Healthcare After Covid-19

“Just as important as the government’s role in the NHS as it emerges from Covid-19 is the responsibility all of us have. We must shift our baselines back a hundred years – maybe more”


As a civilisation, humanity knows so much. To have in our arsenal an understanding of physics that includes relativity and all of its applications alongside our almost infinite artistic creativity is testament to our intelligence. These examples only scratch the surface of what we can do. So it is hugely humbling when we experience something like the Cvoid-19 pandemic.


As powerful as we are, we are still painfully fragile in the wider context – something we have a tendency to forget. It was not so long ago that we had to undergo operations without the luxury of anaesthetic and before antibiotics, we were faced with the rather uncivilised prospect of fighting infections using just our own immune systems.


Indeed, so uncivilised has the idea of being even slightly unwell become, that people now will seek medical help for a few days of cough and sore throat. The expectation for these worried well is that it is their right to expect an immediate cure. “Surely if we can do all of these marvellous things with technology, there is no disease we cannot sort out if we put our minds to it,” these people think. But these people are living in a different world, one of their own imagination. Others more prudent, sensible or experienced will realise that what we can do falls far short of this idealistic expectation.


We as a species go further. We harm ourselves willingly and then expect our medical professionals to pick up the pieces – even become angry when they can’t. Smoking, lack of exercise, poor diets – take your pick. That these things are bad for us there can be no question.


Of course one cannot wholly blame individuals for this. Capitalistic society is to blame here as much as anything. Profit and competition introduce temptation at the expense of welfare. I am not preaching socialism here – far from it. I simply point out that the drive for business to gain custom at any cost is a huge flaw in the system and in our health.


Whichever way one looks at it, we have become spoilt. Our perspectives on what we might expect from our healthcare have been shifted gradually but significantly over the last century. Only now are we being brought down to earth with a more humbling realisation; the thin facade of our supposedly advanced age has been withdrawn. There is even a name for this sort of thing – shifting baselines syndrome. It could be applied to many things. We have come to accept the nonsense and bile that comes from Donald Trump’s horrible little mouth as just the way it is these days. The baseline has shifted.


Just in the same way, many have been spoilt by the healthcare provision that they expect as a given. What we expect as a free benefit from our NHS nowadays (toe nail surgery, access to a GP to tell them about your cough, state of the art surgical procedures, cures for cancer and lifesaving emergency response within minutes) would have been the stuff of dreams for our ancestors. That the ever-expanding achievements of the last 50 years of medicine has caused the entire system to creek under its own weight is not surprising.


When I was younger, I reassured myself that if I or anyone I knew ever became unwell, it would be fine because there would always be someone somewhere that could cure whatever ailment had befallen them. My impression of medicine was that it was water-tight and so much more precise than the reality. A reality that slowly dawned on me during medical school. Much of it is guess work. Barely any treatment is 100% effective. What we don’t know far outweighs what we do know. The assumption is that there will always be a medicine to solve all problems. In a profession that revolves around trust in the doctor or nurse (a reassurance that can be therapeutic in itself) it is difficult sometimes for us to admit that we don’t have all the answers and can only do so much. Perhaps it is time we were more open with its limitations or else we make a rod for our own backs.
One might argue that what we now provide under its umbrella has gone far beyond the boundaries of what is sensible. To argue that we can effectively achieve 100% of what we aspire to medically is not possible. The issue is, the more superfluous and luxurious perks we add in, it edges out or at best blunts the core services that are most important.


At a time in which we are faced with something as dangerous and universal as Covid-19, we must heed a wake up call. The work the NHS is doing at the moment is what it is there for. Add to that health prevention, basic surgical treatments, mental health support, serious disease detection and treatment (including cancer), dignified end of life care, and social care.


Beyond the essentials, it is time for government to look at what the NHS really stands for and what it can really achieve. (Or preferably a cross party response to side step the political distractions). In an ideal world it would do everything to maximum efficiency. If a government wants to invest enough to make this possible, then great. The reality though means that the healthier a population is, the older it gets. Add to that the ever increasing scope of potential therapeutic options and one may argue that we could reach a point where a line must be drawn in how far we go in prolonging life. Should we become reliant of a system of health to such an extent (and perhaps we have already reached that point), the consequences of that system and it’s resources failing do not bear thinking about.


Governments need to look at this, decide where the line is drawn in what the NHS does and is expected to do. More importantly, they must be open about this. To back the NHS in a blind head long rush into the future, pledging vague sums of money that don’t make any sense to those in the know – none of this is helpful in any other way than to win elections. To acknowledge the need to be sensible about what is achievable and what is not seems difficult for politicians. Hence back room deals, rumours of privatisation etc. No one wants to see a privatised NHS. If the politicians are to be believed then they are included in this group, so why the cloak and daggers? The public deserve transparency and straight forward answers. Most understand that there is no definite right answer to a problem, even more so if it is explained to them. Without this, conspiracy and disquiet will breed.


Just as important as the government’s role in the NHS as it emerges from Covid-19 is the responsibility all of us have. We must shift our baselines back a hundred years – maybe more. This is urgent. Everyone must consider how we use our health service. That cough or rash that you might normally have seen your GP about – seems to have gone now doesn’t it?! That lack of exercise, my poor diet, that smoking habit – I can do something about that myself. No one else can help and we shouldn’t have to hold your hand. (Of course we do this and will continue to do so). Self care has been important during this lockdown. And yet, it shouldn’t be any more so now than any other time.


