Dogs can sense fear – and seek release

What makes some people more susceptible to being bitten by dogs? A recent study suggests that dogs, with a sense of smell keener than humans, can sense fear in us. And this suggests that perhaps the sense of fear trips or triggers the dog into a fright or flight response that results in the human being bitten.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the best form of prevention against a bite from a dog could be to adopt a slight self-confident front, almost seemingly like a swagger, in order to convince the dog of a sense of confidence to override the inner sense of fear. However, this approach does not address how the dog might deal with the presentation of a confident person yet sense the underlying fear. It is like you meeting a person who you know is lying, yet smiling at you. What do you know? You revert to what psychologists might call the memory bank, the “type 2” kind of thinking which is more analytical, and less immediately responsive – but do dogs have that kind of ability to think and fall back on?

The research was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool in the form of a survey in a bit to understand why the likelihood of people being bitten by dogs seemed to be in a higher case of incidence for certain individiuals.

The results from the survey said that the likelihood of taking a nip from a four legged friend was almost 2.5 times more common than the current official figure, which estimates that 7.4 in 1,000 people get bitten by a dog every year in the UK. The figure is likely to be higher, because dog owners who get bitten by their own dogs are unlikely to report them for fear of getting their own dogs put down. Dog bites which also happen within the family – where the dog belongs to a family member – are unlikely to be reported for the same reason.

The results also showed that people who are nervous, men and owners of several dogs were more likely to be bitten.

This study was dependent on the date from questionnaires. This sort of information collection is a good way to obtain responses quickly. However, the limitations of this study include the fact that in this particular instance an assessment of behaviour is difficult, both in a recollection situation – having to do it in hindsight. Also there was the earlier reported case of perhaps dog owners not wanting to get their dogs taken in, and amending their queries.

The current guidelins for dog bit preventions suggest the following:

Never leave a young child unsupervised with a dog – regardless of the type of dog and its previous behaviour.

This is of course a good point, especially with attack dogs or more aggresive breeds. Even if the child is known to the dog, there have been many cases where dogs left alone with toddlers have seized the chance and attacked them. It is almost as if the removal of an adult boldens the dog into an attack it would not normally make, and being left alone with a young child heightens the fright or fight syndrome within a dog.

Another guideline is to treat dogs with respect – don’t pet them when they’re eating or sleeping. Dogs dislike being disturbed when they are meeting their basic needs, and the disturbance awakes and breeds aggressive responses that may evolve later.

A third guideline is to avoid stroking or petting unfamiliar dogs – when greeting a dog for the first time, let it sniff you before petting it. A good idea is to actually converse with the owner first so that the dog has already established you are friendly.

This study was carried out by researchers from the University of Liverpool and was funded by the Medical Research Council Population Health Scientist Fellowship. While the media reporting of the study was fairly accurate, The Guardian pointed out that people’s emotional stability was self-rated. In other words, if respondents were asked to rate their feelings, this may not be an accurate assessment – one person’s level of anxiety may not be the same as another’s.

So can dogs actually sense fear and anxiety? How does this explain the incidence of people being bitten by dogs? The answer to these questions can be answered best perhaps in two parts.

The first is the level of aggression in the dog. This depends of course on the genetic makeup, but also how it is treated. If its needs are met then it is likely that the level of aggression is typically lower than what it would be than if it were harrassed or disturbed persistently, which can build up latent aggression.

The second is the dog’s sense of fear. If a dog is often emotionally angered and there is opportunity to release this tension, even in a moment of madness, then this may result in biting as an emotional release.

So can dogs sense fear? Possibly. Does this explain their tendency to bite? Well, dogs that are treated well and genetically not prone to attacking will be less prone to nipping. Dogs that are not attack dogs but mistreated, or dogs that habitually have their attack responses nurtured, are more prone to biting, when the opportunity presents itself in the form of a less defensive target.

Going herbal? Switch with caution

Do you use herbal remedies rather than traditional medicines? If you belong to the former group, you may find yourself part of a growing number of individuals who may be increasingly opting for the herbal medicine route in favour of the traditional medicine route.

What makes people resort to traditional medicine? There are many reasons. One may be that they have been on a particular type of medication for a long period of time, and have seen no improvement, and are keen to try something that might bring about change. For example, if you have been suffering from migraines for quite a long time, and the medication does not appear to alleviate the severity of the frequency of the headaches, then would you not be tempted into trying something else that might work? After all, you might think that if you do not try, you might miss out of the potential benefits. Hence, the search for a better treatment might be a motivating reason for going herbal.

