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Regular exercise may keep your body 30 years ‘younger’



The muscles of older men and women who have exercised for decades are indistinguishable in many ways from those of healthy 25-year-olds.

The muscles of older men and women who have exercised for decades are indistinguishable in many ways from those of healthy 25-year-olds, according to an uplifting new study of a group of active septuagenarians.

These men and women also had much higher aerobic capacities than most people their age, the study showed, making them biologically about 30 years younger than their chronological ages, the study’s authors concluded.

All of us are aging every second, of course, which leads many of us also to be deeply interested in what we can expect from our bodies and health as those seconds – and subsequent years and decades – mount.

Worryingly, statistics and simple observation suggest that many elderly people experience frailty, illness and dependence.

But science has not established whether and to what extent such physical decline is inevitable with age or if it is at least partially a byproduct of our modern lifestyles and perhaps amenable to change.

There have been hints, though, that physical activity might alter how we age. Recent studies have found that older athletes have healthier muscles, brains, immune systems and hearts than people of the same age who are sedentary.

But many of these studies have concentrated on competitive masters athletes, not people who exercise recreationally, and few have included many women.

So for the new study, which was published in August in the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., decided to look at a distinctive set of older men and women.

“We were very interested in people who had started exercising during the running and exercise booms of the 1970s,” says Scott Trappe, the director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Ball State and the new study’s senior author.

That era, bookended to some extent by the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the publication of “The Complete Book of Running” in 1977, introduced a generation of young men and women to recreational physical activity, Dr. Trappe says.

“They took up exercise as a hobby,” he says.

Some of them then maintained that hobby throughout the next 50 or so years, running, cycling, swimming or otherwise working out often, even if they rarely or never competed, he says.

Those were the men and women, most now well into their 70s, he and his colleagues sought to study.

Using local advertisements and other recruitment methods, they found 28 of them, including seven women, each of whom had been physically active for the past five decades.

They also recruited a second group of age-matched older people who had not exercised during adulthood and a third group of active young people in their 20s.

They brought everyone into the lab, tested their aerobic capacities and, using tissue samples, measured the number of capillaries and levels of certain enzymes in the muscles. High numbers for each indicate muscular health.

The researchers focused on the cardiovascular system and muscles because they are believed inevitably to decline with age and the scientists had expected they would see what Dr. Trappe describes as a “hierarchical pattern” in differences between the groups.

The young people, they thought, would possess the most robust muscles and aerobic capacities, with the lifelong exercisers being slightly weaker on both counts and the older non-exercisers punier still.

But that outcome is not precisely what they found.

Instead, the muscles of the older exercisers resembled those of the young people, with as many capillaries and enzymes as theirs, and far more than in the muscles of the sedentary elderly.

The active elderly group did have lower aerobic capacities than the young people, but their capacities were about 40 percent higher than those of their inactive peers.

In fact, when the researchers compared the active older people’s aerobic capacities to those of established data about “normal” capacities at different ages, they calculated that the aged, active group had the cardiovascular health of people 30 years younger than themselves.

Together, these findings about muscular and cardiovascular health in active older people suggest that what we now consider to be normal physical deterioration with aging “may not be normal or inevitable,” Dr. Trappe says.

However, this study was cross-sectional, highlighting a single moment in people’s lives, and cannot tell us whether their exercise habits directly caused differences in health or if and how genes, income, diet and similar lifestyle factors contributed.

It also did not look at muscle mass and other important measures of health or whether you can begin exercising late in life and benefit to the same extent.

The researchers plan to explore some of these issues in future studies, Dr. Trappe says.

But already the findings from this experiment suggest that exercise could help us “to build a reserve” of good health now that might enable us to slow or evade physical frailty later, Dr. Trappe says.

“These people were so vigorous,” he says. “I’m in my 50s and they certainly inspire me to stay active.”

Happy hormones: Goat yoga – the greatest of all time or a passing fad?

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the new trend. Sara Teiger has been practicing iyengar yoga – a more traditional branch of yoga – for 15 years and thinks goat yoga will be a pointless fad. “It’s not about the exercise or the metal health benefits, it’s just about the social media that gets generated afterwards,” Teiger says. “I’m doing a downward dog and I’ve got a goat on my arse, but so what? You’re not going to find someone who goes twice a week before work.”

Teiger also says she is concerned about the welfare of the goats and that they are being used as a prop for people’s amusement. McCheyne insists the goats participate willingly. “We don’t bribe them, we don’t pick them up and place them on our bodies or anything, but if they’re interested, they’ll come by and have a sniff or a little bit of a nibble. They might chew your hair or your yoga mat. And they’ll just come around for a cuddle, really,” McCheyne adds.

