Mike the Psych's Blog

What if psychologists ruled the world? In real life?

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Fizzy drinks are bad for you – even the “sugar-free” ones

Scientists at Boston University School of Medicine followed around 4,500 people for ten years and discovered that people who drank sugary drinks were more likely to have a poor memory and a smaller brain, although there wasn’t a link with stroke or dementia. So just a shrinking brain (or brain atrophy as the scientists call it) as measured by MRI scans.

They also found that having one diet drink or more a day appeared to raise the risk of stroke threefold and there was also a link with dementia. 

It doesn’t prove causation so whether people who thought they might be at risk of dementia chose artificially sweetened drinks deliberately is one possibility.

And not everyone is convinced by the results. One researcher at Glasgow University suggested that it might be reverse causality in the case of the artificially sweetened drinks. i.e. being ill forces you to give up things like alcohol or sugary drinks.

He did concede however that sugary drinks were bad for you on several levels being a source of refined sugar and harmful to your teeth.

So while there are risks with artificially sweetened drinks the answer is not to switch to full sugar varieties but to drink water.

Don’t forget that diet drinks can actually help you put on weight


Want to stay sharp? Do voluntary work

grandma_cane_fencing_500_wht_192A study of over 9,000 people over 40 years has found that volunteering keeps your thinking skills sharp.

Doesn’t matter whether it’s Neighbourhood watch, your local political party, or a community group.  Encouraging people to get active helps protect their brains against dementia.

The professor at Southampton University who led the study said “The implication is that if people continue to engage socially throughout life, maintaining related behaviours hat require cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and control, there may be some protection from cognitive decline”

Public health interventions aimed at promoting cognitive health could include encouraging civic engagement and providing opportunities for it she said.

There is no cure for dementia so preventing it is important as the population ages.

A spokesman for the Alzheimer’s Society said “there is strong evidence that exercise can help keep our brains healthy throughout our lives but there is less research into the impact of socialising. 

This large and interesting study suggests that being sociable, for example by joining a community group, can help our kept our brains sharp in middle age. However it did not examine whether socialising can actually affect our risk of developing dementia

Current evidence suggests that a healthy diet and exercise can reduce the risk of memory problems. This study suggest that socialising could be added to that list. Years ago I remember reading about an experiment in care homes where instead of having the hairs arranged along the walls they put them into groups. This encouraged the patients to interact and they had a better quality of ife. So this idea is not new.

The people in this study were tested for their cognitive skills at age 11 and followed for 40 years. Only 14% were volunteering at age 30 but this proportion rose to 25% by age 50 when their skills were re-tested.

A fifth of the difference in people’s cognitive skills could be attributed to volunteering plus other factors such as sport, education and just being a woman – all thought to protect the brain.

So if you’ve nothing better to do go out and volunteer for something, anything to get you out of the house and mixing with people.

Do vampires know something we don’t?


mouth_vamp_teeth_1600_clr_17745Injecting/transfusing yourself with the blood of virgins (Kim Jong II and Pope Innocent VIII – well maybe not so innocent as blood donors all died), bathing in it (Countess Bathory – or Ingrid Pitt if you’re a Hammer film fan) or just taking a bloody bite (Dracula and a long line of vampires since) may seem other-worldly but scientists now believe that they may have been onto something.

Scientists in California are testing an Alzheimer’s treatment that involves injecting blood plasma from young people in the hope it will reduce brain ageing.

Saul Vileda’s experiments with mice of different ages showed that when you mix their blood. Giving blood from older mice to younger mice accelerated cognitive decline. 

He then found that when he injected older mice with young blood it changed the brain circuitry in the older mice creating new synaptic connections. Plasticity also returned relating to learning and memory-related genes.


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Denmark’s first dementia village

Denmark has opened a village equipped with a music library, restaurants and shops reserved for dementia sufferers.

Svendborg Demensby on the island of Funen is the first of its kind in Denmark and is modelled on similar villages in Italy, Canada and the Netherlands.

The village of 125 homes was developed on the site of an old brewery which had already been used as a care centre for the elderly. The idea is to give residents the feel of living in a small town and is expected to give dementia sufferers a safer environment and a more fulfilling life in comparison with ordinary sheltered housing. It’s a pilot scheme with plans to open similar projects in Aalborg, Odense and Herning.

The Danish Alzheimer’s Association cautiously welcomed the initiative but voiced worries about the villagers being cut off from the outside world. “It concerns us when special dementia villages are being built where dementia sufferers are excluded from the rest of society,” Nis Peter Nissen, the head of the association, told Danish Radio.

In November, Denmark put forward a national plan aimed at making the country completely “dementia-friendly” by 2025. This has become a political priority for Denmark, where the number of dementia-sufferers is expected to rise to a staggering 150,000 in a nation of 5.6 million by 2040, according to the Danish National Scientific Center for Dementia.

