Health checkup: on the sweet-tooth myth, binge-sleeping and lazy Britain

Plus: prostate cancer policy, children who black out, a heartbeat problem that’s worse for women, and healthy eating

Sweet dreams are made of… calories

 
Having a ‘sweet tooth’ may be a myth. According to a study published in Nature Neuroscience, it’s our brain’s desire for readily available calories — not sweetness — that creates the desire for sugars, which then puts us at risk for all sorts of health problems from obesity to type 2 diabetes. Researchers found that two segregated neurons in the brain process information about sweetness and energy from food. And if given a choice between a pleasant taste with no energy, or an unpleasant taste with energy, the brain actually goes for the energy. Sugar has been getting a very bad press lately — to find out if this is justified, read our essay by David A. Bender, emeritus professor of nutritional biochemistry at University College London.

Short of sleep? Try a weekend bed-binge

 
We all know that getting a good night’s sleep is important — it boosts immunity, sex drive and fertility, just for starters. Yet few of us manage that all-important eight hours a night. And if you get only four or five hours it can increase your risk of developing diabetes by about 16 per cent — about the same as the increase caused by obesity. Modern life can be so frenetic and stressful that we struggle to get proper rest during the week. But new research says you can make up for it with a weekend lie-in — at least as far as your diabetes risk is concerned. The study published in Diabetes Care found that two consecutive nights of sleeping for nearly ten hours can reverse the damage. However, medics generally warn that ‘binge-sleeping’ is not a good strategy if you are chronically sleep-deprived. Laura Freeman has investigated the power of napping for the next issue of Spectator Health, so watch out for it in May.

Keeping fit is no walk in the park

 
Shocking research by the British Heart Foundation shows that one in seven of us have done no exercise for more than a decade. One in three confess they are too lazy to bother and more than a quarter say bad weather puts them off. Others find it too boring or say they don’t have time. Public Health England recommends a minimum 150 minutes’ moderate-intensity activity per week. Activities like brisk walking or cycling count. But less than 20 per cent of Britons are aware of this target and more than half have misunderstood, believing that walking normally up to three times a week is enough. Sadly, it’s not. Exercise must significantly raise the pulse rate for an extended time — something that simple walking fails to do.

Walk this way: keep it brisk for a health boost
Walk this way: keep it brisk for a health boost

 

Dying prostate victims get chance of one more year

 
A small ray of light for patients who have had a first diagnosis of advanced prostate cancer. NHS England says they can now go straight on to a drug which studies show can extend their life by more than a year compared to other options. Specialists will be able to prescribe the chemotherapy drug docetaxel as soon as a patient is diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer. Previously they had to wait until it was clear that existing treatments had stopped working. Prostate cancer will affect around one in eight men. Those most at risk are older men, black men, and those with a family history of the disease. More than 38,000 cases are diagnosed each year in England and more than 9,000 men die. At diagnosis, more than 4,500 (12 per cent) of cases are advanced, or metastatic — for which there is no cure.

What do if your child blacks out

 
Putting a young child in the recovery position if they pass out may help them to come round without a hospital admission. New findings published in Archives of Disease in Childhood found that 15 per cent of children will lose consciousness before the end of their teens. Researchers looked at more than 500 cases and found the average age for a blackout was three years, and one in five victims had an underlying condition, commonly epilepsy. Half of the children passed out following a seizure, and almost one in four due to a sudden drop in blood pressure and heart rate. This is called vasovagal syncope, often triggered by stress. The length of time unconscious varied from two to 20 minutes. In one in four cases parents had placed their child in the recovery position and this reduced the risk of hospital admission by 28 per cent. But for children under two, this risk was 90 per cent lower, irrespective of other factors. The researchers also found that many people don’t know how to put someone in the recovery position or had been taught wrongly. For the right way, see the St John Ambulance website at www.sja.org.uk

Much deadlier than the male

 
Women with atrial fibrillation — a condition that makes the heart beat irregularly — are more likely to die or suffer heart disease or heart failure than men with the same problem. Their all-cause mortality risk is 12 per cent higher and they have almost double the risk of having a stroke, according to a review by the University of Oxford. The cause is not clear, but they team say their findings show that the problem requires more aggressive treatment in females.

A fresh approach on healthy eating

 
A report by the Food Foundation called ‘Force Fed’ found that the typical British family’s diet is now the biggest threat to their health. It also highlighted how difficult it is to eat healthily when processed foods are much cheaper than fresh fruit and veg, and argues that ‘educating individuals on healthy eating choices can’t work when so many other factors push our behaviour in the opposite direction’. The foundation backs controversial plans for a sugar tax, but also suggests ways to cut the cost of fruit and veg while paying a fairer price to farmers. Read Dr Ellie Cannon on how the government can encourage healthier lifestyles. For more on healthy eating, see Ian Marber’s column on food and nutrition. You can read the Food Foundation report here.