Marie Spreckley, the owner of London Weightloss Clinic and a teacher of barre (a combination of yoga, dance and pilates), does not think the trend is conducive to the purpose of yoga. “Yoga is all about mindfulness, relaxation and concentration. You can’t do it while having an erratic animal around. In addition to that you might injure yourself, because yoga is all about posture and flexibility.”

While Cowan acknowledges that goat yoga will be a passing fancy for most, she loves the idea of it. “You’re just going to be laughing and smiling all the way through. So, I don’t think it’s going to take you to a specifically internal zen calm, but I think through positive connecting hormones, you’re going to come out of it feeling absolutely fantastic. I really want to have a go.”

FLASHBACK: Key to longevity, according to the third oldest Icelander: no health foods, vegetables or fruit

Various different miracle diets have been promoted as the key to a long and healthy life, but none of these hold any appeal to one of Iceland’s oldest persons. Guðrún Straumfjörð, who celebrates her 105th birthday today, claims that the key to longevity is to stay clear of all health foods and shun fruits and vegetables. Guðrún is the third oldest Icelander alive.

Guðrún told the local newspaper Morgunblaðið that she does her best to never eat fruits or vegetables. She admits that “once in a while” she might eat “very small portions” of cauliflower and cabbage. Bananas are the only fruits this centenarian is willing to taste. She also stays clear of food supplements and vitamin, as well as cod-liver oil.

Guðrún told Morgunblaðið that she refuses to touch any “modern health foods”, sticking instead to traditional Icelandic home-cooked meals. Her favourite dish is Icelandic bread soup made with rúgbrauð and topped with whipped cream, as well as regular saltfish.

How dealing with past trauma may be the key to breaking addiction

Opening up to past trauma is difficult, but self-awareness is key to addressing issues that leave us vulnerable

What’s your poison, people sometimes ask, but Gabor Maté doesn’t want to ask what my poison is, he wants to ask how it makes me feel. Whatever it is I’m addicted to, or ever have been addicted to, it’s not what it is but what it does – to me, to you, to anyone. He believes that anything we’ve ever craved helped us escape emotional pain. It gave us peace of mind, a sense of control and a feeling of happiness.

And all of that, explains Maté, reveals a great deal about addiction, which he defines as any behaviour that gives a person temporary relief and pleasure, but also has negative consequences, and to which the individual will return time and again. At the heart of Maté’s philosophy is the belief that there’s no such thing as an “addictive personality”. And nor is addiction a “disease”. Instead, it originates in a person’s need to solve a problem: a deep-seated problem, often from our earliest years that was to do with trauma or loss.

Maté, a wiry, energetic man in his mid-70s, has his own experience of both childhood trauma and addiction, more of which later. Well-known in Canada, where he lives, he gives some interesting reasons why Britain is “just waking up to me” and his bestselling book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. There’s a generational conflict here, he says, around being open about past trauma: he cites Princes William and Harry opening up about their mother’s death, and says it’s something the Queen’s generation would never have done. He applauds the new approach: “I think they [the princes] are right to be leading and validating that sense of enquiry, without which life is not worth living.”

The infamous British stiff upper lip is something Maté has watched with fascination over the years. Born of our imperial past, he says, it was maintained for as long as there was something to show for it. Boarding school culture and traumatic childhoods played out into dominance of other countries and cultures, giving the “buttoned-up” approach inherent value. But once the empire crumbled, lips quavered.

“With rising inequality and all the other problems there are right now,” he says, “people are having to question how they live their lives. People in Britain are beginning to realise they paid a huge price internally for all those suppressed emotions.”

Part of that price was addiction – whether to alcohol or drugs, gambling or sex, overwork or porn, extreme sports or gaming – but essential to understanding it, says Maté, is to realise that addiction is not in itself the problem but rather an attempt to solve a problem. “Our birthright as human beings is to be happy, and the addict just wants to be a human being.”

And addictive behaviour, though damaging in the medium or long term, can save you in the short term. “The primary drive is to regulate your situation to something more bearable.” So rather than some people having brains that are wired for addiction, Maté argues, we all have brains that are wired for happiness. And if our happiness is threatened at a deep level, by traumas in our past that we’ve not resolved, we resort to addictions to restore the happiness we truly crave.

