Going to bed with your smartphone is not a good idea

Okay, let’s be clear. When I say going to bed with your smartphone, what I really mean is you have your smartphone on a table by your bedside.

Research has shown that thee quality of sleep is affected for those who have smartphones nearby within arm’s reach.

Why should this research not surprise us? Firstly, those of us who have them nearby are more likely to be more responsive to emails, alerts and vibrations which all signify that more information for us to process has come in. Going to sleep with such a mindset, with work lingering in the mind, interferes with our restful periods when this happens for a long time.

Secondly, the backlight from your smartphone can cause you to waken up earlier than you intend to. While is good news for those of us who have problems waking up and keep having to hit the snooze button, perhaps we should consider that the reason we keep hitting the snooze button is we have not sleep well.

Imagine it is summer and gets light earlier. Even if you sleep in a dark room, the light from your phone will hit your visual sensors and trick you into thinking that it is already later than it is. Even if you glance at the phone and realise it is only 5am (I say only because most people are still asleep then, but maybe you are one of the early risers) you have difficulty going back to sleep now because your restful period has been disturbed and this affect your body clocks.

Do you notice how unseasonal temperatures affect wildlife? If you get a week of warmer weather in the winter, flowers and insects start to think that winter has passed and spring is here, and then emerge, only for the cold to hit again, leaving them vulnerable.

The smartphone provides unwanted stimulus in terms of light and sound. Even if it is fully muted and the screen is completely dark, its presence by the side of the bed means you can never fully switch off.

The solution, even is to go low-tech. Get an alarm clock, or a watch if you need to set an alarm as a wakeup call. Leave your phone in a different room like the living room. Try to keep your bedroom sacrosanct, as a place where work does not intrude. You will find it makes a difference to your restful periods.


Ultra-processing the causes of cancer

Diet is one of the most basic human concerns. And why shouldn’t it be? The human body needs food and water to survive. But perhaps over the last few decades there has been a sort of over-focus on foods, fads, low-carb diets, low-fat diets, high protein-diets and others that have been taken a bit to extreme. And when you realise that another of the human obsessions (at least the media one anyway) is exercise – low-intensity? high intensity? intervallic? strength? – you realise that these two can be a deadly combination. While they purport to help you lose inches, the amount of column inches they generate is amazing!

It is no surprise to find the Guardian reporting that ultra-processed foods can be linked to cancer in a recent study done by French researchers. Ultra-processed foods are those that have undergone processing that relies on chemicals outside the normal realm of preservation. In the kitchen, we normally put salt on meat to preserve it, but an ultra-processed food could be one that is cooked and then preserved using special chemicals to allow it to be stored in a can and have a long shelf life.

The diets of 100,000 people were studied and those individuals who consumed the highest proportion of processed food were found to have increases in the overall rate of cancer.

But because the consumption of processed foods covered a wide umbrella, it was difficult to isolate the specific chemical purporting to create a rise in cancer.

The rise in cancer may not necessarily be linked to a specific chemical either.

Certain chemicals might work in combination to create an increased cancer risk. The chemicals themselves may be safe, but may interact in unknown ways.

Furthermore, it might be a lifestyle issue anyway – as those who eat more ultra-processed foods are more likely to live a more stressful or hectic lifestyle, consume a higher-fat diet, exercise less and be more likley to smoke.

The risk of cancer is minimised with a reduction in smoking, and increased in physical activity, and a healthy diet that includes minimising the consumption of alcohol and eating fruits and vegetables. It is also perhaps managed by a comfortable level of stress. We could take the combination of these factors to give a “lifestyle score” to assess the risk of developing cancer, instead of looking at individual factors and trying to determine their individual impact. While certain individual factors do have a pre-dominant influence when taken far beyond the boundaries of normal well-being – for example, a person who drinks excessively and then develops cancer can have his cancer retrospectively linked to his alcohol consumption – the examination of how factors combine within a smaller boundary is perhaps useful research for the future. For example, if a person does not exercise, but eats healthily, is he or she more likely to develop cancer than someone who eats healthily but has a stressful lifestyle?