The problems with the health care system are clear. We all know about them. Covid-19 has affected us all and is scary. But perhaps it is the wakeup call that we all need.

The Deep

This was written by one of the scientific advisers on the TV series Blue Planet. Alex Rogers is an esteemed marine biologist and, although he’s not the best writer out there, this is an engaging and interesting book. If I’m honest, some of the descriptive passages of the underwater reefs in extreme detail did get a little bit tedious, but when he starts talking about the environmental aspects, he really hits home. This is an important book and towards the end, he gets into the real nitty gritty. 

The impact we are having on the oceans is shocking, something only surpassed with our complicit lack of action. The conclusion is sensible and important and gives the reader a list of things they can do to help change things. Ultimately only time will tell if this is enough. 

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived

I really enjoyed this one. Not too long and pitched just right for a light but informative read. It has certainly given me a better overview of our genetic makeup and also tempted me, despite the shortcomings mentioned, to get my own genome tested!

Covid-19

There are elderly people who are vulnerable and rely on certain supplies alongside others with genuine medical conditions or who are in pain who need things like paracetamol to control pain. It does no good at all if it’s stored up in Steve Jobsworth’s bomb shelter.

When I googled how many films Hollywood actor Kevin Bacon has been in, the answer “at least 61” popped up. The figure is as high as it is vague, and is the basis of the parlour game “six degrees of Kevin Bacon”. For those that don’t know, the game involves challenging yourself to find the shortest path between a chosen actor and Kevin Bacon based on who they have acted alongside. It is built on the idea that, in this day and age, two people on Earth are six or fewer acquaintance links apart – the concept of “six degrees of separation”.

The world is interconnected to a degree never previously seen, allowing local crazes to spread quickly across the globe. The South Korean pop song Gangnam Style reached 3 billion views on Youtube in 2017 – just one example amongst others that include the ice bucket challenge, Furbies and David Beckham hairstyles.

That’s all well and good when what spreads is (arguably) something positive. When it comes to disease, our global closeness becomes more of an issue. By now, the novel coronavirus first isolated in the city of Wuhan in China has become international news and, as of last week, a full blown pandemic. Pandemic originates from the Greek words “Pan” meaning “all” and “Demos” meaning “people”. According to the World Health Organisation, a pandemic occurs when there is a worldwide spread of a new disease.

At the time of writing, there are 596 official cases reported in the UK.

Globally, that figure is currently at 132,500, the majority of which are still from China. In all, around 10 deaths so far have been reported in the UK and 5,000 deaths globally. Although there is a lot of emerging information still being analysed amidst a lot of conjecture and misinformation, this outbreak is turning out to be quite a shock to us all. One positive to emerge amongst the chaos is the high level of international communication and co-operation means that something like this has far less impact than it might have done in the past. There are obvious exceptions here (Trump) but nothing’s perfect.

Historically, true pandemics were far more devastating. The most recent example, the Spanish flu of 1918 is estimated to have killed around 100 million people and is thought to have infected around 27% of the world’s population. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the bubonic plague or “Black Death”. The most widely known outbreak of this decimated the populations of Europe throughout the 14th Century, killing around 75 million people. The culprit, a bacteria known as Yersinia pestis, is still around today and between 2010 and 2015, accounted for 3,248 cases of plague worldwide. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but in the 14th Century, people still believed in such things as the four humours, conceived in part by the Roman physician Galen, who also apparently coined the term ‘plague’. In the belief that the plague was a punishment from God, some practised self-flagellation to repent for their sins. It didn’t do much good.

A similar outbreak, known as the plague of Justinian, broke out across the Byzantine Empire in AD 541 and it is thought that this was also due to a form of Yersinia pestis. This affected between 13 and 26% of the world’s population at the time. Both forms of plague were so transmissible and virulent in large part because of the fleas on the back of rats that were transported along the Silk Road and across the oceans on ships.

The association with animals is quite a common feature in disease outbreaks and epidemics. There are many viruses for example, carried by animals that do not infect humans. However, all it takes is a genetic mutation in this virus to enable it to cross the species barrier. The resulting pathogen is one to which populations have no innate immunity, hence the tendency for them to spread more rapidly. That is what is thought to have happened in the case of this novel coronavirus. Coronaviruses are widespread in our population already, many of which are responsible for a simple cold. However, various forms can cause more severe illnesses – for example the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) from 2003. This was a coronavirus. The current outbreak was thought to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan and the transfer from animal to human is known as zoonotic. SARS was thought to have been caught from civet cats and the coronavirus that caused the MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) in 2012 originated from dromedary camels. It should be easy to guess where the H1N1 influenza virus that caused the swine flu outbreak in 2009 came from.

With so many different names, things can get a bit confusing. The WHO takes responsibility for naming the disease itself (now christened as COVID-19) but the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses is responsible for naming the virus based on its genetic makeup. They have labelled it as SARS – CoV – 2. In an attempt to prevent unnecessary fear in the regions that suffered most from the SARS outbreak in 2003, and perhaps taking a leaf out of Prince’s notebook, the WHO are referring to it as “the virus responsible for COVID-19”.

