Most of us want to fit in. When it comes to our health or state of mind, we ask ourselves and our doctors “am I normal” hoping for a positive response. In this series, Vivienne Parry finds out how the doctors decide who’s in the normal box and who’s not when it comes to weight, height, hearts, depression, cancer, madness, metabolism, autism and drinking. And if you don't fit into the normal box, are you in need of medical treatment, or are you just different? Nine episodes of approx thirty minutes each.
Programme 1 - Weight You may have been told by your doctor that your weight is just fine, but be aware, they may soon change their minds. Thirty million Americans became overweight, overnight when the US government changed the upper limit of a normal weight from a body mass index of 27 down to 25. Could giving children weight report cards every term help them to lose weight? It's easy enough to label a child as overweight, or even obese: much less easy to live with the label. "Obese is just such a big horrible word" says nine year old, Sam.
Programme 2 - Height Is being short a medical condition or just a fact of life? Tens of thousands of children worldwide now receive growth hormone treatment. Some are growth hormone deficient, a known medical condition. Others aren't. In the US, growth hormone has been approved for use on short but otherwise healthy children. The same could happen here. We hear from an American dad who took his wife to court to try and stop his son from being given growth hormone. He lost.
Programme 3 - Heart Is your heart healthy? Is it normal? We join Vivienne Parry as she gets her cholesterol and blood pressure checked to find out her risk of heart disease. If she were a smoker, stopping could cut her chances of having a heart attack by half. Her age and her family history are also risk factors, but there's not much she can do about those. These days there are tablets to control blood pressure, cholesterol and weight, and we know that these factors can all affect how healthy a heart is. But just because we can reduce those factors with drugs, should we? Vivienne speaks to the cardiologists, pharmacists and GPs in her quest for normality - with or without a bit of pharmaceutical help.
Programme 4 - Depression How do doctors decide if what's going on inside someone's head is normal? Checklists and questionnaires may help to assess whether or not someone is depressed. But when a teenager answers "yes" to "do you argue with your parents?" does that mean they need anti-depressants? "Giving someone a pill sends out a strong message that there's something wrong with them that needs fixing" says psychiatrist Joanna Moncrieff. "What seems to one person an acceptable normality would seem to someone else intolerable", says Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon: An Anatomy of Depression.
Programme 5 - Cancer Is it normal for us to have cancer? Public opinion might be that cancer is abnormal, but medical professionals disagree. Testing and screening is becoming more sensitive, picking up abnormal cancerous cells that may never develop into a life threatening disease. We’re all living longer and cancer is a normal part of the ageing process. “If we all lived to be 200, we’d all have cancer” says Professor Karol Sikora of Imperial College London.
Programme 6 - Madness One in 10 of us has had a mad or psychotic experience at some time in our life. We might briefly but passionately believe that we are Jesus, or think the television is talking directly to us. Mad thoughts certainly but do they make us mad? Under extreme stress, we all suffer physically and mentally. One in 4 of us will have a bout of madness. Most recover and life continues normally enough. Does this make us mad - or normal?
Programme 7 - Metabolism What is a normal metabolism? Our thyroid controls our body temperature and therefore plays an important role in our metabolism. The symptoms for an under-active thyroid are familiar to many of us – tiredness, lethargy, weight gain, dull skin and hair. How does your GP determine whether they are due to the stresses and strains of busy lives or symptoms of hypo-thyroidism? How do existing medical guidelines deal with the fact that we are all "uniquely hormoned", when what might be a "normal thyroid hormone level for you is not the case for someone else".
Programme 8 - Asperger Syndrome and Autism Ten times more children are diagnosed with autism or Asperger syndrome than 40 years ago. Is it because we’re better at spotting thsee conditions, are they more widespread or have the goalposts moved? More children and adults with less obvious autistic characteristics are now being labelled as such. This may help those affected to access support and can lead to greater understanding from others. At the same time, everybody wants to fit in.
Programme 9 - Alcohol Britain is a nation of drinkers. We now drink twice as much alcohol as 50 years ago, with scant regard to the recommended intake. As our love of alcohol increases so does the rates of chronic liver disease, many types of cancer, strokes and damage to the brain. The government focuses on the drinking problems of young people who visibly binge at the weekend. But health professionals believe so-called “normal” older drinkers are exceeding safe limits. And what’s normal when you’re in your 20s is too much in your 60s, when your body can’t metabolise the alcohol as efficiently. Vivienne Parry looks at the impact of drinking a couple of glasses of wine with a meal, and a few more at the Christmas party. She asks “Is my drinking normal?”, and if it is normal – is it wise?