HOW BONES CAN BE PROTECTED

Taking magnesium supplements in middle age could help protect bones breaking in old age, a study suggests. The pills may hold the key to reducing rates of the most preventable cause of this disability in later life, UK scientists believe.

Researchers discovered middle-aged men who had high levels of magnesium in their blood nearly halved their chances of breaking a bone over the following twenty-five years. Lead researcher, Dr Setor Kunutsor, of Bristol University, said: ‘The findings are quite clear – there is a substantial reduction in risk of fractures. Although magnesium is known to be important for bone health, it is thought this is the first study to show how it could prevent breaks.’

The scientists believe the same effects apply to women, although the study included only men. In the UK, around half of women and a fifth of men over 50 will break a bone. Around 3 million Britons, the majority women, suffer from osteoporosis – a disease which weakens bones and can cause breaks from relatively minor falls. Fractures can be debilitating and lead to other complications which can ultimately be fatal for some elderly people.

Most people get the magnesium they need from their diet, as it’s found in many foods. But supplements can help those with a poor or restricted diet to get the recommended daily allowance of 300mg for men and 270mg for women.

Dr Kunutsor recommended doctors considered screening patients to check their magnesium levels and treat any problems before their bones weaken. He added: ‘As people get older, it becomes harder to absorb magnesium. But they don’t show any symptoms until they break a bone. Screening for magnesium levels may be one way to go into the future. Then, perhaps, they could be prescribed magnesium pills to increase levels if they have gone too low. Previous research has suggested hip fractures could be prevented by adding magnesium to tap water, and the mineral has also been linked to a reduction in the risk of heart disease, strokes and diabetes. But taking too much can be harmful especially for people with kidney problems.’

The lesson to be learned is to ensure you follow a healthy diet, eating leafy greens such as spinach and kale, brown rice, nuts and whole grain bread, fish and meat – nothing to excess and leave the rest to destiny.

STICKS AND STONES

One person’s sense of humour is often someone else’s pain. I’ve been fortunate, mostly, in being able to handle what has been flung my way. Journalistic jokes at my expense continue to be made from time to time.

I well remember, in describing another flat-racing season, the legendary Jeffrey Bernard wrote that ‘watching a mediocre steeplechaser negotiating twelve fences on a damp and cold winter’s afternoon is about as inspiring as watching the Ayatollah Attallah chatting up a beauty at a publisher’s cocktail party. You can admire them both for their gall.’

Following up on this, ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Ritz magazine carried an amusing item:

Naim Attallah

would like: Better looks to appease JEFFREY BERNARD (who wrote in the Spectator how ugly Naim is).

would like to give his best friend: ‘A smouldering LIZA CAMPBELL (as described by NIGEL DEMPSTER).
would like to give his worst enemy: A Christmas Carol by Paul Johnson (who also wrote a nasty piece in the Spectator).

(The two top cosmetic surgeons in London are Perry Jayes and Freddy Nicolls.)

My friend A. N. Wilson, writing rather entertainingly in Tatler on the twentieth-century preoccupation with contemplating one’s own navel, commented that ‘this autumn, I notice, Channel 4 are launching a series called “Hey, Good Looking”. At first I thought this was to be a twenty-part serialization of the life story of London’s greatest publisher, Naim Attallah, but it turns out to be a survey of all that is meant by the word “style”.’

NO SEX PLEASE

It’s funny how things turn out, sometimes. Among the many people I interviewed for the Oldie perhaps the most tantalizing was Barbara Skelton. Now mostly forgotten, whose books are only available now as one-off ‘print to order’ copies at exorbitant prices, she once stormed an exotic route through the café society of the 1940s and 1950s.

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Barbara Skelton by Lucian Freud

The daughter of a down-at-heel soldier and a Gaiety Girl, she modelled in Paris for Schiaparelli in the late Thirties. During the war she had worked in Cairo, having affairs with the actor Anthony Steel and King Farouk. Back in London after the war, she joined the literary-bohemian world, where her lovers included Feliks Topolski, Peter Quennell, Kenneth Tynan, Alan Ross and even a policeman who came to her door to investigate a reported burglary. Evelyn Waugh gossiped about her, Anthony Powell put her in his novels and Lord Weidenfeld, briefly, married her.

She was a writer, a bohemian, a femme fatale – and a wonderful interviewee: Except, she told Daniel Farson, for his Evening Standard column, that when I went to interview her for the Oldie in Paris I had ‘displeased her by arriving in my Rolls-Royce without inviting her out for dinner or a drink’.

My umbrage at this remark was given an airing in the Standard’s ‘Londoner’s Diary’ a few days later: ‘I turned up in a beaten-up old car belonging to one of my staff in Paris,’ says Attallah . . . ‘I found her very charming but she didn’t give the impression that she wanted any hospitality. And to cap it all, Richard Ingrams didn’t print the interview in the Oldie because there was too much sex.’