He speaks from experience: Maté is a physician who specialises in neurology, psychiatry and psychology, and who became a workaholic and lived with ADHD and depression until, in his 40s and 50s, he began to unravel the root cause – and that took him all the way back to Budapest, where he was born in January 1944. Two months later, the Nazis occupied Hungary: his mother took him to the doctor because he wouldn’t stop crying. “Right now,” the doctor replied, “all the Jewish babies are crying.” This is because, explains Maté, what happens to the parent happens to the child: the mothers were terrified, the babies were suffering, but unlike their mothers they couldn’t understand what the suffering was about.

Later, Maté’s mother, fearing for his survival, left him for a month in the care of a stranger. All this, he explains, gave him a lifelong sense of abandonment and loss which had an impact on his psychological health. It affected his marriage and his own parenting experience. To compensate for his buried trauma, he had buried himself in work and neglected his family.

Opening up to the trauma, exploring it and investigating it, was incredibly difficult. “The problems for me showed up in the dichotomy between my success as a physician and my miseries as a husband and a father,” he recalls. “There was a big gap between them, and it’s taken me a long time to work through what I needed to work through.” As Oscar Wilde believed, pain is the path to perfection; and nearly five decades on from the day of their wedding, Maté says his marriage is better than ever.

“We’re happier, but it’s taken many years of work,” he says. In a few weeks it will be the couple’s 49th wedding anniversary. “We’ll go out for dinner and raise a glass to five happy years,” he quips. He’s already chosen his epitaph: “It’s going to say, this life is a lot more work than I anticipated. Because it takes a lot of work to wake up as a human being, and it’s a lot easier to stay asleep than to wake up.”

For Maté, self-awareness is the bottom line: when we wake up and become properly self-aware, we are able to address the traumatic childhood issues that leave us vulnerable to addiction. But because the process inevitably involves pain, we don’t address the issues until we absolutely have to – until something happens that forces us to face up to the fact that our lives aren’t working as they should. And as with the individual, so too with society: although all around us in politics and the wider world is mayhem and chaos, Maté holds on to the fact that this discomfort – which we are communally aware of – will force us to examine what’s gone wrong in our collective psyche, and to seek to correct it.

Unsurprisingly, given his central message, Maté is in favour of drug decriminalisation. He points to Portugal, where it is no longer illegal to possess a small amount of heroin or cocaine, and says the country has seen a reduction of drug-taking, less criminality and more people in treatment. In his view, it’s not really the drugs that are being decriminalised, it’s the people who are taking them – and given that they are, in his view, always victims of trauma, and never merely “bad” or “dangerous”, that’s entirely logical. But decriminalisation is only the beginning: reform must cut much deeper. “The whole legal system is based on the idea that people are making a choice,” he says. “This is false – because no one chooses to be an addict, or to be violent.”

Everything about Maté seems to be based on a workaday, efficient kindness: his message is about understanding, blue-sky thinking and common sense. However, with any philosophy that references retrospective experiences, there’s the inevitable tendency to parent-bash – the “they fuck you up” mentality. But read on in Larkin, and his approach is not so different from Maté’s: “They may not mean to, but they do.” There’s no room for blame because, says Maté, virtually all parents do their best, and the deepest love they have is for their child. One of the best things that ever happens to him, he says, is when a parent whose child has died of an overdose comes up to him and tells him that, through his book, they can understand why it happened. And when readers tell him – sometimes accusingly, sometimes gratefully – that his work humanises addicts, he can only answer: addicts are human. The only question for him is, why has it taken us so long to realise that?

In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction by Gabor Maté (Vermillion, £19.99) can be ordered for £17.59 at guardianbookshop.com

SOTT FOCUS: The Truth Perspective: How To Survive A Totalitarian Nightmare: The Psychology Of Tyranny

What is it like to live in a country with a brutal, totalitarian government? According to Dr. Andrew Lobaczewski, the only way to truly know is to actually experience it. Literary accounts and news reports can provide some data, but even that will only be theoretical. Actually experiencing it is something else entirely: a punch in the gut that can cause anxiety, depression, and PTSD. But there’s one other way to get an idea: a first-hand experience with malevolence at the hands of someone with a sever personality disorder.

Today on the Truth Perspective we discuss chapter 6 of Lobaczewski’s book Political Ponerology: “Normal People Under Pathocratic Rule”. The reason people who have lived with a pathological individual know what it’s like to live under a pathocracy is because the two experiences are analogous: they both involve personality-disordered individuals in positions of authority. And without an understanding of psychopathology, we can’t understand totalitarianism.