In the modern age, notwithstanding the risk to human life, there is potential for huge economic impact during outbreaks such as this through restriction of human movement so vital to industries such as tourism and shipping. This aspect is beginning to emerge in levels the current infrastructure has never experienced before and how it affects us all is perhaps an even bigger uncertainty than the virus itself. Some estimates of a 25% reduction in the global tourism industry have even been suggested. With markets and livelihoods at risk, tremendous efforts to look for solutions are underway. Much of this builds on successful work carried out in the past.

Smallpox is the flagship example of the success of vaccination. Caused by the variola virus, smallpox was responsible for around 300-500 million deaths throughout the 20th Century but was officially eradicated through vaccination in 1979. Only one other disease has been wiped out in the same way, though it is less well known. Rinderpest was a virus that affected cattle and buffalo and, again through vaccination, was declared formally eradicated in 2011. Interestingly it is thought that the modern measles virus may have branched off from the rinderpest virus (making it zoonotic) around the 11th Century.

The Ebola virus that affected West Africa between 2012 and 2016 did not reach pandemic proportions although it caused 11,310 deaths in the affected regions. (Ebola was also zoonotic, coming from apes, bats and deer). Following the development of a vaccine, the outbreak was halted. This was largely due to the rapid co-operation between drug regulators, pharmaceutical firms, and charities across the world who, along with the WHO, collaborated more closely than they normally would have done. 

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI) was set up following the Ebola outbreak and aims to forearm experts all around the world against future outbreaks of disease. As a result, techniques and templates for faster vaccination development have been outlined and experts are using new technology in gene sequencing more and more. The genetic sequence of SARs-CoV-2 was published by Chinese scientists in January and work is underway already to find a vaccine.

Seasonal flu jabs are an important part of our disease prevention techniques already. In the USA between 2017 and 2018 around 60,000 people died from influenza and so this is no time to become complacent considering that early mortality rates (and one must be cautious considering there may be mild cases that are not making their way into the stats) seem to indicate a higher percentage for Covid-19. Neither though is it time for panic as around 81% of COVID-19 is mild and self-limiting. It may be difficult not to do just that in light of the unprecedented measures the government are now advising.

The latest update is that, if you are in the UK, one should self-isolate if one has a new cough and fever. I will admit, some of the projected figures look alarming and it may be that this goes on for some time, eventually inducting this current coronavirus into the seasonal epidemics in the coming years alongside flu. Had this happened in 1918, who knows how bad it would have been? Then again, we didn’t have the force (destructive or not depending on how you look at it) that is social media back then. It would seem this is becoming more of a social experiment of how well we can all pull together and co-operate as much as anything else. Hopefully we don’t embarrass ourselves.

Common sense is our biggest ally here. If you think you might have it, take the necessary precautions but don’t panic. Don’t call your GP if you just have the sniffles (most likely a normal cold anyway) but do contact help if you are struggling with your breathing or concerned that you are deteriorating. Look at the NHS and government websites for the latest guidance, not Twitter or Facebook. Don’t panic buy. There are elderly people who are vulnerable and rely on certain supplies alongside others with genuine medical conditions or who are in pain who need things like paracetamol to control pain. It does no good at all if it’s stored up in Steve Jobsworth’s bomb shelter.

As far as I know, there is no current advice on what to do if you come into contact with Kevin Bacon.

 

Dieting: The right way

“The heaviest man ever recorded weighed in at around 635kg (99 stone) – about the weight of an American Bison.”

As January draws to a close, so too will many new year’s resolutions be wavering. In fact, around 80% of peoples’ resolutions will have failed by the second week of February. One of the most common ones will be to go on a diet and to join the gym. January accounts for around 12% of gym applications but most will have completely stopped after about 24 weeks. Even worse, around 87% of diets will have already failed by the 12th.

While I think the use of new year’s resolutions to kick start such health drives is a positive thing, there is so much information around, particularly online and largely unregulated, that may render those well intentioned efforts fruitless, quite literally.

Dieting is nothing new. At the beginning of the 20th Century, people turned to eating tapeworms to help them with weight loss – that is until they started getting intestinal cysts, meningitis and seizures. For some reason, during the 1930s and again in the 1970s, it became popular to eat half a grapefruit with every meal in the hope that the scales would become more complimentary. In the 1800s, apple-cider vinegar was added to water (apparently popularized by Lord Byron) and in the 1960s, a ‘drinking man’s diet’ emerged which consisted of eating lots of meat and washing it all down with alcohol, even at breakfast. 

The purpose of all of these, you will notice, will have been to lose weight. I suspect now, if you asked most people why they go on a diet or go to the gym, it will be ‘to lose weight’ or ‘to look better’. We have an ideal body shape these days which is endlessly highlighted through online and social media. There is a huge pressure for us to look right.

Arguably, this has been with us for a long time. One only has to look at the statues from ancient Greece and Michelangelo’s famous statue of David in Florence to see the template for the ideal build and shape of a human that has persevered ever since.

Not reaching that ideal puts huge pressure on our mental health. The trouble is, achieving it is getting harder and harder with the choices and options available to us, both in the modern diet and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

In the UK, 29% of adults are classed as obese, as are 20% of year 6 children.  It is thought that around 10,660 admissions to hospital each year are directly attributable to obesity. Thus the importance of controlling weight and fitness is not just about looking right.