But I had the last laugh. I reprinted the entire piece in my collection of interviews, Of a Certain Age, and amongst the many reviews which highlighted Skelton’s interview, perhaps Ulick O’Connor, writing for the Irish Sunday Independent caught its flavour best. He thought I had found in Barbara Skelton a ‘truly marvellous subject’ who spoke ‘without inhibition on her fascination with the opposite sex’.

Why Cyril Connolly, who resembled an ulcerated gorilla, should have turned her on, God knows, but he did. ‘I was very pretty, and funny and lively, and Cyril was what I wanted for a husband.’ She went at Connolly like a vacuum cleaner out of control, with the result that the poor man, determined to succeed as a writer, ran out of gas, feeling that ‘sex was sapping his mental energy’. This understandably disappointed Barbara and led her to fall in love with Lord Weidenfeld just because ‘I was seeking sex for satisfaction again’.

STATINS FOUND TO BE BENEFICIAL TO THE HEART

The taking of statins has for many years been the subject of great controversy. Yet a new study suggests that statins not only lower cholesterol, but also repair the heart and restore lost function. Around 6 million people in Britain are prescribed statins, but many do not take them over fears of debilitating side effects. Now research by Queen Mary University, London, shows they not only lower cholesterol but also appear to improve heart health.

The team used magnetic resonance scanning (MRI) to look into the hearts of 4,622 men and women in their sixties from the UK biobank, of whom 785 were taking statins. Compared with untreated individuals, patients prescribed statins had lower left ventricular heart chambers, containing 2.4% less muscle mass, meaning their hearts were fitter, healthier and more able to pulp blood efficiently. The effect was striking because those prescribed statins had been judged to have the biggest risk of heart problems, had higher BMI’s, higher blood pressure and were on average four years older,

‘People using statins were less likely to have a thickened heart muscle and less likely to have a large heart chamber,’ said lead scientists Dr Nay Aung. ‘Having a thick large heart is a strong predictor of future heart attacks, heart failure, or stroke, and taking statins appears to reverse the negative changes in the heart.’

The findings were presented at EuroCMR 2017, a conference on heart imaging taking place in Prague. Since 2013, the majority of men aged over 60 and women over 65 have been offered statins, even if they only have a one in ten chance of developing cardiovascular disease within 10 years.

However, some doctors believe it is wrong to medicate people who are generally healthy and some studies have suggested statins have side effects including muscle pain and diminished cognitive function. Heart charities claim there is growing evidence that statins are beneficial beyond simply lowering cholesterol. Previous studies have found that the drugs also improve blood vessel function and reduce inflammation.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said: ‘This study is one of many which suggest statins have other effects on our heart health, though few have been proven. By using the power of the large scale imaging studies from the UK Biobank, this study indicates that statins may have a direct effect on the heart’s structure that we haven’t been able to detect until now.’

Having read many studies regarding statins, I believe that on average, they seem to be effective in many ways and their side effects to be minimal. For elderly people such as me, they are probably worth taking.

THAT ELUSIVE SHUT-EYE

A new theory about why we struggle to sleep as we grow older is presumed to take its roots from the caveman. But older people, unable to get a proper night’s sleep, may blame stress, then medication or even their spouse. However, it could be our caveman past that’s behind the struggle to drift off after we reach a certain age. Anthropologists say that in ancient times, with predators close by, staying up at night, and the ability to wake up easily, was the difference between life and death.

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A US study tested this theory on tribes in Tanzania, finding that the sleeping patterns of older members helped ensure a ‘sentinel’ to protect the group at night. Charlie Nunn, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said: ‘A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can’t get back to sleep. But maybe there is nothing wrong with them. Maybe, some of the medical issues we have today could be explained not as disorders, but as a relic of an evolutionary past in which they were beneficial.’

Going to bed and rising earlier made older people effective sentinels. So too did their tendency to rise during the night and their light sleep, which meant they would wake up more easily in the event of a threat. The scientists studied the Hadza people of Northern Tanzania, who live by hunting and gathering their food at night. They asked 33 men and women aged 30-60 to wear a device for 20 days which tracked their movements.

The disturbed sleeping patterns of the older members meant that one or more persons were awake, or in the light stages of sleep, for 99.8 per cent of the time. More than a third of the group were alert or dozing at any given time, the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society reports.

The authors concluded: ‘Modern perspectives often hold that changes in sleep duration and timing in the elderly are a disorder to treat. By normalising wakeful grandparents, thereby downplaying the sick role among older individuals, clinicians could promote health by reducing over-medication amongst older individuals.’

The theory to blame the cavemen for struggling to sleep as you grow older is to my mind interesting, but far-fetched. However, it makes good reading and whatever else, gives us an upbeat in entertainment value.

A MAGIC PILL IN SIGHT

As one well knows, forgetting which tablet to take how many times a day and at which meal can be a sign of getting older. But apparently there may soon be a solution – a tablet which lasts two weeks. After decades of trying, scientists have developed a drug capsule that stays in the stomach for a fortnight, slowly releasing its contents. The breakthrough could help older people with memory problems as well as heart patients and diabetics.

