Junkfood Science: Bits and pieces

March 26, 2008

Bits and pieces

[Apologies for the light posts this week. Computer problems and loss of long-time main computer — one cannot reason with a machine. :)

Thank you for your patience. Hope to be up and running soon, until then, here are few news bites of possible interest:]

Extreme fitness for kids

A fitness program in Russia makes children work out in their underpants and then run outside in the snow — barefoot and in their undies — and be poured with ice water, to kick them in the butt to get thin and fit. Mothers are seriously disturbed by the program and calling it child abuse disguised as fitness.

More unsettling, they reported that a Massachusetts pediatrician shown the video actually commended the program, saying it had “all the right ingredients even if somewhat atypical by U.S. expectations. In a U.S. world where we don't have enough fitness in our schools and childhood obesity is at an all-time high, I have to applaud this school for thinking outside the box.” Story here.

Mandatory high-intensity bootcamp fitness before school to fix fat children

The Mercury reports that the trainer for the Biggest Loser (television show), has introduced a program to put Australian school children through high-intensity bookcamp-style workouts before each school day to help fix the problem of 'obesity'. The children would be put through drills and obstacle courses under the direction of local trainers for 30 minutes before class. It would be great, she said, kids love it. Girls couldn’t wear dresses to school, though, as they need to be in fitness gear, she added. She said “fat adults were passing bad habits on to children, breeding whole families that were 'obese'.” Story here.

Can your spit identify you as having a mental disorder?

A flurry of private startup companies are already rushing to exploit human genome research and sell genetic tests claiming to identify people at risk for health problems. AOL reports that more than one thousand at-home gene tests have come into the market in recent years, claiming to help diagnose serious diseases and prescribe phony personalized diets or treatments. Medical ethicists and medical professionals have been speaking out against these tests because the evidence for them is thin to none, even though they’re being sold as tools for consumers when making medical decisions. Most disturbing, they take advantage of people by preying on their deepest fears and anxieties.

A controversial new company claims that it can identify those at risk for mental health problems and manic-depression (bipolar disorder). A psychiatric geneticist from the University of California, San Diego, began selling home tests over the internet in December for $399, after reporting that he’d discovered several gene mutations linked to the diagnosis. He projects sales of about $12 million in the next five years.

The company, Psynomics, claims it will test for two mutations that have been associated with bipolar disorder and also says it can identify which patients will respond to serotonin-based psychiatric drugs. The trouble is, even the creator admits that these genetic links are far from complete and his discovery is just the starting point at understanding the links to such diagnoses. But there’s more to it than that. This test been not shown to be valid or reliable for making a diagnosis. According to Science, the genetic variation used in the test was “associated” with bipolar — but it was found in only 3% of people with bipolar and found in 1% of those without it. Clinical Psychology blog wrote in “Genetic testing for bipolar: Are you kidding me?” that he “fears marketing may yet again trump science.”

Science hasn’t begun to identify the genes involved in or that might be predictive of any mental health problems, not is there any legitimate scientific basis on which to claim that it’s a genetic disorder. Mental health professionals and advocates are concerned about these being used for genetic profiling discrimination and mislabeling people.

Other psychiatric genetic home-tests are due out soon, claiming to predict who will get schizophrenia and depression.

The FTC has issued a fact sheet for consumers entitled, "At-Home Genetic Tests: A Healthy Dose of Skepticism May Be the Best Prescription." As it says:

Be wary of claims about the benefits these products supposedly offer. Some companies claim that at-home genetic tests can measure the risk of developing a particular disease, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer’s. But the FDA and CDC say they aren’t aware of any valid studies that prove these tests give accurate results. Some companies also may claim that a person can protect against serious disease by choosing special foods and nutritional supplements....The FDA and CDC say they know of no valid scientific studies showing that genetic tests can be used safely or effectively to recommend nutritional choices. Be skeptical of claims that the tests can assess a person’s ability to withstand certain environmental exposures...

Protect your privacy. At-home test companies may post patient test results online. If the website is not secure, your information may be seen by others.... [N]o at-home genetic tests have been reviewed by the FDA, and the FDA has not evaluated the accuracy of their claims.

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