Dr Hilary Jones talks to Charles Ford about health stories in the news, including cancer causes, averting a dementia crises, effective diets and what’s healthy to eat
With health stories always in the daily news, Hilary, what are your views on current concerns that warn about ‘everyday things that cause cancer’?
There’s been lots of speculation about everyday things that cause cancer, for example, drinking out of plastic bottles—the concern that if you leave mineral water in opened plastic bottles for more than a few days, or you microwave in plastic, that you get these compounds that leach out of the plastic and accumulate in the body.
While there is some research that informs us that these compounds aren’t particularly good particles to have in your body, I’m not convinced that they pose a real threat to health—they’ve not been proven to cause significant damage or to cause particular cancers. There’s probably a greater risk in doing away with plastics and going back to glass or other types of containers that have a greater affinity to harbour germs of infection. I think you would need to have huge volumes of these compounds released from plastics in order to pose a significant risk.
On the other hand, we’ve always been aware that diesel particulates and toxins in fumes that we breathe are harmful in large quantities. But the body is capable of getting rid of toxins in all sorts of ways; it’s just the volume that matters. If you’re walking down a busy street, even with the changes that have been made in lead-free petrol, there’s quite a bit of carbon monoxide, etc., occurring. Yes, of course, they are worth avoiding but in reality, how many people can avoid any contact with these things—not many, especially if you live in a city. And at least we’re not back to the old days of long ago when there was all that soot in the air and people were dying of pneumoconiosis. Today we have a much cleaner atmosphere despite having more traffic
We also read about the concern that: one in three people born this year will develop dementia and that Britain will soon be facing a new health crisis …
This is a concern. People are living longer and we already have a substantial number of people over the age of 65 who are developing dementia, we have no cure for it. We only have a handful of drugs for the early symptoms which aren't terribly useful and we also have a crisis in social care because we simply don’t have the residential care and services for people with dementia to make life bearable for the sufferers and their families.
Dementia is something we fear perhaps more than cancer now. More women die of dementia than die of heart disease or cancer, and yet we spend only a fraction of research money on dementia, compare to cancer. So, as the population increases in size and in age, we are going to be faced with a huge problem down the line.
It’s estimated that there will be 2 million people with dementia by 2050 and the Alzheimer’s Society is warning that unless we develop drugs that can delay the progress of dementia, we face perhaps the greatest threat to the ability of the National Health Service to cope. If we could only delay dementia with drugs by 5 years, we would reduce the number of people with dementia by a third.
It’s not a new disease, but we didn’t see dementia much a hundred years ago because people didn’t live for as long as we do today. Generally speaking, preventative healthcare and intervention has kept people alive for longer.
With some developing dementia earlier than others, are some of us more prone than others?
Yes, there is that possibility. If both parents developed dementia at a relatively early age, there is a slightly increased risk that an individual might also. But I think all this just reinforces the need for us to take responsibility for our own health: exercise regularly, not smoke, drink in moderation and eat a healthy diet. And keep our minds busy. This idea of cognitive reserve is very interesting—the more we cram our brains full of knowledge, the more we have in reserve to cope with the slowing thought processes as we get older. So, keep your mind busy with crosswords, board games, new language skills, reading and other intellectual challenges, all these things help to stave off the ravages of dementia.
Looking at daily diet and lifestyle trends, almost on a weekly basis we hear or read about, for example, a particular food or drink being bad for us, and a month or two later research informs us of the opposite. Will the public reach a time when we simply disregard these health fad stories?
I do think the consumer is beginning to pay less attention to claims that there’s a new superfood that has just been found in Tibet or Venezuela or wherever, there have been so many claims for superfoods. The best healthy eating plan involves lots of different fruits and vegetables, oily fish, eating as many eggs as you wish (you don’t have to restrict your egg intake, as eggs are low in unsaturated fat and high in protean), avoid sugar and starch—these are our very healthy options—and we need to keep our carbohydrate intake to a minimum, because it’s starch and sugar that we now have increasing evidence of being the culprit that causes insulin resistance and also piles on the pounds and gives us an addictive sweet tooth. It’s quite possible, without spending additional money or beating ourselves up, for us all to have a healthy diet within our grasp—and we don’t need a degree in nutrition to help us chose healthy food.
However, some recent research that looked at 50 studies involving more than a million people, shows that there is no evidence that saturated fat is bad for health and may even help to protect against the development of diabetes.
Certainly fat is metabolised in a different way to sugar and carbohydrates and the evidence of the Inuit people is that their Eskimo diet, which is very rich in fat, albeit largely from oily fish, actually protects them from heart disease.
