Red meat consumption increases the risk of early death

Red meatResults from a huge study published in Archives of Internal Medicine have shown that consumption of a high level of red and processed meat is associated with a raised risk of early death.

Men who ate the most red meat – roughly equivalent to a quarter pounder burger a day – were 31% more likely to die within 10 years than men who ate less red meat.  Women eating similarly high quantities of red meat were 36% more likely to die than those who ate less red meat.

This prospective study assessed half a million people aged 50 to 71 years from six US states (California, Florida, Louisiana, New Jersey, North Carolina and Pennsylvania) and two metropolitan areas (Atlanta, Georgia and Detroit, Michigan).

A bumper 124-item food frequency questionnaire was used to collect information on what sort of foods and drinks had been consumed over the previous 12 months, and meat intake was calculated using this information and portion size data. Red meat included all types of beef and pork, white meat comprised chicken, turkey and fish and processed meat included bacon, red meat sausage, poultry sausage, luncheon meats, cold cuts, ham and hotdogs.

Participants were then followed up for 10 years, during which 47,976 men and 23,276 women died. Men and women who ate the highest amounts of red meat on – average 66-68 grams per 1,000 calories – were more likely to die during the 10-year follow up than those who ate much smaller quantities of red meat – less than 10 grams per 1,000 calories.

In addition, men who ate the most red meat were 22% more likely to die of cancer and 27% more likely to die of heart disease than men who ate little red meat, whereas the corresponding figures for women were 20% and 50%.

High processed meat intake – 16-19 grams  per 1,000 calories – also increased the risk of total, cancer and cardiovascular disease mortality. On the other hand, total mortality and cancer mortality decreased as white meat intake increased.

If red meat eaters changed their diet and cut the red meat in favour of white meat, 11% of deaths in men and 16% of deaths in women could be prevented.

The researchers had adjusted their analyses to take into account participants’ age, weight, smoking history and total food intake, increasing the chance that the higher mortality rate among red and processed meat eaters was in fact down to their diet and not the effect of another lifestyle factor.

However, participants who ate a lot of red meat were more likely a current smoker, have a higher body mass index and have a higher daily intake of energy, total fat and saturated fat than people who ate less red meat, and they tended to have lower physical activity levels and lower fruit, vegetable and fiber intakes.  As the authors acknowledge, “It’s unlikely we’re ever going to feed people meat and see what happens”.

The study authors suggest that the effect of red meat on mortality could be down to the carcinogens formed during the cooking of red meat. In addition, high intakes of red and processed meat raise blood pressure and thus cardiovascular risk, although the mechanism of this effect is unknown.

In an editorial that accompanies this article, Barry M Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and head of the Division of Nutrition Epidemiology, points out that a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet is just as healthy as a low-fat, high–carbohydrate diet, “[t]hus, the consensus is not that we should all become vegans or vegetarians”. Instead, he suggests, we should dramatically cut down our intake of processed meats and try to limit our consumption of meat overall.

Prof Popkin also highlights how cutting down meat intake could forestall the impending food crisis brewing as developing countries like China and India adopt a protein-heavy Western diet.

Sinha R et al. (2009) Meat Intake and Mortality: A Prospective Study of Over Half a Million People. Arch Intern Med 169 (6): 562-571. Full text online: here

Continue Reading

British pharmacy offers morning after pill online

contraception-onlineLloyds Pharmacy has become the first high-street chemist to offer the ‘morning after’ pill emergency contraception online.

The pharmacy’s website gives the option to buy between one and three emergency contraception pills online, so women can be prepared prior to any accident.

Users need to complete a confidential health questionnaire before completing an order, which is reviewed by a GP.  By using this questionnaire system, the company hopes to avoid selling contraception to girls under 18.

Emergency contraception is most effective if taken within 3 days (72 hours) of unprotected sex, but can potentially prevent pregnancy if taken up to 5 days after.

