Too much ‘idiot box’ leaves older folk lost for words

Readers above a certain age may well recall, several decades ago, regularly being told by parents and teachers that watching too much television rots the brain.

Now, research by two scientists at University College London in the UK suggests that, at least metaphorically, the oldies were right.

In a study covering a seven-year period, Daisy Fancourt and Andrew Steptoe tested the effect of television watching among people over 50 years old. Most research into the relationship between television and cognition, they point out, has focussed on children and adolescents – older people have been largely overlooked.

The researchers used data from a long-term project called the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), an ongoing population-based mission to collect information regarding health, wellbeing and economic outcomes for over-50s

To establish a baseline, they looked at television-watching data for 3662 adults recorded in 2008 and 2009. They then flipped forward six years and looked at levels of cognitive decline in the same cohort during the period 2014 and 2015.

They found that people who watched television for more than 3.5 hours each day experienced a decline in verbal memory – the ability to recall words and language patterns. The effect was most pronounced among those who had scored highly on verbal memory at baseline.

The finding was observational and thus cannot indicate whether telly-watching actually caused the language deficits, but Fancourt and Steptoe report that the association remained robust even after possible confounding factors such as mental and physical health, and socio-economic status, were taken into account.

Interestingly, the outcomes did not appear to be related to the amount of time spent sitting down. In many earlier studies looking at the effect of television on mental and physical health, the act of watching was assumed to be a proxy for sedentary behaviour. This research implies that being a couch potato and staring at the box operate independently.

Fancourt and Steptoe suggest the deleterious effect of long periods of time spent watching television may arise because of the nature of the medium.

“Television involves fast-paced changes in images, sounds and action and, unlike other screen-based activities such as internet use and gaming, television is the most passive way of receiving such stimuli,” they write.

The consequent state of “alert-passive interaction”, they conclude, might be the problem. They note that other screen-based activities, such as playing video games or searching the internet “can in fact have cognitive benefits”.

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports. There is no truth to the rumour that it is set to be adapted into a television series.

Hands off the chocolate! First chocolate company to brag about being pro-GMO supports GMO cacao trees

While many companies fight against using genetically modified ingredients, and others do not care that they are using them, the first company to openly brag about being pro-GMO has officially arrived on the scene.

That company is Ethos Chocolate, which is creating and selling its product with hopes that our beloved cacao trees will be genetically modified soon.

Their project is supported by about 1,600 farmers of A Fresh Look, which also support GMOs.

Ethos’s four chocolate bars boast about genetically modified research changing papaya to be over 90% GMO; the newest GMO non-browning apples; the upcoming GMO oranges, and the possibility of genetic engineering taking over cacao in the near future.

How to Save Cacao without GMOs

Pro-GMO sources push their lucrative, patented, unlabeled and untested genetic modification as the supposed only way to save them. In the case of cacao trees, climate change is being blamed as one reason for difficult conditions for growing them in certain regions.

Yet, going GMO is not the way to save our chocolate, after all, if the track record of the GMO industry is any indication (see the report from the New York Times titled Broken Promises of GMO Crops).

The Santa Barbara Chocolate company, which creates only GMO-free cacao products, states that the way to save chocolate is to buy it from eco-safe sources.

These suppliers use original heirloom seeds that are critical for long-term ecosystem survival. These species have been saved by organizations like Cocoa Research Center (CRC).

They also explain that climate change is not the only contributor to threat for cacao, it is urbanization and mining programs cutting down rainforests that create the more recent problem. Climate change has a more chronic but slow-progressing effect.

The way to fight it is to focus on shade growing cocoa that allows the trees to better tolerate climate change. This traditional method improves the soil, promotes biodiversity, and helps nearby plant and animal species, according to a review of 16 studies.

An organization called Global Seed Vault is also preserving seeds of endangered types of cacao among their 890,886 total seed samples.

