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What is the truth behind the rise in strokes? Anyone?

By Angela Harbutt
May 12th, 2015 at 8:10 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in health

News channels are awash today with the latest horror story – that strokes have risen over past 15 years among working-age people.  Cue health “experts” and charity spokespeople of various guises rushing to the TV sofa’s to point accusing fingers at the Great British public’s failure to take enough exercise, and our consumption of too much sugar/salt/fat, to explain the rise.

Newspapers are also falling over themselves to tell us that the latest health crisis is all our own fault. This is the Daily Mail‘s lead paragraph:

“Strokes among middle-aged men have soared because of obesity and lack of exercise, experts said yesterday.”

“Their research shows the number of cases is up 46 per cent on 15 years ago. For women in the same 40s and 50s age group the rise is 30 per cent.”

Or this from the Independent (with obligatory photo of a couple of fat blokes):

“Sharp rise in strokes among people of working age leaves thousands devastated by disability”

“The Stroke Association said the increase was due to more unhealthy lifestyles”

Undoubtedly health choices have a part to play in preventing strokes, perhaps a significant part for all I know, but before we all give ourselves a stroke worrying about the latest health scare let’s just be aware of the facts.

The Stroke Association study these headlines refer to, states that in 2000 there were around 4,260 hospital admissions for strokes among men aged between 40 and 54 in England, compared to 6,221 in 2014. For woman the figures are 3,529 in 2000, to 4,604 in 2014.

Over a similar period, the UK population has grown by over 5 million – and, according to the ONS  (since 2001) “there have been high levels of net inward migration, adding to the population at younger working ages”. I don’t have the precise numbers for England (rather than the UK) nor the increased numbers of men aged 40 to 54 living in England today compared with 15 years ago but the chances are they have risen since 2000. What matters is the % of the 40-54 year olds experiencing strokes today vs 2000, not the rise in absolute number of strokes surely?

I can’t help but wonder why the percentage changes have not been reported?

Lost in the story is also the fact that “hospital admission practice” (mentioned in passing in the press release) is also having an impact on the rise in numbers. Have we got better at diagnosing strokes over the last 15 years (probably)? Could that also account for some of the rise?

We should also note that the causes of strokes are many and various. The BBC managed to find two young stroke victims on its web site, one was a 34 year old whose stroke was caused by a (previously undiagnosed) heart condition and the second was a “very fit” (49 year old), who was “in the gym six days a week”, “ate healthily”, but had (again undiagnosed) high blood pressure. Neither of those men appear to had a stroke as a result of their lifestyle choices – far from it.

But does the BBC lunchtime news talk about either the population growth or indeed, the possible improvement in diagnosis as possible reasons for the “rise”? Does it bother to alert the “fit and healthy” that they may still be at risk of stroke even if they have a perfect diet and  take regular exercise? (eg according to the Stroke AssociationSouth Asian and black people in the UK are also at increased risk of stroke. Although the reasons for this are not completely understood, we do know that black people are twice as likely to have a stroke compared to white people and that black and South Asian people also tend to have strokes at a younger age than white people.”)

No. Nor any mention of the fact that if you have had (often undiagnosed) TIAs (mini strokes) you are at high risk; likewise you are at higher risk if there is a family history of strokes.

The tack taken by the Stroke Association and health journalists across the board is nothing less than irresponsible. The data extracted from the NHS by the Stroke Association shows a snap shot of the number of strokes occurring amongst those of a certain age in England and nothing more. The headlines/soundbites from them creates an impression that the sole cause of the “rise” in strokes amongst 40-54 year olds is “lifestyle choices”.  That is nothing more than a hypothesis/best guess/hobby horse from the health spokespeople. It is not only not backed up by any evidence presented in its press release or elsewhere, it runs the risk of leading to stigmatization of those suffering from strokes (“it’s their fault”) and creates a false sense of security among the fit and healthy – but otherwise vulnerable groups – that they are low risk or risk free.

It also displays, yet again, sheer laziness from the so-called journalists. When I spoke to the BBC after the lunch time news edition to put some questions to them; why they had shown the rise in strokes in absolute terms and had not factored in population growth in the last 15 years; whether there was any evidence to show if diagnosis had improved; and whether they had figures showing the percentage of stroke victims defined as obese, it was quite clear they had not even considered these points. Indeed they started off by trying to tell me that they thought the figures had taken into account population growth.

