Er, don’t try this at home?
Er, don’t try this at home?
Short-sightedness is a growing public health problem. Luckily, scientists are starting to find solutions.
Senior lecturer, Aston University
March 4, 2017
Short-sightedness is a global public health problem. Most people think of myopia (the medical term for short-sightedness) as an inconvenience because the blurred vision it causes is easily corrected with glasses or contact lenses. The problem is that a myopic eye is a longer eye and so the light sensitive part at the back of the eye is stretched. This can lead to a number of eye diseases in later life, such as glaucoma, maculopathy and retinal detachment.
Experts are also concerned because the number of people with myopia is increasing. Research suggests that by 2050 it will affect half the world’s population. Myopia normally develops in children and increases in prevalence and amount during the teenage years. We know that about 30% of teenagers in the UK have myopia, and in some East Asian countries around 80% of teenagers have myopia.
The impact of these levels of myopia on all areas of society is enormous due to the cost of eye examinations, glasses and treatment of eye disease. The reasons why myopia develops are not fully understood; the prevalence has increased too quickly to be explained solely by genetics.
We know that our visual environment also has a role in myopia development. Our lifestyle has changed significantly over the last 50 years, with greater time being spent indoors on computers, tablets and smartphones. It is the lack of time that children spend outdoors that seems to trigger myopia development. At Aston University, we are looking for ways to prevent myopia, or, if it has started, at ways to slow its progression.
We know that spending greater time outdoors (90 minutes a day) seems to reduce the risk of developing myopia. Why this works is not clear. The most recent research suggests that it may be the lack of visible violet light indoors that causes the problem and if we spend time outdoors in daylight we are exposed to ample violet light. The LEDs and fluorescent lights often used in our homes and schools contain little violet light, and violet light does not pass through materials such as the UV-protected spectacles and the glass in windows.
If myopia has already developed, then we can slow progression by using different designs of contact lenses or with atropine eye drops. Atropine eye drops are normally used to temporarily stop the lens inside the eye from focusing and to make the pupil larger. A low dose of atropine eye drops also slows myopia progression without affecting pupil size and the ability to focus, though we are not sure why it works.
There are options for soft or rigid designs of contact lenses, and both types as well as correcting the blurred distance vision also alter the image in the periphery and this seems to control the growth of the eye. All these interventions slow the myopia progression by about 50%. Spending more time outdoors may also help slow down progression of myopia in children.
We do not have all the answers to why and how myopia develops, but we do have ways we can slow down myopic progression. It is time that we stop just correcting the blurred vision in myopia and start actively managing and controlling it.
Perhaps every country should have a Ministry of Happiness like Bhutan:
Gross National Happiness
In the 1970s, developing countries were focused on increasing economic success to help develop prosperity. Bhutan‘s King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, however, believed an economic approach dehumanized the development process. Wangchuck instead decided to focus on a concept that he called “Gross National Happiness”. In Bhutan, happiness was to be pursued by limiting access to foreign culture. The success of a country would be measured by its remaining citizens’ happiness.
With permission from
Jan 31, 2017
It helps prevent heart attack and stroke, staves off dementia, enables people to sleep better, have better sex and live longer. Oh, and it’s free.
SOMETHING to live for. This simple idea is at the heart of our greatest stories, driving our heroes on. It is the thread from which more complex philosophies are woven. As Nietzsche once wrote, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”. How A Greater Purpose In Life Protects Your Memory and Other Thinking Skills
As human beings, it is hard for us to shake the idea that our existence must have significance beyond the here and now. Life begins and ends, yes, but surely there is a greater meaning. The trouble is, these stories we tell ourselves do nothing to soften the harsh reality: as far as the universe is concerned, we are nothing but fleeting and randomly assembled collections of energy and matter. One day, we will all be dust.
One day, but not yet. Just because life is ultimately meaningless doesn’t stop us searching for meaning while we are alive. Some seek it in religion, others in a career, money, family or pure escapism. But all who find it seem to stumble across the same thing — a thing psychologists call “purpose”.
The notion of purpose in life may seem ill-defined and even unscientific. But a growing heap of research is pinning down what it is, and how it affects our lives. People with a greater sense of purpose live longer, sleep better and have better sex. Purpose cuts the risk of stroke and depression. It helps people recover from addiction or manage their glucose levels if they are diabetic. If a pharmaceutical company could bottle such a treatment, it would make billions. But you can find your own, and it’s free.
