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Late risers more likely to die early? Wake me up from this nightmare | Andy Dawson

In my (admittedly self-regarding) opinion, I do my very best living between the hours of 11pm and, say, 3am. That’s when my children have been confined to their beds and I have the relative freedom that allows me to consume television until my eyes start to sting. Essentially, I’m talking about repeated episodes of Bullseye (the original Jim Bowen incarnation, not the abhorrent Dave Spikey reboot), maybe some BBC4 music documentaries that I’ve already seen seven or eight times, or one of the 45 episodes of A Place in the Sun that are clogging up my Sky box.

Essentially nothing that represents challenging viewing, because I’m too done in to think properly by then – anything on Netflix feels like a chore, plus there’s the added time needed to scroll through endless menus, deciding on what to watch.

The best way I can describe my nocturnal nirvana is that it’s like being alive while being partially dead – a battle against sleep in order to feel as though I’ve enjoyed some quality solitary time, even if nothing constructive is being achieved. A tiny, useless victory against the relentless tyranny of parenting.

Sadly, I don’t get to do it all that often, partly because I’m not a leisure-rich member of the aristocracy, but mainly because my children are still young and need help with feeding and dressing themselves before getting to school on time.

But at weekends or when there’s a school holiday – that’s when our rigid timetables get binned and I get to wallow on the sofa in dim light, binge on cerebral junk food and carefully work my way through some medium-quality alcohol.

Tragically though, the enduring nuisance that is science has come along to jam a spanner in my well-oiled works. A study from the chronobiologists at the University of Surrey (I had never heard of chronobiology – maybe I should have been watching something slightly more educational than Shooting Stars reruns) suggests that night owls are more prone to smoking, heavy drinking, depression and drug abuse. Oh, and unhealthy eating.

The study, published in Chronobiology International shows that late risers are 30% more likely to have diabetes, 22% more likely to have respiratory problems and 94% more likely to have psychological disorders.

Thankfully, the chronobiologists aren’t here to night-shame us – they argue that lives could be saved if society was more flexible to the needs of those who stay up late. They’ve found that the No 1 underlying factor when it comes to risk of premature death is chronic sleep deprivation.

It seems that some of us are predisposed towards a nocturnal existence – the body clock is partly determined by genes, but the study also found that those of us who burn the midnight oil are disproportionately likely to be white – possibly for cultural reasons or because Europeans may have evolved to go to bed and get up later.

Another study in American hospitals in 2012 showed 10% more patients were admitted with heart attacks on the days after the clocks went forward and 10% fewer when they went back.

Essentially, the chronobiologists’ argument is that if those of us who thrive in the small hours were allowed to start work at noon or later instead of pitching up bleary-eyed and barely coherent at 9am, the world would be a better place and we’d be attending fewer funerals of our night owl colleagues.

We’re all wired differently and while I’m not about to start shrieking that the nine-to-five routine is discriminatory against people who feel more comfortable in the small hours, there’s a genuine argument for making more of an effort to accommodate them.

While we’re lucky to be living in an era of more adaptable working practices, with home working and flexible hours increasingly available, surely more needs to be done if we all want to operate at our very best. And by “very best” I mean “slightly hungover and a bit stiff from passing out on the sofa at 4am”.

This has all come as a massive wake-up call for me. If I carry on with my night-time solitude, I may lose a few years. So in future, if you catch me tweeting about a 1980s episode of Top of the Pops at 2am, please tell me to get to bed – you could be saving my life.

Andy Dawson is a freelance writer and author of Get in the Sea

Parents of Hector Kirkham who died from meningitis urge others to be vigilant

The parents of a three-year-old boy who died from meningitis have advised other parents to look for signs of the disease.

Hector Kirkham, from Lancaster, was taken to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary on 27 March after contracting meningococcal septicaemia, but died later that day.

Another child from his nursery, Little Learners in Galgate, was taken to hospital with the disease but has since been discharged.

Hector’s mother, Charlotte, and father, Lee, described him as a “gorgeous, cheeky, happy boy”.

They said: “Hector was perfect in every way, our absolute world, our sunshine, our very best friend. Hector became very poorly very fast from contracting meningococcal septicaemia. Hector’s symptoms of sickness and a temperature only presented 12 hours before we sadly lost the love of our lives.

“We urge all parents to be vigilant and any signs or symptoms that point towards meningitis being a possibility please, please seek urgent medical advice, don’t delay.”

Public Health England said it was working closely with the nursery and all children and staff had been offered antibiotics.

Grainne Nixon, health protection nurse consultant for Public Health England North West, said: “We understand that there will be concern among parents and staff at the nursery, and we’d like to assure parents that the risk of another case arising in the nursery is very low.

“Meningococcal disease does not spread very easily. As a precaution, all children and staff at the nursery have been offered antibiotics to reduce the chance of them carrying the bacteria which causes the disease.

“PHE has also written to staff and parents of children at the nursery to provide information and remind them of the signs and symptoms of meningococcal infection, which can cause meningitis as well as septicaemia. Children and staff who are well have been advised to attend nursery as normal.

“Although meningococcal disease is uncommon, people should be aware of the symptoms that can include a fever, headache, rapid breathing, drowsiness, shivering, vomiting and cold hands and feet. It can also cause a characteristic rash which does not fade when pressed against a glass. Also, some people may experience diarrhoea and vomiting.

“Early recognition of meningitis and septicaemia symptoms can greatly improve the outcome of the disease and so anyone who is concerned about any of these symptoms, at any time, should seek medical advice immediately or call NHS 111.”

‘I could be taken from my home’: why disabled people once again fear being ‘warehoused’

‘I fear for my life,” Lucy Watts, 24, tells me from her family bungalow in Benfleet, Essex. Watts has a range of severe health problems – muscle weakness around her lungs; kidney and stomach problems; and dysfunction of the nervous system. Osteoporosis, degenerative disease in her spine and a progressive muscle disease mean she uses a wheelchair. She is hooked up to intravenous drips as we talk. But it isn’t Watts’s health that is causing her to fear for her life. It is the government’s care cuts.

Since 2009, when her condition first deteriorated, Watts has lived comfortably at home with her mum, Kate, and sister, Vicky, with the aid of a complex care package: at first some social care delivered through her local authority, and then a more comprehensive arrangement funded by the NHS’s Continuing Healthcare scheme. Over the years, even with a care plan in place, Watts’s mum has been left to take up much of the slack, sometimes finishing work at 4pm, coming home, handling IVs and medical care until 11pm, then sleeping on a mattress on the floor next to her daughter’s bed.

The jigsaw of support has enabled Watts to make remarkable achievements: being an ambassador for several charities, sitting on medical boards, gaining an MBE in 2016 for services for young people with disabilities. But in 2015, Watts’s mum developed a brain tumour. While Kate was in hospital, Watts would be without the care she needed at home.