As many of half the people on medication do not take it correctly, risking dangerous side effects and hospitalization. Previous attempts to develop long-lasting capsules have failed because the stomach is so muscular and contracts every two hours to eject its contents. The problem was solved by creating a capsule made from a strong enough material with six ‘arms’ that expand into a star shape to stop it being pushed through the digestive tract. Researchers at the MIT and Brigham Women’s Clinic found that the capsule dissolves and is passed out naturally after two weeks. The study on pigs, which share a similar digestive system to humans, is expected to lead to human trials this year.

Author Dr Andrew Bellinger, a cardiologist at the Boston Clinic, said: ‘Getting patients to take medicine day after day, after day, after day, is really challenging. If the medicine could be effective for a long period of time you could radically improve the efficiency of your mass drug administration campaigns.’ Co-author Professor Robert Langer added: ‘Until now, oral drugs would almost never last for more than a day. This really opens the door to ultra-long-lasting oral systems which could have an effect on all kinds of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or mental health disorders. There are a lot of exciting things this could someday enable.’

The six arms are folded into the capsule, unfolding after stomach acids dissolve its outer layer. Once the star expands, it is large enough to stay in the stomach and resist the forces that would normally push it further down the digestive tract. However, it is not large enough to cause any harmful blockage of the tract. After two weeks of medication the links that join the arms to the star dissolve. The pieces are then small enough to pass harmlessly through the digestive tract. The breakthrough was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation after Mr Gates asked the clinic whether it could make a pill that delivered a whole course of treatment for diseases such as malaria.

My view is such research will eventually lead to a resolution of problems that seem at the beginning to be hard to overcome. Yet with diligence and hard work, the insurmountable becomes accessible and the original objective attained.

THE PRINCE AND I

With all the furore in the media around the anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic end, I’ve been reminded of two occasions when I dipped my toes into that strange world of monarchical merchandising – both with disastrous consequences.

Settling Down by James Whitaker, then the royal correspondent of the Sun, was a glossy, heavily illustrated in colour, account of Prince Charles’s amorous exploits before his eventual marriage to Lady Diana Spencer. It was, as you might expect from its provenance, a ‘warts and all’ account. Everyone at Quartet anticipated amazing sales and we printed many thousands of copies.

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The mystery of its demise, reported Tatler, had caused its publisher ‘to work overtime on his worry beads’. It was true enough. To have the title fail so dramatically after Quartet’s publicity machine had been relentless in its promotion was for me a serious blow. While some royal observers considered it the best book of its kind that year, the public at large turned its back on it for no apparent reason. It simply would not move out of the warehouse. We kept asking ourselves what went wrong, but were unable to find a satisfactory answer. Whitaker himself blamed Quartet for the failure, but without producing any evidence to support his contention.

The impression he made on me was that he considered himself God’s gift to the royal family – an attitude that did not endear him to the public, to whom it came across as pure arrogance. Matters were not helped either when he appeared on Nationwide (the prequel to The One Show) dressed in his wildfowling kit, complete with night-view binoculars. It must have been one of the most unappealing television moments ever. At least Whitaker had the grace to concede that his style was maybe a bit racy for the shires.

One of the things I love about publishing is its unpredictability. You can seldom gauge the mood of the nation when it comes to books. Either you are too late with a trend, or you are ahead of your time; or you happen to choose a subject that turns out to appeal to very few people, of whom you may be one. This very aspect of publishing brings with it exhilarating rewards, so in the end who cares? Long hours of stress may be banished by a single stroke of good fortune, and we all live in anticipation of that happening to us now and then.

My second attempt at royal exploitation was early in 1987, when I was involved in a theatrical venture that turned sour. The Old Man of Lochnagar, Prince Charles’s much praised children’s yarn, was transformed into an expensive flop when adapted for the stage. It was based on the Goon-like humour that the prince is known to favour and told the story of a Highland character with a lavatory contraption that played ‘Scotland the Brave’. As one of the show’s main backers I sustained a sizeable loss. Its three-week run in the West End at the Albery Theatre left a deficit of forty thousand pounds with not a single house achieving a sell-out. All in all, the exercise was a big disappointment. Prince Charles had been expected to turn up to see the show with Princes William and Harry but he never came. It deserved a better fate at the box office than the one it received. Prince Charles’s staying away did nothing to help the situation. When the deflated cast members questioned his absence, after they had done so much to capture the spirit of his book, they were told bluntly by a palace aide, ‘He chose not to go.’ Had he been too busy, they wondered. The response was a crisply repeated: ‘He just chose not to go.’

In retrospect, and in fairness to the Prince who, during the years since, I have had the privilege of meeting on a few occasions, he must have been ill-advised by his staff not to attend, given the commercial failure of the venture.