All posts by Stuart Farrimond

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .

Is the world’s eyesight getting worse?

Yes, the world’s eyesight is getting worse: kids are getting more short-sighted while more older adults are becoming long-sighted.

Kids are getting more short-sighted: but reading isn’t to blame

There is an approaching health epidemic that is on the tip of our noses that few people have seen coming. By 2050, leading researchers predict that 50% of the world’s population will be short-sighted and will needing glasses to see properly. The numbers of children who are short-sighted has been creeping up year-on-year – since 1960, the number of children in the UK with short-sightedness (more correctly termed ‘myopia’)  has doubled. Televisions and computers normally get the blame, but the real reason may be quite different.

MyopiaHaving myopia means that objects in the distance are blurry while everything close-up is easy to see. The soft crystal-clear lenses that sit in front of each pupil continually change shape to focus on what we are looking at: for up close work, it squashes into a peaked dome, and for looking in the distance it flattens into a shallow hillock-shape. Myopia occurs when the squidgy lens cannot stretch flat enough to bring distant objects into focus. Either the lens is too thick, or the eyeball is too big.

People who wear glasses have often been seen as smart, and there is some truth in it: academics and people with high IQ test scores are more likely to be myopic than those who lead a less bookish life. Hence, vision specialists have presumed too much time reading books and focusing on screens strains the lenses to fix them in a permanently squashed position. Or close-up work somehow stretches the eyeball to make it too large.

Child on tabletRecent research has shown that reading is almost certainly not the true cause, but lack of sunshine is. In Australia few kids have myopia – only 3% –but across the water in Singapore, 29% of children are short-sighted. Reading and computer work can’t explain Singapore kid’s bad eyesight because Australian children actually spend more time doing close-up work. The crucial difference is that Ozzie kids also spend four times as long playing outside (13 hours a week compared to just 3 hours in Singapore).

It seems that time in sunlight is vital for keeping eyes healthy, especially in children. No one is quite sure why. Time in the sun triggers the release of a substance from the back of the eye called dopamine – the same chemical that is lacking in Parkinson’s disease – that seems to help the eyes grow normally.  Throughout the day, the eyeball also changes size – getting slightly bigger around midday and shrinking at night – suggesting that not getting out in the day and not sleeping at night somehow stops the eye developing normally.

More adults are getting long-sighted

Reading newspaper at arm's lengthAs we get older, we find it increasingly difficult to focus on close objects – hence Granddad holds the newspaper at arm’s length to read it. Over time, the eye’s lenses get stiffer, making it more difficult for the lens to squash fully. About one fifth of the world is long-sighted (presbyopia) and it is estimated that more than half of adults in middle and lower-income countries over the age of 30 are long-sighted (have presbyopia).

Sadly, long-sightedness is an inevitable part of ageing and there is no known way of preventing it. As we live longer, it will become ever more common. For now, good nutrition, regular eye check-ups (especially if over 40), wearing sunglasses and staying generally healthy are your best bets. Either that, or don’t get old.

For kids, there are things simple things we can do: get them outside more. Schools may need to see the light and try new ways of teaching in the great outdoors. And for parents who find it impossible to tear their kids away from their screens, an alternative might be getting them to play on their phone or tablet in the garden. A good idea is to give them a brolly first.

 

Get advice on keeping healthy eyesight here (American Academy of Opthalmology).

Article by Stuart Farrimond

September 13, 2016

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .


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The key to sporting success: a traumatic childhood?

[Patriotic bias alert] The achievements of Team GB should make us Brits proud. Perhaps the most memorable moment of Rio 2016 was watching Olympic triathletes Alastair and Jonny Brownlee finishing in gold and silver, before collapsing in a brotherly embrace. We normal folk wonder how these athletes manage to rise to the top, while the rest of us let our bikes rust in the shed. Are these superheroes born with the genes to make them world champions, or do we all have the potential to win a gold medal, given the right opportunity?

The question that has always puzzled the greatest minds: the Spartans, Romans and Ancient Greeks all believed that physical strength was inherited and would ‘dispose’ of infants deemed not fit enough for their tribe. On the face of it, it seems their suspicions were well-founded: there is no shortage of families who share sporting ability, such as the Brownlee brothers, Williams sisters and Murray brothers. Some people seem to be born with incredible sporting potential: US swimmer Michael Phelps, for example, is 6 foot 4 inches tall, has huge flipper-like size 14 feet, and can stretch his arms out to an incredible 6 foot 7 inches. (If you need something from the top shelf, then he’s your man.)

Michael_Phelps_conquista_20ª_medalha_de_ouro_e_é_ovacionado_1036416-09082016-_mg_6640_01When it comes to getting fit, it seems that for some of us it is a continuous uphill struggle. If you and your best friend started training, say for a 5k race, then one of you would get fitter faster. Even if you ate identical diets, did the same exercises, and had the same starting fitness there will always be a difference. Research shows that about 1% of people get incredibly fit quickly, while a similar number make hardly any progress despite their best efforts (most of us are somewhere in the middle).

You might think that this difference in athletic ability is written in your genes, but modern research says that this is only a part of the picture. Strangely, only 20-50% (depending on which research you read) of these differences appear to in depend on our genetics. Scientists have trawled through thousands of athletes’ DNA on the hunt for ‘fit genes’, but have come up with little. For most athletes, the path to gold may actually have more to do with life’s circumstances than the DNA you were born with.

Research now says that your personality has a huge impact: top athletes tend to be confident, competitive, optimistic, mentally tough, and have ‘adaptive perfectionism’ – the ability to strive for perfection while learning from failures and not stewing over mistakes. The opportunities that you are given in childhood and early adulthood are also key: Team GB dominates cycling because of top-notch training, and great facilities; while African nations that have few sporting venues are focus on long-distance running events.