Watts turned to her clinical commissioning group (CCG), the local NHS body responsible for healthcare provision, in the hope she would be given a full care package to cover her mum’s recovery period. Instead, she was given another solution: Watts would be placed in a nursing home. “They told us the only two that would provisionally take me were an elderly nursing home or a learning disability home,” she recalls. When she pressed further, she says she was told that once in the home, she would be unable to go out – not even to visit her mum in hospital or to go to her own vital medical appointments.

After Watts threatened to bring legal action, she says the CCG backtracked and agreed a 24-hour care package. Castle Point and Rochford CCG says it is unable to discuss individual cases, but that its priority is to provide “high-quality care packages that are safe, clinically appropriate and meet people’s needs”, and that “depending on individual situations, different options could be suitable, including support at home and the opportunity to have a personalised health budget”. But Watts still feels as if the CCG is “desperate to get me in a home” because her independence is “too costly”. “At times, I’ve been made to feel unworthy of being alive,” she says.

Watts’s case is shocking but it is far from rare. As deep cuts to social care and NHS care set in, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned last year that disabled people across the country face being “interned” in care homes due to cost-cutting measures. A dozen NHS organisations are facing legal action over what the EHRC calls “discriminatory” policies around pushing disabled people into residential care. Continuing healthcare of the kind that Watts relies on can be arranged in a care home, nursing home, hospice or a person’s own home. But new funding caps, which have already been rolled out in at least 44 CCGs across the UK, mean that many disabled people may now be prevented from living at home with their families despite being well enough to do so. As Watts puts it: “I’d be taken from my home and stripped of my life.”

As recently as the 1970s and 80s, disabled people in Britain were routinely put in out-of-town institutions – “warehoused”, as it was known – as a way to reduce the costs of providing support. Over the past 40 years, disabled campaigners have fought for the basic right to independent living. Against longstanding prejudice that treats disabled people as children to be cared for or dehumanises us as objects to be put away, the independent living movement fought for disabled people to be seen as ordinary adults, with the same right to fundamental freedoms as anyone else. But as austerity measures kicked in, this progress has been increasingly under threat.

“These cuts are rolling the right to independent living back years,” says Linda Burnip, the co-founder of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts. “DPAC is being inundated with cases where disabled people are losing the right to live independently or having care packages slashed.”

Jean Almond at home in St Helens with her husband Geoffrey.


Jean Almond at home in St Helens with her husband Geoffrey. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Jean Almond remembers vividly her brief time in a care home. “It virtually killed me,” she says. Almond, 66, has multiple sclerosis and is quadriplegic, and is supported at her home in St Helens by a rotating team of five personal assistants. Her husband, Geoffrey, fills in the gaps, helping her during the four nights a week that her care package doesn’t provide an assistant.

When her husband went to a week-long conference in 2005 and she needed replacement care, Almond hoped that staying in a care home would be a decent solution. But, at just 53, she was told her only option was a nursing home for the elderly. Once there, she underwent an ordeal she can’t forget. Staff gave her the wrong medication – doubling some doses and skipping others – leaving her “out of it” and bleeding on the floor. She says she was given a suppository without her consent because all the residents had one – “They called it ‘bowel-opening day’” – while no one was given help to shower all week. The home has since been investigated and several staff members dismissed.

While good residential care does exist, there are also repeated reports of abuse, most infamously with the Winterbourne scandal in 2012 – last week a survey by University College London found that abuse is taking place in 99% of care homes due to chronic underfunding.

More than a decade after Almond’s stay, with care cuts hitting the news, she and her husband are “worried to death” over her care package. Geoffrey is now 70 – “Age is creeping on,” he says – and Almond is anxious that as her needs increase with age, and her husband’s ability to physically support her decreases, she will be forced out of her own home. “I live in fear of being returned to a care home,” she says. “I’ve still got all my faculties … and it’s worse like that, isn’t it? I’d rather die.”

Fear seems to go hand in hand with care packages in this climate. I spoke to several people who had been told they would have to move to a care home, while disability organisations told me of people who were afraid to speak out in case their CCG or local council punished them by cutting their care hours. Dan Burden of the Spinal Injuries Association says the organisation is now hearing of people with spinal cord injuries “being threatened with institutions” rather than receiving care at home with their families. “People are scared to go on the record, worried that the situation will get worse for them if they speak out.”

The same cost-cutting that has CCGs pushing some disabled people into residential care is also severely reducing the care packages that for years have enabled others to live at home. On paper, these disabled people are still afforded independent living but in reality the care is becoming so threadbare that it is barely meeting their most basic needs. Lorraine Howard, 47, has recently been told her care package will be gutted. For 24 years, Howard, who has the severe muscle condition spinal muscular atrophy type 2 and uses a wheelchair, had a 24/7 care package funded largely by the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – a standalone pot of money that supported 18,000 severely disabled people. But in 2015, the coalition government abolished the fund and transferred responsibility to cash-strapped local councils.

From 24-hour care to ‘almost nothing’: Lorraine Howard in Coventry.


From 24-hour care to ‘almost nothing’: Lorraine Howard in Coventry. Photograph: John Robertson for the Guardian

Howard’s life has until now been a well-oiled machine. She has a team of four personal assistants, one of whom has been with her for 12 years – “They know exactly how to care for me … we’re like a little family” – and this has enabled her not only to stay well but to make a home in Coventry with her husband, Howard, and raise a daughter, Kiah.

But like other former ILF users across the country, in February 2017 Howard was reassessed for her care package by her local council. Two weeks later, she received a phone call informing her that it was “cutting her care considerably”: she would lose her night care completely and be left with three and a half hours a day to go to the toilet, wash, eat and drink. She would get one shower a week, and 10 hours out of the house. “How can someone who has needed 24-hour care all their life go to almost nothing?” she asks. “My care needs haven’t suddenly got better just because the government needs to save money.”

This type of gutted care package is worryingly common. More than a million disabled people are now living without the care they need, according to the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, with reports of people with serious health conditions waiting 14 hours to go to the toilet or left to sleep in their clothes. Campaigners fear that cut care packages such as Howard’s represent a “drip, drip” assault on independent living, where councils or CCGs do not technically force disabled people out of their homes but reduce at-home support to such a degree that they have no choice but to accept a place in a care home.

Howard has appealed against the decision and her care package is now being reviewed by a panel at the council. “A panel that has never met me,” she adds. Coventry city council says Howard’s care package is still going through an assessment process and it will “manage any subsequent transition arrangements as professionally and sympathetically as we can”. In the meantime, Howard tells me her social worker has asked her if she would consider sleeping in a hospital bed (so big it would be in a separate room) to save on night care, and even wearing adult nappies despite the fact she isn’t incontinent. “It’s humiliating,” she says. “I am an adult woman with a husband.”

The prospect of losing her 24/7 care has led Howard to have suicidal thoughts and she has seen her GP for depression. “I’m normally a very happy, confident, outgoing person. This government is slowly killing me.”

