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Health Update
The Good News and the Bad News

Each year there are more discoveries in the world of Science and Health. Here are some of the things which scientists have recently said are good for us, and other things they have told us to avoid. This article is reprinted with the kind permission of THE WEEK.

Some of the things they said were good for us...

A Martini — so long as it’s shaken, not stirred — can ward off major diseases. So said researchers from the University of Western Ontario, who revealed that James Bond’s favourite tipple has superior antioxidant powers, which help the body to neutralise the free radicals linked to heart disease and strokes and cataracts.

An apple a day can help you breathe more easily, said scientists at St George’s Hospital. Their research showed that eating five apples a week can increase lung capacity by 138mm. And that’s not all they do, said scientists at Cornell University. The fruit, which is packed with antioxidants, can also inhibit the growth of bowel and liver cancers.

An optimistic outlook can help you live longer, said scientists in the US. A study of 800 individuals found that the most pessimistic died earlier than the most optimistic. And the gloomier they were, the earlier they died. “Grouchers and grumblers don’t do as well when they’re sick or looking for a mate,” said David Lykken of the University of Minnesota. “No one wants to be around them.”

Dogs are the key to romance, said psychologists from Warwick University in the UK. Their research showed that having a dog in tow dramatically increases the chance of human interaction - particularly with the opposite sex.

Religion got the thumbs up, when an analysis of 42 studies involving 26,000 people revealed that regular attendance at a church, mosque or synagogue can lead to a significantly longer life. “The odds of survival for people who rated higher on measures of public and private religious involvement were 29% higher than those people who scored lower on such measures,” said US psychologist Dr Michael McCullough. In other words, while people who believe in God are more likely to live longer than those who do not, the real health benefits of religion kick in when regular religious attendance is involved.

Chocolate isn’t just a comfort food, it’s nutritional, too. A team from the University of California revealed that chocolate contains a chemical that can prevent blood clots and reduce the risk of heart disease. “Chocolate may contribute to a healthy, balanced diet,” said Dr Clark Keen.

St John’s Wort was prescribed by Hippocrates to ease depression. And in September 2000, it was accepted by the modern medical establishment. A German study concluded that the herb should be the treatment of first choice for depressives.

Wine was hailed as the key to warding off one of the deadliest forms of cancer. Dr Catherine Messina of the State University of New York claimed that people who drink a glass of red wine a week are significantly less likely to develop bowel cancer than teetotalers or beer or spirit drinkers.

Getting a good night’s sleep is as important to health as eating well or quitting smoking, said Simon Folkard of the University of Wales. If our body clocks are disrupted by an erratic bedtime routine, we stand a higher chance of developing heart disease and are more likely to suffer from exhaustion, irritability and depression. Sleeping less than eight hours a night has a detrimental effect on IQ levels, while working night shifts can increase the risk of diabetes and ulcers. Night-shift workers are also up to six times more likely to get divorced.

Laughter isn’t just the best medicine. It’s also an excellent way to keep fit, said Gunther Sickl of the University of Berlin. Apparently, a minute’s laughter is as beneficial as 45 minutes in the gym. ‘Up to 80 muscles are used to have a really good laugh,” said Sickl. “And during the laugh the body gets a really good work-out.” On average, children laugh 400 times a day, while adults only laugh 15 times. Many Germans are said to be trying to rectify this imbalance by attending laughter clubs as an alternative to aerobics.

The bad news… some things we were told to avoid

Quarrelling strips the body of vital nutrients, said scientists in Germany. They revealed that a 20-minute row can eradicate a week’s worth of vitamin C. And having a cigarette afterwards only makes matters worse: just one can destroy a whole day’s nutrient requirement. Instead, the scientists recommend following a row with plenty of vitamin-rich food and drink.

Winning the lottery sounds like a dream come true. But sudden wealth can make people ill, said San Francisco-based psychologist Joan DiFuria. Apparently, computer nerds in Silicon Valley who once lived in grotty bedsits feel dislocated when they are catapulted into vast mansions, and feel guilty about their new riches. Others develop a taste for cash, and then worry incessantly about how best to invest it. Gold-diggers are also a problem. “Money turns women on but these guys want to be loved for themselves,” said DiFuria. “A lot of them can’t handle it.”

Marijuana had a rough ride in the year 2000. In February, researchers at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York revealed that regular cannabis smokers are up to 30 times more likely to develop cancer of the neck, throat, mouth and larynx than those who have never indulged. The research was backed up in July, when scientists from the University of California reported that smoking cannabis causes cancerous tumours to grow faster.

Soya’s reputation as a health food received a serious setback in August 2000, when the US Food and Drug Administration revealed that the product contains chemicals that can increase the risk of cancer in women, brain damage in men and abnormalities in infants.

Happiness is depressing, said Dr James Pennebaker of the University of Texas. People who have a relentlessly sunny outlook risk being miserable in the long-term, because life is unlikely to live up to their high expectations. Pessimists, by contrast, who prepare themselves for the worst, achieve higher levels of contentment. Psychologists who subscribe to this theory apparently encourage their clients to picture themselves being humiliated in public. The fear this induces is thought to lead to greater happiness in the long term.

Work may be having an adverse effect on women’s health, said Dr Alessandro Guiliani of the Higher Institute of Health in Rome. His study comparing cancer rates across Europe revealed that women in countries where the old barriers to female advancement in the workplace have broken down were more likely to suffer from the disease. Women in Belarus, which was found to have the lowest level of female emancipation, have the lowest cancer rates. In contrast, Scandinavia and Britain have the highest rates of emancipation — and the highest rates of cancer.

Disposable nappies were blamed for a sharp increase in male infertility in western Europe. Wolfgang Sippell of the University of Kiel claimed that nappies lined with plastic heat up baby boys’ testicles to such an extent that it prevents them from developing normally. The average sperm count in Britain has fallen by almost 50% since 1938.

Politics can drive a person to distraction, said Ashley Weinberger of the University of Salford in the UK. His study of politicians at Westminster revealed that within three months of being elected, MPs suffer from a range of emotional problems, including anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Even a year later, a third of the 100 MPs questioned were suffering from stress-related insomnia, dizzy spells and chest pains. Many had turned to drinking and smoking as a result.

Loafing (sitting around and doing nothing) may cause headaches, said Steve Ryan of Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in December 2000. An increasingly sedentary lifestyle over the last two decades has coincided with a doubling of the number of young people who suffer repeated headaches, from one in six to one in three, and doctors believe there is a link. Previous studies have showed that adults who suffered headaches felt better after taking up exercise.

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