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● Traffic, and its associated pollution, was a focus of increasing concern this year. In January, researchers found evidence that people who live close to busy roads are slightly more likely to develop dementia – raising speculation that toxins in exhaust fumes have a harmful effect on the brain. In April, a team at the University of Edinburgh found evidence that ultra-fine particles, like those emitted by diesel cars, can enter the bloodstream, build up in blood vessels – and remain there for months. A few weeks later, a World Health Organisation report estimated that 25.7 per 100,000 deaths in the UK are attributable to pollution, compared to 12.1 in the US and just 0.4 in Sweden.
● Diet drinks have been linked to poor health outcomes – and may not even do what they’re supposed to do. Researchers in the UK and Brazil analysed various trials on the subject and concluded that while diet drinks contain no sugar, and are all but calorie-free, there is no strong evidence that they help people lose weight (or stop them getting fat). A few months later, a small – and far from conclusive – study found that people who drink artificially sweetened drinks on a daily basis have a significantly elevated risk of stroke. Although they had not established a causative link, the study speculated that artificial sweeteners might have a harmful effect on blood vessels.
● Playing football could raise the risk of dementia, if you head the ball too often. In a small study at University College London, researchers performed post-mortems on six former professional footballers with a history of dementia. All their brains showed signs of Alzheimer’s, and four were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a pattern of damage linked to repeated blows to the head. In their careers, the players would have suffered repeated sub-concussive blows to the head.
● Over-the-counter painkillers do little to relieve the agony of back ache, and could just leave users with a bad gut. A review of 35 trials into non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) concluded that the relief of neck and lower back ache they offered was “arguably not of any clinical significance”. Moreover, patients who take them are at significantly increased risk of stomach ulcers and other gastrointestinal problems. But that’s not all: a study in March added to a growing body of evidence that suggests ibuprofen and other NSAIDS are bad for the heart. The study, of 29,000 people who’d suffered outof-hospital cardiac arrests in Denmark, showed that taking the drugs was associated with a 31% increased risk of cardiac arrest.
● Obesity has never been a condition to aspire to – but some studies have found that people who are overweight are actually less likely to die early than those of a healthy weight. However, the so-called obesity paradox was undermined in April by a study from Harvard and Boston Universities. This looked at data on 225,000 people, whose body mass index had been monitored for 16 years. The team then looked at their death rates from 12 years of follow-up data, and found that those who had been either obese or overweight had an elevated risk of dying of any cause, as well as specific causes, such as heart disease.
● Lighting candles is, as the Danes put it, very hygge – but even if it’s good for your soul, it may not be good for your lungs. A study in the US found that candles are a significant source of indoor airborne pollution, raising levels by about 30%. Frying food is also a major source – but smoking is the biggest.
● Sugar doesn’t just rot your teeth, make you fat and raise your risk of heart disease: it may also make men depressed. Researchers from University College London looked at sugar intake and common mental health problems among 5,000 men and 2,000 women recruited to the Whitehall II study in the 1980s, and found that men with the highest intake of added sugar – more than 67g a day – had a 23% increased chance of suffering a common mental disorder after five years than those who consumed the lowest levels (less than 39.5g). And it did not seem to be merely that they were “comfort eating” sweet foods because they were already depressed.