As long as it’s raising money, you are one of us,” is the message on the new movement’s website, and its all-round permisssiveness stops me in my tracks, for stealing an old lady’s handbag  or emptying the collection box of my local church when nobody is looking would  certainly raise money, but would su2c approve of it? Luckily there are less problematic ways to produce cash: “You could get sponsored to wrestle a crocodile”, is one official suggestion. (Not kidding.)

Well,  it’s all about raising funds “for kickass ground breaking translational research”, whatever that means, and so we are directed to the Shop to buy t-shirts, various accessories and fundraising kits, all emblazoned with revolutionary mottoes. The general impression is that of an online razzmatazz, an over-the-top commercial promotion, which almost makes you forget what it is in aid of.

Of course fundraising for medical research is essential. Without the public’s willingness to donate, the £650 million cancer research unit of the Francis Crick Institute, the biggest medical research facility in Europe, wouldn’t have opened its doors in August this year. It’s just the methods of the cancer charities, mainly of the mighty  Cancer Research UK, that make me wonder. Do those in charge underestimate the intelligence of the public, or overestimate their own?

Take CRUK’s campaign, urging us to wear pink ribbons, in aid of “Against Breast Cancer”. Eh? Is there anyone in favour of it? Never mind, we are asked to go on sponsored walks, donate unwanted clothes, shoes, perfumes and CD’s,  run coffee mornings and do whatever else will bring in funds, “to beat cancer sooner”. Sooner than when? Every year 330,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer in this country. Is there any research being done into the causes of this scourge which certainly doesn’t come from outer space but is produced much nearer home? For example, has anyone looked into the composition of the most popular antiperspirants, applied to an area full of lymph glands directly connected to the breasts? It is said that since more and more men have started using these products, the incidence of male breast cancers  has grown considerably, surely an indicator of toxic chemicals rubbed into a sensitive area of the body. As far as I know, this area is not explored. Altogether, prevention seems to be off the menu.

I should declare an interest. Thirty-three years ago, in 1983,  I recovered from Stage 4 metastasized malignant melanoma on the alternative nutrition-based Gerson therapy, after orthodox oncology could do nothing for me. That experience has taught me to ask the right questions about cancer, and to see how sadly we fail to hear and accept the right answers. Any doctor who tries to treat cancer by other than the  officially sanctioned trinity of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, risks getting into deep trouble, even though the accepted methods don’t perform particularly well. But that’s another story.

Fortunately  in a few medical centres researchers are already mooting the idea that perhaps instead of concentrating on the eradication or killing of the tumour it might be better to build up the patient’s depleted immune system, so that it can fight and, hopefully, defeat the malignant process. That’s the way my near-terminal cancer was cured, not just put into remission. That’s the way of the future.

But meanwhile I am not going to su2c, as the posters urge me to do. And when it comes to frantic fundraising in truly questionable taste (“Whip up boob-shaped cup cakes” is one suggestion for coffee-morning hostesses), I won’t  join in.  In Churchill’s memorable phrase, “include me out.” And, by the way, I am not going to wrestle a crocodile, either.