Finding Eco Safe Chocolate

If you love chocolate and you want to do your part, you can start buying chocolate and cocoa from companies that believe in sustainable sourcing. Companies that work with the Rainforest Alliance are a good choice.

Nuclear medicine fallout: Cremated man’s ash spread radioactivity in local area – study

In 2017 a 69-year-old man living with pancreatic cancer was treated with nuclear medicine to shrink his tumor, but sadly died three days later and was cremated. New research suggests his remains may have spread radioactivity.

The man was treated by radioactive injection, and the dose of lutetium Lu 177 dotatate was still in his body when he was cremated, as staff at the hospital where he was treated were unaware of how badly his condition had deteriorated before it was too late.

While the administration of these drugs is tightly controlled and monitored, what happens after the treatment – especially when patients eventually die – is an entirely different story, as showcased in this particular case study by the Mayo Clinic. More than half of deceased Americans are cremated at present.

“Radiopharmaceuticals present a unique and often overlooked postmortem safety challenge,” Mayo Clinic researchers explain. “Cremating an exposed patient volatilises the radiopharmaceutical, which can then be inhaled by workers (or released into the adjacent community) and result in greater exposure than from a living patient.”

Almost a month after the cremation, hospital staff checked the cremation chamber and equipment, including the oven, vacuum filter and bone crusher, with a Geiger counter. They found elevated levels of radioactivity matching the radionuclide lutetium Lu 177 that was in the deceased man’s system.

“This wasn’t like the second-coming of Chernobyl or Fukushima, but it was higher than you would anticipate,” case co-author Kevin Nelson told The Verge.

The researchers tested workers at the facility for radioactive compounds. None matched lutetium Lu 177, but one man was found to have the radioactive compound technetium Tc 99m in his system despite never having undergone a nuclear medicine procedure.

The findings were reported in JAMA, and the case poses worrying questions about the collateral public health risks posed by treatment with nuclear medicine given that over 18.6 million such procedures involving radiopharmaceuticals are performed in the US each year.

Stop iPhone parenting and give your children the attention they need

As a trauma therapist I am always interested in learning about my clients’ childhood attachment patterns. Growing up with parents who were either emotionally unavailable, inconsistently responsive, frightened by or frightening to their child has a profoundly negative impact on social, behavioral, emotional, and neurological development. “Trauma-informed care” includes assessing for adverse childhood experiences and reframing clients’ subsequent “symptoms” and struggles as the inevitable by-products and coping strategies of attachment trauma. However, I am concerned that a newer version of attachment trauma has invaded even the most “loving” families. Our reliance on, and, in some cases addiction to, digital gadgets and technology has hijacked the face-to-face parent-child interactions that are necessary for consistent, sustained and secure attachment.

Is this scenario familiar? After standing in line at the post office for fifteen minutes – a somewhat inherently traumatic experience in and of itself – I witnessed a two-year-old having a complete meltdown. Her mother’s immediate response was to hand her an iPad. In her wisdom, the child initially rejected it. In a soothing yet frustrated tone, the mother said “Use your iPad! Do you want to look at pictures? Play a game?” The child was not appeased and continued to wail. As the woman bent towards the stroller, I felt a sense of relief, assuming she was about to pick up her dysregulated child. Instead, she turned on the tablet and said with greater agitation, “look at the pictures on your screen!” After several more minutes of crying, the child realized that what she wanted and needed-to be comforted by her mother, not an inanimate object-was not going to happen. I watched as she went into collapse, emotionally shutting down and compliantly staring at the screen.

Believing her baby was now soothed allowed the embarrassed mother to comfort herself with a cellphone, tapping and swiping until it was her turn to buy stamps. In essence, they were two strangers in line together. I have seen similar scenarios countless times: in airports, malls, restaurants, and my waiting room. Preoccupied parents entranced as they stare at their iPhone, seemingly oblivious to their child’s needs. They are content to use digital gadgets as pacifiers and babysitters. They are not only modeling the excessive use of cellphones, tablets, video games, and laptops, they are actually encouraging their children to be just as hypnotized, and potentially, addicted.