In Benfleet, Watts’s mum is recovering well but Watts is still battling over her care package. As things stand, she says, it feels like it’s her life “but on someone else’s terms”. Despite her optimism, Watts admits she is still worried about the future. “They could so easily place me in a nursing home,” she says. “I’m very scared, frightened. Petrified even.”

‘I could be taken from my home’: why disabled people once again fear being ‘warehoused’

‘I fear for my life,” Lucy Watts, 24, tells me from her family bungalow in Benfleet, Essex. Watts has a range of severe health problems – muscle weakness around her lungs; kidney and stomach problems; and dysfunction of the nervous system. Osteoporosis, degenerative disease in her spine and a progressive muscle disease mean she uses a wheelchair. She is hooked up to intravenous drips as we talk. But it isn’t Watts’s health that is causing her to fear for her life. It is the government’s care cuts.

Since 2009, when her condition first deteriorated, Watts has lived comfortably at home with her mum, Kate, and sister, Vicky, with the aid of a complex care package: at first some social care delivered through her local authority, and then a more comprehensive arrangement funded by the NHS’s Continuing Healthcare scheme. Over the years, even with a care plan in place, Watts’s mum has been left to take up much of the slack, sometimes finishing work at 4pm, coming home, handling IVs and medical care until 11pm, then sleeping on a mattress on the floor next to her daughter’s bed.

The jigsaw of support has enabled Watts to make remarkable achievements: being an ambassador for several charities, sitting on medical boards, gaining an MBE in 2016 for services for young people with disabilities. But in 2015, Watts’s mum developed a brain tumour. While Kate was in hospital, Watts would be without the care she needed at home.

Watts turned to her clinical commissioning group (CCG), the local NHS body responsible for healthcare provision, in the hope she would be given a full care package to cover her mum’s recovery period. Instead, she was given another solution: Watts would be placed in a nursing home. “They told us the only two that would provisionally take me were an elderly nursing home or a learning disability home,” she recalls. When she pressed further, she says she was told that once in the home, she would be unable to go out – not even to visit her mum in hospital or to go to her own vital medical appointments.

After Watts threatened to bring legal action, she says the CCG backtracked and agreed a 24-hour care package. Castle Point and Rochford CCG says it is unable to discuss individual cases, but that its priority is to provide “high-quality care packages that are safe, clinically appropriate and meet people’s needs”, and that “depending on individual situations, different options could be suitable, including support at home and the opportunity to have a personalised health budget”. But Watts still feels as if the CCG is “desperate to get me in a home” because her independence is “too costly”. “At times, I’ve been made to feel unworthy of being alive,” she says.

Watts’s case is shocking but it is far from rare. As deep cuts to social care and NHS care set in, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned last year that disabled people across the country face being “interned” in care homes due to cost-cutting measures. A dozen NHS organisations are facing legal action over what the EHRC calls “discriminatory” policies around pushing disabled people into residential care. Continuing healthcare of the kind that Watts relies on can be arranged in a care home, nursing home, hospice or a person’s own home. But new funding caps, which have already been rolled out in at least 44 CCGs across the UK, mean that many disabled people may now be prevented from living at home with their families despite being well enough to do so. As Watts puts it: “I’d be taken from my home and stripped of my life.”

As recently as the 1970s and 80s, disabled people in Britain were routinely put in out-of-town institutions – “warehoused”, as it was known – as a way to reduce the costs of providing support. Over the past 40 years, disabled campaigners have fought for the basic right to independent living. Against longstanding prejudice that treats disabled people as children to be cared for or dehumanises us as objects to be put away, the independent living movement fought for disabled people to be seen as ordinary adults, with the same right to fundamental freedoms as anyone else. But as austerity measures kicked in, this progress has been increasingly under threat.

“These cuts are rolling the right to independent living back years,” says Linda Burnip, the co-founder of the campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts. “DPAC is being inundated with cases where disabled people are losing the right to live independently or having care packages slashed.”

Jean Almond at home in St Helens with her husband Geoffrey.


Jean Almond at home in St Helens with her husband Geoffrey. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Jean Almond remembers vividly her brief time in a care home. “It virtually killed me,” she says. Almond, 66, has multiple sclerosis and is quadriplegic, and is supported at her home in St Helens by a rotating team of five personal assistants. Her husband, Geoffrey, fills in the gaps, helping her during the four nights a week that her care package doesn’t provide an assistant.

When her husband went to a week-long conference in 2005 and she needed replacement care, Almond hoped that staying in a care home would be a decent solution. But, at just 53, she was told her only option was a nursing home for the elderly. Once there, she underwent an ordeal she can’t forget. Staff gave her the wrong medication – doubling some doses and skipping others – leaving her “out of it” and bleeding on the floor. She says she was given a suppository without her consent because all the residents had one – “They called it ‘bowel-opening day’” – while no one was given help to shower all week. The home has since been investigated and several staff members dismissed.

While good residential care does exist, there are also repeated reports of abuse, most infamously with the Winterbourne scandal in 2012 – last week a survey by University College London found that abuse is taking place in 99% of care homes due to chronic underfunding.

More than a decade after Almond’s stay, with care cuts hitting the news, she and her husband are “worried to death” over her care package. Geoffrey is now 70 – “Age is creeping on,” he says – and Almond is anxious that as her needs increase with age, and her husband’s ability to physically support her decreases, she will be forced out of her own home. “I live in fear of being returned to a care home,” she says. “I’ve still got all my faculties … and it’s worse like that, isn’t it? I’d rather die.”

Fear seems to go hand in hand with care packages in this climate. I spoke to several people who had been told they would have to move to a care home, while disability organisations told me of people who were afraid to speak out in case their CCG or local council punished them by cutting their care hours. Dan Burden of the Spinal Injuries Association says the organisation is now hearing of people with spinal cord injuries “being threatened with institutions” rather than receiving care at home with their families. “People are scared to go on the record, worried that the situation will get worse for them if they speak out.”

The same cost-cutting that has CCGs pushing some disabled people into residential care is also severely reducing the care packages that for years have enabled others to live at home. On paper, these disabled people are still afforded independent living but in reality the care is becoming so threadbare that it is barely meeting their most basic needs. Lorraine Howard, 47, has recently been told her care package will be gutted. For 24 years, Howard, who has the severe muscle condition spinal muscular atrophy type 2 and uses a wheelchair, had a 24/7 care package funded largely by the Independent Living Fund (ILF) – a standalone pot of money that supported 18,000 severely disabled people. But in 2015, the coalition government abolished the fund and transferred responsibility to cash-strapped local councils.

From 24-hour care to ‘almost nothing’: Lorraine Howard in Coventry.


From 24-hour care to ‘almost nothing’: Lorraine Howard in Coventry. Photograph: John Robertson for the Guardian

Howard’s life has until now been a well-oiled machine. She has a team of four personal assistants, one of whom has been with her for 12 years – “They know exactly how to care for me … we’re like a little family” – and this has enabled her not only to stay well but to make a home in Coventry with her husband, Howard, and raise a daughter, Kiah.

