Gerry's News Digest 54: Chocolate and depression, health checks, the hunting ban (May 7, 2010)
Hi, this is Gerry and welcome to my News Digest for Friday 7th May, 2010. This show comes out on the day after the results of the General Election here but I have to record it a week before that so I can't say who won. On today's show, therefore, just a couple of comments about what's preoccupying  people a week ahead of the poll . And to get away from politics, a health issue that I saw reported this week: the question of whether having regular medical check-ups is a good thing. And yet another research report on the effects of eating chocolate. Let's start with that.
Is it the same in Switzerland as here? Every week the media report on some study about health issues. I think people love reading about how to stay healthy and live longer. So every week, we get some new report giving us advice on our lifestyle. I recently mentioned in my Diary that a study had found that chocolate's good for you, and that was good news, but then this week a new study has apparently shown that chocolate consumption is related to the incidence  of depression. The press reported this in two different ways: "The blues  make you crave  chocolate," is how the Daily Mail headlined their story, whereas the BBC announced that "Chocolate lovers are more depressive". The study was conducted with a group of some 900 people in San Diego in the USA. The study wasn't initially concerned with depression, it was supposed to be looking into  cardio-vascular conditions but instead they came across the following correlation: the more clinically depressed people were, the more chocolate they consumed. Chocolate's always been considered something that lifts your mood . So what's not been established is whether depressed people eat chocolate because they're looking for something to alleviate  their mood, or whether it's actually the chocolate in larger quantities that makes them depressed. As is often the case with studies like this, the researchers have established something but it's inconclusive . There are a lot of factors that need to be separated out before anything can really be said about the risks or benefits of eating chocolate, but that doesn't stop the media from making a story out of it, and that's fine, just so long as people don't take these stories too seriously.
Health professionals have been keen over the years to promote preventative measures: measures to promote our future health rather than measures to cure  us when we're already ill. Thus we're all encouraged to exercise and eat sensibly because physical fitness and optimal body weight are good for preventing the onset of certain types of heart disease and diabetes, etc. There's also a trend for people to go for regular health check-ups and tests. And this is an area that's run into some controversy recently. The criticism is of private companies that are offering what they call "MoT health tests". The MoT is the name given to the test that old cars have to go through every year to make sure they're still safe to drive. Now there's a report from four big doctor's associations in the UK that says that while many of the medical tests that companies do during the so-called MoT have great diagnostic value for people with symptoms, they're clinically irrelevant for those who are well.
The results often cause needless concern or false reassurance. In other words, the tests may make you unnecessarily worried about your health, and they can produce results that suggest that you may have something that you don't actually have, but it takes a lot more tests before they can be sure. Alternatively, the tests can give the impression that you're OK when you're not because the tests miss certain things. Furthermore, the tests can involve procedures that are invasive , painful and risky.
Colonoscopies, for example, carry some risk. One in a thousand, they say, can lead to damage to the colon . The greatest concern, however, is about computerised tomography, what are known as CT scans. These involve considerable exposure to radiation. If a doctor suspects that there's something wrong with you, then the radiation risk is worth taking but if there's no reason to suspect that you have anything wrong regular CT scans just expose you to dangerous radiation for no good reason. A further point is that while scans are useful for making an early diagnosis of cancer and so on, they can also reveal  slight abnormalities that are not malignant . These require even more investigation with associated risks and expense before they can be discounted.
It certainly sounds like a good idea to have a medical check-up every now and then, and I have colleagues who get sent by their companies for tests every year. It seems, however, that things are rather more complicated and that the human body can't really be compared with a motor car.
By the time you hear this show, the results of the General Election will be known. The voting takes place on Thursday 6th May. The counting begins in the evening and the results start to come in during the night, so if you're keen on politics you stay up watching television until the small hours . In this election, as I've told you, it's difficult to be sure who the winner will be, because the three big parties at the moment are getting very similar amounts of support. The Conservatives are in the lead but not far enough ahead to get an absolute majority. The betting one week before the election is still on a "hung parliament", that's a parliament without a majority for any single party. This is normal in most other democratic countries. Even in America, which has a two-party system, there's rarely a clear and controllable majority in both Houses of Congress that will allow the President to implement his (or, one day, her) programme without a big struggle. But here in the UK most people associate the idea of a "hung parliament" and, consequently, a coalition government with weak government. I think this is probably because they've never had any experience of it. Most British institutions are based on the idea of two-sided conflict. In school, children are taught to debate issues where the topic is always couched in  terms of a proposition that you argue for or against. At the end there's a vote, and the proposition is passed or rejected. Our legal system is also adversarial , based on a confrontation in court between two sides, refereed by a judge. And it's the same in politics: we're used to a two-party system with a government and an opposition. For various reasons it seems that this system may be breaking down, so this election could mark the start of a very new era in Britain.