At the risk of sounding old fashioned and judgmental, I believe this phenomenon is worrisome. Eye gaze, appropriate loving touch, and soothing words are the hallmark features of secure attachment. In families where there is abuse or neglect, these experiences get weaponized. Eye contact becomes a vehicle for threat or intimidation, or the neglecting parent avoids eye gaze, leaving the child feeling demeaned or invisible. Touch is either physically abusive, sexually inappropriate, or unavailable to the child. Words are bullying, shaming, hypercritical or lacking in love or support. This is why caretaker perpetration is such a betrayal and profound breach of trust.

But those three critical resources for attunement are also lost when a child is offered a screen rather than the loving and grounding experience of an available parent, which makes them feel safe, calm and connected to others. It may seem unfair to associate abuse or neglect with the disconnect that happens when a child is comforted, distracted, or cajoled by a digital appliance. But what is the long-term toll it takes on healthy attachment, affect regulation, and socialization skills? Mental health researchers and therapists alike need to assess for and explore that impact, as digital technology is not going away. Questions to consider:

  • Are kids with excessive exposure to digital gadgets less comfortable with face to face interactions and more likely to struggle socially?
  • Is it harder for them to read and accurately interpret nuanced facial expressions and body language?
  • Do these kids have a healthy ability to regulate their fluctuating or overwhelming emotional states?
  • Are these kids less likely to use relationships for soothing and comfort, and more likely to numb with endeavors that are hypnotic or dissociative?
  • Despite growing up in families that are well-meaning and financially secure, are these kids actually experiencing avoidant or insecure attachment?
  • And if they are, will they struggle with the same emotional fall-out and symptomatology as abused or neglected kids?

Since technology has made our lives much easier and resources more accessible, stakeholders may be reticent about tackling this issue head-on. I believe it is our ethical responsibility to address these dynamics with the families we treat. We must empower parents to set much stricter limits on screen time and to reconnect with the relational, face-to-face-benefits of parent-child time and family time. Many kids and teenagers need to be weaned from their overuse of digital gadgets-a kind of digital detoxification-so that they can reconnect with peers and re-access their own imaginations.

For traumatized clients, the reparative experience of secure attachment often happens within the therapeutic relationship. Therapists may need to be more mindful of addressing this issue with kids who have been overexposed to digital gadgets as a resource for comfort and soothing. They should keep technology out of the therapy room and model attunement, eye gaze and appropriate words and touch so that kids and parents alike can rediscover the power of relationship. Otherwise, the next generation risks losing the ability and the desire to be fully present with others and fully engaged in the world.

Bayer Monsanto faces a second trial over Roundup causing cancer

Autism diagnoses in Northern Ireland children up by more than 100% in 5 years

The number of children being diagnosed with autism in Northern Ireland has more than doubled in five years.

Some health trusts have seen a three-fold increase and there are also 2,500 under-18s still waiting to be assessed.

Healthcare professionals and autism charities have pointed to increased awareness as a reason for the jump.

Kerry Boyd, the head of Autism NI, said her organisation is “inundated” with requests for support.

“The introduction of the Autism Act (NI) 2011 and the accompanying increase in awareness both within the general public and health and education professions may have contributed to a rise in the number of assessments carried out and resulting diagnoses,” she said.

“Consequently Autism NI, which provides vital services, is inundated with requests for support and we are finding it increasingly difficult to fulfil this demand.

“As a result of this exponential increase, many families are not receiving an adequate level of support particularly in relation to early intervention.”

In total 2,345 children under 18 were diagnosed as autistic last year, compared with 1,047 five years previously.

The latest figures were obtained by the BBC after a freedom of information request to all five of Northern Ireland’s health and social care trusts and cover the period between 2013-14 and 2017-18.