In this chapter, Lobaczewski discusses the experience of living under pathocratic rule: the deformations of normal human psychology that result, as well as the skills and values that develop after years of terror. The current polarization we are experiencing in our own society is not a good development, but if we don’t do something to stop where it is leading us, the time will come when both sides of the political spectrum are equally terrorized. Ironically, it may only be a real pathocracy that will bring both sides together: a solidarity bred by shared suffering that seems unimaginable to us now.

Running Time: 01:35:11

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Electrical stimulation of the brain can ‘significantly’ improve mood, depression

New research shows that deep brain stimulation can tackle treatment-resistant depression. Stimulating a brain area called the orbitofrontal cortex led to “significant” improvements in mood for people with moderate to severe depression.

Major depressive disorder affects over 16 million adults per year in the United States and is the “leading cause of disability worldwide.”

A significant proportion of people who are living with major depression do not get any relief from existing treatments.

In fact, up to 30 percent of those affected by depression have an intractable form of the condition.

Recently, deep brain stimulation (DBS) has emerged as a potential therapy that may succeed where other treatments have failed.

In DBS, specialists surgically implant stimulating electrodes in the brain to send electrical currents to targeted areas.

In the new study, Dr. Eddie Chang and his colleagues used DBS in 25 people who had symptoms of depression. They report their findings in the journal Current Biology.

Dr. Chang is also a professor of neurosurgery at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

Studying depression and key brain areas

Dr. Chang explains what made the researchers focus on the orbitofrontal cortex in this study. The area “has been called one of the least understood regions in the brain,” he reports, “but it is richly connected to various brain structures linked to mood, depression, and decision-making, making it very well positioned to coordinate activity between emotion and cognition.”

The team had access to a clinic that specializes in epilepsy. People with epilepsy have electrodes surgically implanted in their brains as part of routine preparation for surgery.

For this study, Dr. Chang and team recruited 25 participants with epilepsy who also had mild to severe depression.

With the electrodes already in place, the participants reported how they were feeling a few times per day using an app. This enabled the researchers to link changes in brain activity with different moods, focusing on the brain area that was most involved in depression and also accessible with DBS.

The scientists also used mild electrical stimulation on different brain regions and asked participants to say how it affected their mood using specific keywords.

Afterward, they – with the help of a specific piece of software – quantified and analyzed the words that the volunteers had used.

DBS led to a ‘naturally positive mood’

The study revealed that, while stimulating most brain areas had no effect on the participants’ mood, 3 minutes of stimulating the lateral orbitofrontal cortex led to significant improvements.

The successful results were only seen among those with moderate to severe depression; there was no effect in people with mild depression symptoms.

Study co-author Kristin Sellers, Ph.D. – who is a postdoctoral researcher in Dr. Chang’s laboratory – reports on the results. “Patients said things like ‘Wow, I feel better,’ ‘I feel less anxious,’ ‘I feel calm, cool, and collected.'”

“And just anecdotally, you could see the improvements in patients’ body language. They smiled, they sat up straighter, they started to speak more quickly and naturally.”

The patterns of brain activity also supported these noticeable improvements in mood. The authors note that the participants’ brain activity after the stimulation resembled the brain activity that occurred when the volunteers reported feeling naturally good.

Dr. Vikram Rao, Ph.D. – an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF and the study’s first author – explains what these findings mean.

“These […] observations suggest that stimulation was helping patients with serious depression experience something like a naturally positive mood state, rather than artificially boosting mood in everyone.”

Dr. Vikram Rao

“This is in line with previous observations,” he adds, “that [orbitofrontal cortex] activity is elevated in patients with severe depression and suggests electrical stimulation may affect the brain in a way that removes an impediment to positive mood that occurs in people with depression.”

The researchers note, however, that more studies will be needed before they can conclude that stimulating the orbitofrontal cortex improves mood in the long-term.

“The more we understand about depression at this level of brain circuitry, the more options we may have for offering patients effective treatments with a low risk of side effects,” says study co-author Heather Dawes, Ph.D.

“Perhaps by understanding how these emotion circuits go wrong in the first place, we can even one day help the brain ‘unlearn’ depression.”

Children who start school a year early more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, study shows

Could a child’s birthday put them at risk for an ADHD misdiagnosis? The answer appears to be yes, at least among children born in August who start school in states with a Sept. 1 cutoff enrollment date, according to a new study led by Harvard Medical School researchers.

The findings, published Nov. 28 in The New England Journal of Medicine, show that children born in August in those states are 30 percent more likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis, compared with their slightly older peers enrolled in the same grade.

The rate of ADHD diagnoses among children has risen dramatically over the past 20 years. In 2016 alone, more than 5 percent of U.S. children were being actively treated with medication for ADHD. Experts believe the rise is fueled by a combination of factors, including a greater recognition of the disorder, a true rise in the incidence of the condition and, in some cases, improper diagnosis.