The study of how purpose influences our health largely began with Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived four Nazi concentration camps. He noticed that some of his fellow prisoners were far more likely to survive than others. “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore, no point in carrying on. He was soon lost,” he later wrote. After the second world war, Frankl dedicated his work to understanding the role of purpose and developed a therapy based on his findings.
Today, researchers define purpose as a sense of direction in life — a long-term goal set around one’s core values, that makes life worth living, and shapes daily behaviour. It is a component of broader measures of subjective well-being or happiness, in which there has been a surge of interest in the past two decades. That’s why, in 2012, then United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon commissioned the first ever World Happiness Report, which has been updated annually since.
Measures of happiness can reflect broader social issues such as inequality, but when researchers look at the individual elements that make up well-being, they find purpose on its own has a unique influence on health.
Of course, teasing out whether it is actually purpose itself, and not the fact that purposeful people may exercise more or eat better, can be difficult. But over the past 10 years, the findings about the health benefits of purpose have been remarkably consistent — revealing that, among other advantages, alcoholics whose sense of purpose increased during treatment were less likely to resume heavy drinking six months later, that people with higher purpose were less likely to develop sleep disturbances with age, and that women with more purpose rated their sex lives as more enjoyable. These findings persist “even after statistically controlling for age, race, gender, education, income, health status and health behaviours”, says Victor Strecher, a public health researcher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and author of the book, Life on Purpose.
In an analysis of 7000 middle-aged people in the US, even small increases in sense of purpose were associated with big drops in the chances of dying during a period of 14 years. A study of more than 9000 English people over 50 years old found that — even after adjusting for things like education, depression, smoking and exercise — those in the highest quartile of purpose had a 30 per cent lower risk of death over nearly a decade compared with those in the lowest quartile. Other studies show higher purpose cuts risk of heart disease by 27 per cent, stroke by 22 per cent and Alzheimer’s disease by half.
The only reason purpose isn’t a top public health priority, says Strecher, is because it somehow feels too vague or ephemeral. “It’s not a construct that feels scientific enough,” he says. “If this were a physical issue or a new drug or a gene, you would see lots of funding going into it.”
Some of the scepticism has to do with concerns that purpose is merely a stand-in for opportunity in life, or wealth. Indeed, in recent research, Patrick Hill, now at Washington University in St Louis, did find that people with a stronger sense of purpose tended to have more money to begin with, and earn more over the period studied.
So how does that meaning, that sense of purpose, actually improve your health? In part, it may be because greater purpose makes people more conscientious about maintaining their health. But Steven Cole at the University of California, Los Angeles, thinks there’s more to it. “If people are living longer, there’s got to be some biology underpinning that,” he says. Cole has spent years studying how negative experiences such as loneliness and stress can increase the expression of genes promoting inflammation, which can cause cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s or cancer.
In 2013, Cole examined the influence of well-being instead. He focused on two types: hedonic, from pleasure and rewards, and eudaemonic, from having a purpose beyond self-gratification. These two aspects were measured by having participants note down their well-being over the previous week, how often they felt happy (hedonic) or that their life had a sense of direction (eudaemonic), for example. Although scoring highly in one often meant scoring highly in the other and both correlated with lower levels of depression, they had opposite effects on gene expression. People with higher measures of hedonic well-being had higher expression of inflammatory genes and lower expression of genes for disease-fighting antibodies, a pattern also seen in loneliness and stress. For people scoring highest on eudaemonia, it was the opposite. “There were surprises all around,” Cole says. “The biggest surprise being that you can feel similarly happy but the biology looks so notably different.”
Cole suspects eudaemonia — with its focus on purpose — decreases the nervous system’s reaction to sudden danger that increases heart rate and breathing and surges of adrenaline. Over-activation of this stress-response system, as you see with chronic stress, causes harmful inflammation. “There may be something saying ‘be less frightened, or less worried, anxious or uncertain’,” says Cole.
Strecher says to consider what you would like to be said about you at your memorial, or to identify people you would like to emulate. He is also developing an app called Jool that he hopes can eventually serve as a kind of “purpose pill”. Users begin with an assessment, and then get encouragement and guidance as they go on. It is currently being tested by companies to help employees hone their sense of purpose — and boost productivity. His team has been following an initial group of users for over a year, and they will begin randomised studies in the coming months.
There are also more formal therapies that foster purpose and meaning in life for people with conditions such as depression. For example, Dolores Gallagher-Thompson at Stanford University in California, has found that cognitive behavioural therapy can promote meaningfulness. She encourages patients to consider their legacy and how they might provide a good example for children and grandchildren.
