A smart person thought up the mental improvement products

The trail of human evolution is littered with gadgetry that have outlived their usefulness. We can add devices such as the fax machine, walkman, mini-disc and tape recorder to the list of machines which seemed clever at the time but have now before obsolete. Those of us of a certain age will remember newer additions such as the PocketPC, a palm sized screen which was used with a stylus that tapped out letters on screen, and the HP Jornada, a slightly bigger tablet sized keyboard and phone. And who could forget the Nintendo Brain Training programmes for the DS and Fitness Programmes for the Wii?

Launched in 2005, Nintendo’s Brain Training programmes claimed to increase mental functioning. Nintendo’s premise was that the concentration required in solving a variety of puzzles, involving language, mathematical and reasoning, increased blood flow to the frontal cortex of the brain, which at least maintained brain functioning or helped improve it. After all, since the brain is a muscle, exercising it by bombarding it with mental exercises would keep it active and healthy, right?

It is the idea of keeping the brain active that leads many to attempt their daily crossword or Sudoku. The latter in particular has seen an surge in interest over the past decade and is now a feature in newspaper back pages and magazines. There are even publications exclusively filled with Sudoku puzzles, and even more complex versions where each traditional puzzle forms a square in a bigger and complex three by three grid. If you thought doing a Sudoku puzzle was hard, imagine having to work on it in relation to eight others. It would be absolutely mind-boggling!

Is there any truth about the positive enhancements to the human life that these objects or activities bring? Nintendo’s claims about the Brain Training programmes were doubted by leading neuroscientists, who doubted the tenuous links between the increased blood flow to the brain and the vaguely described positive effects to life. It is akin to making a blanket statement saying chess grand masters or academics are the happiest people around. Unfortunately it is yet another case of a company creating a product and then engineering the science around it.

Manufacturers of beauty products do it all the time. Whether it is skin care or facial products being flogged, you will find an aspirational theme within the first five seconds of the advertisement (“Look beautiful! Stay young!”) which is then followed by a pseudo-scientific claim, preferably involving percentages (sounds more authoritative) and a small sample size (easier to corroborate, or disclaim, depending on the need).

“Live young forever. XX skin lotion is carefully formulated to retain your natural moisture, so you look and feel twenty years younger. 86% of 173 women noticed a change in skin density after using it for three months.”

There you have it. The secret of beauty product advertising.

Unfortunately, if there was any display of mental acuity, it was by the marketing team of Nintendo. In pitching a product to adults, using the retention and improvement of mental agility as a plus point, they not only convinced adults to buy what was essentially a toy, but to buy one for their children as well. The DS alone has since sold over 90 million units worldwide, and when you take into account the cost of games and all that, you will have to concede that someone at Nintendo had the smarts to produce a tidy little earner.

(For those who were more concerned with retaining their physical functioning, the Nintendo Wii Fit programmes performed that function and filled in the gap in that market.)

The improvement of mental functioning is always a good basis for marketing any product. You can find a whole plethora of products huddling behind it. Multi vitamins, activity puzzles, recreational activities involving multi-tasking – all supposedly give the brain a workout, but more importantly, tap into the fears of missing out or the loss of mental function in the human psyche, that makes people buy not out of potential gain, but fear of lost opportunity and potential regret.

The loss of mental function can lead to Alzheimer’s disease, for which there is currently no cure. With 30 million people worldwide suffering from it, this presents an endless river of opportunity for people researching the disease, as well as people developing products to improve mental function in the hope that it can stave off the disease. Like the Nintendo Brain Training developers realised, it is not so much about whether these scientific products work that makes people buy them – the evidence that is produced is biased and not independent – but it is the fear of missing out and retrospective guilt that compels people to make the purchase. Buy first, examine the evidence later, is the apparent dogma.

Unfortunately we are at the stage of modern society where it is not just the product that needs scrutiny, but whether the scrutiny itself needs scrutiny for evidence of bias, either in the form of financial ties or expected research outcomes.

Mental improvement is an area that product developers – whether the products be vitamins, books or applications – will continually target because human beings will always seek to improve mental prowess, both in themselves and their children, in the hope that somewhere down the line it offers an advantage, or prevents the mental degeneration associated with the aging process. And the compelling reason to buy lies somewhere in the meeting points of being seduced by the aspirational ideals the product offers, the fear of missing out, and the assumption that the underlying evidence is empirical. The greatest mental sharpness has been displayed by the one who has understood the sales psychology of mental health improvement products and used it to his or her advantage.

