Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Is being overweight good for you?

Saturday, August 11th, 2018 | Health & Wellbeing, Science

The idea that being overweight is bad for you is well established. Being overweight takes years off your life, so it’s important to eat right and exercise to keep your weight under control. More recent evidence, however, has challenged this.

For example, a 2013 paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that overweight people had a lower level of all-cause mortality than people of a healthy weight. The paper was not well-received, but nobody seems to have been able to poke any holes in it, either.

Similarly, a 2009 systematic review published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International concluded that:

The prevailing notion that overweight increases morbidity and mortality, as compared to so-called normal weight, is in need of further specification.

So, should we give up with the diets and let our waistlines expand a little? Maybe. But even if more evidence goes on to support these findings, there are some good reasons for sticking with the current line on what a healthy BMI is.

Overweight vs obese

Something that all the studies agree on is that people have worse health outcomes, including death, if they are obese. Overweight is one thing, but being obese is bad for you in any study.

And you might be surprised how easy it is to reach the category of obese. Consider that my BMI hovers around 24. 25 is the line between healthy weight and overweight. So, I’m nearly in the overweight category. And I look like this:

Not the buffest individual, that’s for sure, but I don’t look like I’m carrying around any extra weight either. And you only have to move up to a BMI of 30 to go into the obese category.

All-cause morality

As the NHS points out, these studies typically look at all-cause mortality, which means people dying of anything. The problem is that this contradicts individual studies of any topic. For example, if we look at heart disease or diabetes. Whenever we look at the individual causes, we find it is better to be a healthy weight.

There is a huge amount of evidence to support this, so in order for us to accept an alternative view, it would ideally need to explain this discrepancy.

Quality of life

The second problem is that these studies just look at mortality. But that is never the way that NICE or Public Health England have looked at how to provide the most efficient healthcare system.

We measure outcomes in quality-adjusted life-years (QALYs). It’s not enough just to be alive. Modern medicine allows us to keep pretty much anybody alive indefinitely. But sitting in a medically induced coma on a ventilator isn’t a life that any of us would choose.

As a study in Nature points out, being overweight is associated with fewer years of disease-free life. In short, you might experience a longer life, but it won’t be a happier or more fulfilling one.

Indeed, this could help explain the findings. If people are already inside the medical system because they’re having to be treated for obesity-related illnesses, we may be better at spotting other diseases. Or it may be that carrying around some extra weight will reduce your quality of life but also help you to stick around for an extra week when you become seriously ill because you have larger fat reserves.

Conclusion

There is genuine evidence that you will live longer if you are a little overweight (but not obese). However, so far we have been unable to explain why this is. And, more importantly, you will also have a reduced quality of life. Therefore, the current guidelines on maintaining a healthy BMI are still relevant.

This tiny protein could solve climate change forever

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018 | Science

Human-caused climate change, commonly called global warming, is perhaps the biggest threat facing our time. But some scientists believe they have a solution that could solve the problem forever. And the planet’s saviour could be one of the simplest building blocks of life.

It’s called a prion disease and it is fatal to humans in 100% of cases.

“When it comes down to it, we know what is causing climate change and we know how to stop it”, explained Professor Ben Roberts from the School of Climate Science at Castleford University. “We just need to kill all of the humans and the planet will be fine. And this protein could be the key.”

Members of the campaigning group Save Our Climate recently started a petition that has so far gathered 11,000 signatures, calling for the government to begin a mandatory introduction of the protein to the population.

At a press conference on Monday, former foreign secretary John Borison said he lamented the red tape currently imposed by the European Union that would prevent such actions, which technically count as genocide. “Once we’re free of those over-dressed health-and-safety-mad European twits, we’ll be free to introduce these proteins everywhere”, he told reporters.

Can you help with anxiety research?

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018 | Science

As part of my research at Leeds Beckett University, we’re recruiting people with anxiety to take part in a 4-week trial you can do from home using your mobile phone.

We’re giving people a range of different phone apps designed to reduce anxiety, to see which ones work and which ones don’t. As part of the research, you will need to complete some short questionnaires and use the app for four weeks. Or, you may be allocated to a waiting list in which case you will just need to complete the questionnaires.

To find out more information, and to see whether you are eligible, please see the project’s website.

How to write a Cochrane Review

Tuesday, September 26th, 2017 | Science

Writing a Systematic Review for Cochrane is not difficult. Simply take a large amount of studies, explain why most of them are rubbish, point out that those that remain don’t provide enough evidence it works and finish by saying more research is needed to understand the impact on anyone who isn’t a young white undergraduate.

In fact, it’s so straightforward I have written a template…

Simply insert your variables you are away. Happy meta-analysising!

Higgs Day 2017

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017 | Science

Happy Higgs Day! It is hard to believe that it has been real for five years now. How has your life immeasurably changed by the discovery of the Higgs boson?

Why don’t pandas have much sex?

