Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Intelligence and mental health

Saturday, August 17th, 2019 | Science

Many people believe that there is an association between intelligence and mental illness. And there is. But it probably is not the one you think.

The media has often reported on the idea that mental illness is higher among intelligent people. In a way, there is some truth to this. Mental illness does seem to be prevalent among geniuses, for example. One study demonstrated that there were higher rates of mental health issues among Mensa members.

But this is one study and specifically looks at people who are abnormally high on the intelligence scale. It ignores the wider pattern of evidence that says increased intelligence correlates with better mental health. Wikipedia offers a good roundup of the evidence, but I also provide one below.

A 2016 study in the journal Intelligence found that intelligent youths were more likely to receive a dianogsis of depression at age 50, but less likely to have mental health issues on self-report measures.

A 2006 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have PTSD.

A 2008 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have schizophrenia.

A 2018 study found that intelligent people were less likely to have OCD.

And, perhaps most notably, a Swedish study that used over a million participants concluded that:

Lower intelligence is a risk factor for the whole range of mental disorders and for illness severity.

Of course, the biggest predictor of intelligent is individual difference. Struggling with mental illness says nothing about your intelligence. But the idea that having a mental illness is a sign that we are more intelligent is a myth.

Sorry. I was gutted as well.

Insomnia and placebos

Friday, July 26th, 2019 | Science

One of the major factors that influence insomnia is emotion and expectation. If you think you should be able to sleep, you are going to struggle. If you have little expectation of sleep, you actually find it easier.

Storms and Nisbett demonstrated this in a study where they gave two groups a placebo. The first group were told they had been given caffeine pills while the second group were told they had been given relaxation pills. The first group found it easy to get to sleep while the second group found it harder.

This came up in a group discussion recently where someone suggested a great tactic for being the effect: try to stay awake. She found that if she stopped trying to sleep and started trying to stay awake, she fell asleep pretty quickly. With the results of the above study, perhaps we should not be suprised.

Is alcohol bad for you after all?

Tuesday, August 28th, 2018 | Science

The Lancet has published a global study looking at alcohol consumption and the news for drinkers is not good.

Previous research indicated that alcohol consumption came with protective benefits and led to moderate drinkers living longer than non-drinkers.

However, this new paper that takes data from 195 countries over a 16 year period finds the opposite: all-cause mortality is correlated with increased alcohol consumption and in order to gain the most years of disability-free life, you should abstain from drinking.

Many people have reacted with a sarcastic “wow, putting poison into your body is a bad thing? Who knew?”

I think it is important to tackle such views because they are potentially dangerous. What someone suggesting when they say that is that they believe that the intuitive explanation should take precedence over what the evidence says.

Consider a parallel between vaccinations. An attenuated vaccine is a vaccine that uses a live strain of the disease. For example, when you have the MMR vaccine, you’re literally having a little bit of measles, mumps and rubella pumped into you. If you didn’t understand the science behind it you would say “it’s obviously a terrible idea to inject a disease into myself.” But, of course, every intelligent person now agrees that it is a good idea.

In this case, though, it would seem that the balance of harm from alcohol may outweigh the benefits. Good news for people like me who struggle to hit their alcohol consumption quota.

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.