The results of the new study underscore the notion that at least in a subset of elementary school students, the diagnosis may be a factor of earlier school enrollment, the research team said.

“Our findings suggest the possibility that large numbers of kids are being over-diagnosed and overtreated for ADHD because they happen to be relatively immature compared to their older classmates in the early years of elementary school,” said study lead author Timothy Layton, assistant professor of health care policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School.

Most states have arbitrary cutoff birth dates that determine which grade a child will be placed in and when they can start school. In states with a Sept. 1 cutoff, a child born on Aug. 31 will be nearly a full year younger on the first day of school than a classmate born on Sept. 1. At this age, Layton noted, the younger child might have a harder time sitting still and concentrating for long periods of time in class. That extra fidgeting may lead to a medical referral, Layton said, followed by diagnosis and treatment for ADHD.

For example, the researchers said, what may be normal behavior in a boisterous 6-year-old could seem relatively abnormal relative to the behavior of older peers in the same classroom.

This dynamic may be particularly true among younger children given that an 11- or 12-month difference in age could lead to significant differences in behavior, the researchers added.

“As children grow older, small differences in age equalize and dissipate over time, but behaviorally speaking, the difference between a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old could be quite pronounced,” said study senior author Anupam Jena, the Ruth L. Newhouse Associate Professor of Health Care Policy in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School and an internal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “A normal behavior may appear anomalous relative to the child’s peer group.”

Using the records of a large insurance database, the investigators compared the difference in ADHD diagnosis by birth month – August versus September – among more than 407,000 elementary school children born between 2007 and 2009, and who were followed until the end of 2015.

In states that use Sept. 1 as a cutoff date for school enrollment, children born in August had a 30 percent greater chance of an ADHD diagnosis than children born in September, the analysis showed. No such differences were observed between children born in August and September in states with cutoff dates other than Sept. 1 for school enrollment.

For example, 85 out of 100,000 students born in August were either diagnosed with or treated for ADHD, compared with 64 students per 100,000 born in September. When investigators looked at ADHD treatment only, the difference was also large – 53 of 100,000 students born in August received ADHD medication, compared with 40 of 100,000 for those born in September.

Jena points to a similar phenomenon described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Canadian professional hockey players are much more likely to have been born early in the year, according to research cited in Gladwell’s book. Canadian youth hockey leagues use Jan. 1 as a cutoff date for age groups. In the formative early years of youth hockey, players born in the first few months of the year were older and more mature, and therefore more likely to be tracked into elite leagues, with better coaching, more time on the ice and a more talented cohort of teammates. Over the years this cumulative advantage gives the relatively older players an edge over their younger competitors.

Similarly, Jena noted, a 2017 working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that children born just after the cutoff date for starting school tend to have better long-term educational performance than their relatively younger peers born later in the year.

“In all of those scenarios, timing and age appear to be potent influencers of outcome,” Jena said.

Research has shown wide variations in ADHD diagnosis and treatment across different regions in the United States. ADHD diagnosis and treatment rates have also climbed dramatically over the last 20 years. In 2016 alone, more than 5 percent of all children in the United States were taking medication for ADHD, the authors note. All of these factors have fueled concerns over ADHD overdiagnosis and overtreatment.

The reasons for the rise in ADHD incidence are complex and multifactorial, Jena said. Arbitrary cutoff dates are likely just one of many variables driving this phenomenon, he added. In recent years, many states have adopted measures that hold schools accountable for identifying ADHD and give educators incentives to refer any child with symptoms suggesting ADHD for medical evaluation.

“The diagnosis of this condition is not just related to the symptoms, it’s related to the context,” Jena said. “The relative age of the kids in class, laws and regulations, and other circumstances all come together.”

It is important to look at all of these factors before making a diagnosis and prescribing treatment, Jena said.

“A child’s age relative to his or her peers in the same grade should be taken into consideration and the reasons for referral carefully examined.”

Journal reference: New England Journal of Medicine

Fearing fear itself

Once parents felt children needed a little fear to grow up well. Today they are desperately protective. What went wrong?

How much fear, anxiety and risk can children handle? Until the late 19th century, most people thought that the answer was quite a lot. Aristotle himself said that education might be defined as teaching us to fear aright. It was widely believed that a sense of fear made a positive contribution to the formation of a child’s character. That fear was regarded as essential for the education of children was spelled out by the Church Missionary Society in 1819, when it stated that ‘it is necessary, that children fear the Schoolmasters’. Children’s experience of fear was sometimes portrayed as essential for developing their powers of imagination and creativity. For example in 1848, the Christian Register advised parents that a ‘child who has never known any kind of fear can have no power of imagination: can feel no wonder, no impulse of life, nor awe or veneration’.