Purpose isn’t a fixed entity — it waxes and wanes with changes in life. Many people experience a drop in purpose following retirement, for instance, but can regain it by engaging in the community, helping others and remaining sociable. And, as Hill found, the health effects of purpose are apparent whether someone is 20 or 70. “To me, that’s evidence suggesting that whenever one finds a purpose it can still imbue benefits,” he says. In other words, it’s never too late to start seeking the meaning of life.
With thanks to Eugenie (Speculator)
Author Wolfgang Streeck describes the phenomenon as “a death from a thousand cuts.”
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/durantelallera
Some anonymous wise person once observed that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But Wolfgang Streeck, a 70-year-old German sociologist and director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, thinks capitalism’s end is inevitable and fast approaching. He has no idea what, if anything, will replace it.
This is the premise of his latest book, How Will Capitalism End?, which goes well beyond Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty thinks capitalism is getting back into the saddle after being ruined in two world wars. Streeck thinks capitalism is its own worst enemy and has effectively cut itself off from all hope of rescue by destroying all its potential rescuers.
“The end of capitalism,” he writes in the introduction, “can then be imagined as a death from a thousand cuts… No effective opposition being left, and no practicable successor model waiting in the wings of history, capitalism’s accumulation of defects, alongside its accumulation of capital, may be seen… as an entirely endogenous dynamic of self-destruction.”
According to Streeck, salvation doesn’t lie in going back to Marx, or social democracy, or any other system, because there is no salvation at all. “What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now under way, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum — no new world system equilibrium… but a prolonged period of social entropy or disorder.”
Five developments, three crises
If we need a historical parallel, the interregnum between the fall of Rome and the rise of feudalism might serve. The slave economy of Rome ended in a chaos of warlords, walled towns and fortress-estates, and enclaves ruled by migrant barbarians. That went on for centuries, with warlords calling themselves “Caesar” and pretending the Empire hadn’t fallen. Streeck sees the interregnum emerging from five developments, each aggravating the others: “stagnation, oligarchic redistribution, the plundering of the public domain, corruption, and global anarchy.”
All these problems and more have grown through “three crises: the global inflation of the 1970s, the explosion of public debt in the 1980s, and rapidly rising private indebtedness in the subsequent decade, resulting in the collapse of financial markets in 2008.” Anyone of a certain age in British Columbia has vivid personal recollections of these crises and the hurt they caused. The strikes and inflation of the 1970s preceded the Socreds’ “restraint” era, and now we mortgage our lives for a foothold in the housing market. Streeck reminds us that it was nothing personal, just business. We weren’t just coping with one damn thing after another; given his perspective, we can see how it all fit together with an awful inevitability.
When the bubble pops
And it continues to fit together. Temporary foreign workers and other immigrants make unions’ jobs harder. “Recovery” amounts to replacing unemployment with underemployment. Education is an expensive holding tank to keep young people off the labour market. Women are encouraged to work so they can be taxed. But middle-class families need two incomes anyway to maintain their status, so they import underpaid immigrant women as nannies. At some point soon these nannies will be sent back to their home countries when Vancouver’s housing bubble pops.
Perhaps the middle-class families will then make their payments by taking in boarders. Streeck’s essays were written over the past few years, and are sometimes a bit dated. For example, he writes that “American oligarchs, unlike their counterparts in other societies like Ukraine or Russia, are of a ‘non-ruling’ type, since they are content to live alongside a public bureaucracy, a state of law, and an elected government run by professional politicians.”
That changed on Nov. 8, when the American oligarchs ousted noncompliant professional politicians and assumed direct power through Donald Trump and his cabinet. (We may yet see an analysis of Trump on Streeck’s blog.) In one essay, Streeck shows how the economic crisis of the 1970s led to the political crisis of today. Postwar Europe and America rebuilt the world by “Fordism” — mass production of durable goods at an affordable price, with few or no options. But Fordism eventually glutted the market with all-too-durable goods. In the 1960s, I wore the hand-me-down nylon socks my father had bought in the 1940s.
In 1972 my wife and I bought a washer and dryer that still run reliably in 2016, without repairs. That couldn’t last, especially as the baby boom tapered off. Capitalism’s solution was to offer customized, short-lived products that didn’t just meet your needs, but met your wants as well. That meant avocado-coloured refrigerators in the 1970s and granite kitchen countertops today, but nothing that really made life easier. It just let consumers express their changing personal tastes and status. And it wasn’t just consumer goods — it was information as well. Streeck notes that public broadcasting systems and a few private networks dominated the media for decades. Now we have hundreds of private channels competing for our attention (and our money).
