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.

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.

The real health concern behind energy drinks

Could your regular normal drink give away your age? Possibly. It is conceivable that your pick-me-up in the morning is a general indicator of age. Those who prefer nothing more than a coffee are more likely to be working adults in their mid thirties or older. Those within the younger age brackets prefer to get a caffeine fix from energy drinks, the most popular among them being Red Bull, whose popularity has arguably been enhanced by its ability to be mixed with other drinks. Why is there this disparity in preference? It has been suggested that the older generation are more health conscious of the levels of sugar within the energy drinks and their effect, and hence avoid consuming them, while younger professionals who perhaps lead a more active lifestyle, including going to the gym, are more inclined to think they will somehow burn off the sugar over the course of the day, and they need the sugar to power them through the day, in addition to the caffeine.

Research suggests this kind of thinking pervades the younger generation, even right down to the teenage age group. In a bid to seem more mature, many are adopting the habits of those they see around them. The image of a twenty-something with energy drink in hand along with a sling bag, possibly a cigarette in the other, on the way to work, whatever work may be – perhaps a singer-songwriter? Or something with a socially glamorous title – is seemingly etched on the minds of youngsters as a life of having made it. This, coupled with the media images of celebrities on night outs with energy drinks in hand, to enable them to party the night through, have certainly promoted the rise of the energy drink among teenagers. It is arguable that energy drinks are the stepping stones from which the younger generation obtain their high before they progress to the consumption of alcohol. Research has demonstrated that it is usually within three years of starting energy drinks that a young adult progresses to consuming alcohol in the search of newer buzzes.

There are the obvious problems of over consumption of alcohol and it is of increasing concern that the copious amounts of energy drinks among young people prime them to reach for higher volumes of alcohol once they make the transition. Simply put, if a young person has habitually consumed three or four cans of Red Bull every day, and then progresses to try alcohol – usually the drink with the highest alcohol percentage, usually vodka for the same reason of the perception of being socially prestigious – then a starting point appears to be three or four shots of the alcoholic drink.

And one of the drinks that helps bridge the divide between energy drinks and alcohol?

Red Bull mixed with vodka.

Ever seen the videos of young adults knocking down shots of vodka or whisky like a fun game?

It seems that imprinted in the social subconscious is the idea that part of maturity and social status is the ability to knock down many shots of high strength alcohol. These has implications for the health of the future generation.

But it is not just the alcohol time bomb that is worrying. Over consumption of energy drinks causes tooth decay and a high level of caffeine and side effects within the body now.

A study of over 200 Canadian teenagers found that consumption of energy drinks caused incidences of sleeplessness and increased heart rate. They also reported other symptoms such as nausea and headaches.

But while the tabloids, in their usual way, exaggerated the links in the way that tabloids do, claiming that energy drinks can cause heart attacks and trigger underlying stress-related conditions, only one in five hundred suffered seizures, but even these cannot be traced directly to the energy drinks.

Energy drinks not only have implications on health, through the impact of sugar and caffeine, but they are subtly dangerous because they blur the lines between non-alcoholic drinks and alcoholic ones, and make the latter more trendy and accessible. In a way, they are similar to vaping. Both are supposedly healthier imitations of what they are supposed to replace. Apparently vaping has no significant effect on the compared to smoking; energy drinks are non-alcoholic ways of obtaining a high or rush.

The problem, however, is that once users have had their fill of these – the so-called healthier options – these options actually compel the individuals to move on to the less healthier option. And when they embark on the more health impacting lifestyle choices – either alcohol or smoking – the patterns of dependency have already long been established.

So the dangers of energy drinks are not so much they cause sleeplessness and increased heart rates.

It is actually that they propel individuals towards alcohol dependency. The main research question that should be asked, is, “Have you been tempted to try alcoholic drinks mixed with energy drinks such as Red Bull?”

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.

Ethically spending a million pounds on useful research

Does offering financial incentives encourage mothers of newborns to breastfeed? While this may seem incredulous, a study actually was implemented in parts of England to see if this would be the case.

More than 10,000 mothers across regions such as South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and north Nottinghamshire took part in the trial, where mothers were given a hundred and twenty pounds if they breastfed their babies, and a further eighty pounds if they continued up to the point the babies were six months old. That is to say mothers received two hundred pounds if their babies were breastfed up to the age of six months.

But why was this implemented in the first place? One of the reasons the study was done was to see if financial incentives would help raise the rate of breastfeeding in the UK. In some parts of the UK, only one in eight babies are breastfed past eight weeks. The early suspension of breastfeeding causes later problems in life for babies, and this was a study to see if it would be possible to save a reported seventeen million pounds in annual hospital admissions or GP visits.

How were these women chosen? They were picked from areas which were reportedly low-income ones. There was a suggestion that in low-income areas, mothers feel obliged to return to work quickly and breastfeeding is inconvenient and a reason why mothers stop it.

The financial incentive did result in a rise of six percentage points, from 32% to 38%. This meant that over six hundred more mothers in the ten thousand breastfed their babies for up to six months instead of the hypothetical eight week line.

Should we get excited about these results? Caution is to be exercised.

As a few leading academics noted, there was no way to monitor a reported increase. The mother’s word was taken at face value but there was no way to monitor that a prolonged breastfeeding period actually took place. It would not be inaccurate to say that of these six hundred mothers, some merely reported they had breastfed for longer but without actually doing it. If you live in an income-deprived area, and were offered two hundred pounds of shopping at a time when you needed it, without having to do much apart from saying “Yes, I breastfed”, wouldn’t you take the easy money?

It was mentioned that if the results did have a high percentage of trustworthiness to them, in other words, if mothers breastfed as they said they had done, it would help normalise breastfeeding in regions where it might cause embarrassment to the mother. Why might breastfeeding cause embarrassment? For example, in some social situations it might be slightly awkward to reveal normally covered parts of the body in public.

How much did the scheme cost? If we assume that 38% of 10000 mothers breastfed and claimed these financial vouchers, that’s around 4000 mothers each claiming two hundred pounds, at a cost of eight hundred thousand pounds.

Wow. Eight hundred thousand pounds of free shopping for which an outcome cannot be undisputably proven. Where does all the money come from?

The Medical Research Council was funded to the tune of up to seven hundred and fifty-five million pounds in 2016/17, or which nearly half was provided as grants to researchers. But while all that may sound as a lot of money, surely there should be more accountability in how the money is used. Using up nearly a million pounds of that money for a trial whose results cannot be justified is not a good use of money.

But perhaps the babies’ height, weight and other factors pertaining to breastfeeding could have been taken? For example, if we know that breastfeeding has benefits in certain areas, such as in growth charts, perhaps the babies that were breastfed in that study could have been measured against babies who had not been breastfed to see if there had been any positive gain, and something that could correlate to breastfeeding over the six month period?

Imagine if this had been a study about literacy. Imagine that mothers who read two stories to their child up to the age of four years would receive two hundred pounds. Surely, at the end of the period, the research scientists would not merely be going to the mothers and saying “Did you read to your child? Yes? Here’s two hundred pounds.” They would try to assess the child, perhaps by means of a literacy test of some form, to see if any reading had actually taken place.

Otherwise it is just money down the drain for results which cannot be proven and cannot be relied on. In that case, what is the purpose of spending money on hearsay?

Did giving eight hundred thousand pounds encourage mothers in income-deprived areas to breastfeed for longer periods? Who knows? The only thing we can be sure of is that eight hundred thousand pounds made them say they did it.