Contrast to the culture of today, where entertainment is age-appropriate; where the wrong word (or microaggression) is said to trigger an anxiety attack; where the ultimate fear, of separation, is seen as so damaging that, if not managed well, can ruin the child for life. Childhood fears, and fear of those fears, seem ubiquitous: Fear of bullies, not to mention active shooters and public gatherings. Fear of wars and accidents streaming in through the TV. Most modern parents would no more try to frighten a child than they would beat the child with whips or send that child to a year of hard labour on a chain gang, but feel stymied by the onslaught of the world. We are mightily attuned to children’s fears, and strive to blunt them at all cost.

Transition from the old attitude to the new can be traced to the late 19th century and the emerging science of psychology. The emotion of fear once celebrated as formative became decried as harmful to children, with pioneering psychologist G Stanley Hall leading the charge against the pernicious impact of the feeling in children’s lives. His studies, carried out in the 1890s, called for a reorientation. Instead of viewing children’s fear as a normal feature of their lives, and what Aristotle called the schoolmaster of the world, he argued that they should see it as a threat to health. Hall called out the danger of ‘morbid fears or phobias, of which medical literature records many score’. In Aspects of Child Life and Education (1921), Hall said that his studies revealed ‘how many forms of arrest and even mental perversion are due to unwise fears’. And he had another insight: these ‘unwise fears’ were often attributable to incompetent parenting.

Hall’s views were widely accepted by psychologists, parenting experts and educators. One advice columnist in The Mother’s Magazine in 1917 demanded that the authorities ‘step in and prevent us from making mental defectives and moral cripples of our children’. The anonymous author asserted that ‘fear is a disease which usually can be traced to wrong training and mistreatment’.

The claim that the emotion of fear was a threat to the well being of children gained still more ground during the decades leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War. Advice on child-rearing now assigned to parents the role of guardians against their infant’s fears. John Watson, the founder of behavioral psychology, argued that ‘the main job of the parent should be to prevent fears, since some fears are extremely difficult to cure’.

Guidance on parenting suggested that fear was a complex and dangerous problem, and charged adults with the task of insulating children at every turn. Thus an advice column in 1934 on ‘The Conquest of Fear: Modern Methods in the Nursery’ exhorted ‘mother and nurse’ to ‘avoid all reason for rousing fear’. Mothers who failed to grasp the damage that fear inflicted on children were often condemned in alarmist and moralistic tones. ‘The average mother of today understands these mental and spiritual enemies, these psychological foes lurking to prey upon her child as little as her grandmother understood the physical danger of germs,’ wrote one commentator in McClure’s Magazine in 1922. Some experts worried about the inability of parents to manage fears in children, who now were considered far more fragile than previously thought.

The growing idea of childhood fragility in the 1920s and ’30s was paralleled by the emergence of a child-centered parenting culture, especially among the middle classes. Parents as well as educators were warned that they were responsible for protecting children from threats to their mental health. One commentator criticized parents for putting too much pressure on their children, warning that ‘at various points along this thorny pathway which leads from the nursery to the college degree, children and adolescents are breaking down under the strain’. Parental pressure and discipline were indicted for causing fear and anxiety in children. Parents were told to validate their children, to encourage them rather than reprimand, and to stop putting them under so much pressure.

In the 1930s the call to insulate children from fear was also embraced by educators. As one teacher wrote in the Journal of Education in 1939, ‘many boys and girls suffer from fear’ and ‘I am ashamed to admit that school often makes the situation worse.’ Others argued that homework and exams could place children under unreasonable pressure and stress. It was frequently claimed that homework caused ‘crooked spines, night terrors and nervous breakdowns in children’. In response to these assertions, public schools in New York banned homework until the fourth grade, and in San Diego until the eighth grade.

At first, it was only a minority of mainly middle-class parents who answered the call to soften discipline and constantly reassure their children. But gradually, the adoption of psychologically informed techniques to manage children’s fears became equated with the practice of responsible parenting.

Despite the fear of fear, for decades most people believed that a certain amount of adversity could boost resilience. Children surviving disasters were more resilient, experts argued, especially if their family served as a source of emotional support. But by the mid-1970s the tone began to change: researchers began to scrutinize the matter more carefully, calling into question the extent of children’s resilience and highlighting their vulnerability instead. By the 1980s, the term ‘vulnerable child’ came into common usage; this was seen not as a specific problem unique to some children, but an existential state found in all.