Sunday, May 14th, 2017 | Science

Pandas get a bad rap. They don’t mate at the best of times. They spend all of their time eating bamboo, which tends to kill their sex drive. And comments to the effective of it being their own fault that they are endangered are common.

Here is Ricky Gervais making just such a point:

But this is unfair. And best explained by this Douglas Adams lecture that took place at the University of California.

You have probably noticed that pandas are massive. They don’t have many predators. Even humans, who sit here in the food chain, don’t eat them. So they don’t die very often.

And Mother Nature is pretty smart. Well, dumb, but nevertheless, natural selection works it out in the end. So, when you have a species with no real predators, they don’t procreate very often because otherwise there would be too many of them. They are designed to have very few babies.

Then humans come along, destroy most of the natural habitat and wonder why pandas cannot replace themselves fast enough.

Is organic food better for you?

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017 | Food, Science

Organic food sellers are constantly touting the superior taste and health benefits of their products. But can they back this up with any evidence?

Organic food can often cost far more than the “non-organic” alternative. But is it really worth paying more for it? Is it any better for you, or for the environment?

So far, the scientific consensus is clear: no. Organic food is not any more nutritious, does not taste any better, nor is any safer than traditionally grown crops. It does not seem to be any better for the environment either, especially compared to genetically engineered crops that, by design, require fewer pesticides that traditionally-grown or organic food.

In 2012, a study by Stanford University confirmed what the rest of the scientific community had already been saying. There is just no evidence that organic is better.

So why do some people swear by it? The most obvious reason is the placebo effect. Because the branding will typically make claims about it tasting better, and because people will almost certainly have paid more for it, they are likely to receive some placebo effect from expecting it to be better.

However, when it comes down to the option of buying a luxury brand or an organic brand, the choice is clear. Even if the luxury brand is no better either, the placebo will probably be even bigger. For the rest of us, it is time to save some money guilt free.

Does paracetamol actually work?

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017 | Science

Paracetamol is widely viewed as an effective and safe painkiller. However, mounting evidence suggests that neither of these facts is true.

When it comes to painkillers, few are as prevalent as paracetamol. Safe, easy and effective it has become the first choice of painkiller for many people. But is all of this actually the case?

Increasingly, the evidence is no. Writing on Evidently Cochrane, Andrew Moore points out that a lot of the Cochrane reviews of paracetamol suggest there is a little evidence for its effectiveness.

Review after review seems to dismiss the effects. It does not help for acute or chronic back pain. It does not reduce pain in newborns. It only helps half of patients, or less, after an operation, and only when mixed with codeine.

Nor is a paracetamol without risks. Not only is it a drug you can overdose on, but even at non-overdose levels it is associated with liver damage, and can increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks and ulcers. One study suggested it was no worse than ibuprofen, but at least ibuprofen seems to work.

Ultimately, we may need to rethink our approach to paracetamol. For some, it may work. However, for others, it seems to have little or no effect. If so, other options are just as safe to explore.

Is body mass index (BMI) useful?

Tuesday, February 21st, 2017 | Science

BMI is much despised by the public. However, before it is written off completely, we should consider what the implications are for the medical world.

People are constantly railing against BMI. They insist that it is simply stupid and insulting to label them as obese and that BMI doesn’t mean anything anyway.

But is that the case?

The answer is somewhere in the middle. From a medical perspective, there is little doubt that BMI is useful. A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) confirmed that a high BMI was indeed associated with an increased risk of death.

However, a 2006 paper by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, points out that there are some serious flaws in the simplicity of BMI as it fails to distinguish between fat from muscle.

Another paper in the BMJ suggested that BMI was indeed useful, but that what was considered a “normal” weight should be redefined. A weight of 18.5 to 20, for example, is defined as normal, but could actually be correlated with higher mortality.

Therefore, it seems BMI is a useful tool, but only when taken as a guide. It could be that the normal weight needs to be adjusted upwards slightly and that those with high muscle density will find they have an inaccurate reading.

Should you organise teams around Dunbar’s number?

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 | Science

business-team

Oxford professor Robin Dunbar suggested that the maximum number of meaningful social connections a human can maintain is around 150. This is why some many traditional societies and communities are based around a group of roughly that size. Any bigger and the social connections break down, leading to a breakdown in cohesiveness and morality.

Recently this number has been adopted by the technical community. Those following Spotify’s Tribes model often aim to get a tribe below 150 people, and many co-working spaces are designed around having 150 tenants.

The problem is that this does not seem to make any sense to me. 150 is supposed to be the maximum number of total social connections you have. If I look at the connections I maintain it consists of family, friends, people I know from volunteering and community groups, and work colleagues. If we assume a roughly even split between the four of them, that means I can maintain a maximum of 37 meaningful relationships at work.

If your company is a cult, that requires you to terminate all contact with your former life when you join, 150 makes the perfect size for a team. However, assuming you are a normal company, 150 does not seem to be the magic number. Even if you say “Okay, but people do not need to know everyone in the tribe”, that’s fine, but 150 is still irrelevant as a number. The perfect team size is likely to be something else.