But like other former ILF users across the country, in February 2017 Howard was reassessed for her care package by her local council. Two weeks later, she received a phone call informing her that it was “cutting her care considerably”: she would lose her night care completely and be left with three and a half hours a day to go to the toilet, wash, eat and drink. She would get one shower a week, and 10 hours out of the house. “How can someone who has needed 24-hour care all their life go to almost nothing?” she asks. “My care needs haven’t suddenly got better just because the government needs to save money.”

This type of gutted care package is worryingly common. More than a million disabled people are now living without the care they need, according to the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability, with reports of people with serious health conditions waiting 14 hours to go to the toilet or left to sleep in their clothes. Campaigners fear that cut care packages such as Howard’s represent a “drip, drip” assault on independent living, where councils or CCGs do not technically force disabled people out of their homes but reduce at-home support to such a degree that they have no choice but to accept a place in a care home.

Howard has appealed against the decision and her care package is now being reviewed by a panel at the council. “A panel that has never met me,” she adds. Coventry city council says Howard’s care package is still going through an assessment process and it will “manage any subsequent transition arrangements as professionally and sympathetically as we can”. In the meantime, Howard tells me her social worker has asked her if she would consider sleeping in a hospital bed (so big it would be in a separate room) to save on night care, and even wearing adult nappies despite the fact she isn’t incontinent. “It’s humiliating,” she says. “I am an adult woman with a husband.”

The prospect of losing her 24/7 care has led Howard to have suicidal thoughts and she has seen her GP for depression. “I’m normally a very happy, confident, outgoing person. This government is slowly killing me.”

In Benfleet, Watts’s mum is recovering well but Watts is still battling over her care package. As things stand, she says, it feels like it’s her life “but on someone else’s terms”. Despite her optimism, Watts admits she is still worried about the future. “They could so easily place me in a nursing home,” she says. “I’m very scared, frightened. Petrified even.”

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology; Unthinkable: The World’s Strangest Brains – review

When I was a boy I had a recurring dream that Lilliputian figures were scurrying under my bed. I can’t recall if they bound my hands and feet like Gulliver, but I certainly found their activities fascinating and made no effort to resist, even when, on occasion, they succeeded in moving my bed slightly to the left or right.

Every now and then, however, they would push the bed a little too close to the window. That I did not like, because it put me in range of the clown waiting on the balcony (I have always been terrified by clowns). Now, frozen by fear, I really was immobilised and it was only by screaming that I could snap myself awake and escape their night-time peregrinations.

I was reminded of my lucid dream by the story of Donal, one of the patients featured in Brainstorm, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book of “detective stories from the world of neurology”. For 30 years Donal led a perfectly ordinary and seemingly contented life as a school janitor. Then one day he was summoned to the headmistress’s office and informed the school was making cuts and his job might be in jeopardy. That’s when he first saw the dwarves – “seven small brightly coloured men”, as Donal put it – scamper across the room and disappear behind the headmistress’s filing cabinet. As you can imagine, at first Donal told no one, but when one night the dwarves appeared beneath his bed and he gripped his wife’s arm in fright, he was forced to come clean and seek medical help.

Those of us who have “normal” brains take our waking lives for granted. Levitating beds and cartoon characters are all very well for the dream world, but when we awake we expect to find the bus stop to be in the same place that we left it yesterday and the street to be the same reassuring shade of grey. But unusual spikes in electrical activity can happen to anyone at any time, sparking transient phenomena such as goosebumps or deja vu, which feel all too real at the time. Moreover, whether as a result of genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, or microscopic lesions, some brains are wired or fire differently. Neurons responsible for one function get crossed with another and suddenly pains take on distinctive tastes, we begin to see vivid auras or are able to access long-lost memories or, conversely, can remember nothing at all and are condemned to the purgatory of the perpetual present.

As one would expect from a neurologist in the Oliver Sacks tradition, O’Sullivan is a sure guide to these maverick brains and strange auras – a word, she reminds us, that is Greek for “breeze” and was originally used in the context of epilepsy. And like the late Dr Sacks, she is careful not to pass judgment on her patients, studiously parsing their accounts of hallucinations and seizures for clues to the underlying neurological dysfunction. Thus, rather than dismiss Donal as a fantasist or someone with psychiatric problems when an MRI scan of his brain proves normal, O’Sullivan hooks him up to an EEG (electroencephalogram) and has him sleep for several days in her epilepsy clinic to monitor and film his seizures. In this way, she finally captures the sudden telltale increase in electrical impulses that attends the dwarves’ appearance and recognises it as a seizure affecting Donal’s occipital lobe, the brain region that controls visual phenomena. Why dwarves, and precisely what triggers these seizures she cannot say, but by giving Donal medication to control his hallucinations she restores his mental equilibrium.

The individuals canvassed in science writer Helen Thomson’s book Unthinkable are not so fortunate. The manifestations of their strange brains cannot be so easily treated, nor, in many cases, would they wish them to be. Take Bob. He can recall a day from 40 years ago as easily as yesterday. Not just who he was with and what the weather was like, but his exact thoughts and sensations. Sometimes, as when the experience was unpleasant, these memories can be a source of pain. But replaying such memories also enables Bob to learn from his mistakes and, in the case of a lost loved one, his extraordinary memory allows him to travel back in time. Indeed, Bob makes a point of memorising relationships that are valuable to him, the better to be able to relive them later.

According to Thomson, we can learn a lot from people like Bob. She too takes inspiration from Sacks, but not being a neurologist, she cannot bring us diverting tales from the bedside. Instead, Thomson makes a virtue of her limitations by travelling the world in search of “strange brains” in an effort to understand them as a “friend might”. It is, for the most part, a successful strategy and although I did not fully buy her claims to have entered her subjects’ peculiar sensory universes, by the end of her journey she had certainly persuaded me to see the world differently.

Take Reuben. Born with red-green colour blindness, Reuben nonetheless claims to be able to “see” vivid auras enveloping people and objects (someone to whom he is sexually attracted flashes red; those he dislikes are yellow, a colour he associates with sourness). The technical term for Reuben’s condition is synaesthesia (crossed senses) and, in case you think he’s faking, his colour blindness and ability to consistently identify coloured auras has been confirmed by rigorous scientific tests. But knowing that does not capture the mysterious nature of Reuben’s colour spectrum or indeed anyone else’s. In short, though we can both objectively agree that such and such an object is red, I cannot be certain that my subjective experience of redness is the same as yours.


It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self

But we can both agree that we are alive, otherwise how would we be conversing and exchanging notes about redness? Or can we? Graham can happily talk about redness, but insists he is dead. Specifically, Graham is convinced he is brain dead and finds living so pointless he sometimes forgets to eat – after all, if you’re dead what’s the point? Graham can trace his conviction to the day he tried to commit suicide by getting into a bath with a hairdryer after his wife left him. Afterwards, PET scans of his brain showed almost no metabolic activity in the regions governing his ability to rationalise and reflect on his own existence. The result is that even though Graham has been told he is suffering from a rare syndrome known as Cotard’s, no one can convince him he is alive. It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self.