All too often, people choose to make their lifestyle changes after something has happened – if they are lucky enough to do so – at which point the aims change from honing their body image to things like reducing blood pressure, preventing or controlling diabetes, treating depression, and lowering the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Ultimately, all of this is achievable, but not through the short term fad diets that are so popular in the consumer market of today.

Let’s look for a moment at the physiology of our body and its energy supply. We need energy to live, that much is obvious. That means every cell of the body, in order to function, needs a supply of energy. This comes from our diets which can broadly be split into three categories: fats, carbohydrates and proteins.  The majority of our energy comes from fat and carbohydrates. Fat is too large to be absorbed into the blood stream on its own, so when we eat it, it is broken down in the gut to form fatty acids and glycerol so it can be absorbed.

Fat is mainly stored in the liver and in the subcutaneous (skin) tissue. It can also accumulate around internal organs (visceral fat). When we are not eating and need energy, we draw on these stores to power our bodies, a process kick started by a drop in insulin levels. This will also bring into play the sugars stored around our body, again largely in the liver, in the form of glycogen. A drop in insulin will convert this glycogen into glucose and the fat into fatty acids and glycerol once more, which can then race around the body to power things.

As we eat, insulin levels rise. This encourages cells to take up glucose as a source of energy in the short term, but also promotes a reversal of the process above and stimulates the storage of all of the new energy we are ingesting so we can use it later.

Put simply, our weight is governed by the rate at which we store the energy from the foods we eat against the rate at which we use that energy.

Energy is measured in calories and one calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of water by 1 degree Celsius or 4.184 joules. 1,000 calories is equivalent to 1 kilocalorie and it is kilocalories that we see on the sides of our food packaging.

Hopefully therefore it should be fairly clear that, in order to maximise our health, there is a need for both healthy intake of food and an active, energy burning lifestyle. If not, then our weight will suffer along with a lot of other things. The heaviest man ever recorded weighed in at around 635kg (99 stone) – about the weight of an American Bison. In the UK, the record stands at 444kg (70 stone) – the weight of the average Moose.

Our intake of fats should be around 30% of what we eat. Any more and it can build up in our bodies and cause problems, for example high cholesterol, heart disease and obesity.

In the same way, getting all of our energy from carbohydrates (sugars) is not the answer either, as this can reduce our body’s sensitivity to insulin and cause diabetes. In a cruel twist, excess sugar can also be converted to fat anyway.

We all lament the fact that, in general, the foods that are bad for us are the ones that taste nice. The key, as I suspect you have heard many times over, is balance. This is not repeated for the sake of it but because it is truly important. Many modern diets will hinge on cutting out whole areas of energy – for example the Atkins diet and its dislike for carbohydrates. While this can result in fast initial loss in weight, it falls down in many other areas. If one cuts out an entire food group, one loses the benefits of the foods within that group. If you cut out carbohydrates, you’re cutting out a tremendous source of fibre, vital for gut health and a healthy microbiome. It is also likely you are depriving yourself of the many vitamins and minerals contained within those foods that your body needs. Longer term it falls short and, perhaps most important of all, it is not sustainable.

This brings me to my most important point. If you want to be healthier, reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes, look better, feel better, lose weight, or whatever your goal, you need to make a permanent and sustainable change to your diet and lifestyle and avoid something that is unrealistic. If you say that you are going to the gym every day but one having not been for the past 5 years, it won’t work. Likewise, if you say you will cut out fat completely from your diet forever, it won’t work.

That’s not to say that making a change won’t be difficult but crucially, if you do it in the right way, it is something your body will eventually assimilate as the norm.

So…

  • Prepare your food for the week ahead and don’t shop while you’re hungry. If that chocolate bar is in the cupboard, you’ll eat it!
  • Join a gym, club or class but make your activity levels fun and sustainable so you aren’t put off it.
  • Watch out for portion size.
  • Use brown rice, brown bread and brown pasta
  • Avoid saturated fats and eat more polyunsaturated fats and cooking oils.
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables
  • Set goals and guidelines to stay within
  • Eat 3 main meals a day and snack only on nuts and seeds (a tricky one but very important)
  • Drink 6-8 glasses of water a day
  • Reduce your alcohol intake
  • Stop smoking!

Good luck!

Just Another Cigarette

When you really think about it, that well-known pastime we call smoking is actually quite bizarre. It is the act of inhaling and exhaling the fumes of burning plant material. For me, thinking about it in that purely literal sense makes it seem as weird as it does when you say the word ‘iron’ over and over again until it loses its meaning and just becomes a sound. (A psychological phenomenon, incidentally, that has been labelled ‘semantic satiation’)

It is even more so when you think of the fact that smoking, specifically tobacco, has been responsible for around 100 million deaths in the last century. Why then have we as a species become so intertwined with this strange habit and, for that matter, such a harmful one?

For a start, we didn’t always know that it was harmful. As far as we know, people have been smoking as far back as 5000BC – we know this from various drawings depicting the act. Tobacco specifically is native to the North and South American continents and was used by natives long before the “new world” was discovered by Europe. It was brought over here in the 16th Century when it was smoked in pipes and cigars. Some doctors at the time even thought it helped to prevent cancer, though I hasten to add this was not the universal opinion.

In 1880, an American chap named James Bonsack patented a cigarette rolling machine that was quickly picked up this side of the pond and the modern story of the cigarette began. These days, around 15 billion cigarettes are smoked every day.