The plan involves three objectives: give dementia sufferers a safe and dignified life, focus on tailor-made care and prevention systems and finally support friends and relatives of dementia sufferers. Last year Danish municipalities started to fit dementia patients with GPS tracking systems. Whereas the initiative gathered mixed reactions from the Danish public, it was warmly received by sheltered housing personnel who dubbed the tracking system “Big Mother.

czpbrjop1pw_hqdn16c8zz_khbc1laomsdqejzlbsgfbrblz_wbci3edqvbst3c8jgmls137The first such project was at Hogewey near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. There they have homes designed to look like the 1950s, 1970s and the 2000s to offer a familiar look which reassures the residents. I seem to remember that they also had different styles to reflect different social classes. A kind of extended reminiscence therapy.

Unlike typical villages, however, this one has cameras monitoring its 150 residents every hour of every day, caretakers posing in street clothes, and only one door in and out of town, all part of a security system designed to keep the community safe. Friends and family are encouraged to visit and some do every day.

hogeweyResidents are cared for by 250 full- and part-time geriatric nurses and specialists, who wander the town and hold a range of occupations in the village, like cashiers, grocery-store attendees, and post-office clerks. There is no money exchange needed as those costs are included in the state-subsidised fees.

Studies have suggested that its inhabitants need less medication and live longer than those in standard care homes.

Further to my last update on dementia there is some good news. As our education improves the risk of developing it falls.

Older people’s risk of getting dementia has fallen by a quarter in just over a decade according to a new US study. Higher levels of education since the second world war seem to be offsetting the risks of obesity and high blood pressure. Although older people are fatter than they used to be it is seen as less of a dementia risk in old age than in middle age.

Another study, in the UK, found that men’s chances of getting dementia at specific ages had dropped by 40% in 20 years as they adopted healthier life styles. Women’s risk levels dropped less. However conditions like obesity and diabetes continue to rise as people live longer.

There’s also the MEND project which claims to get good results in the early stages which I posted about here.

As the population ages it means that more overall are getting dementia and numbers in Britain are expected to tis from 850,000 at present to over a million within 10 years. It has already overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in England & Wales.

Overall however it may be that the prevalence of dementia is at least stabilising if not declining in parts of Europe and the USA.

I’m not happy. Something’s knocking years off our lives

red_arrow_down_crash_1600_wht_2751Bad news for silver surfers this week. For the first time since 1981 there has been a fall in the number of healthy years we can expect as we get older.

According to the ONS the apparently inexorable increase in our healthy longevity has suddenly reversed.

Why? Well the experts blame obesity, heavy drinking plus failings in health care.

Taking the length of time people over 65 can remain healthy the number of years has dropped from 11.2 to 10.9 for women and from10.6 to 10.3 years for men.

And for babies born today they can expect to live longer but they may not stay healthy for as many years as previously, down from 64.1 year to 63.2 years for a girl and from 63.9 years to 63.3 years for a boy.

The sad news is that a girl born in the last couple of years may live to the ripe old age of 83 but will spend the last 20 years of her life with a disability or long-term illness.

The charity Age UK admits the figures are worrying as we all want to live as well as we can for as long as we can. They say “We can’t afford to ignore any signs that health in later life may be getting worse rather than improving …. we need to ask serious questions about why people are not thriving as well as they could or should in older age”

Rudi Westendorp, professor of old age medicine at the University of Copenhagen thinks earlier diagnosis means people have long-term conditions diagnosed earlier. “(Although) disease-free life expectancy is going down it shows we are on the ball and can prevent further mishaps”

Baroness Greengross, CEO of the International Longevity Centre. said may elderly people were learning to live rewarding lives while managing long-term conditions. “The exception is dementia which is the modern equivalent of the plague in the middle ages. That is our greatest challenge”.

So it’s partly up to us to stay healthy by looking after ourselves, our genes notwithstanding. Where did I put that glass of red wine?


Dementia update 2016


elderly_man_holding_a_custom_text_sign_12871The government has announced a pilot programme to screen 40-year olds for dementia. The government wants to make Britain “the best place in the world to live with dementia“.

There are about 850,000 in the UK who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and other severe neurodegenerative problems (approx 70% have Alzheimer’s and 20% vascular dementia).

Only those over 65 have a mid-life MoT at present. If the pilot is a success it will be extended to all GPs allowing them to suggest ways that people can cope with it better.

Exercising more, controlling weight and blood pressure, and eating better, are a few ways that could help.

Another part of the project is to enlist people in research to allow doctors to better understand and treat the condition.

Dementia can be frightening and the Alzheimer’s Society says  more than 9 out of 10 people think hospitals are frightening places…

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Can dementia patients actually get better?


head_outline_puzzle_1600_wht_10307There has been some excitement about reports that people with early-stage Alzheimer’s have recovered from their memory after being put on a controversial recovery plan.

Scientists say the results are unprecedented. There were only 10 patients, aged late 40s to mid-70s, in the trial and most of the reports are anecdotal but they include a 69 year-old entrepreneur who was able to go back to work and expand his business and a woman who recovered her fluency in two foreign languages.

There is currently no one drug which can reverse the symptoms which include confusion, loss of speech and memory loss (but see post about symptoms other than memory loss).

The California researchers claim that a customised programme of 36 different treatments can restore some patients with Alzheimer’s or cognitive impairment to normality and improve their lives significantly.

The plan is called Metabolic Enhancement for Neural Degeneration…

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