Of course, as with Donal and his dwarves, Graham’s abnormally low brain activity may be the physical manifestation of an underlying psychopathology. But that doesn’t detract from the realness of his symptoms to him. Maybe one day doctors will find a way to turn Graham’s brain back on but, until then, Thomson argues that his sense of being a member of the “waking dead” deserves to be taken seriously, offering yet another clue to the mysterious wizard behind the curtain.

That is a verdict with which O’Sullivan would concur. For all the advances in neurology – from MRI scans and EEG to the mapping of neurons for particular conditions, to new genetic techniques – she points out that cures for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia remain tantalisingly out of reach. That is why when it comes to probing the mysteries of our most complex organ there is no substitute for patients’ subjective accounts of their misbehaving brains. Even the names patients use to encapsulate their experience may contain vital clues. “When I record a patient’s seizures in their notes I always include these names,” she writes. “They are more vivid than any medical terminology.”

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Unthinkable by Helen Thomson is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy of Brainstorm for £14.44 or Unthinkable for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology; Unthinkable: The World’s Strangest Brains – review

When I was a boy I had a recurring dream that Lilliputian figures were scurrying under my bed. I can’t recall if they bound my hands and feet like Gulliver, but I certainly found their activities fascinating and made no effort to resist, even when, on occasion, they succeeded in moving my bed slightly to the left or right.

Every now and then, however, they would push the bed a little too close to the window. That I did not like, because it put me in range of the clown waiting on the balcony (I have always been terrified by clowns). Now, frozen by fear, I really was immobilised and it was only by screaming that I could snap myself awake and escape their night-time peregrinations.

I was reminded of my lucid dream by the story of Donal, one of the patients featured in Brainstorm, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book of “detective stories from the world of neurology”. For 30 years Donal led a perfectly ordinary and seemingly contented life as a school janitor. Then one day he was summoned to the headmistress’s office and informed the school was making cuts and his job might be in jeopardy. That’s when he first saw the dwarves – “seven small brightly coloured men”, as Donal put it – scamper across the room and disappear behind the headmistress’s filing cabinet. As you can imagine, at first Donal told no one, but when one night the dwarves appeared beneath his bed and he gripped his wife’s arm in fright, he was forced to come clean and seek medical help.

Those of us who have “normal” brains take our waking lives for granted. Levitating beds and cartoon characters are all very well for the dream world, but when we awake we expect to find the bus stop to be in the same place that we left it yesterday and the street to be the same reassuring shade of grey. But unusual spikes in electrical activity can happen to anyone at any time, sparking transient phenomena such as goosebumps or deja vu, which feel all too real at the time. Moreover, whether as a result of genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, or microscopic lesions, some brains are wired or fire differently. Neurons responsible for one function get crossed with another and suddenly pains take on distinctive tastes, we begin to see vivid auras or are able to access long-lost memories or, conversely, can remember nothing at all and are condemned to the purgatory of the perpetual present.

As one would expect from a neurologist in the Oliver Sacks tradition, O’Sullivan is a sure guide to these maverick brains and strange auras – a word, she reminds us, that is Greek for “breeze” and was originally used in the context of epilepsy. And like the late Dr Sacks, she is careful not to pass judgment on her patients, studiously parsing their accounts of hallucinations and seizures for clues to the underlying neurological dysfunction. Thus, rather than dismiss Donal as a fantasist or someone with psychiatric problems when an MRI scan of his brain proves normal, O’Sullivan hooks him up to an EEG (electroencephalogram) and has him sleep for several days in her epilepsy clinic to monitor and film his seizures. In this way, she finally captures the sudden telltale increase in electrical impulses that attends the dwarves’ appearance and recognises it as a seizure affecting Donal’s occipital lobe, the brain region that controls visual phenomena. Why dwarves, and precisely what triggers these seizures she cannot say, but by giving Donal medication to control his hallucinations she restores his mental equilibrium.

The individuals canvassed in science writer Helen Thomson’s book Unthinkable are not so fortunate. The manifestations of their strange brains cannot be so easily treated, nor, in many cases, would they wish them to be. Take Bob. He can recall a day from 40 years ago as easily as yesterday. Not just who he was with and what the weather was like, but his exact thoughts and sensations. Sometimes, as when the experience was unpleasant, these memories can be a source of pain. But replaying such memories also enables Bob to learn from his mistakes and, in the case of a lost loved one, his extraordinary memory allows him to travel back in time. Indeed, Bob makes a point of memorising relationships that are valuable to him, the better to be able to relive them later.

According to Thomson, we can learn a lot from people like Bob. She too takes inspiration from Sacks, but not being a neurologist, she cannot bring us diverting tales from the bedside. Instead, Thomson makes a virtue of her limitations by travelling the world in search of “strange brains” in an effort to understand them as a “friend might”. It is, for the most part, a successful strategy and although I did not fully buy her claims to have entered her subjects’ peculiar sensory universes, by the end of her journey she had certainly persuaded me to see the world differently.

Take Reuben. Born with red-green colour blindness, Reuben nonetheless claims to be able to “see” vivid auras enveloping people and objects (someone to whom he is sexually attracted flashes red; those he dislikes are yellow, a colour he associates with sourness). The technical term for Reuben’s condition is synaesthesia (crossed senses) and, in case you think he’s faking, his colour blindness and ability to consistently identify coloured auras has been confirmed by rigorous scientific tests. But knowing that does not capture the mysterious nature of Reuben’s colour spectrum or indeed anyone else’s. In short, though we can both objectively agree that such and such an object is red, I cannot be certain that my subjective experience of redness is the same as yours.


It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self

But we can both agree that we are alive, otherwise how would we be conversing and exchanging notes about redness? Or can we? Graham can happily talk about redness, but insists he is dead. Specifically, Graham is convinced he is brain dead and finds living so pointless he sometimes forgets to eat – after all, if you’re dead what’s the point? Graham can trace his conviction to the day he tried to commit suicide by getting into a bath with a hairdryer after his wife left him. Afterwards, PET scans of his brain showed almost no metabolic activity in the regions governing his ability to rationalise and reflect on his own existence. The result is that even though Graham has been told he is suffering from a rare syndrome known as Cotard’s, no one can convince him he is alive. It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self.

Of course, as with Donal and his dwarves, Graham’s abnormally low brain activity may be the physical manifestation of an underlying psychopathology. But that doesn’t detract from the realness of his symptoms to him. Maybe one day doctors will find a way to turn Graham’s brain back on but, until then, Thomson argues that his sense of being a member of the “waking dead” deserves to be taken seriously, offering yet another clue to the mysterious wizard behind the curtain.