The figures do not distinguish between the different types of diagnosis, with the Northern Trust the only one to differentiate between Asperger’s and autism.

The Belfast Trust saw the highest increase, from 171 cases in 2013-14 to 567 in 2017-18.

There was also a trebling of the numbers diagnosed in the Southern Trust, from 72 to 234 in the five-year period.

The South Eastern Trust had the smallest rise but diagnoses were still up 66% from 230 cases in 2013-14 to 378 last year.

In keeping with trends that show males are more likely to be diagnosed, almost three times more boys than girls were found to be autistic in the five years.

‘Failed to deliver’

The Autism Act NI was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly and was designed to ensure those affected are afforded the same entitlements as people with other disabilities.

It also bound all government departments to plan, cooperate and implement an agreed autism strategy.

However, in 2016, Autism NI and the National Autistic Society NI published the Broken Promises report, which said the legislation and resulting strategy and action plan had “failed to deliver on its promises of help for autistic people, their families and carers”.

It said: “Their experiences suggest that life is getting more, rather than less, difficult for autistic people.”

The document called on the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Stormont Executive to take action but within a year the institutions had collapsed.

More than 1,000 children in the Northern Trust are awaiting a diagnosis, while the Belfast and Western Trusts have 600 or more children waiting for an assessment.

Ms Boyd said: “Autism NI would advocate that more resources should be invested immediately in autism services in order to ensure the best possible outcomes for individuals with autism and their families.”

Concerns raised by parents or schools often lead to a formal assessment, in which a multi-disciplinary team of healthcare professionals comprising the likes of a psychiatrist and speech and language therapists decide whether to recommend a diagnosis.

Dr Alan Stout, the chair of the Northern Ireland GP Committee of the British Medical Association, said figures have “skyrocketed” due to “increased awareness” and changes to the criteria under the 2011 legislation.

“A number of years ago we were also placing other types of conditions, such as Asperger’s, but now they are all categorised as being on the spectrum of autism and the threshold has also been reduced for what constitutes being on the spectrum,” he said.

“We do tend to notice that the diagnoses are getting younger and younger – it has big, big implications if the diagnosis can be confirmed.

“It helps the understanding for the school and the parents.

“It can mean getting school assistants and enables the altering of various environmental and social factors in the school – for example we have seen an increasing number of pupils getting dogs.”

‘Very stressful’

Dr Stout said that increased resources and enabling more assessments outside of hospitals could help reduce the backlog.

“Being able to see the patients and diagnose them in a community setting is more valuable – sending them to hospital (can be) very intimidating (for those affected).”

The long process of getting a formal diagnosis is a huge struggle for many parents.

Annie Davison, from Sydenham in east Belfast, said it had been “very stressful” waiting for her son Terence and daughter Emma to be tested.

Both children have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.

“I was noticing some things in my son, as I have other family members, such as my niece, who have been diagnosed,” she said.

“[In Terence’s case] I had a feeling something wasn’t right, from the age of about two-and-a-half.

“Nursery said they had no concerns and so did the primary school when he arrived.”

After advice from a school nurse that she should take Terence to his GP, Mrs Davison was referred to the autism team.

“It was just over a year waiting for the diagnosis.

“It was very stressful, waiting, having to research autism myself – there was no input from anybody else.

“He was getting frustrated and wasn’t able to communicate his needs.

“He was very hyper and was staying up all night – we were in limbo and having to manage it ourselves.”

Schools need ‘more resources’

Mrs Davison said that after her son’s diagnosis she put in place a home routine and altered his “visual” environment”.

While her children are now receiving extra educational support, she is still lobbying for greater resources.

“There are a lot of people who are not getting help in schools,” she said.

“The NHS and schools are under tremendous pressure but there needs to be more training and resources.

“If a teacher is working with a child with autism there needs to be training for them.”