It wasn’t until the Royal College of Physicians, in 1962, announced that cigarettes caused lung cancer and other diseases that we realised fully the harmful effects of smoking. By then, however, the manufacture and supply of cigarettes was a global industry and its sheer momentum has made it very difficult to combat over the years.

Just how harmful and costly to our health smoking is cannot be underestimated. Tobacco is the single biggest avoidable cause of cancer in the world. Each cigarette contains around 5,300 chemicals according to cancer research and 69 of these are known to cause cancer. Lung cancer is the most prominent but the habit also causes, amongst others, cancer of the larynx, oesophagus, bladder, pancreas, kidney, stomach, cervix and bowel as well as some leukaemias.

If it doesn’t cause any of these, you can expect to suffer from one or more of the following…

  • Heart disease and strokes
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease – leaving you with chronic coughs and progressively struggling for breath.
  • Peripheral vascular disease – cold and blue feet and legs at risk of ulcers and chronic pain
  • Premature ageing of skin by 10 to 20 years
  • Weak and brittle bones
  • Reduced fertility and impotence (smoking while pregnant causes miscarriage, premature birth and stillbirth and increases the chance of cot death)

I could probably go on, but I think you get the picture. Ultimately, up to two thirds of smokers will be killed by their habit.

By far the best way to stop smoking is to avoid starting in the first place. In the past, this has been made more difficult by advertising of tobacco products. Furthermore, the habit tends to be passed down in families. The very idea of smoking has been normalised to a huge extent – it has been glamourised in popular culture and films especially. Even knowing what I know, I have to admit that the cigar makes 60s era Clint Eastwood look far more impressive than he would without. But we’ve all grown up to accept that. This social conditioning is part of the problem and may have something to do with the whole ‘reckless and carefree is cool’ attitude.

The trouble is that reality catches up with the fantasy eventually and between 2016 and 2017 there were 484,700 admissions into hospital due to smoking and in 2016 there were 77,900 deaths.

Once started, the nicotine contained within is the culprit that makes stopping so difficult. It has both stimulating and tranquillising effects on the brain and creates new pathways that stimulate pleasure centres that begin to rely on the presence of nicotine to work. If a smoker stops suddenly, they will begin to experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms may include cravings, depression, anxiety, insomnia and lack of concentration. All that means it is far easier just to light up a fresh cigarette and carry on where they left off.

All the while, the carbon monoxide in the smoke binds to our haemoglobin, the protein in our blood that transport oxygen around the body, and reduces its oxygen carrying capacity. It’ll make running for your train let alone that marathon pretty difficult.

Fortunately, tougher laws on advertising now mean that cigarette packets now have to display warnings about the harm smoking causes. This transfers the responsibility of the harm they do from the tobacco companies onto the smokers who pay for them. It is a bizarre situation in which the companies themselves are now trying to make their tobacco products as undesirable as possible, some countries even going so far as to pick Pantone 448 c, the ‘world’s ugliest colour’, to adorn the sides of their packets.

Such is the reliance induced by smoking that people still spend on average around £140 each month on cigarettes, meaning they could save about £1,700 each year – the equivalent of a pretty decent holiday or a large contribution to the deposit on a house for example.

Practically all forms of smoking are harmful. Whether you smoke it from a pipe or a cigar or even chew it, you are at risk. Shisha is also known to cause cancer. This puts the tobacco companies in a predicament and we are entering a new age in which e-cigarettes and vaping are emerging as safer alternatives. While certainly thought to be safer, e-cigarettes are still new enough that longer term trial data are unavailable.  Meanwhile, the NHS party line is that they are better than other tobacco products at least.

Of course, the best option is to quit altogether. If you do so before 30, then you may be lucky enough to experience the same length of life as an average non-smoker. You will be able to taste and enjoy food more, your breathing and general fitness will improve, and the appearance of your skin and teeth will improve. After a year your risk of heart disease will halve and after 10 years your risk of lung cancer will also halve. At 15 years, your risk of heart disease will be the same as someone who has never smoked.

Going cold turkey is the least successful method. If you are serious about stopping, you may benefit from following a smoking cessation plan. Nicotine replacement products can be obtained through one of these and sometimes certain medications (Champix or Zyban) may also offer support. Visit www.smokefreelifeoxfordshire.co.uk for more information on all of this. Ultimately you have to really want to give up, otherwise you probably won’t succeed. And it may interest you to know that, in contrast to many of his film characters, 89 year old Clint Eastwood is actually a non-smoker.

Exercise

“Fit and fat is better than being unfit and thin.”

Forget pills, staying active is the best medication.
After-all, when it comes to being healthy, there is almost nothing else that comes near it in terms of its effectiveness.

There is a quote from a health promotion consultant called Dr Nick Cavill that seems to pop up more and more regularly these days – ‘If exercise were a pill, it would be one of the most cost effective drugs ever invented.’ When you look at the statistics, it is difficult to disagree.

There is strong evidence to suggest that exercise reduces the risk of the following conditions by the following percentages…

Coronary artery disease and stroke – 35%
Type 2 Diabetes – 50%
Colon cancer – 50%
Breast cancer – 20%
Osteoarthritis – 83%
Depression – 30%
Dementia – 30%
Hip fractures – 68%
Falls in older adults – 30%

These are not insignificant numbers as I’m sure you will appreciate. Exercise really is good stuff and also helps with self esteem, sleep quality and energy levels.
The government’s aim is for everyone to be doing around 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise each week. Moderate exercise is something that essentially causes you to breath faster, increase your heart rate and feel warmer – a good way to gauge it is if you are breathing too heavily to sing the words to a song. Examples might be going for a brisk walk or hike or playing a game of volley ball. Only half of us in the UK are reaching that target. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to consider the effect it would have of all of us matching this target on the mortality rates for all of the conditions above.