The pills on the Lloyd’s website take 72 hours to arrive, however.  This delay is deliberate so that women who have already had unprotected sex and need emergency contraception immediately head straight to a local pharmacy, GP or family planning clinic rather than risk missing the crucial efficacy period while waiting on the postman.

Instead, the idea of online ordering is to allow women to have an advance supply to ‘prepare for the unexpected’. Steve Marinker, spokesperson for Lloyds Pharmacy, explains that women might find an advanced supply of the morning after pill useful for circumstances where it might otherwise be difficult to get hold of contraception within the crucial 3-day time window. “Maybe something’s gone wrong with their normal contraception and it’s a Saturday night,” he added, “and they might be anxious about how long it will take them to get a morning after pill, and that they might have to wait until Monday morning.”

Users also have the option to order two pills in case they vomit after taking a pill – a not uncommon side effect of emergency contraception.

Emergency contraception contains high doses of female hormones: either levonorgestrel, a synthetic progestogen, or progestin, another type of synthetic progestogen, plus estrogen. The progestogen analogues cause changes in the mucus and lining of the cervix, making it harder for sperm to reach the uterus and harder for a fertilized egg to attach to the uterus.  Estrogen, on the other hand, stops the ovaries from releasing eggs that can be fertilized by sperm.

As one might expect, the right wing press are up in arms about this development.  The Daily Mail cites Fury as High Street pharmacy sells morning-after pill online, whereas The Daily Telegraph opts for Anger over ‘morning-after pill bulk-buy offer’.  These publications are harping on the old fear that easy availability of the morning after pill will fuel promiscuity, which the current system prevents, they say, by involving an ‘uncomfortable’ interview with a pharmacist that may act as a deterrent to such behaviour.

Promiscuity surely is only a problem for society if it leads to unwanted pregnancies, whereas emergency contraception prevents this happening.  More to the point, currently a woman could walk into a pharmacy three days in a row if she wanted to create a stockpile (how much of a deterrent can a disapproving pharmacist really be?), the online ordering system just makes this process more straightforward.  I welcome Lloyd’s Pharmacy’s move as a good way of ensuring women can use emergency contraception as soon after unprotected sex as possible.

Continue Reading

Religious people are just as reluctant to die as the rest of us

christYou’d think people with strong religious beliefs – which generally include belief in an afterlife – would be less perturbed about slipping of this mortal coil than the rest of us.

A new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, has found that cancer patients who rely on their religion for comfort during their final days are in fact almost three times more likely to use life-prolonging treatments than are less religious patients.

The authors of this study first used a questionnaire to assess ‘positive religious coping’ in 345 patients with advanced cancer.  Religious coping – for example, prayer, meditation and religious study – can provide terminally ill patients with a sense of meaning, comfort and control during their last days. “Positive religious coping has been widely associated with improved psychological adjustment to stressors including serious illness”, the authors write.

The majority of patients (78.8%) reported that religion helped them cope ‘to a moderate extent’ or more, with a third saying that religion was the most important thing that kept them going. In addition, more than 50% of participants endorsed engaging in prayer, meditation, or religious study at least once a day.

Patients were then monitored until their death on average 122 days after this initial evaluation and their use of intensive life-prolonging care, such as mechanical ventilation or cardiopulmonary resuscitation, during their last week of life was recorded.

Patients who had a high level of positive religious coping were nearly three times more likely to use intensive life-prolonging end-of-life care treatments than were individuals with a low level of religious coping. This disparity persisted even once the authors had taken into account other factors that might affect end-of-life treatment decisions, such as terminal illness acknowledgment and preference for heroics.

Religious patients were also more likely to want physicians to do everything possible to keep them alive and less likely to make plans for the end of their life, such as instigating a do-not-resuscitate order or a living will.

“[I]ntrinsic to positive religious coping is the idea of collaborating with God to overcome illness and positive transformation through suffering. Sensing a religious purpose to suffering may enable patients to endure more invasive and painful therapy at the end of life”, say the authors.  Highly religious patients “may choose aggressive therapies because they believe that God could use the therapy to provide divine healing, or they hope for a miraculous cure while intensive medical care prolongs life.