It is these kinds of combinations that could form the basis for useful research in the future.

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.

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?”

Ibuprofen and the fertile imagination

There is an astounding variety of painkillers available for purchase both in supermarkets, chemists, and corner shops. Just take a look at the shelf of your nearest Tesco or Sainsbury. You have various types of paracetamol, both made by pharmaceutical companies as well as in house versions of the supermarkets.

What is the difference between them and why are there so many varieties?

When pharmaceutical companies take on the decision to manufacture a new drug, they are given a twenty-year patent which covers the research into the product, testing and manufacturing, and sales. The period of twenty years, a monopoly as such, is to reward them for the time invested into the research. In the course of the research into the product, pharmaceutical companies must publish various forms of medical evidence and put it into public domain, so that if there is any medical evidence that points to the contrary, these can be debated both by the medical community and the pharmaceutical world.

The problem, if we can call it that, is that business is a very competitive world, and if research is put out in the open without any form of intellectual protection, any manufacturer can pounce on the research undertaken by someone else who has taken the effort and trouble to do it, and produce their product off the back of it. They would have saved the time and cost investment.

Imagine if a writer has taken the time to research a topic, organise his thoughts succinctly, and find a publisher. And when his book is published, someone else photocopies it, binds the copied pages and subsequently peddles it as their own.

Within the period of twenty years, a pharmaceutical company has to research, market and sell enough of the product to recoup the investment costs and profit. It is after the twenty period has expired that the other sharks enter the fray. This is where you get the supermarket brands of the product, which are cheaper because they don’t need to pay for research.

What is the difference between brand names and generics? They essentially do the same thing. But if the original company has done a good job in making the product synonymous with its own brand, then you might think they are better. If you take Neurofen for headaches, then you might think it better than Tesco ibuprofen, even though they both contain the same active ingredient.

But pharmaceutical companies have to reinvent themselves, to make varieties of the same product, otherwise they will lose their market share and eventually die out. If you realise that Neurofen is matched in ability by the cheaper Tesco ibuprofen, you would buy the latter, unless you are persuaded that Neurofen for Flus and Colds, or Neurofen Muscle Pain has something clinically formulated for that specific purpose.

So the shelves of supermarkets are stacked with different priced products with the same active ingredient, as well as different varieties of the same product.

Painkillers are a common medicine because there will always be a demand for pain management.

The availability of pain relief medicine means it is easy for the average individual to obtain them. There is the possibility of overdose, and while this may be a rarity, there is a higher likelihood that the greater availability may mean individuals are taking more doses than they should.

What are the long term health impacts of taking ibuprofen for prolonged periods?

One problem is that the body adapts and so the long-term resistance is affected. In certain groups such as the elderly, aspirin also increased the risks of stomach bleeding.

A clinical trial seemed to suggest it may impact on testosterone production and hence affect fertility.

Test subjects were administered 2 x 600mg doses of ibuprofen daily for six weeks, much higher than the average dose. The sample size was only a small group of 30, and half received ibuprofen, while the others received a placebo. It would have been better if the subject group had been greater, so that there could be more confidence in the test results, but because a test of such nature is to examine human resistance to what is essentially toxicity, it would have been unethical to involve a large group of participants. The research findings found that there was no impact on testosterone already in the body, but the pain relieving nature of ibuprofen, as a relaxant of sorts, had impact on the production of testosterone and appeared to slow down production.

How did these reports end up in the media? The tabloids had a field day, and you would undoubtedly have found one with the usual wisecracks about balls and other man-related genitalia, along the lines of “Ibuprofen shrinks your balls” or “Ibuprofen smalls your balls”.

Maybe instead of Ibuprofen for colds or fast relief, we need Ibuprofen for Dummies.

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.