It goes deeper than this though. We are a species that evolved as hunter gatherers, constantly on the move, but in world with televisions and remote controls, motorised vehicles, and robots that do your hoovering for you, it comes as no surprise that we are suffering from the effects of a sedentary lifestyle. As such, even if we are reaching our exercise targets, if we spend the rest of the time sitting or lying down (and the average person in the UK sits for 7 hours a day, 10 hours if you’re over 65 years old) then those benefits are lost or at least have less impact on the risk of adverse health conditions.

It is therefore key for us to move about every now and again even if we’re not exercising. The recommendation is that every half an hour, we should get up and move about for 2-3 minutes. Practically I know sometimes it may seem difficult but actually when you think about it, is it really? Sometimes only the smallest things need adjusting to achieve this, whether it be an agreement with your boss to get up and walk around the office once in a while or maybe even (as horrifying as this sounds) keeping the remote in the shed at the bottom of the garden. Essentially we’ve all got a bit lazy and our bodies are experiencing the consequences.

For those thinking, ‘well my knee hurts too much for me to do any exercise’, or ‘the local volley ball court is too far away,’ I’m afraid that’s no excuse. Remember, moderate aerobic exercise is anything that gets you breathing and increases your heart rate, so if your knee hurts, do some swimming or even some armchair aerobics, likewise if you can’t get to your local sports centre easily, go for a brisk walk down the road or around the garden for 30 minutes every day. There is a mode of exercise for almost everyone.

Why does exercise and activity help you may ask? Recently, research has revealed quite in depth benefits that we were previously unaware of. Much of this has to do with the anti-inflammatory effects of activity. At the cellular level, our bodies are in constant turnover. Each cell in our body has something called a mitochondria which is essentially a mini power plant. It is here that we produce energy to be used in various processes throughout the body. Each mitochondria will build up a charge and if we are not using energy, they stay charged. The longer they do, bits of charge will gradually escape in the form of ‘free radicals’. These free radicals are bad news and contribute to cell and mitochondrial damage, aiding the ageing process and generally making us less healthy. It is thought that this process causes microscopic inflammation throughout the body.

Activity and exercise helps by utilising this energy and preventing release of free radicals but also produces anti-inflammatory substances from muscle that help to mediate the inflammation at a cellular level. That is not to mention its effect in increasing insulin sensitivity of cells, reducing risk of conditions like diabetes, along with strengthening heart muscle to reduce average heart rates and contributing to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.

There is a lot of focus these days on weight loss when it comes to exercise. This is quite a damaging concept and is reinforced by many commercial diet plans and courses. Although it is important to maintain a good weight and avoid obesity, weight loss is not the be all and end all. There are two types of fat. Subcutaneous fat (sub – beneath; cutaneous – skin) is the stuff that pads out our waist lines and is the most visible. However, arguably far more important is the fat that surrounds our organs like the liver and the heart. This is called visceral fat (viscera meant ‘internal’ in latin) and build-up of this visceral fat has significant implications for our general health. Even if our exercise seems to be doing nothing to our subcutaneous fat, it will be having far greater effects on our visceral fat and this is very important. Therefore we mustn’t measure the success of our exercise or indeed any form of activity with weight loss. Fit and fat is better than being unfit and thin.

The Eye

“…fingerprints have approximately 40 individual features but the average iris has 256.”

What do the following celebrities all have in common? Christopher Walken, Dan Akroyd, Simon Pegg and Jane Seymour. It takes only a quick glance at the title of this article to ascertain that it must be something to do with their eyes. Well done though if you said that they all have ‘Heterochromia’, which means that each of their eyes are different colours. Regardless of whether or not one’s eyes have this rather exotic trait, these clever and intricately complex little organs tend to be a focal point and, at an individual level, one of our most vivid and emotive defining features.

They are thought to have evolved initially in single celled organisms that held light sensitive proteins. Over many millions of years, the process of ‘seeing’ became a reality through a mind-boggling transition into the eyes that we see today. Across the animal kingdom, there are many different types of eye and, as is the outcome of all evolution, the creatures they serve benefit in different ways depending on the environments in which they live.

Geckos can see colour 350 times better than us, bees have 5 eyes, most spiders have 8 and worms merely have a collective of light sensitive receptor cells. Not all eyes are structurally the same. For example, some vertebrates, including cats, have an extra layer of tissue behind the retina (the layer of cells that collects and processes light) called the tapetum lucidum. This reflects any light that has got through first time round and reflects it back into the retina again, giving rise to excellent night vision – very handy for catching unsuspecting mice. It also results in the eye-shine we see when some type of mammal is lurking in the bushes and served as inspiration for the ‘cats’eyes’ we see on our roads.