That is a verdict with which O’Sullivan would concur. For all the advances in neurology – from MRI scans and EEG to the mapping of neurons for particular conditions, to new genetic techniques – she points out that cures for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia remain tantalisingly out of reach. That is why when it comes to probing the mysteries of our most complex organ there is no substitute for patients’ subjective accounts of their misbehaving brains. Even the names patients use to encapsulate their experience may contain vital clues. “When I record a patient’s seizures in their notes I always include these names,” she writes. “They are more vivid than any medical terminology.”

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Unthinkable by Helen Thomson is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy of Brainstorm for £14.44 or Unthinkable for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology; Unthinkable: The World’s Strangest Brains – review

When I was a boy I had a recurring dream that Lilliputian figures were scurrying under my bed. I can’t recall if they bound my hands and feet like Gulliver, but I certainly found their activities fascinating and made no effort to resist, even when, on occasion, they succeeded in moving my bed slightly to the left or right.

Every now and then, however, they would push the bed a little too close to the window. That I did not like, because it put me in range of the clown waiting on the balcony (I have always been terrified by clowns). Now, frozen by fear, I really was immobilised and it was only by screaming that I could snap myself awake and escape their night-time peregrinations.

I was reminded of my lucid dream by the story of Donal, one of the patients featured in Brainstorm, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book of “detective stories from the world of neurology”. For 30 years Donal led a perfectly ordinary and seemingly contented life as a school janitor. Then one day he was summoned to the headmistress’s office and informed the school was making cuts and his job might be in jeopardy. That’s when he first saw the dwarves – “seven small brightly coloured men”, as Donal put it – scamper across the room and disappear behind the headmistress’s filing cabinet. As you can imagine, at first Donal told no one, but when one night the dwarves appeared beneath his bed and he gripped his wife’s arm in fright, he was forced to come clean and seek medical help.

Those of us who have “normal” brains take our waking lives for granted. Levitating beds and cartoon characters are all very well for the dream world, but when we awake we expect to find the bus stop to be in the same place that we left it yesterday and the street to be the same reassuring shade of grey. But unusual spikes in electrical activity can happen to anyone at any time, sparking transient phenomena such as goosebumps or deja vu, which feel all too real at the time. Moreover, whether as a result of genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, or microscopic lesions, some brains are wired or fire differently. Neurons responsible for one function get crossed with another and suddenly pains take on distinctive tastes, we begin to see vivid auras or are able to access long-lost memories or, conversely, can remember nothing at all and are condemned to the purgatory of the perpetual present.

As one would expect from a neurologist in the Oliver Sacks tradition, O’Sullivan is a sure guide to these maverick brains and strange auras – a word, she reminds us, that is Greek for “breeze” and was originally used in the context of epilepsy. And like the late Dr Sacks, she is careful not to pass judgment on her patients, studiously parsing their accounts of hallucinations and seizures for clues to the underlying neurological dysfunction. Thus, rather than dismiss Donal as a fantasist or someone with psychiatric problems when an MRI scan of his brain proves normal, O’Sullivan hooks him up to an EEG (electroencephalogram) and has him sleep for several days in her epilepsy clinic to monitor and film his seizures. In this way, she finally captures the sudden telltale increase in electrical impulses that attends the dwarves’ appearance and recognises it as a seizure affecting Donal’s occipital lobe, the brain region that controls visual phenomena. Why dwarves, and precisely what triggers these seizures she cannot say, but by giving Donal medication to control his hallucinations she restores his mental equilibrium.

The individuals canvassed in science writer Helen Thomson’s book Unthinkable are not so fortunate. The manifestations of their strange brains cannot be so easily treated, nor, in many cases, would they wish them to be. Take Bob. He can recall a day from 40 years ago as easily as yesterday. Not just who he was with and what the weather was like, but his exact thoughts and sensations. Sometimes, as when the experience was unpleasant, these memories can be a source of pain. But replaying such memories also enables Bob to learn from his mistakes and, in the case of a lost loved one, his extraordinary memory allows him to travel back in time. Indeed, Bob makes a point of memorising relationships that are valuable to him, the better to be able to relive them later.

According to Thomson, we can learn a lot from people like Bob. She too takes inspiration from Sacks, but not being a neurologist, she cannot bring us diverting tales from the bedside. Instead, Thomson makes a virtue of her limitations by travelling the world in search of “strange brains” in an effort to understand them as a “friend might”. It is, for the most part, a successful strategy and although I did not fully buy her claims to have entered her subjects’ peculiar sensory universes, by the end of her journey she had certainly persuaded me to see the world differently.

Take Reuben. Born with red-green colour blindness, Reuben nonetheless claims to be able to “see” vivid auras enveloping people and objects (someone to whom he is sexually attracted flashes red; those he dislikes are yellow, a colour he associates with sourness). The technical term for Reuben’s condition is synaesthesia (crossed senses) and, in case you think he’s faking, his colour blindness and ability to consistently identify coloured auras has been confirmed by rigorous scientific tests. But knowing that does not capture the mysterious nature of Reuben’s colour spectrum or indeed anyone else’s. In short, though we can both objectively agree that such and such an object is red, I cannot be certain that my subjective experience of redness is the same as yours.


It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self

But we can both agree that we are alive, otherwise how would we be conversing and exchanging notes about redness? Or can we? Graham can happily talk about redness, but insists he is dead. Specifically, Graham is convinced he is brain dead and finds living so pointless he sometimes forgets to eat – after all, if you’re dead what’s the point? Graham can trace his conviction to the day he tried to commit suicide by getting into a bath with a hairdryer after his wife left him. Afterwards, PET scans of his brain showed almost no metabolic activity in the regions governing his ability to rationalise and reflect on his own existence. The result is that even though Graham has been told he is suffering from a rare syndrome known as Cotard’s, no one can convince him he is alive. It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self.

Of course, as with Donal and his dwarves, Graham’s abnormally low brain activity may be the physical manifestation of an underlying psychopathology. But that doesn’t detract from the realness of his symptoms to him. Maybe one day doctors will find a way to turn Graham’s brain back on but, until then, Thomson argues that his sense of being a member of the “waking dead” deserves to be taken seriously, offering yet another clue to the mysterious wizard behind the curtain.

That is a verdict with which O’Sullivan would concur. For all the advances in neurology – from MRI scans and EEG to the mapping of neurons for particular conditions, to new genetic techniques – she points out that cures for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia remain tantalisingly out of reach. That is why when it comes to probing the mysteries of our most complex organ there is no substitute for patients’ subjective accounts of their misbehaving brains. Even the names patients use to encapsulate their experience may contain vital clues. “When I record a patient’s seizures in their notes I always include these names,” she writes. “They are more vivid than any medical terminology.”

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Unthinkable by Helen Thomson is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy of Brainstorm for £14.44 or Unthinkable for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Brainstorm: Detective Stories from the World of Neurology; Unthinkable: The World’s Strangest Brains – review

When I was a boy I had a recurring dream that Lilliputian figures were scurrying under my bed. I can’t recall if they bound my hands and feet like Gulliver, but I certainly found their activities fascinating and made no effort to resist, even when, on occasion, they succeeded in moving my bed slightly to the left or right.