But seeking products that might work better because they are more naturally occurring and possibly more readily adopted by the body may only be one reason for switching to or trying herbal remedies. Traditional medicine also carries risks of adaptation and addiction, which is why some individuals consider switching.

Take for example pain relief medicines such as ibuprofen. If taken consistently for a long period of time, the body adapts to this increased level and the benefit of ibuprofen is gradually neutralised and minimised. It does not bring pain relief if taken on a prolonged basis because the body has adapted. But because the body has acclimatised or become accustomed to this, it now depends on this level of ibuprofen. The medicine has now bred dependency, and an individual is now addicted to it. It is possible that something more potent in terms of pain relief may be prescribed by doctors but again with prolonged use there is the danger of adaptation and addiction, but this time to a higher dose.

Medicines also produce side effects if used for long term. We have already examined for example the effect of aspirin in the elderly – it can cause bleeding and other complications.

Hence it is unsurprising that individuals look to the herbal medicine route as a means of avoiding greater dependency on drugs, to avoid tampering with the body’s natural ability to heal itself, and in the hope that herbal remedies could provide a quick alternative resolution to medical issues that they have had long term treatment for.

The herbal medicine world is not as regulated as the traditional medicine world although there is increasingly a tightening on the controls, especially on the advertising and promotion of products to make sure that products cannot make claims to curing certain illnesses.

While some may protest into the regulation of the herbal medicine market as the clamping down on civic liberties by an over protectionist nanny state, there are actually valid medical reasons for these interventions.

Herbal remedies may interact with traditional medicines and cause conflicts. They may either neutralise the potency of the traditional drug, or enhance it to dangerous levels above recommended limits.

The most often reported drugs that can come into conflict with traditional drugs include the blood-thinning drug warfarin, cholesterol-lowering statins, anti-cancer drugs, antidepressants, immunosuppressant drugs for organ transplants and antiretroviral drugs for people with HIV. The most common result of a drug herb interference was that of cardiovascular disease, involving medicine such as statins and warfarin. Other unwanted spheres of influence include cancer, kidney transplants, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders and seizures.

The most commonly used herbal remedies included ginkgo biloba, St John’s wort, ginseng, sage, flaxseed, cranberry, goji juice, green tea, chamomile and turmeric, while those most likely to cause interactions with drugs appear to be sage, flaxseed, St John’s wort, cranberry, goji juice, green tea and chamomile.

In some cases herbal remedies can lead to death or secondary death. One man died after a herbal remedy prevented his anti-seizure medication from working properly, resulting in him drowning.

These facts highlight the need for patients to inform their doctors if they are taking other forms of herbal medication apart from the medication that the doctors are prescribing, so that the doctors can examine if there might be interference in the interactions. This need is particularly important if among the drugs are those that have been identified as being likely to be affected by herbal remedies.

But what stops people from mentioning they are trying herbal remedies? One main reason is embarrassment. Alternative remedies still have a reputation for being outside the periphery of the mainstream and carry with them the stigma of being unconventional, flaky and based on superstitious beliefs. Some might question their unscientific basis as a whole load of quackery, akin to snake oil or elephant powder. Subscribing to herbal remedies in some circles in seen as being illogical. And no one wants to be perceived as a nutter.

There is also the perception of owning up to being a failure for whom traditional medicine has not worked for.

The crossover group is the one most at risk as they are most likely to continue taking the doctor’s medication while trying herbal remedies at their prescribed doseages. In other words, they are most likely to take double of what is recommended in a bid to get the best of both worlds.

Herbal remedies may prove their worth in time. But in the meantime, while we move towards a scientific study, regulation and understanding of non-pharmaceutical medicines, it is best to be cautious of interference and their crossover effect.

The higher cost of body embarrassment

If you were a bloke, would you avoid going to the doctor’s if it meant you had to strip off for the doctor to examine an area of your body you had concern about? Chances are men who have found a lump in their testicles might put off going to the doctor’s for a couple of days, drinking lots of water in the hope that it would go down, and if the lump remained, then work up the courage to make an appointment to see a doctor about it. Why put it off for a few days? It is probably down to the fact that it is slightly awkward and embarrassing to strip off to your private areas in front of someone else, despite the fact that doctors are professional and the health concerns are pressing. Despite the risk that the lumps may need to be operated on, some leave it late – and even a bit too late – because of the embarrassment.

But the embarrassment is not just down to men. Women put off going for tests and checkups because of the awkwardness around their perceived bodies. The BBC News website reported that women were avoiding smear tests to detect cervical cancer, with some either delaying making an appointment, or skipping screening altogether.

