It’s becoming increasingly hard for American women to get abortions

A bill introduced in Republican-controlled Wisconsin to ban abortions 20 weeks after conception is likely to become law in the next few weeks. That would make it the 38th new law across 11 US states set this year to restrict women’s access to abortion.

Republicans’ slow attack on the right to abortion is working. Find out how on Quartz, published May 11, 2015.

Image by ashley rose under CC-BY-NC-ND

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The British seem to get less cancer but also survive less than Americans. Why?

In the UK, more than 330,000 cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2011. That compares favorably with the rate of cancer in the US—396 per 100,000 people in the UK vs. 451 per 100,000 in the US.

But even though people in England, where the UK’s largest population is, are less likely to get cancer, five years after diagnosis, only 56% of English cancer patients survive, compared to 65% of American patients.

Find out why on Quartz, published May 5, 2015.

Image by Sam Blackman under CC-BY license.

India faces the unique challenge of dealing with both obesity and malnutrition

One Indian in every five is obese, according to a 2013 study in the renowned journal The Lancet. Most of these people live in cities, where rapidly changing lifestyle is contributing to an “obesity epidemic”.

An obese person, as defined by the World Health Organisation, is anyone with a body-mass index (BMI) that is greater than 30. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in metres. Although this measure is not perfect – for instance it sometimes fails when used on sportspersons – it is a good approximation to warn most people of the potential dangers.

When two worlds meet

Obesity, like smoking, kills slowly. It increases the risk of being affected by type-2 diabetes, coronary heart diseases, breast cancer, bowel cancer and even stroke.

And India faces a further, unique challenge. While obesity is a growing problem, the country is yet to deal with malnutrition and undernourishment. In fact, the 2014 Global Nutrition Report found that most developing countries are facing all three problems at the same time. The number of obese around the world has increased to 210 crores and the number undernourished and malnutrition remains at 200 crores.

The lack of nourishment leads to stunted growth, affecting bodily strength and mental prowess. Their poor immune system makes them easy victims to infectious disease such as diarrhoea, which is a leading cause of death among those under the age of 5.

The combined economic burden of obesity, undernourishment and malnutrition is probably greater than 5% of the gross domestic product (about ₹ 6 lakh crores). And any problem at this scale can only be tackled when both government and citizens rise up to the challenge.

A bag of tricks

Good proportion of the blame lies in people’s choices. Exercise and diet, especially done together, are effective to deal with obesity. Everybody knows that, but few people manage to get off their couch and leave high-calorie snacks unopened. Simple psychology hacks, such as making your goals public or setting them with your partner, can work. Group exercises or community centres can also help deal with the urban population’s addiction to a sedentary lifestyle.

Governments can help too, but they don’t have a single magic trick. Instead they need to rely on implementing many policies, each of which has been shown to have a small positive effect. These include healthier school meals, taxing high-calorie food and drink, and better physical training. For each rupee spent on implementing these obesity controls, the government is bound to receive many times back in economic benefits.

The poor don’t fair better on their own either. For instance, when they earn some spare cash, villagers choose to buy a TV or a mobile phone – a status symbol – rather than feed their young better food. Worse still, malnutrition trains the body to hoard fat, so when the poor eat calorie-rich food they become more prone to obesity as adults. Bad choices can become good ones through grassroots movements.

To be sure, malnutrition is not just the lack of food. India has enough to feed all its population, if it fixes its distribution network. It is more a problem because of lack of proper food.

Some governments can show others the way. In Maharashtra, for instance, stunting in children under 5 fell from 37% in 2006 to 24% in 2012. Factors that helped: economic growth, poverty reduction, nutrition programmes and better female education rates. The latter is interesting because uneducated women tend to give birth at very young ages, their babies tend to be underweight and fail to thrive. Simple education programs can also make them aware of the family’s nutritional needs, helping them make better choices. Women empowerment may be an empty political promise, but it can truly work.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image by filandfiloi under CC-BY-NC-ND license.

22 health lessons from “Trust me, I’m a Doctor”

The BBC ran an excellent second series of three episodes of “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”. You can dig into all their conclusions here. Here are the take away lessons from it:

1. Moderate amount of exercise every day is better than few intense gym sessions a week. Anything outdoors from walking to gardening is good enough to be considered moderate. Most exercises only have beneficial effects that last for 12-24 hours after exercise.

2. Coffee helps caffeine addicts to keep working at normal levels. This conclusion is a bit simplified because there may be a genetic component in the equation, which might mean the some people need it to keep working at normal levels not just because they are used to it.

3. Fatty foods are probably not going to cause acne or make it worse. Chocolate, or similar sweet things, might do. The science is scant.

4. E-cigarettes seem to be definitely better than cigarettes. But beyond the obvious harm of nicotine addiction, the jury is still out if they are harmless.

5. Less salt may not lower blood pressure, but it wouldn’t be harmful to eat less of it. What you should eat more, however, is potassium—found in broccoli, spinach, apricot and bananas.

6. Most claims about the benefits of omega-3 aren’t that strong. Eating fish, though, is beneficial to reducing heart attacks. But replacing fish with pills as a source of omega-3 does not have the same effect. This might be the case because it is a combination of nutrients in fish that provide the real benefits.

7. Best painkiller to start with is paracetamol, which can be taken in combination with caffeine, ibuprofen, codeine, or all together.

8. Instead of caffeine, chewing gum can increase alertness and sage pills can give a cognitive boost. Both of those might be beneficial without the downsides associated with caffeine (see point 2).

9. Cold pasta changes the structure of starch such that some of the carbs are converted into dietary fibre. It means you don’t get the high-carb load in the blood normally associated with pasta. Reheated pasta is even better than cold pasta, and it is tastier too.