Laura TrottMost fascinatingly, it is our childhood experiences that separates the Wiggins from the wannabes. UK Sport researchers uncovered that nearly all super-elites (those who are repeat gold medal winners) have experienced trauma, death, or disease in their childhood – whereas those who don’t quite reach the top often don’t. The super-elites discovered sport as a positive emotional outlet earlier in their life. For example, Bradley Wiggins had a violent, drug-abusing father; Laura Trott was born with a collapsed lung and suffered childhood asthma, and doctors told her to exercise; Mo Farah was a Somalian refugee who immigrated to the UK at eight-years-old, unable to speak a word of English. In Mo’s instance, a school teacher spotted that he was good at running and the rest is history. For these winners, they tapped into their resilience and determination to beat everyone else. It’s a lesson to us all that life’s greatest challenges can sometimes give us the strength to do incredible things.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons: Mo Farah, Michael Phelps; Flickr CC: Laura Trott

Article by Stuart Farrimond

September 2, 2016

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .


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Arrivals Lounge: All aboard for issue 19…

All is not as it seems in this issue of Guru Magazine. The world in which we live in is one of murky politics, invisible parasites and mysterious illusions. Issue 19 lifts the veil on hidden worlds that few of us ever knew existed – journeying from the waters of the Ganges in North India to the American fields of professional athletics. Turning our attention to ourselves, we then zoom in on the bugs that live inside our bodies and we consider how sleep – and a lack of it – can distort our view of reality.

Kate Timms wonders whether there has been a conspiracy at play in the world of American Football, as she investigates the scandal of sports-related head injuries. For many years, professional sports bodies have denied that knocks to the head can cause unseen and potentially fatal brain damage – and only now is the truth starting to emerge. Jack Williams then reviews Rob Brotherton’s debut book, Suspicious Minds, and discovers that all of us – no matter how sceptical – have a tendency to be duped by crazy conspiracy theories. Winners of our Suspicious Minds competition are revealed, with accolades going to the most inventive new conspiracy theories that you concocted.

On a more savoury – or should we say ‘sweet’ – note, guest writer Cameron Hyde chews over how his skinny friends manage to have their cake and eat it, while he seems to pile on the pounds just by looking at an apple pie. It’s all down to our DNA, he says, and small changes to our lifestyle can reprogram our biological instruction manuals – ultimately letting us fit into that abandoned pair of skinny jeans.

Also in this issue, microbe expert Dr Bjorn Herpers offers a surprising solution to the problem of superbugs. We review the latest book by Comma Press, Spindles: Short Stories from the Science of Sleep: a compelling collection of popular science short stories from a variety of authors accompanied with commentaries by real scientists.

There are other gems buried in Guru for you to discover but we’ll hand over to new mother Autumn Sartain to awaken your senses. Read on as she recounts an ill-fated night when the foundations of her world started to wobble. But don’t worry, this is one story with a happy ending…

 

Article by Stuart Farrimond

April 1, 2016

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .


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There’s a Storm Coming, I Feel it in My Bones – or do you?

Thank goodness the nights are finally getting shorter (for those of us in the Northern hemisphere). Unless you’re a duck, the wet and gloomy weather is pretty miserable. The imminent spring sunshine is especially good news for those of us who suffer with aching joints. Speak to anyone who has arthritis and there’s a good chance they will say their joints ache more when a storm is looming. Many experts think that changes in air pressure affect the way we feel pain; yet despite this being a widely held belief, there’s no real proof that it’s actually real. One researcher, however, is using smartphone technology to discover whether your aunt really is right when she says, “There’s a storm coming – I feel it in my bones”.  And what’s more, if you own a mobile phone and experience long-standing pain then you too can be a medical science detective.

PainDr Will Dixon, a UK professor who specialises in medical statistics, recently launched a smartphone app called ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Pain’. It is available free of charge to anyone aged over 17 in the UK who has suffered with pain for at least three months. Every day for six months you are tasked with inputting your symptoms – including pain, fatigue and general wellbeing – on a five-point scale. Your location and the local weather conditions are automatically recorded, and you can even submit your own ideas about what might be triggering a flare in pain. Each user is also sent a personalised report to help them learn more about their symptoms and health.

The project has been running for a few weeks and the anonymised data is being crunched right now. By analysing the results from thousands of people’s suffering, Dr Dixon hopes to find the truth behind a belief that has existed for at least 2,500 years. He follows in the footsteps of other scientists who have explored similar ancient beliefs, such as that of ‘lunacy’: surveys have shown that about half of us believe crime and mental illness peak during a full moon – and Accident and Emergency staff are particularly likely to say their work gets busier on werewolf nights. But the actual science shows that it isn’t real: workers merely forget all the full moon evenings when not much happens.

So given that two thirds of arthritis sufferers believe weather affects their symptoms (and even the Arthritis Foundation have an online ‘joint pain weather forecast’), it seems likely that many people will stick to their convictions regardless of what Dr Dixon discovers. That said, it’s going to take some time before he gets his final conclusions – and seeing how unreliable some weather Office forecasts have been of late, I’d be inclined to take a chance and ask my aunt when the next storm is on the way…

Photo credit: Steven Depolo and azarius via Flickr Creative Commons

Article by Stuart Farrimond

February 8, 2016

Doctor Stu is editor of Guru Magazine. He originally trained as a medical doctor before deciding to branch out into lecturing, writing, editing and science communication. He drinks far too much coffee, eats lots of ice cream and has a bizarre love of keeping fit.
You can check out Doctor Stu’s blog at realdoctorstu.com or his poncy personal website stuartfarrimond.com. Here's his .


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