Here are our top three health stories. We’ve chosen them from the many reported in the media in recent weeks because they are particularly important for public health.

Two in three deaths before 75 could be avoided.

If people adopt a healthy diet, take exercise, don’t smoke and drink alcohol in moderation then they are much more likely to live to at least 75. In fact over 100,000 people a year could benefit. That’s the verdict of the National Institute for Care and Health Excellence (NICE), the government’s health watchdog.

This probably isn’t news to you. As you’ll know from the articles we publish regularly on Age Watch, prevention is better than cure – and what we eat and drink, how much exercise we take and avoiding smoking can all make a difference.

What was perhaps new was the advice for local authorities, who now have responsibility for public health (if not always the resources they need to do everything expected of them).

NICE advised Councils to use their licensing powers to set limits for the number of takeaways and fast food outlets in any area and their opening hours, to reduce the temptation to eat unhealthily - and in particular to limit them near schools. 

NICE says that steps like this would reduce premature deaths from heart disease, stroke, cancer, liver disease, and respiratory diseases.

This follows research published in 2014 by Cambridge University study, which found people who live near a large number of takeaways are almost twice as likely to be obese.

The new advice also says local authorities should make sure all their catering contracts encourage a healthy balanced diet – and also make sure that people aged 40 to 74 get a health “MOT” to check their blood pressure, cholesterol and weight and check their lifestyle habits.

This is part of a growing trend for health experts to advise that public health needs to be protected from organisations whose activities put that health at risk, including suppliers of unhealthy food.

 “Taking early action to tackle issues such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and obesity could save about 103,000 people from dying early each year in England.”

Professor Gillian Leng, Deputy Chief Executive, National Institute for Care and Health Excellence 

You can find more information in this article from the Telegraph.

The Truth about Sugar

Is sugar really a health risk? Yes, according to a BBC1 programme on 19th March 2015. Here are some of the programme’s findings: 

  • Sugar is one of the cheapest forms of energy but it can make you fatter – and body fat increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other long term conditions. 
  • Refined sugars are a particular problem. All the fibre and roughage has been removed, leaving just energy/calories. If we don’t burn off these calories they become fat very quickly. 
  • The one healthy form of sugar is fruit. That’s because it contains vitamins, minerals and fibre. It also makes you feel full more quickly, so you’re less likely to overeat. And the sugar in fruit is also released more slowly, which is safer. 
  • Sugary drinks (including fizzy drinks and fruit juices) are a problem. They don’t usually have fibre or much nutritional value. So you don’t feel full after drinking them and are more likely to carry on eating and become overweight or obese. 
  • Most sugar is ‘hidden’ in processed foods – including foods as diverse as Bran Flakes, Tomato Soup, Sweet and Sour Chicken, Smoothies, Baked Beans and Pad Thai. 
  • There’s currently no legal requirement for food manufacturers to flag up levels of sugar through traffic light labelling (although some companies, like M & S are doing so voluntarily). 
  • Researchers for the food industry consciously seek the ‘bliss point’ i.e. the right percentage of sugar to attract customers. 

This led presenter Fiona Phillips to comment later, ‘Companies are putting profits above consumer health by making food that tastes sweet so that we buy more. This is immoral’. 

She went on to say, ‘So until food manufacturers decide to reduce the sugar levels in everyday foods – or laws are brought in to enforce this – we all have to become sugar detectives, checking labels carefully and cooking from scratch wherever possible.’ 

Consumer groups like WHICH have also begun to focus on the need for manufacturers to reduce the sugar in processed foods. 

On 15th March WHICH called for clear traffic light nutrition labelling on the front of all cereal bar packs after finding some contain over 40% sugar.

and many don’t live up to their healthy image. 

Their research suggests that the public are becoming increasingly critical of government and the food companies. Only a quarter (26%) of people are satisfied with the action government is taking to help people to eat healthily and only 23% are satisfied with the action manufacturers are taking. 

Encouraging industry to lower the fat, sugar and salt content in foods is one of the key things people want from government, as well as ensuring that food companies don’t use tactics that appeal to children to promote less healthy food. 

“We now want the Government to tackle this issue head on by making sure all manufacturers use traffic light nutrition labelling, encouraging reductions in sugar, fat and salt and ensuring manufacturers promote their products responsibly.” 

Richard Lloyd, Executive Director, WHICH 

Is having a sense of purpose in life the key to beating dementia? 

That’s the intriguing suggestion in a recent article in the Express

It suggests that people who keep busy and enjoy an active social life – by volunteering, learning new things and being part of the community – are better protected against dementia. 

The research findings, from a five year study of 453 older people in the US, are actually a bit more complicated than this. 

What they seem to show is that: 

  • Purpose in life, the sense that life has meaning and direction, was already known to be associated with reduced risks of adverse health outcomes. 
  • Purpose in life constitutes a distinct dimension of psychological well being and is a potentially modifiable factor that promotes healthy ageing. 
  • In this study greater purpose in life was associated with a 44% lower risk of brain damage caused by blockages in blood flow (and experts believe that this damaged tissue, called infarcts, can contribute to dementia, mobility problems, disability and death). 

“Mental health, in particular positive psychological factors such as having a purpose in life, are emerging as very potent determinants of health outcomes,” 

Dr Patricia Boyle, Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Centre, Chicago 

Where things get a bit messy is that the newspaper article seems to consider having a purpose in life, keeping busy, a positive mental outlook and enjoying an active social life as being the same, when each is potentially a bit different. However, our own review of research suggests that each has potential health benefits. 

The article also assumes that reduced risk of brain damage will lead to a reduced risk of dementia.  Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, comments “This study didn’t look at dementia or at thinking and memory but research has shown that interruptions in blood flow in the brain can contribute to dementia.” 

What we can say with reasonable confidence, as we explore in more detail in our Mind section is that our mind and our body are interconnected. Mental health can influence physical health and vice versa.

So having a purpose in life, keeping busy, a positive mental outlook and an active social life are all likely to be good for both our physical and mental health.