10. Acupuncture may actually have a pain-relief effect. We don’t know how but studies are showing positive results!

11. UV-A, which we can get from the sun, lowers blood pressure and has a lasting effect. The decrease is only 2mm Hg, which is not much but still lowers chance of stroke by 10% and heart attack by 7%. For people with red hair, or if you burn instead of tan, or if you have a family history of melanoma, the sun may not be a solution for you. But for the rest (that is, most of us), the sun is beneficial.

12. It’s impossible to avoid BPA in plastics (bisphenol-A). There is little evidence that the concentration we consume it in is harmful.

13. Saturated fats in certain foods such as nuts or milk might be good. But jury is still out.

14. Vitamin C may not help fight a cold, but zinc supplements taken within first 24 hours can help (beware of side-effects though).

15. Vitamin D supplements work, so does fish and of course sun. But use supplements only when at risk of deficiency.

16. Energy drinks don’t have any more caffeine than normal coffee drinks that millions consume every day. Those with palpitation problems should avoid both.

17. Cold packs are for use on sudden injuries and can help reduce inflammation. Hot packs are for use to treat ongoing pains, such as neck or back pain, to relieve symptoms.

18. Meats after the use-by date should be thrown, but other foods could potentially be consumed. Remove the mouldy bits on breads, cheese and fruit, and you’re good to go. Consuming slimy food items, on the other hand, including those found on vegetables, are a bad idea. The slime tends to be of harmful bacterial origin, not benign fungal origin.

19. Two squares of dark chocolate every day is enough to get the benefits from flavonoids. You can rightly feel guilty if you eat more.

20. When it comes to added sugar in our diet, it is clear that it should be treated as a luxury item. Cutting down sugary drinks will go a long way to help, so would noticing hidden sugar in food items such as chocolate bars and cereal.

21. Waxing pulls the hair out from the follicles, which is why when they grow back it feels as if they are thinner. Shaving only cuts the hair, which makes them appear thicker and harder. However, if one leg is waxed and the other is shaved, you will find no difference between them 12 weeks on.

22. Garlic, beetroot and green leafy vegetables are quite good at reducing blood pressure.

Here are links to lessons I learnt from the 2013 series and the 2015 series of “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”.

Image by grasper. Published under a CC-BY-NC-ND license.

These 5 habits will help you avoid dementia and other diseases

1. Exercise regularly (few times a week)

2. Don’t smoke

3. Consume alcohol moderately (about 3 units/day or 1 drink)

4. Eat a healthy diet 

5. Maintain body weight (depends on your height)

While specifics about how much or how little can be debated, with every study science keeps making a strong case to follow these 5 things blindly. Consider this recent large-scale study which showed reduction in diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, if men practised 4 out 5 of these habits.

21 health lessons from Trust Me, I’m a Doctor

The BBC ran an excellent series of three episodes called Trust Me, I’m a Doctor. You can dig into their conclusions here. Here are the take away lessons from it:

1. Body Mass Index or body fat count don’t say much about your health. How fit and active you are does.

2. It doesn’t matter what you use to wash your hands. It’s how you wash your hands that matters.

3. Deep sleep is the key to consolidating memories and needs to be achieved in 24 hours. Catching up on the weekend doesn’t help.

4. No need to drink 2 litres of water every day. Just drink when you’re thirsty and you’ll be fine.

5. CPR doesn’t need mouth to mouth resuscitation. Keep it going and the ideal beat is to match it with the song Stayin’ Alive (not kidding).

6. The evidence on benefits of eating aspirin, if you’ve not had a heart attack, is small and may not outweigh risk.

7. Ultrasound can be used to burn parts of the brain to get rid of a Parkinson’s tremor.

8. Sleeping 7.5 hours day reduces chances of diabetes and improves our immunity.

9. Vitamin supplements are a waste, unless you’re a strict vegetarian, a kid or a pregnant woman.

10. Diagnostics tests, most of them, are unnecessary if you don’t have an illness.

11. Over 55, the benefits of statins may outweigh risks. If side-effects appear, consider other statins or give them up.

12. Standing 3 to 4 hours a day is equivalent to running 10 or more marathons run per year.

13. Probiotics doesn’t make any difference to our long-term health.

14. Instead, a morning of 100g oats might help improve the number of bacteria that produce healthy effects.

15. Treat smoothies as a treat, not a healthy snack. Most have more sugar than an equivalent amount of coke.

16. For migraines: avoid triggers, follow a standard sleep pattern, and when an attack occurs hit ‘em with high dose of painkillers. One solution may be to get a botox treatment.

17. Nasal sprays are better than anti-histamine for hay fever. Ensure that anti-histamine, if you take them, don’t cause drowsiness. Another option is to take immunosuppressant therapy.

18. There is no evidence that coffee can be good or bad for our long-term health (unless you’re pregnant, then it is bad).

19. The evidence of Hormone Replacement Therapy helping women with severe menopausal effects is strong. But there are risks which need to be considered more carefully on a case by case basis.

20. Cracking your knuckles isn’t linked to arthritis.

21. A line of trees in front of the street outside your house could cut particulate matter population by as much as 50%.

Here are links to lessons I learnt from the 2014 series and the 2015 series of “Trust Me, I’m a Doctor”.

Malaria vaccine

Several vaccines for malaria have been developed over the past few decades, but none offer complete protection. Now, for the first time, US researchers have developed a vaccine that protects 100% of those given five doses of the vaccine.

New malaria vaccine the first to offer complete protection, The Conversation, 8 August 2013. Also on Ars Technica and The Hindu.