It is worth exploring the entry of the term ‘vulnerable child’ into the vernacular. A search of the Nexis database found only nine references to it during the 1970s. Its first recorded usage was on 16 November 1972 in The New York Times, where the term was used to refer to children vulnerable to ‘mental and emotional hazards’. In the 1980s, references to the ‘vulnerable child’ rose to 141; by the 1990s, to 3,266. But during the first decade of the 21st century, references to the term exploded to 33,566. In 2016 alone – the last year for which we have completed data – there were 17,781 references to the term ‘vulnerable child’.

A study of the concept shows that in most published literature the vulnerable child is treated as a relatively self-evident characteristic of childhood. It is a taken-for-granted idea that is rarely elaborated; children are considered vulnerable as individuals by definition, through both their physical and other perceived immaturities. Moreover, this state of vulnerability is presented as an intrinsic attribute.

The belief that children are defined by their vulnerability has encouraged an unrelenting tendency to inflate the threats facing them. What I call the ‘diseasing of childhood’ has acquired its own inner logic. The significance of this trend is highlighted in work from the psychologist Nick Haslam at the University of Melbourne, who reports that, since the 1980s, key terms used by social psychologists such as ‘abuse’, ‘bullying’ and ‘trauma’ have been applied to a growing range of experiences. Specifically, the terms are increasingly applied to situations that would have previously been interpreted as unpleasant but not trauma-inducing.

The new view reflects the current trend of regarding virtually every dimension of childhood through the lens of fear. But these fears rarely emerge directly from the experience of children. It’s not the traditional concerns of children, such as the fear of the dark or the fear of being abandoned by parents that are highlighted in the 21st-century narrative of fear. Instead, children’s fears are mediated through the adult’s imagination and often express anxieties lurking in parents’ minds. Fear of fragile identities, fear of failure, fear of low self-esteem, fear of falling standards, fear of the pernicious effects of exams on students’ mental health, fear about competition and competitive sports and fear about discipline are recurring themes in debates on education. Often, the spectre of these fears is magnified, and anxieties about the fragile child acquire a life of their own.

So have children become more fearful than in the past? Unfortunately this is not a question that can be answered with any degree of scientific precision. However, what is evident is that the rhetoric of fear and vulnerability is far more frequently expressed and associated with childhood today than in previous times. Children’s fears and adults’ fear for their children are often discussed interchangeably and agonized about far more than at any time previously. Indeed, there is now a veritable literature that blames parental fears for making their children fearful. Parents who have for decades been advised to shield their children from fear today stand accused of being responsible for making their kids afraid.

Fearful ‘helicopter parents’ are often criticized for restraining the healthy development of their child. A study published in the journal Development Psychology this June concluded that ‘children with over controlling parents may be less able to manage the challenging demands that come with entering and navigating through the school environment’. Others argue that helicopter parenting thwarts a child’s ‘basic psychological need for autonomy and competence’. Some go so far as to associate the mental-health crisis afflicting colleges and universities on a generation of parents ‘riddled with fear’.

Critics of helicopter parenting overlook the powerful cultural pressures that have forced many mothers and fathers to adopt this practice. Instead of bombarding parents with a constant stream of warning and advice, so-called experts should ease up, and reflect on the perverse outcome of their contradictory advice. The world of childhood would be a much better place if society learned to trust parents, and stopped trying to make them so afraid.

About the author

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and social commentator. Formerly professor of sociology at the University of Kent in Canterbury, he has written numerous books, the latest of which is How Fear Works (2018)

SOTT FOCUS: The Health & Wellness Show: Chronic pain: Is it all in your head?

Do you have low back pain? Do your joints ache? Do you experience the persistent pins and needles feeling of neuropathy? Or maybe you have fibromyalgia and hurt all over? If you do, you’re one of the 39 million Americans who suffer from persistent pain. Being on the pain train is bad enough without the added insult of being told that it’s ‘all in your head’. But what if it is — at least partly? There are some types of pain that are obviously linked to an actual physical insult and other types that cannot be traced to an easily identifiable medical condition. Research is now showing us that some pain really is in the brain.

Join us for this episode of The Health and Wellness Show where we’ll discuss different types of pain and their co-factors, treatment modalities, the placebo effect and the brain’s role in stopping or perpetuating this mental and physical misery.

And tune in for the Pet Health Segment at the end of the show where the topic will be signs of pain in cats.