To raise life expectancy, ignore the television and newspapers

With increasing good health, the average human being in the developed world can expect to live a longer life, well into the eighties. This is in contrast to a century ago, where reaching the age of sixty was regarded to be a milestone. And what about the 1800s? Being 50 was an achievement, so much so that people married young and being in their twenties was considered middle aged! Life has certainly changed a lot to enable the average life expectancy to increase.

How has the average life expectancy almost doubled over the last two centuries? This can be said to be due to a few significant reasons.

The first is of course improvements in the medical world. The world of medicine has advanced significantly into the modern area, that it is undeniable that this has been the greatest single factor in the lengthening of human life expectancy. Take a look at the average supermarket medical shelf. On it you will see a mind-boggling range of medical products for a variety of symptoms, a range so wide that you may even start to examine how product A differs from product B. Two products to treat one symptom! Bear in mind that a hundred years ago, this might not have even existed! Feeling under the weather? Got a fever? Take a paracetamol or ibuprofen and sleep it off. Centuries ago the only method might have been to get plenty of rest, dabbing your forehead with a wet flannel. Or to visit the apothecary to get a mixture of powders to mix and grind according to some secret formula. And if you are adverse to medication, that makes you hesitant about taking counter medication, there are herbal remedies to explore.

Certainly the range of available medication has contributed in some way to humans living longer lives. But the range of products that you can see are not just the ones available to humans of course; these are the only ones that be purchased without prescription. For medication to treat more serious ailments such as blood pressure for example, these can be obtained via a doctor’s prescription and a subsequent visit to the pharmacist.

The medical process differs getting country to country. In the United Kingdom, you make an appointment to visit a general practitioner but depending on your practice, this could be a week later. Why make an  appointment if you need help later? It is almost as is you are having to anticipate your illness. More likely though, is the explanation that for minor ailments, you are almost expected to self medicate.

In other countries like Singapore for instance, the availability of appointments in what is termed polyclinics means if people are unwell, they merely turn up on the day to be seen. They can also turn up at any polyclinic rather than the one they normally go to, if they happen to be in another area, because medical records are readily shared – as they have been for over three decades. Ill patients are not expected to self medicate; they also go to a doctor despite illness because as doctor’s note is the only accepted evidence for absence from work.

Pharmacists do not exist in Singapore in the same context as in the United Kingdom. In the UK, patients visit the pharmacist after the doctor, and have to make trips to two separate places. In Singapore, the pharmacist is housed in the polyclinic; a separate unit called the Dispensary handles the prescription so after you see the doctor it is ready for collection within the same building.

Better medication is a reason for longer life expectancy. But improvements in medical surgery and practice have played a role in this too. We know about how to treat patients better because medical practices are shared and what used to be exclusive medical information is now widely available to all. In the previous century, for example, the practice of blood letting, removing blood from a patient, was acceptable despite its unproven results. Patients did not necessary survive when this practice was resorted to. When patients survived, surgeons would proclaim “It worked!” But when blood letting failed, surgeons would say that the patient was so weak to begin with that the process could not even save him. Advances in medical surgery have shown that blood letting, presumed to be a cure, actually weakened a patient at his most vulnerable state. But it is only improvements in medical surgery that have meant that this dangerous practice is no longer used or necessary in many cases.

Advancements in the medical world have been backed by improvements in the world of technology. In the past, when information was written down and filed in large binders and filing cabinets, the sharing was done either by executives travelling from hospital to hospital, in a top-level only way of information dissemination. But now information can be stored electronically, and shared seamlessly and knowledge is no longer the preserve of the privileged few. The advances in medical technology have been accelerated by the ability to share this information, resulting in a knowledge boost within the medical community which benefits those within its umbrella.

The availability of knowledge to the average citizen has also played a part in extending human life expectancy. Knowledge about how our bodies work, and the help and care available have helped individuals take better care of themselves. Continual research about diet, exercise and lifestyle influence how individuals live their life, hopefully positively.

