HEALTH NEWS TODAY

From BBC Health News:

Small changes 'add years to life'

Blair (PA)

Making small changes to your lifestyle can have a significant impact on how long you will live, research has shown.

The Cambridge University study looked at over 25,000 people. It found that stopping smoking, exercising more and eating better could give you the life expectancy of a person 11 to 12 years younger. The government is backing the research, and launching an initiative to encourage people to make small changes to improve their health.

This is about showing people that there are everyday, simple choices they can make in their lives which will have a direct impact on their health
- Caroline Flint, Health minister

The study, carried out in Norfolk, is part of the European Prospective Investigation and Nutrition (Epic) study, involving over half a million people in 10 European countries. The UK arm of the study is following 25,663 men and women aged between 45 and 79 years old since 1993, looking at their diet, environment, lifestyle and health. The participants have regularly filled in questionnaires about their diet, lifestyle and health and had periodic check-ups from nurses.

These latest results from the study showed eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day can give you the life expectancy of someone three years younger. Not smoking turned the clock back by four to five years. Even increasing exercise by a moderate amount can take up to three years off.

But the amount of exercise someone would need to do to achieve that depends on their job. An office worker would need to do one hour of exercise, such as swimming or jogging, every day, while a person with a moderately active job, such as a hairdresser, would need to take 30 minutes exercise a day. People with active jobs, including nurses and bricklayers, do not need to do any extra exercise - as their work is strenuous enough.

'Daunting prospect'

Professor Kay-Tee Khaw, who led the study, said: "Many of us find it difficult to change our usual lifestyle. "However, there is increasing evidence that even relatively small changes can make a big difference to our health and well being." Government ministers highlighted the research as they launched an initiative called Small Change Big Difference, aimed at showing people how to improve their health by making small easily available changed to lifestyle.

Prime Minister Tony Blair has vowed to make lifestyle changes such as using the stairs instead of the lift, visiting the gym more often and boosting his intake of fruit and vegetables. Public Health Minister Caroline Flint said: "We all know that we should eat more fruit and veg and get more exercise to improve our health, but sometimes improving our own health can be daunting. "This is about showing people that there are everyday, simple choices they can make in their lives which will have a direct impact on their health. "Eating an extra piece of fruit or walking up the stairs can help people add years to their lives." James Johnson, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: "Today's campaign is to be welcomed. "But we would also like to see funding questions urgently addressed if the agenda is to make a sustained difference to the health of our communities."

Obesity is on the rise across the developed world

Scientists believe it could be possible to treat obesity by altering levels of fatty acids in a key area of the brain. They found reducing fatty acid levels in the hypothalamus caused rats to overeat and become obese. The study, by a team at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, was featured in Nature Neuroscience. It suggests that a therapy which restores fatty acid levels in the hypothalamus may be a promising way to treat obesity. However, UK experts warned that appetite regulation was a complex area.

"Work like this does help to increase our understanding of obesity, and does help us work towards new treatments" Dr Ian Campbell

Obesity is a growing problem across the developed world. In the UK, it is thought that 40% of men, and a third of women are either obese or overweight. Carrying too much weight is linked to a range of health problems, including a greater risk of heart disease and cancer.

The hypothalamus keeps track of the body's nutritional status by monitoring the blood levels of several different hormones and nutrients. Taking this information into account, it regulates both appetite, and the speed at which the body breaks down nutrients.

Injected virus

The Einstein team had already shown that glucose is one of the substances closely tracked by the hypothalamus. Now they have found that fatty acids too are on the organ's checklist. The researchers focused on a particular fatty acid molecule called malonyl CoA. They injected a virus on to which was attached an enzyme known to break down malonyl CoA into the hypothalamus of lab rats. The injections caused a drop in malonyl CoA levels, which led to the rats gorging themselves. The effect lasted for at least four months. Lead researcher Dr Luciano Rossetti said: "We showed in this study that disrupting malonyl-CoA levels in this region of the brain impairs the nutrient-sensing mechanism by which the hypothalamus modulates food intake to maintain normal weight. Figuring out a way to re-adjust malonyl-CoA levels in the human hypothalamus could lead to innovative therapies not only to treat obesity but to help prevent diabetes and other consequences of being overweight."

Complex issue

Dr Ian Campbell, a weight management expert and former chairman of the UK National Obesity Forum, told the BBC News website that research of this kind underlined just what a complex issue obesity was. "It is not just about greed and laziness," he said. "There seem to be many underlying physiological factors. Clearly we are a long way off being able to prescribe a drug based on this research. "But work like this does help to increase our understanding of obesity, and does help us work towards new treatments." Dr Campbell stressed that the best way to combat obesity was to control one's weight through exercise and a sensible diet.

Professor Ian MacDonald, of the University of Nottingham, agreed that it was simplistic to draw too many conclusions from one piece of research. He said it would be difficult to produce a drug that targeted its effect specifically at the hypothalamus, and that any effect on human appetite that could be produced was likely to be minimal.