I thought that I'd talk about one issue that's not really central but it's an issue that has come up in certain constituencies during this election campaign. The issue is hunting. In Britain we distinguish between hunting and shooting. Shooting is the use of guns to kill animals such as birds, hares  or rabbits. Hunting means hunting animals with dogs. The animal's then killed by the dogs. The most popular form of hunting used to be fox hunting but dogs were also used to hunt and kill other animals such as hares, otters  or deer. I say that these forms of hunting used to be popular because in 2004 after years of campaigning, the hunting of animals with dogs was made illegal in England and Wales. It's also illegal in Scotland, but still legal in Northern Ireland.
In 2002, there was a demonstration in London by 400,000 people campaigning  in favour of hunting. This was the biggest demonstration in London for over 100 years. I think only the march in protest against the Iraq war has been bigger with something like 700,000 marchers. So why should getting on for half a million people take to the streets to defend hunting? It's because the battle over hunting became a battle between town and country, between tradition and modernity. The ban on hunting was seen as a direct attack on traditional country life by the urban majority. Somehow this became the issue that united people with conservative views and an attachment to what they think of as traditional values. The law to ban hunting was blocked by the House of Lords in parliament and it was only finally passed using legislation that allows the elected House of Commons to overrule the unelected House of Lords. It wasn't the Labour government that proposed the ban: it was a free vote so that MPs were able to vote according to their conscience , but most of the support for the hunting ban came from Labour MPs while most of the opposition came from Conservative MPs.
Since the ban became law, it seems that it's very difficult to enforce. I've read that fox hunting still happens but there hasn't been a single prosecution  by the police under this law. The relevance for this election is that the Conservative Party has promised another free vote in the House of Commons on the ban so that Parliament will have the chance to legalise hunting again. In some areas, therefore, the political candidates are being asked how they would vote on hunting, and there's pressure from the hunting lobby to get people elected to Parliament who will get the ban overturned. I can only predict a lot more trouble if this issue gets reopened. The only possible parallel in other countries that I can think of is perhaps bull-fighting in Spain. My fellow podcaster Alicia talked about this in a recent podcast. That seems to me to be another dispute over values.
In any case, by time I speak to you next, we'll have a new parliament and we should have a new government. The 24/7 coverage  on television will be over, and we can perhaps start thinking about something else. And on that bright note, it's the end of another show. Thanks for listening, and until the next time, when I hope to be able to announce the winner of our competition, this is Gerry saying: Take care!
 preoccupy: if something preoccupies you it means that you think about it a lot
 poll: vote, election
 incidence: the number of times something happens
 the blues: feeling sad or depressed
 crave: want or desire in a very strong way
 it was supposed to be looking into: it should have been looking into, it was intended to be looking into
 mood: how you're feeling
 alleviate: make lighter (alleviate their mood = make them feel better)
 inconclusive: with no clear result or conclusion
 cure: make better
 invasive (procedure): here: (something that doctors do) that involves putting something into your body or cutting into your body
 colon: the lower part of the intestine that takes food waste from the stomach
 reveal: show
 malignant: harmful, dangerous (used for example about a tumour; the opposite is benign)
 the small hours: the early hours of the morning (1:00, 2:00, etc.)
 be couched in: be expressed in (usually only used in the passive and with words such as "terms")
 adversarial: here: based on conflict, a fight
 hare: an animal that looks like a rabbit but it has longer legs and ears
 otter: an animal with a long body that swims well and lives partly in water
 campaign: to take part in a campaign (here: a political movement)
 according to their conscience: following what they believe to be morally right (conscience = the ideas and feelings that tell you what's right and wrong)
 prosecution: a legal case brought before a court
 24/7 coverage: press reporting that goes on 24 hours a day and 7 days a week