We humans must make do without these handy features and we are limited to just the two eyes. This is better than one though, as it gives us a perception of depth. To enable us to see, we must collect the light from around us and process it. Light bounces off everything (almost) and if we look towards something the light from this will hit our eyes. This light travels first through the cornea and second through the pupils (the holes made by the retractable fibres that make up the iris (the part that gives our eyes their colour). Here it hits the lens, a rounded clear organ that alters in size as we focus differently. This allows it to redirect light from different distances onto the back of the eye where the retina sits, so that it doesn’t produce a blurry picture. At the retina, the light is converted by different types of cells into nerve signals and the information is then taken via the optic nerve to the brain where it is further compiled into what we understand as ‘sight’. Interestingingly, because of the way in which the light is focused on the retina, the unprocessed image is upside down and back to front, so the brain must flip these back the right way round.

As doctors, the eyes are a useful thing to check when examining a patient because they can tell us a lot about a person’s health. Shining lights into the eyes causes the pupils to constrict and faults here can point to certain neurological conditions as can double vision and loss of visual fields. Looking at the back of the eye, we can sometimes tell if there is raised pressure in the fluid surrounding the brain, and at the front, there are characteristic appearances in or around the eyes of people who might have thyroid problems or high cholesterol. In babies, it is important to check for something called the red reflex, the normal red-orange colour of the eye when light is shone. Asymmetry here or a white reflection can sometimes point to something called retinoblastoma which is a type of cancer.

The most common eye examination one might receive is the visual acuity check. Using the Snellen charts, reading the letters on rows of ever decreasing size, we challenge ourselves to get to the very bottom level. The phrase ‘20/20 vision’ is often talked about, which essentially means we can see something at 20 metres that the average person would see at 20 metres. Outside the USA, we use 6 metres as a scale and if you wanted really exceptional vision, you would aim for something more along the lines of 6/7 (in other words you could see something from 7 metres that the average person would only be able to read at 6 metres).

If our vision isn’t quite up to scratch, we might need a correction and this is where glasses and contact lenses come in. Depending on which survey you read, between 69% and 77% of people in the UK wear glasses or contact lenses – so many that it is isn’t surprising that they have become somewhat of a fashion accessory!

More seriously, there are currently approximately 2 million people in the UK living with a level of sight loss that has a significant impact on their daily life. There are around 350,000 people registered as blind or partially sighted alone.

There are a plethora of conditions that can cause such sight loss.

  • In the UK, age-related macular degeneration is a major cause (a deterioration of the macula, a part of the retina, due either to the formation of deposits on the retina or to fluid build-up underneath the macula).
  • Diabetes is a big cause of sight impairment as well – it causes progressive damage to the blood vessels at the back of the eye and is known as diabetic retinopathy.
  • Glaucoma is a build-up of pressure in the fluid within the eye. Your optician will check your pressures by puffing air at the eye using a machine. As long as it is well controlled and monitored it can be treated with certain medicated drops.
  • Cataracts are a gradual clouding of the lens. When vision is too severely affected, surgery is an option to correct this.
  • Retinal detachment is an emergency and characteristically involves a sudden curtain of vision loss falling over one eye. It may be preceded by flashing lights and a sudden increase of floaters and needs an immediate trip to eye casualty.

Incidentally, floaters are small bits of debris that float in the eye and move around with a slight lag as the direction of gaze changes – these are common, and, except as mentioned above, are not normally something to worry about, though they can be very annoying. Unfortunately they are essentially untreatable.

As GPs, we often see a handful of more common and less serious conditions that could have been dealt with first by a pharmacist or managed at home. Red and gunky eyes most often represent conjunctivitis, while red swollen eyelids (blepharitis) or a cyst or stye over the lid can be treated with hot compresses, and a watering eye can be your body compensating for a dry eye, so try some lubricating drops. Most eye conditions do not need antibiotic treatment.

If your eye is painful however or if you are not quite sure, this must be reviewed, especially if it is red as well. There will be a local eye casualty (if you’re in the UK) that patients can call if they are unable to get to their GP. This may be where your GP refers you if they feel it needs more in-depth specialist review.

The following recommendations can help to keep your eyes healthy:

  • Don’t smoke – Unsurprisingly this causes all sorts of problems including macular degeneration and cataracts.
  • Make sure you wear sunglasses – it protects against harmful UV rays and makes you look awesome.
  • Get regular optician checks – apparently around 10% of the adult UK population have never had an eye check. Problems are not always immediately evident and so it’s best to get checked every two years at the very least, more frequently if you’re over 40.
  • Eat the right things – generally anything with lots of omega 3 fatty acids and vitamin A (also known as retinol which helps with night vision!) Examples would be oily fish, kale, spinach, peppers, oranges, broccoli and eggs.

So overall, eyes are pretty marvellous things and, more than that, they are deeply personal. One only has to look at the rising use of retinal scanning to realise just how individual they are -fingerprints have approximately 40 individual features but the average iris has 256. We only have two of them, so we must take the best care of them possible.

The Brain

While we know more than we ever have, there is still a lot to learn meaning that, in an ironic sense, the brain is still something we can’t fully get our head around.

Someone once said that if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it then we would be so simple that we couldn’t. I would have to agree. The brain is our vastly complicated seat of consciousness and individuality, controlling most functions of the body, some of which we are aware of and some of which are on a more subconscious level.

If one were to zoom in to see it under a microscope, one would find literally billions of nerve cells, or neurons, forming a continuous interconnected network signalling to each other using electrical pulses and chemical transfers. There are around 86 billion of these neurons in the adult brain, meaning that if you were to pick an area of the brain the size of a small grain of sand you might find as many as 100,000 neurons in just that one area. What’s more, each one connects to around 1,000 others via connections known as synapses.