By the Six O’clock news, the BBC had added a line to its report stating the increase in the number of strokes “can’t be accounted for by population growth and by changes in the way strokes are treated. Experts say obesity and sedentary lifestyles are to blame.” But that was as far as they were willing, or able, to go.

Where is the journalism from the media? All they seem to have done, by and large, is to have taken the Stroke Association press release and top and tailed it with a “personal story” and/or a sound bite from a “health expert”.  More importantly, where is the responsibility from the the Stroke Association to provide the UK population with factually accurate, evidence-based information? Why have they stooped to shock tactics?

Still it seems to fit the agreed current narrative of the health lobby that “lifestyle” is the root of all our health problems. And “health journalists” seem to happily gobble up and spew back out whatever froth they are fed. They have ceased to be the fifth estate, examining the validity of the claims made. They have become the mouthpieces for their friends and colleagues working in health. They may as well just give health campaign groups their login and password and go sit on a beach.

Until the wider health lobby (in which we must include journalists as well as campaign groups) gets off this bandwagon and starts giving people the full facts however dull, rather than the spin that suits their beliefs or grabs the headlines, we should simply ignore everything they say. As an increasing number of people are clearly doing already. And government must start to consider whether health authorities should, in the interests of Public Health, continue to outsource it’s services to charities that persist in playing fast and loose with the facts.

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Media failure that is truly shocking

By Angela Harbutt
July 15th, 2011 at 6:00 pm | 8 Comments | Posted in Debt, Media

A new publication was launched earlier this week “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes: Big steps to a smaller state“,  calling for a radical downsizing of the public sector and giving an indication of the corresponding tax cuts that would be made possible as a result. The media coverage was, as you might expect, mixed. The Guardian headline read “Thinktank advocates abolition of the NHS and slashing overseas aid”  whereas the Daily Mail had a somewhat different take on the issue “You call those ‘savage cuts’? Actually they are dangerously pathetic” . No surprise on the line taken by either of those papers – no change there then.

But the headlines that actually caught my eye – and caused a huge intake of breath – both came from City AM  –  “Public in dark on UK debt” and the editorial “Media is failing public in many ways” . The focus of these two articles was not on the “Sharper Axes, Lower Taxes” publication per se but on the COMRES/IEA survey that ran alongside this story.

That survey suggests a terrifying level of misunderstanding/ignorance about the state of Britain’s finances. One of the most astonishing facts coming out of the survey was that an alarming 70% of those asked believed the government is cutting £350bn from the debt over the course of the parliament – fewer than one in ten people realised that the government is actually adding hundreds of billions of pounds to the national debt.

This is a startling revelation. We are not talking about people “getting the gist” ..but being out by a billion or so. If this survey is correct, then we are talking about the vast majority of the British electorate having completely the wrong idea about where we are financially and what we still have to face.  

How can the public determine which spending policies are right for the country if they are blind to the actual state of the finances? How can democracy be expected to operate when those voting are so ignorant of so many of the essential facts?

Alistair Heath suggests that it is the media must take much of the blame. And he is almost certainly correct. Coverage of the spending cuts has been, if anything excessive. We have all enjoyed ding-dong after ding-dong with politicians facing one another, special interest groups and indeed highly paid journalists to discuss Britain’s finances.

And yet the sum total of all that “shouty television” is a population which thinks this government is doing the precise opposite of what it is actually doing. That is truly shocking.

If the state of affairs is truly as the COMRES/IEA poll suggests, the BBC, whose remit is to educate and inform, must be sitting very uncomfortably today. Not only are we, the people, paying for the BBC to educate and inform us – but BBC is the dominant news provider in the UK. (Figures below from Conservative Home – click here for information on BBC’s dominance of other media).

The BBC must surely move, and move fast, to assuage our fears concerning the ignorance of the nation or, if COMRES/IEA survey is correct, to put this woeful state of affairs to rights. If it does, then the IEA may well  “extend the frontiers of the very limited debate we have on public expenditure” in more fundamental ways than even it may have intended.

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DailyMail-o-matic Nick Clegg Special!

By Julian Harris
April 22nd, 2010 at 12:29 pm | 1 Comment | Posted in Liberal Democrats, UK Politics

If you haven’t seen it yet, the kind-of-famous DailyMail-o-matic headline-creating tool is now featuring our very own Dear Leader in every headline.

Click on it, go arrrrn:

There are literally minutes of fun to be had.

My favourite so far:

Is Nick Clegg having sex with the middle class?

We demand to know, Cowley Street.

We have a RIGHT to know.

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