Every now and then, however, they would push the bed a little too close to the window. That I did not like, because it put me in range of the clown waiting on the balcony (I have always been terrified by clowns). Now, frozen by fear, I really was immobilised and it was only by screaming that I could snap myself awake and escape their night-time peregrinations.

I was reminded of my lucid dream by the story of Donal, one of the patients featured in Brainstorm, Suzanne O’Sullivan’s new book of “detective stories from the world of neurology”. For 30 years Donal led a perfectly ordinary and seemingly contented life as a school janitor. Then one day he was summoned to the headmistress’s office and informed the school was making cuts and his job might be in jeopardy. That’s when he first saw the dwarves – “seven small brightly coloured men”, as Donal put it – scamper across the room and disappear behind the headmistress’s filing cabinet. As you can imagine, at first Donal told no one, but when one night the dwarves appeared beneath his bed and he gripped his wife’s arm in fright, he was forced to come clean and seek medical help.

Those of us who have “normal” brains take our waking lives for granted. Levitating beds and cartoon characters are all very well for the dream world, but when we awake we expect to find the bus stop to be in the same place that we left it yesterday and the street to be the same reassuring shade of grey. But unusual spikes in electrical activity can happen to anyone at any time, sparking transient phenomena such as goosebumps or deja vu, which feel all too real at the time. Moreover, whether as a result of genetic abnormalities, hormonal imbalances, or microscopic lesions, some brains are wired or fire differently. Neurons responsible for one function get crossed with another and suddenly pains take on distinctive tastes, we begin to see vivid auras or are able to access long-lost memories or, conversely, can remember nothing at all and are condemned to the purgatory of the perpetual present.

As one would expect from a neurologist in the Oliver Sacks tradition, O’Sullivan is a sure guide to these maverick brains and strange auras – a word, she reminds us, that is Greek for “breeze” and was originally used in the context of epilepsy. And like the late Dr Sacks, she is careful not to pass judgment on her patients, studiously parsing their accounts of hallucinations and seizures for clues to the underlying neurological dysfunction. Thus, rather than dismiss Donal as a fantasist or someone with psychiatric problems when an MRI scan of his brain proves normal, O’Sullivan hooks him up to an EEG (electroencephalogram) and has him sleep for several days in her epilepsy clinic to monitor and film his seizures. In this way, she finally captures the sudden telltale increase in electrical impulses that attends the dwarves’ appearance and recognises it as a seizure affecting Donal’s occipital lobe, the brain region that controls visual phenomena. Why dwarves, and precisely what triggers these seizures she cannot say, but by giving Donal medication to control his hallucinations she restores his mental equilibrium.

The individuals canvassed in science writer Helen Thomson’s book Unthinkable are not so fortunate. The manifestations of their strange brains cannot be so easily treated, nor, in many cases, would they wish them to be. Take Bob. He can recall a day from 40 years ago as easily as yesterday. Not just who he was with and what the weather was like, but his exact thoughts and sensations. Sometimes, as when the experience was unpleasant, these memories can be a source of pain. But replaying such memories also enables Bob to learn from his mistakes and, in the case of a lost loved one, his extraordinary memory allows him to travel back in time. Indeed, Bob makes a point of memorising relationships that are valuable to him, the better to be able to relive them later.

According to Thomson, we can learn a lot from people like Bob. She too takes inspiration from Sacks, but not being a neurologist, she cannot bring us diverting tales from the bedside. Instead, Thomson makes a virtue of her limitations by travelling the world in search of “strange brains” in an effort to understand them as a “friend might”. It is, for the most part, a successful strategy and although I did not fully buy her claims to have entered her subjects’ peculiar sensory universes, by the end of her journey she had certainly persuaded me to see the world differently.

Take Reuben. Born with red-green colour blindness, Reuben nonetheless claims to be able to “see” vivid auras enveloping people and objects (someone to whom he is sexually attracted flashes red; those he dislikes are yellow, a colour he associates with sourness). The technical term for Reuben’s condition is synaesthesia (crossed senses) and, in case you think he’s faking, his colour blindness and ability to consistently identify coloured auras has been confirmed by rigorous scientific tests. But knowing that does not capture the mysterious nature of Reuben’s colour spectrum or indeed anyone else’s. In short, though we can both objectively agree that such and such an object is red, I cannot be certain that my subjective experience of redness is the same as yours.


It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self

But we can both agree that we are alive, otherwise how would we be conversing and exchanging notes about redness? Or can we? Graham can happily talk about redness, but insists he is dead. Specifically, Graham is convinced he is brain dead and finds living so pointless he sometimes forgets to eat – after all, if you’re dead what’s the point? Graham can trace his conviction to the day he tried to commit suicide by getting into a bath with a hairdryer after his wife left him. Afterwards, PET scans of his brain showed almost no metabolic activity in the regions governing his ability to rationalise and reflect on his own existence. The result is that even though Graham has been told he is suffering from a rare syndrome known as Cotard’s, no one can convince him he is alive. It’s as if when he zapped himself in the bath he also zapped his sense of self.

Of course, as with Donal and his dwarves, Graham’s abnormally low brain activity may be the physical manifestation of an underlying psychopathology. But that doesn’t detract from the realness of his symptoms to him. Maybe one day doctors will find a way to turn Graham’s brain back on but, until then, Thomson argues that his sense of being a member of the “waking dead” deserves to be taken seriously, offering yet another clue to the mysterious wizard behind the curtain.

That is a verdict with which O’Sullivan would concur. For all the advances in neurology – from MRI scans and EEG to the mapping of neurons for particular conditions, to new genetic techniques – she points out that cures for conditions such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, autism and schizophrenia remain tantalisingly out of reach. That is why when it comes to probing the mysteries of our most complex organ there is no substitute for patients’ subjective accounts of their misbehaving brains. Even the names patients use to encapsulate their experience may contain vital clues. “When I record a patient’s seizures in their notes I always include these names,” she writes. “They are more vivid than any medical terminology.”

Brainstorm by Suzanne O’Sullivan is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). Unthinkable by Helen Thomson is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy of Brainstorm for £14.44 or Unthinkable for £17 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

UK anti-obesity drive at risk from new US trade deal, doctors warn

Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the United States could lead to even higher rates of obesity through the import of American foods high in fat and sugar, children’s doctors have warned.

US “hostility” towards measures aimed at promoting healthier eating habits, such as traffic light labelling, is also a major threat to the government’s anti-obesity drive, it has been claimed.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is urging ministers to resist pressure to unwind key public health measures in their quest for a future transatlantic trade deal.

“We’re concerned by the evidence of US hostility in trade talks towards countries that want to set their own domestic agenda on reducing sugar intake, particularly the push [from the US] to keep traffic light labelling voluntary. We can’t allow trade talks to undermine efforts to tackle childhood obesity,” said Prof Russell Viner, the RCPCH president.