Cervical cancer accounts for an average of more than two deaths a day. Over 900 women die annually from it. Each day an average of nine women a day are diagnosed with it. All women aged 25 to 49 are invited for a screening test every three years. From the ages of fifty to sixty-four, this is reduced to once every five years.

Among those aged 25 to 29, more than one in three skip the cervical screening, a statistic that is worrying as the women more likely to get such cancer is the age group most likely to avoid the screening tests meant to catch it.

For what reasons do women avoid such tests?

One survey of around 2000 women found that their embarrssment about body shape was the most largely quoted reason for not attending. In other words, women were not comfortable with their own bodies in front of others. Other women also thought that they were healthy, being regulars of exercise or the gym, and thought that they were of a lower risk than others. A third did not believe that cervical screening reduces the risk of cancer at all. The results of the survey suggest that more importance needs to be placed on educating women of the benefits of screening.

The test only takes five minutes but perhaps one of the biggest barriers facing women was the awkardness if a male doctor or nurse was the one conducting the cervical screening. But women do have the option of asking in advance for a female to carry out the test, and many already do.

Jo’s Cervical Cancer Turst, the only charity in the UK dedicated to women suffers of this form of cancer, is working to improve detection rates and hence reduce the emotional impact of cancer on women and their families. The current screening is the greatest form of protection against such cancer, and helps save the NHS money by preventing the need for later surgery. The treatment of early stage cancer iis estimated by the charity to cost less than a tenth of later stage cancer.

It is not clear from the survery whether the women were representative of different regions, beliefs, or socio-economic groups. Women from certain cultures may find it more socially unacceptable to be naked in front of other individuals, let alone male doctors, and hence not attend screening for such reasons and are likely not to.

Appearance of the body shape and the vulva accounted for 84% or cervical smear absentees. Of these, 38% were also concerned that they might not smell normal, while 31% would not have gone had they not shaved or waxed their bikini area.

A senior nurse mentioned that nurses are aware of the awkwardness of showing an intimate part of the body to someone else but are sensitive to make the procedure less embarrassing so that women continue to have acceptable experiences that do not put them off screening for cancer. A chaperone is always offered and if women prefer to take a friend or partner with them that is fine too. It would be a great shame if women were put off seeking medical advice because of their embarrassment – it would be too great a price to pay for a small period of minimal inconvenience. The same goes for men and visits to their doctors too.

Why health articles in newspapers should be retired

What is it that people look forward to? Most want time to pursue their interests and doing things they love. Some people have managed to combine all this by the traditional interest-led approach, doing things they love, starting up a blog, gaining readership, and then selling advertising space on their blog, or affiliate marketing and other things associated with making money from a website. For others, this lure for things they like is compromised by the need of having to make a living, and hence this is shelved while having to earn a living and put off until retirement.

For most people, retirement would be when they would be able to have the time and money to indulge in things they put off earlier. Some people have combined the starting of a blog and retirement, and made a living by blogging (and gaining a readership) about how they have or intend to retire early.

Retirement. Out of the rat race. All the time in the world. For most people, retirement is the time to look forward to.

A recent study however suggests that retirement is not all that wonderful. Despite it being seen as the time of the life where financial freedom has been achieved and time is flexible, it has been suggested that the onset of mental decline starts with retirement.

The Daily Telegraph reported that retirement caused brain function to rapidly decline, and this information had been provided by scientists. It further cautions that those workers who anticipate leisurely post-work years may need to consider their options again because of this decline. Would you choose to stop work, if this meant your mental faculties would suffer and you would have all the free time in the world but not the mental acuity?

Retired civil servants were found to have a decline in their verbal memory function, the ability to recall spoken information such as words and names. It was found that verbal memory function deteriorated 38% faster after an individual had retired than before. Nevertheless, other areas of cognitive function such as the ability to think and formulate patterns were unaffected.

Even though the decline of verbal memory function had some meaningful relevance, it must be made clear that the study does not suggest anything about dementia or the likelihood of that happening. There were no links drawn with dementia. Just because someone retires does not mean they are more likely to develop dementia.

The study involved over 3000 adults, and they were asked to recall from a list of twenty words after two minutes, and the percentages were drawn from there. The small sample size, not of the adults, but of the word list, meant the percentage decline of post-retirement adults may have been exaggerated.

Look at this mathematically. From a list of twenty words, a non-retiree may recall ten. A retiree may recall six. That difference of four words is a percentage decline of 40%.