As we zoom out again, we see that the brain has a wrinkled surface that, if stretched out flat, would cover the area of four A4 sheets of paper. It is cushioned and bathed by a viscous layer of cerebrospinal fluid that, as the name suggests, runs all the way down around the spine as well.  Weighing in at around 2% of our body weight, our brains manage around 98% of human function, which is a pretty good return. It follows therefore that it needs a fairly good power supply and, indeed, it has an important network of blood vessels that supply it with oxygenated blood and nutrients – it uses around 20% of the body’s energy supplies.

With such a complex make-up and such a plethora of responsibilities, it is no wonder that it is regarded with such intense interest and yet is still relatively poorly understood compared with other organs of the body. As with much scientific endeavour, much progress has been made in its understanding over the last century.

Take the frontal lobe for example. As part of the quest to understand the brain in more detail, scientists identify areas in accordance with their perceived function. The frontal lobe is thought to be involved in executive function such as judgement, decision-making, planning and control of behaviour – functions that became clear following an accident involving a railway worker named Phineas Gage in which, rather unfortunately, he received a metal pole through his forehead. Though he survived this ordeal, the once calm and understated worker famously showed a marked change in personality towards aggression and surliness.

Had the pole gone through his occipital lobe, he might have had trouble with his vision and, if it had pierced the temporal lobe, he would potentially have had trouble processing sound, using his memory and producing speech.

The point is that certain areas of the brain are involved in particular tasks. This can become apparent when someone has a stroke. Most strokes happen when blood supply to an area of brain tissue is interrupted.  The result can be, for example, loss of motor function in one side of the body. If there is a problem in one half of the brain, then the problem (when talking about motor function – i.e. moving an arm) manifests in the other side of the body. This is because nerve fibres from each side of the brain cross over at a certain point before descending the spine to the rest of the body.

We know that the brain performs so many functions. It allows us to move, to smell, to hear and to sense temperature. It also enables us to think. While this complexity is admirable, when it goes wrong the consequences can often be very distressing. Infection, head injury and cardiovascular disease all affect the brain’s health, as well as conditions such as Parkinson’s disease which affects the production of dopamine, (normally used to regulate our movement) and resulting in involuntary shaking, slow movement and stiff muscles.

Most significant of all, as our population grows older, dementia is becoming the largest cause of mortality in the UK and all over the developed world. Research is ongoing and we still have a long way to go both in understanding the processes involved and in treating the effects. It should be mentioned that dementia is not a single disease, rather a term to describe the symptoms that occur when there is a decline in brain function.

Alzheimer’s is the biggest cause of dementia. Though not fully understood, it is believed to be related firstly to the build-up of amyloid plaques and secondly to neurofibrillary tangles made up of proteins called TAU proteins. As more of these build up, the ability of the neurons in the brain to transmit information gradually diminishes. Research is currently focusing on the processes involved in the development of these two features. Just as importantly, the search is on for biomarkers (markers that we can sample in the blood or spinal fluid) that might give us an idea of whether someone might be developing a dementing condition, giving greater opportunity to take early steps to manage the condition and also to research disease progression over longer periods of time. Although it can be difficult to face, and often slow to present, if you have any concerns about memory, it is important to see your GP as there is often support available and it may also be the result of more benign and treatable conditions (for example low vitamin B12 levels or underlying infection).

When concentrating on the more physical effects of the brain, it is sometimes easy to overlook the deeper thought processes that are involved in our mental health. Much of our individuality comes through the environment in which we grow up. In the same way that we form new connections and synapses in our brains through repetition as we learn an instrument or practise our times-tables for example, it is thought that personality traits develop to some extent in the same way. For untold reasons, however, our minds can be fragile and depression and anxiety can be extremely damaging. Often there are so many different factors, both social and physical, that make such emotional issues difficult not only to treat but also to recognise. Chemical imbalance plays its part, for example in relation to levels of serotonin in the brain, and in such cases there can be a role for medication. More recently, there has been a push for increased awareness of mental health conditions in an attempt to remove any stigma attached to something that can cause a lot of problems if left unaddressed.

How do we look after our brains? Staying happy is a good start and there is plenty of support available for people for whom this is not the case. Keeping your mind busy helps to maintain your ‘neural plasticity’ – it ensures you are creating new synapses by learning new things. Maintaining healthy social networks is equally as important.

Regular exercise is vital for brain health as it increases the blood supply to the neurons, reduces blood pressure, helps blood sugar balance, improves cholesterol and reduces mental stress.

Getting enough sleep each night is important (8 hours being the aim).

Your diet can also give you benefits. Anything rich in omega 3 such as oily fish is useful and a ‘Mediterranean-style’ diet is a good start. Blueberries are rich in anti-oxidants, thought potentially to reduce inflammation involved in plaque formation in the brain, and dark leafy greens, such as kale and spinach, will give you good sources of vitamins C and E and folates – all thought potentially to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

There is some evidence to suggest that certain people may benefit from medications like statins and aspirin but it’s always a good idea to come in to discuss any medication with your GP or pharmacist. And don’t forget not to smoke or drink too much alcohol.

While we know more than we ever have, there is still a lot to learn meaning that, in an ironic sense, the brain is still something we can’t fully get our head around.