“Children’s health outcomes are much worse in the US than in many other comparable countries, and we don’t want to import these along with the sugar.”

Viner’s warning comes as Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, prepares to fly to Washington this week for talks about the shape of a future UK/US trade deal after Britain has left the EU.


We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the food charity Sustain

Donald Trump wants US farmers to be able to export more of their produce to Britain after Brexit and has railed against the EU for its “very unfair” and “very, very protectionist” policies.

Previous discussions have been overshadowed by a row over whether or not Britain in future would have to accept chlorinated chicken from the US as part of any agreement.

Sustain, the food charity, highlighted a US government document on striking trade deals with other countries – the 2017 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers – as evidence of US “aggression” towards countries it trades with having tougher food rules than apply in America.

“The US record on trade is clear. They export corn syrup, processed junk food and sugar. And along with it obesity, diabetes and diet-related disease,” said Kath Dalmeny, Sustain’s chief executive.

“We’ve been told that No 10 is preparing to update its obesity strategy. Part of that must be to get us all eating more healthily.

“But a sugary, junk-filled trade deal will drive a coach and horses through it all. We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US. Trade deals must put public health first.”

Donald Trump eats a pork chop


Donald Trump eating a pork chop. He wants US farmers to be able to export more produce to the UK after Brexit. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters

Recent research by the Harvard University school of public health pinpointed free trade deals involving the US as a key factor in a process of “nutrition transition” – from a traditional native diet to a much more western one – which is producing greater obesity in countries as a result of globalisation.

“Trade liberalisation gives people access to different types of food and, often, more high-calorie foods,” it said. “It also removes barriers to foreign investment in food distribution and allows multinational companies and fast-food chains to expand into new countries.”

The authors cite China as an example of where globalisation has made low-cost, high-calorie food more available. Chinese consumption of meat and dairy products more then tripled between 1989 and 1997, while higher intake of vegetable oil between 1989 and 2004 – thanks to its fall in price – means that Chinese people now consume an average of 183 calories a day from that source.

While globalisation has improved the life of many people in the developing world “it has also increased access to cheap, unhealthy foods and brought with it more sedentary, urban lifestyles. From a public health perspective the combination of these changes is creating a perfect storm of a catastrophic and costly rise in obesity and obesity-related disease.”

There is also concern that Britain could be forced to accept lower-quality milk from cows with infected udders as part of a future UK/US trade deal.

US rules on milk production allow it to contain more than double the amount of somatic cells – white blood cells that fight bacterial infections – than are found in British milk. The US dairy industry wants the UK to relax its standards and has lobbied the Trump administration about the future deal.

Milk containing a high number of somatic cells is poorer nutritionally and of a lower quality, and can suggest low animal welfare standards.

“In general, animal welfare standards in the UK are higher than in almost any other country, including the US,” Peter Plate, a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, said last month.

“So a free trade deal has the potential danger to either dilute welfare standards here or put UK farmers into an uncompetitive position. We must avoid a race to the bottom.”

UK anti-obesity drive at risk from new US trade deal, doctors warn

Britain’s post-Brexit trade deal with the United States could lead to even higher rates of obesity through the import of American foods high in fat and sugar, children’s doctors have warned.

US “hostility” towards measures aimed at promoting healthier eating habits, such as traffic light labelling, is also a major threat to the government’s anti-obesity drive, it has been claimed.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) is urging ministers to resist pressure to unwind key public health measures in their quest for a future transatlantic trade deal.

“We’re concerned by the evidence of US hostility in trade talks towards countries that want to set their own domestic agenda on reducing sugar intake, particularly the push [from the US] to keep traffic light labelling voluntary. We can’t allow trade talks to undermine efforts to tackle childhood obesity,” said Prof Russell Viner, the RCPCH president.

“Children’s health outcomes are much worse in the US than in many other comparable countries, and we don’t want to import these along with the sugar.”

Viner’s warning comes as Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, prepares to fly to Washington this week for talks about the shape of a future UK/US trade deal after Britain has left the EU.


We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US

Kath Dalmeny, chief executive of the food charity Sustain

Donald Trump wants US farmers to be able to export more of their produce to Britain after Brexit and has railed against the EU for its “very unfair” and “very, very protectionist” policies.

Previous discussions have been overshadowed by a row over whether or not Britain in future would have to accept chlorinated chicken from the US as part of any agreement.

Sustain, the food charity, highlighted a US government document on striking trade deals with other countries – the 2017 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers – as evidence of US “aggression” towards countries it trades with having tougher food rules than apply in America.

“The US record on trade is clear. They export corn syrup, processed junk food and sugar. And along with it obesity, diabetes and diet-related disease,” said Kath Dalmeny, Sustain’s chief executive.

“We’ve been told that No 10 is preparing to update its obesity strategy. Part of that must be to get us all eating more healthily.

“But a sugary, junk-filled trade deal will drive a coach and horses through it all. We mustn’t sell off our children’s health in exchange for a trade deal with the US. Trade deals must put public health first.”

Donald Trump eats a pork chop


Donald Trump eating a pork chop. He wants US farmers to be able to export more produce to the UK after Brexit. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters

Recent research by the Harvard University school of public health pinpointed free trade deals involving the US as a key factor in a process of “nutrition transition” – from a traditional native diet to a much more western one – which is producing greater obesity in countries as a result of globalisation.

“Trade liberalisation gives people access to different types of food and, often, more high-calorie foods,” it said. “It also removes barriers to foreign investment in food distribution and allows multinational companies and fast-food chains to expand into new countries.”

The authors cite China as an example of where globalisation has made low-cost, high-calorie food more available. Chinese consumption of meat and dairy products more then tripled between 1989 and 1997, while higher intake of vegetable oil between 1989 and 2004 – thanks to its fall in price – means that Chinese people now consume an average of 183 calories a day from that source.

While globalisation has improved the life of many people in the developing world “it has also increased access to cheap, unhealthy foods and brought with it more sedentary, urban lifestyles. From a public health perspective the combination of these changes is creating a perfect storm of a catastrophic and costly rise in obesity and obesity-related disease.”

There is also concern that Britain could be forced to accept lower-quality milk from cows with infected udders as part of a future UK/US trade deal.

US rules on milk production allow it to contain more than double the amount of somatic cells – white blood cells that fight bacterial infections – than are found in British milk. The US dairy industry wants the UK to relax its standards and has lobbied the Trump administration about the future deal.

Milk containing a high number of somatic cells is poorer nutritionally and of a lower quality, and can suggest low animal welfare standards.

“In general, animal welfare standards in the UK are higher than in almost any other country, including the US,” Peter Plate, a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College, said last month.

“So a free trade deal has the potential danger to either dilute welfare standards here or put UK farmers into an uncompetitive position. We must avoid a race to the bottom.”