There’s no doubt that the Atkins Diet, which encourages protean and fat rather than carbohydrate, is basically pretty healthy, except you don’t need to follow this diet to an extreme. And the 5-2 Diet has gained in popularity because you just cut out your starch and carbs for five days a week and that really helps because your body is forced to start burning stored fat, if you’re not eating more starch and sugar, and then you start loosing weigh on the two days you’re not having any starch or carbohydrates, and this seems to suit a lot of people.
I know that you’re keen to encourage physical exercise and it’s been said in the last week that taking just 15 minutes exercise a day is beneficial. Do you agree with that idea?
No, personally, I don’t think that’s correct. There’s the theory that you can do an intense period of exercise in a few minutes and get the same benefit, but I just don’t believe that. Endurance exercises are quite important—we’re only going to get metabolic changes in the body when we exercise for periods of more than 30 minutes several times a week. We need to stretch ourselves, use our muscles, our hearts particularly—the heart-lung unit. The human body is eminently adaptable and so we need to push ourselves, and 15 minutes is just not enough to do that. I don’t have the research to prove that what I say is true, it’s just what I believe is true.
On a lighter note, and in the interests of following the title of your publication, Live to 100, we’ve been told recently that for older men especially the risk of developing osteoporosis can be reduced by hopping about for two minutes each day.
The idea of older men hopping around for a couple minutes is certainly a strange one! But any weight-bearing exercise we know will be useful and this is probably a good exercise for balance, too. Now I learn something new every day and I learnt yesterday that we loose about one percent of our natural balance every year after the age of about 35. So by the age of 65 we’ve lost about 30 percent of our natural balance. When we do exercises, such as hopping on one leg, this is going to help our balance and that’s good because preventing osteoporosis isn’t just about keep your bones strong, it’s about preventing falls. So I think hopping is going to achieve both these objectives.
Can you see this catching on so that we become a nation of hoppers? Or perhaps we can all start skipping again, which sadly we seem to stop doing after the age of ten or eleven?
Well this sort of movement is important for the skeleton at any age. Having met recently the UK skipping champion I was astonished to find how many different ways there are to skip and how well coordinated you have to be to do it. So I think, yes, let’s have more skipping going on.
And, on mentioning children, it’s been announced that some of the leading supermarkets are withdrawing popular children’s sugary drinks and introducing their own-brand no-added-sugar alternatives.
I’m very pleased to hear this. The voluntary code that the food industry said they would embrace to try to reduce the sugar content of drinks was given lip service only, really, because drinks today are still jam-packed full of sugar quite unnecessarily—in most fruit drinks as well as fizzy drinks. I applaud any supermarket willing to take off profitable lines in order to help with the epidemic in childhood obesity that we see today.
Do you think that food packaging should make plainer the sugar content in particular and the additive content in general? A professor at Oxford University has said that the EU has failed miserably to come up with a labelling system that will help consumers make healthy choices.
Yes, I agree that we need the messages to be really simple. Although the ‘traffic light system’ is not everyone’s favourite, if we could see red, amber or green, for fat and sugar, it would make life very much simpler for people who really don’t understand how many calories there are in a gram of fat or in carbohydrate or in protean. And I think we should have the same system on alcoholic drinks because, believe it or not, alcoholic drinks are exempt from showing how much sugar they contain. So a bottle of wine, for example, can contain hundreds of calories that people are unaware of.
DR HILARY’S 6 POINT ROADMAP TO HEALTH LIVING
- Regular fun exercise. Something you enjoy doing with other people, perhaps, that isn’t a chore but is invigorates you both physically and mentally. It could be dancing, mountaineering, windsurfing, tennis, it doesn’t matter what it is as long as you’re using your body and your brain and having fun at the same time. This, I think, is better than any prescription any doctor could ever write.
- Enjoy varied food that tastes wonderful and is healthy. Try to devote a couple of months to overcoming the addiction that most people have to sugar. Cut back on salt and enjoy the more subtle flavours that the Mediterranean diet embraces.
- Keeping a positive mental attitude and (a cliché maybe) making sure you’re happy—happy at work, happy in your relationships, happy in the things that you do. Look after your own happiness and get rid of things that make you unhappy.
- Work—we all spend a lot of our lives working, so that work should be constructive and valued, in a work environment where we’re nice to our colleagues and they’re nice to us.
- Sleep—I think sleep is over-rated. If your mental attitude is that you enjoy your work and your life, whatever sleep you can get is going to be sufficient.
- Finally, value the health screening that’s on offer. We’ve learnt recently that too many women aren't having the health screening that they should have and many are developing cancers, particularly, that could be spotted early and cured. And both men and women should have annual health checks.