Ask yourself – if you were given a list of twenty words, how many would you remember?

It is not unsurprising if retirees exhibit lower abilities at verbal memory recall because the need for these is not really exercised post-retirement. What you don’t use, you lose. We should not be worried about the decline, because it is not a permanent mental state, but it is reversible; in any case the figure is bloated by the nature of the test. If a non-retiree remembers ten words, and a retiree makes one-mistake and remembers it, that would be promoted as a 10% reduction in mental ability already.

Furthermore, decline is not necessarily due to the lack of work. There are many contributing factors as well, such as diet, alcohol and lifestyle. Retirement is not necessarily the impetus behind mental decline. Other factors may confound the analyses.

The research did not involve people who had retired early. For example, hedge fund managers might have retired in their forties. But you would struggle to think that someone in their forties would lose 38% of verbal memory recall.

Would a loss of 38% of verbal memory have an impact on quality of life? It is hard to tell if there is the evidence to support this. But the results point to a simple fact. If you want to get better at verbal memory, then practice your verbal memory skills. If you want to get better at anything, then practice doing it.

Was this piece of news yet another attempt by mainstream media to clog paper space with information – arguably useless? You decide.

One cigarette a day can cost a lot

According to the newspaper headlines of late, teenagers should be kept away from cigarette exposure because of this worrying statistic.

A survey of over 216,000 adults found that over 60% of them had been offered and tried a cigarette at some point, and of these, nearly 70% went on to become regular smokers. The conclusion drawn was that there are strong links between trying a cigarette ones to be sociable and going on to develop it as a habit.

This of course ended up in the newspapers with headlines such as “One cigarette is enough to get you hooked”. The Mail Online, Britain’s go-to newspaper for your important health news (and I’m being ironic here) went a step further, saying one puff from a cigarette was enough to get you hooked for life. Never mind if you had one draw of a cigarette, felt the nicotine reach your lungs, then coughed in revulsion at the bitter aftertaste and swore that you would never again try a cigarette again. The Mail Online bets you would return to the lure of the dark side, seduced by its nicotine offers.

I digress.

While we all know that any event, repeated many times becomes a habit, the statistics in this case are a little dubious.

The study was conducted by Queen Mary University (nothing dubious in itself) but among the various concerns were what you might call the high conversion rate. Nearly 70% of those who tried a cigarette once went on to smoke regularly as a habit.

I’m not sure why the 70% is worrying. In fact, I wonder why it is not 100%! Surely, if you asked a habitual smoker, “Have you smoked a cigarette before?”, the answer would be a resounding “Yes”!

Unless you have caught someone in the act of sneakily smoking his virgin cigarette. But he wouldn’t yet be a habitual smoker.

Let’s establish the facts of the matter again.

216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

Of the 130,000 who had tried a cigarette before, 81,000 (70%) went on to become regular smokers.

49,000 (30%) of those who tried a cigarette before either did not go on to smoke at all or did not smoke regularly.

Another way of looking at the data would be as follows:

216,000 adults surveyed.

135,000 adults do not smoke regularly or at all. Some did try once in the past.

81,000 adults smoke regularly and these people have obviously tried a cigarette before.

Suddenly the data doesn’t look sexy anymore.

The data was an umbrella studywhich means data was pooled rather than created from scratch through surveys. As previously examined, the final outcome is also dependent on the integrity of the original source.

Bias can also creep in because the data has not been directly obtained and inferences have been drawn.

For example, the influence of e-cigarettes and vaping on the results have not been scrutinised, because some of the data may have existed before then.

Before we leave it at this, here is another example of data bias:
216,000 adults were surveyed.

130,000 of them (60% of the adults) had tried a cigarette before.

86,000 (40%) have never smoked before.

We can conclude that 100% of the 86,000 who have never smoked a cigarette in the past have never smoked a cigarette.

You can see the absurdity more when it’s spelt out more in words than in numbers.

If research is costly and expensive, in terms of money and time, then why is it wasted on these?

One reason is that it keeps academics and researchers in their jobs, if they produce findings that are financially low-cost but can stave off the question of what they actually do, and their purpose.

This kind of research is the academic version of the newspaper filler article, one that columnists generate based on the littlest of information, in order to fill the papers with “news”, that actually mask the fact that they are there to sell advertising space. And in this, columnists and researchers are at times colluding for the same purpose. Vultures who tear at the carcass of a small rodent and then serve up the bits as a trussed up main meal.

Unethical? Who cares, it seems. Just mask the flawed process and don’t make it too obvious.