Food as medicine: Mushrooms for longevity

Shiitake mushrooms are one of the most popular mushrooms in the world, and for good reason. Revered in Asia for centuries for their potent medicinal properties, shiitake mushrooms have become a symbol of longevity in some cultures. Hearty and versatile, shiitakes can be consumed raw or cooked, and are found in powdered supplement form in many herbal pharmacies. Shiitakes grow in clusters on decaying hardwood trees, and are also commonly cultivated for food and medicinal uses. A classic umbrella shape, shiitakes are both beautiful and substantial. Caps range from white to light brown with white spots, and can reach up to eight inches in diameter. Cooking releases a “garlic pine” aroma and a rich, earthy flavor. Good luck for us – shiitakes are available year-round in most areas.

References

  1. Fungus
  2. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World (Stamets, Paul, 2005, ISBN 1-58008-579-2)
  3. mushroom-appreciation.com
  4. Effect of Dietary Maitake (Grifola frondosa) Mushrooms on Plasma Cholesterol and Hepatic Gene Expression in Cholesterol-Fed Mice
  5. Submerged-Culture Mycelia and Broth of the Maitake Medicinal Mushroom Grifola frondosa (Higher Basidiomycetes) Alleviate Type 2 Diabetes-Induced Alterations in Immunocytic Function.

Do Not Disturb: How I ditched my phone and unbroke my brain

Allow me a bit of bragging: Over the course of 30 days, my average daily phone time, as measured by the iPhone’s built-in screen time tracker, has dwindled from around five hours to just over an hour. I now pick up my phone only about 20 times a day, down from more than 100. I still use my phone for email and texting – and I’m still using my laptop plenty – but I don’t itch for social media, and I often go hours without so much as a peek at any screen.

In one of our conversations, I asked Catherine if she worried that I would relapse. She said it was possible, given the addictive properties of phones and the likelihood that they’ll only keep getting more essential. But she said that as long as I remained aware of my relationship with my phone, and continued to notice when and how I used it, I’d have gotten something valuable.

“Your life is what you pay attention to,” she said. “If you want to spend it on video games or Twitter, that’s your business. But it should be a conscious choice.”

One of the most unexpected benefits of this program is that by getting some emotional distance from my phone, I’ve started to appreciate it again. I keep thinking: Right here, in my pocket, is a device that can summon food, cars and millions of other consumer goods to my door. I can talk with everyone I’ve ever met, create and store a photographic record of my entire life, and tap into the entire corpus of human knowledge with a few swipes.

Steve Jobs wasn’t exaggerating when he described the iPhone as a kind of magical object, and it’s truly wild that in the span of a few years, we’ve managed to turn these amazing talismanic tools into stress-inducing albatrosses. It’s as if scientists had invented a pill that gave us the ability to fly, only to find out that it also gave us dementia.

But there is a way out. I haven’t taken an M.R.I. or undergone a psychiatric evaluation, but I’d bet that something fundamental has shifted inside my brain in the past month. A few weeks ago, the world on my phone seemed more compelling than the offline world – more colorful, faster-moving and with a bigger scope of rewards.

I still love that world, and probably always will. But now, the physical world excites me, too – the one that has room for boredom, idle hands and space for thinking. I no longer feel phantom buzzes in my pocket or have dreams about checking my Twitter replies. I look people in the eye and listen when they talk. I ride the elevator empty-handed. And when I get sucked into my phone, I notice and self-correct.

It’s not a full recovery, and I’ll have to stay vigilant. But for the first time in a long time, I’m starting to feel like a human again.

About the author

Kevin Roose is a columnist for Business and a writer-at-large for The New York Times Magazine. His column, “The Shift,” examines the intersection of technology, business and culture

We have weaker bones than our hunter-gatherer ancestors – this is what you can do about it

Technology is continuously advancing to make our lives “easier”, more efficient and often more sedentary. All of this has an impact on our body and, specifically, our bones.