Public media like the CBC have tried to compete with private radio and TV, with generally awful results: instead of classical music, CBC Radio 2 gives us Mozart’s greatest hits plus Mozart gossip. Radio 1 promotes the careers of inarticulate hip-hop artists and reports commuter woes caused by housing prices and the lack of decent public transit.
Politics as personal fashion statement
What Streeck calls the “individualization of the individual” has afflicted whole nations, including Canada. We no longer vote for a party because our family always has, or because we support most of its policies. We want avocado-coloured day care programs, and granite-counter “world-class” pipeline safety, and if we don’t get both in one party, we stay home and sulk. In effect, we prefer to be consumers of politics as personal fashion statement rather than actually take part in running the country. Marx thought communism would see the withering-away of the state. Instead, capitalism has reduced the state until its chief functions are protecting the rich and policing the poor.
But in the process, capitalism has killed off its rescuers. Who’s going to save the banks in the next collapse? Who’s going to bail out the masters of the financial universe when artificial intelligence takes their jobs? And who’s going to police the poor when taxpayers can’t pay for the cops and the rich are hiring cops for their own gated communities? Wolfgang Streeck sees neither a single cause of capitalism’s collapse nor any obvious successor regime.
The European Union may break up. Climate change may drown south Florida, including Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago. Refugees will keep coming north; they will eventually overwhelm the fences and guards and create new enclaves in Europe and the U.S.A. and Canada.
New pandemics will sweep unchallenged around the world. No coherent political communities will be there to respond to such disasters. Such communities may arise centuries from now, but if Streeck is right, capitalism has ensured that we and our children will never live in them.
With permission from
Dec 13, 2016
What helps people live longer than anything else? What about having an optimistic outlook on life — a general expectation that good things will happen? According to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, that’s the case.
“The absence of the negative is not the same thing as the presence of the positive. We found that factors such as optimism, life satisfaction, and happiness are associated with reduced risk of CVD regardless of such factors as a person’s age, socioeconomic status, smoking status, or body weight,” said author Julia Boehm, research fellow in the Department of Society, Human Development, and Health at HSPH. “While most medical and public health efforts today focus on reducing risk factors for diseases, evidence has been mounting that enhancing psychological resilience may also make a difference,” said Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-lead author of the study. “Our new findings suggest that we should make efforts to boost optimism, which has been shown to be associated with healthier behaviors and healthier ways of coping with life challenges.”
The study appears online today in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The study also found that healthy behaviors only partially explain the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk. One other possibility is that higher optimism directly impacts our biological systems, Kim said.
“Out of all predictable outcomes of most scientific studies we’ve reviewed, positive thinking is was changed longevity of humans more than any other factor,” said psychologist Dr. Linda Sowpresa.
There are psychological assets, like optimism and positive emotion, that afford protection against cardiovascular disease. It also appears that these factors slow the progression of disease. The science of happiness is increasingly suggesting a link between happiness and health.
The study analyzed data from 2004 to 2012 from 70,000 women enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-running study tracking women’s health via surveys every two years. They looked at participants’ levels of optimism and other factors that might play a role in how optimism may affect mortality risk, such as race, high blood pressure, diet, and physical activity.
The most optimistic women (the top quartile) had a nearly 30 percent lower risk of dying from any of the diseases analyzed in the study compared with the least optimistic (the bottom quartile), the study found. The most optimistic women had a 16 percent lower risk of dying from cancer; 38 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease; 39 percent lower risk of dying from stroke; 38 percent lower risk of dying from respiratory disease; and 52 percent lower risk of dying from infection.
Optimism and happiness and good health go hand-in-hand and scientific studies have been finding that happiness can make our hearts healthier, our immune systems stronger, and our lives longer through enhancements of our cellular structure.
While other studies have linked optimism with reduced risk of early death from cardiovascular problems, this was the first to find a link between optimism and reduced risk from other major causes.
“Previous studies have shown that optimism can be altered with relatively uncomplicated and low-cost interventions — even something as simple as having people write down and think about the best possible outcomes for various areas of their lives, such as careers or friendships,” said postdoctoral research fellow Kaitlin Hagan, co-lead author of the study. “Encouraging use of these interventions could be an innovative way to enhance health in the future.”