The government hope is that the filtering of health information down to the citizens will incentivise them to manage their own health better. This is one of the aims as it moves towards a sustainable healthcare model. How can a sustainable healthcare help? It would focus diminishing resources on those who need it most, so those who cannot afford healthcare or those whose treatments are more costly, and who would normally not be able to qualify for treatments based on quality adjusted life years, would be in a better position. Theoretically, this would slowly raise life expectancy even further by targeting the more life threatening illnesses.

In a previous post I have mentioned that sustainable health is not as clear cut as it seems, but nothing ever is. But if managed right, it could be another contributing factor towards the extension of average life expectancy.

The average citizen has access to more medical information than ever before. There is so much health advice alone on the internet that if it were all only published in books, you could line them to end to end to circle the planet many times over. There are also helplines available to call for advice. Some of these are government sponsored while others are manned by volunteers. There is of course, everyone’s general practitioner to go with. There are many avenues for health information. For those who are interested to medical issues, periodicals such as the British Medical Journal after available.

Then there is also the media.

I have discussed previously that the news on television and newspapers regularly report on health issues, but as I highlighted also in another earlier post, you should take in these pieces of information cautiously, because the research that is done is often linked to a report with a dramatic headline. The lower the quality of journalism, the more outlandish the headline, and the fancier the font too, it would appear. You should not see the health section of the newspaper as the font of your health information, because what might be a fairly tenuous link, or bordering on common knowledge becomes sensationalised into the something new.

Take for instance, cats. They wander about in all hours and sometimes don’t come back, or get lost. Some have collars, some don’t. What would you feel if your cat went missing? Stressed. Sooner or later some newspaper would report Cat Collars Can Minimise Stress Levels, because if  your cat had one, and went missing, you might feel slightly better knowing someone might find it and call you, than if it had no collar and had no means of being returned to you. When this headline would be resorted to, no one can say; but it would be on a day there is nothing to report and not much going on in the world.

You see, the news and newspapers don’t exist to give you information, they exist to pad out the ads and advertising space. In a fifteen minute time slot in television, twelve and a half is filled with listed programmes, while the remaining two and a half are made from advertising that is linked to the programme. We often think of ads as the things that break up the television programme, but a better perspective is to think of the programmes as binding agents for the advertisements – unfortunately, that is how poor television has become. You can similarly think of the news in the newspaper as bits which hold the advertisements together.

The advertising is where media makes its money. But if the newspapers were little more than an Argos catalogue, they wouldn’t survive. If the ads on television were strung together, no one would watch it.

You can look at it using this similar analogy. A library loans books out. But loaning books out does not allow it to make money. A library makes money by selling advertising space on its noticeboards, renting out DVDs for cash, charging for the hire of rooms and delay in book returns. It tries to attract a user base so that it can sell these numbers to event organisers hoping to hold events on its premises.

News on the television and print media work the same way. So you could probably save a few years of your life by ignoring the headlines you encounter, such as those that say “Pet owners live XX% longer live than non pet owners”. The supposed research is the common knowledge that pets  provide companionship and relieve stress, which lead to owners having less pressures and living longer. The percentage is to lull you into thinking research was done when it was not. It may have been the group of pet owners sampled were already older than the average life expectancy and that the animals had no bearing.

What if the pets were unwanted ones, inherited, or ones that had grown to big or become to cumbersome to look after?

“XX% of pets cause stress to their owners.”

The media periodically comes up with headlines such as “Having a pet may help you live longer” – with a catch. The pet must be a dog, and you must be the one that takes it for walks. It is a way of generating column inches on the basic premise that having to walk to walk a dog means you are having to be more active and likely to live longer. There was no mention of whether active individuals who already went out for a walk got a dog for company, or if a dog encouraged individuals to go out walking.

Another headline that surfaced this year was that Grandparents who babysat tended to live longer. This was again based on the tenuous link that having grandchildren around made individuals more likely to go out more often; for those that sat in chairs watching TV most of the time, any evidence to the contrary was explained away by the “tended” in the headline.

So it would not be unfair to state that there is not anything significantly meaningful you can learn from the media to improve your health. If you wanted to live longer, there are more specialised avenues you can seek information from. The thing with health articles is that they are not time-specific, they can be written or filed away, then brought out on a day where news is fallow, in contrast to current events, where – if not reported today – the opportunity is lost. So if you wanted to learn more about living longer, forget the media; simply keep active, keep an open mind, maintain a healthy diet … and what will be, will be.