Loss of bone strength is one of the least talked about risks of sedentary lifestyles, but is arguably one of the most important, with osteoporosis related fractures occurring in one in three women and one in five men. There is a direct relationship between the lack of oestrogen after menopause and the development of osteoporosis.

As a society, we are more sedentary than ever before. The use of transport, electric rather than manual bikes, and having our weekly grocery shopping ordered online and delivered to the comfort of our homes are all at odds with keeping active. Children in particular are less active – with computer games replacing “playing out” during a crucial time of development when exercise (especially jumping) can optimise bone strength gains by up to 5.5% over six months.

Research is also demonstrating that what’s known as “epigenetic memories” may also be passed down several generations, which means that our lifestyle today could influence gene expression in future generations. If sedentary trends continue, humans are at risk of becoming frailer and more dependent – needing increased support from already stretched health services.

The science

Our skeleton has many roles: it supports our body, provides attachment points for muscles, tendons and ligaments that enable our bodies to move, and stores minerals like calcium and phosphorus. However, when external forces and demands are removed, our muscles can waste, and our bones become lighter, less dense and less “useful” – this increases the risk of osteoporosis and fracture.

A loss of around 3% of cortical bone in the leg, for example, can occur during one month of bed rest, and in space, astronauts can lose over 10% of their bone strength on a typical 120-180 day mission. This is because of the absence of loading to the skeleton in the microgravity environment.

Our current ongoing research shows that sedentary time is a risk factor for reduced bone strength in middle age. Reduced activity after retirement and sitting for prolonged periods of time, are shown to be the main factors as this removes functional stimuli to bone – as does letting robotics and machines take over tasks we used to do for ourselves.

On the other hand, when bone is “loaded” through various forces, it responds by becoming stronger. This is evidenced by numerous exercise intervention studies, and previous research shows around 20-30% greater bone strength in athletes from “impact” sports – such as football, hockey and running – compared to non-athletes.

Lessons through time

Analysis of bones from over hundreds and thousands of years ago suggests that our skeleton today is more fragile than that of our ancestors, and the differences became more pronounced when humans started to farm their food (domesticating animals and plants).

Before this time, humans foraged wild plants and hunted animals. They were much more active than their descendant farmers, ate leaner meat, and were more often than not, “on the move”. Research has found that their bone mass was around 20% greater. A decrease in leg bone size and changes in its cross-sectional shape are also evident at the advent of farming. This reflects changes in loading on the skeleton due to the different activities people did.

Research also suggests that prehistoric women in the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages had around 5-10% more arm bone strength than modern female athletes, indicating heavy use of their arms for specific activities. This suggests modern humans are falling short of their bone strength potential.

What you can do

Simple exercises and lifestyle changes that are similar to activities of a hunter gatherer can help build bone strength. Interval training and sports including bouts of fast sprinting such as football, along with lifting weights can help. But it doesn’t have to be all about going to the gym, simple changes like using a rucksack when walking and shopping can increase loading to the spine.

Do your own food shopping as often as you can, and carry your own shopping bags to provide some loading to the arms and back muscles – and also indirectly to your legs (and all related bones).

Walk more often and further and with your dog if you have one. Park your car further away from work or the shopping center, take regular walking breaks at work and at home and hold walking meetings or practice social walking with family and friends. Aim to use the stairs instead of escalators or a lift and try to take two stairs at a time to get a glute and quad work out while loading the bones at the hip joint.

Regular gardening and having a vegetable plot or even an allotment can offer similar advantages, as can doing housework vigorously. And if you have a wood burning stove, chopping your own logs goes some way towards mimicking how our ancestors prepared their kill and building materials for shelter.

These small changes can help to build bone strength – which is vitally important given that the number of people aged 50 years and over with a high risk of osteoporotic fracture was 158m in 2010 and is projected to double by 2040 globally. And while increasing life expectancy may be part of the explanation, lifestyle habits unfavorable to bone health and strength are also a large part of the problem.