Running Time: 01:16:29

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Ian Stevenson: Birthmarks and birth defects corresponding to wounds on deceased persons

Discussion

Because most (but not all) of these cases develop among persons who believe in reincarnation, we should expect that the informants for the cases would interpret them as examples according with their belief; and they usually do. It is necessary, however, for scientists to think of alternative explanations.

The most obvious explanation of these cases attributes the birthmark or birth defect on the child to chance, and the reports of the child’s statements and unusual behavior then become a parental fiction intended to account for the birthmark (or birth defect) in terms of the culturally accepted belief in reincarnation. There are, however, important objections to this explanation.

First, the parents (and other adults concerned in a case) have no need to invent and narrate details of a previous life in order to explain their child’s lesion. Believing in reincarnation, as most of them do, they are nearly always content to attribute the lesion to some event of a previous life without searching for a particular life with matching details.

Second, the lives of the deceased persons figuring in the cases were of uneven quality both as to social status and commendable conduct. A few of them provided models of heroism or some other enviable quality; but many of them lived in poverty or were otherwise unexemplary. Few parents would impose an identification with such persons on their children.

Third, although in most cases the two families concerned were acquainted (or even related), I am confident that in at least 13 cases (among 210 carefully examined with regard to this matter) the two families concerned had never even heard about each other before the case developed. The subject’s family in these cases can have had no information with which to build up an imaginary previous life which, it later turned out, closely matched a real one. In another 12 cases the child’s parents had heard about the death of the person concerned, but had no knowledge of the wounds on that person. Limitations of space for this article oblige me to ask readers to accept my appraisal of these 25 cases for this matter; but in my forthcoming work I give a list of the cases from which readers can find the detailed reports of the cases and from reading them judge this important question for themselves.

Fourth, I think I have shown that chance is an improbable interpretation for the correspondences in location between two or more birthmarks on the subject of a case and wounds on a deceased person.

Persons who reject the explanation of chance combined with a secondarily confected history may consider other interpretations that include paranormal processes, but fall short of proposing a life after death. One of these supposes that the birthmark or birth defect occurs by chance and the subject then by telepathy learns about a deceased person who had a similar lesion and develops an identification with that person. The children subjects of these cases, however, never show paranormal powers of the magnitude required to explain the apparent memories in contexts outside of their seeming memories.

Another explanation, which would leave less to chance in the production of the child’s lesion, attributes it to a maternal impression on the part of the child’s mother. According to this idea, a pregnant woman, having a knowledge of the deceased person’s wounds, might influence a gestating embryo and fetus so that its form corresponded to the wounds on the deceased person. The idea of maternal impressions, popular in preceding centuries and up to the first decades of this one, has fallen into disrepute. Until my own recent article (Stevenson, 1992) there had been no review of series of cases since 1890 (Dabney, 1890); and cases are rarely published now (Williams and Pembroke, 1988).

Nevertheless, some of the published cases — old and new — show a remarkable correspondence between an unusual stimulus in the mind of a pregnant woman and an unusual birthmark or birth defect in her later-born child. Also, in an analysis of 113 published cases I found that the stimulus occurred to the mother in the first trimester in 80 cases (Stevenson, 1992). The first trimester is well known to be the one of greatest sensitivity of the embryo/fetus to recognized teratogens, such as thalidomide (Nowack, 1965) and rubella (Hill, Doll, Galloway, and Hughes, 1958). Applied to the present cases, however, the theory of maternal impression has obstacles as great as the normal explanation appears to have.

First, in the 25 cases mentioned above, the subject’s mother, although she may have heard of the death of the concerned deceased person, had no knowledge of that person’s wounds.

Second, this interpretation supposes that the mother not only modified the body of her unborn child with her thoughts, but after the child’s birth influenced it to make statements and show behavior that it otherwise would not have done. No motive for such conduct can be discerned in most of the mothers (or fathers) of these subjects.

It is not my purpose to impose any interpretation of these cases on the readers of this article. Nor would I expect any reader to reach even a preliminary conclusion from the short summaries of cases that the brevity of this report entails. Instead, I hope that I have stimulated readers to examine the detailed reports of many cases that I am now in the process of publishing (Stevenson, forthcoming). “Originality and truth are found only in the details” (Stendhal, 1926).

Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Drs. Antonia Mills and Emily W. Cook for critical comments on drafts of this paper. Thanks are also due to the Bernstein Brothers Parapsychology and Health Foundation for the support of my research.

Correspondence and requests for reprints should be addressed to: Ian Stevenson, M.D., Division of Personality Studies, Box 152, Health Sciences Center, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22908

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