Exercise now to cut dementia risk

The exercise should be enough to make you sweaty and breathless. Exercising for half an hour at least twice a week during midlife can significantly cut a person's risk of dementia later, say researchers. People in their late 40s and early 50s who do this could reduce their risk of dementia by about 50%, according to a study reported in Lancet Neurology. Those who are genetically prone to Alzheimer's disease could see a reduction of about 60%, it adds. The Swedish team said the findings had large disease prevention implications.

Protective effect

"If an individual adopts an active lifestyle in youth and at midlife, this may increase their probability of enjoying both physically and cognitively vital years in later life," they said. Past studies have also suggested regular exercise might guard against dementia, however, this is one of the first to look at the effects over a long time scale - about two decades. The authors say this is important because dementia takes many years to develop and is typically quite advanced when it is diagnosed.

The study involved nearly 1,500 men and women, of whom nearly 200 developed dementia or Alzheimer's disease between the ages of 65 and 79. The researchers looked back at how physically active the study participants had been up to 21 years earlier, when they would have been in their late 40s and early 50s. Those who developed Alzheimer's disease or another form of dementia were far less likely to have been active when they were middle-aged than those who remained free of dementia.

Good for the brain

The amount of exercise that appeared to be necessary to be protective was physical activity which lasted 20-30 minutes at least twice a week and which was enough to cause breathlessness and sweating. People are generally recommended to take moderate aerobic exercise for 20-30 minutes three to five times a week for a healthy heart and lungs. Dr Miia Kivipelto and colleagues said there were many reasons why exercise might be good for the brain as well as the rest of the body. For example, regular exercise could help keep the small blood vessels of the brain healthy as well as protecting against other conditions that might make dementia more likely, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Memory

Exercise might also reduce the amount of the protein amyloid that builds up in the brain in Alzheimer's disease. Physical activity also affects genes and compounds important for maintaining good cognition and memory. It might be that people who exercise tend to live healthier lifestyles in general, such as drinking less alcohol and refraining from smoking, they said. However, when they took into account such health risk factors, the findings remained the same, suggesting that exercise per se is beneficial for the brain. A spokeswoman from the Alzheimer's Research Trust said: "This study backs up the evidence so far. "Studies seem to suggest that leading a healthy lifestyle - exercising regularly and eating a balanced diet - helps protect against dementia." She said more research was needed, particularly as the condition was becoming increasingly common since the proportion of older people in society was increasing.

A few cigarettes a day 'deadly'

Doctors warn that any amount of smoking is dangerous

Smoking just one to four cigarettes a day almost triples a person's risk of dying of heart disease, according to Norwegian researchers. Their work suggests the health impact is stronger for women and that even "light" smokers face similar diseases to heavier smokers, including cancer. The team tracked the health and death rates of almost 43,000 men and women from the mid 1970s up to 2002. Their findings appear in the journal Tobacco Control.

Lung cancer

Compared with those who had never smoked, the men and women who smoked between one and four cigarettes a day were almost three times as likely to die of coronary artery disease. Among women, smoking one to four cigarettes daily increased the chance of dying from lung cancer almost five times. Men who smoked this amount were almost three times as likely to be killed by lung cancer. However, due to the relatively small number of men that this applied to in the study sample, this finding could have been due to chance.

"There is no safe level of smoking" Amanda Sandford from ASH

So-called "light" smokers were also found to have a significantly higher risk of dying from any cause - 1.5 times higher generally - than those who had never smoked, when researchers looked at deaths among those studied over the duration of the research. Death rates from all causes rose as the number of cigarettes smoked every day increased.

Sporadic smoking

The researchers believe their conclusions are accurate, even though they had to estimate the projected impact of smoking one to four cigarettes for five years in those light smokers who had smoked for less time. This indicated that the risk of death from coronary artery disease for both sexes would have been 7% higher, and the risk of lung cancer would have been 47% higher in women. A significant proportion of the light smokers had also increased their daily consumption over the period of the study. However, this had not exceeded nine cigarettes a day.

"The only way to protect smokers from heart disease, cancer and other killer diseases is to quit completely" A spokesman from the British Medical Association

Author Dr Kjell Bjartveit also pointed out that it was not possible to tell from the findings what impact sporadic smoking - such as a few cigarettes on a Saturday night out - might have on health. Dr Ken Denson of the Thame Thrombosis and Haemostasis Research Foundation questioned the validity of the figures. He said other large studies had not found that smoking fewer than 10 cigarettes daily increased the risk of heart disease.

'No safe level'

Amanda Sandford from Action on Smoking and Health said the conclusions were clear. "This study should dispel the myth once and for all that smoking just a few cigarettes a day won't do you any harm. "Quite simply, there is no safe level of smoking."

A spokesman from the British Medical Association said: "All smokers are putting their health on the line when they smoke - even if they only define themselves as social smokers. "The only way to protect smokers from heart disease, cancer and other killer diseases is to quit completely." The Department of Health estimates 106,000 people die every year in the UK as a direct result of smoking. It said quitting was the only way to avoid the serious health risks. Jean King of Cancer Research UK said: "Although more research is needed, this study suggests that the health implications for 'light smokers' are much more serious than previously thought. "This is particularly worrying as a third of smokers in the UK - an estimated 3.7 million people - smoke less than 10 cigarettes a day."