So the authors’ take seems to be that religious people use their faith to help them endure a painful treatment in the hope that the therapy, or God, might save their life, whereas less religious people lack such stoicism.  Frankly, I’m quite surprised that religious people aren’t more ready to accept death when it comes, as they’re guaranteed a front-row seat in heaven.  The rest of us, on the other hand, are likely to spend our last days consumed by existential angst and would surely want to prolong the final reckoning for as long as possible.

Phelps AC et al. (2009) Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care Near Death in Patients With Advanced Cancer JAMA 301 (11): 1140-1147 Abstract online

Continue Reading

Connotea: Saving References Made Simple

The Next Generation Science blog has just put up a guest post I wrote for them about the online reference management service Connotea.  Here’s an extract:

Surfing the web, you come across a great journal article that you don’t have time to read immediately or think might come in useful when you’re writing your next research paper. A few days later you try to find the abstract again, but where is it?! Buried in your web browser favourites menu? Scrawled on a piece of paper you’re sure you left right by the computer?

If you often have this problem, the social bookmarking website Connotea could be the answer. Connotea is a free online reference programme for scientists, researchers and clinicians. Connotea was created in 2004 by Nature Publishing Group, who decided “to take the Delicious model and add features that would be specifically useful to academics”, says Ian Mulvany, Product Development Manager in charge of Connotea.

Next Generation Science is a website dedicated to examining emerging internet technologies – such as blogs, wikis, social bookmarking and folksonomies (tagging) – and their impact on the scientific method, researchers and the general public.  Head over to their site to check out my guest post and other recent articles on open notebook science, the effect of the US economic stimulus on research funding and the efforts of companies that just don’t ‘get’ web 2.o.


Continue Reading

Women judged on their appearance are considered less competent

Doesn't Sarah Palin look pretty in girly pink? Or does she look competent?A study published in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology has found that women judged solely on their appearance are marked out as less competent than those judged on a broader basis.

In this research, 133 undergraduates – 96 women and 37 men – were asked to judge either Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin or actress Angelina Jolie.  Half of the participants were asked to write a few lines on their “thoughts and feelings about this person”, whereas the other half were asked to write their “thoughts and feelings about this person’s appearance.” The students were subsequently asked to rate their subject in terms of various attributes, including competence.

Participants who wrote about Jolie’s or Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed their qualities as a person, but rated these two celebrities far lower in terms of competence, intelligence and capability. Interestingly, this trend applied to both men and women, as well as to liberals, moderates and conservatives.

The authors argue that women who are judged on the basis of their looks are construed as ‘objects’ and are subsequently perceived as less human.  Such objectification strips women of characteristics that are regarded as fundamental to being human, such as self determination and unique talents.  Without these key human traits, objectified women can easily be brushed aside and judged as incompetent

“Viewing another individual as low in human essence”, write the authors, “reflects a superficial, more surface level evaluation in which people are even likened to robots and automata”.

Somewhat frighteningly, by dehumanizing women people feel more free to be hostile towards them. “Research documents that stripping people of their humanity plays a role in legitimizing aggression”, the authors write.

The Jezebel blog has a more succinct take on the implications of this research for women. “The more we objectify women, judge them as other, and make them less human, the easier it is for all of us to tear them down and determine they’re not good enough”, they say.

Intelligence and beauty are not mutually exclusive, as celebrities such as actress Natalie Portman (Harvard psychology graduate) and model Lily Cole (arts student at Cambridge) aptly demonstrate.  What is most disconcerting about this study for me is how pervasive the tendency to judge a woman on her appearance is – regardless of gender or political inclination, participants focusing on looks rated the celebrities as less capable.  Underestimating women on the basis of their attractiveness allows society to shift away from being a meritocracy and does all women, conventionally attractive or not, a huge disservice.

Continue Reading