I was never a particularly fit or active child. It wasn’t for lack of encouragement from my parents, they had me try all sorts of different activities in the hopes I’d find something that I enjoyed, more it was that I just never felt as capable as other kids when it came to physical endeavours. This, of course, fed into my love of all things gaming and other sedentary activities. It wasn’t until over a decade ago that I started to take my health seriously, transforming myself from a chronically underweight individual (BMI 17) to the more athletic person that I am today. Mostly I did this for myself however I always had a view that I needed to do this for my future children and today brings word of new research that shows I was on the right track.
It’s common knowledge that your parent’s genetics play a major role in your development and health throughout your life. Indeed it’s to the point now where we can identify many genes that are precursors for many conditions and diseases, allowing us to engage in preventative treatment long before the condition manifests itself. It’s also well known that the mother’s health, as well as the conditions she exposes herself to during pregnancy, have long lasting effects on the child after birth. However many believe that beyond those two factors the health of the parents doesn’t really factor into the child’s long term health, I.E. that your health prior to conceiving doesn’t have much influence over the child’s long term wellbeing. The latest research out of our own University of Adelaide turns that assumption on its head showing that the parents’ health before conception plays a significant role in the child’s well being throughout their life.
Essentially it boils down to the accumulation of environmental factors in the egg and sperm of the parents which are then passed on to any progeny. The good news is for parents that are looking to conceive is that this mechanism works both ways and that improvements in your health before conception will then also lead to better outcomes for your child. Whilst the study says that the impacts can be seen even months before conception effecting real change in such a short time frame is highly unlikely and such changes should be undertaken much earlier. Unfortunately since I don’t have journal access anymore I can’t comment on just how effective such intervention is but the researchers comments don’t seem to indicate that it’s small.
For me this just reinforces the view that your health is far more important than a lot of people give it credit for. Whilst I always lament when people derive motivation from a wake up call like this I can’t deny that it’s an effective mechanism for most. Indeed it seems for many that their child’s health is a primary motivator for a lot of decisions, even if some of them are rather ill-informed. So if improving your own health could vastly improve your childs then I’m sure many parents would take the initiative and live better lives as a result. Hopefully that would then lead onto keeping those improved habits long after the children were born as whilst your genetic influence may have ceased you will still have huge impact on their habits, many of which they will carry with them for life.
Much like my current aversion to smartwatches I’m equally disinterested in the idea of a fitness tracker. As a man of science I do like the idea in principle as anyone looking to better themselves should track as much data as they can to ensure what they’re doing is actually having an effect. However all the devices on market don’t appear to be much more than smart pedometers with nice interfaces something which doesn’t really track the kinds of things I’m looking for (since most of my exercise isn’t aerobic in nature). I don’t discount their value for others but if I was going to invest in one it’d have to do a lot more than just be an accelerometer attached to my wrist.
I may have found one in AIRO, a rather Jony Ive-esque device coming from a new 3 person startup. For the most part it sports the same features as other health trackers, presumably through the same method of an incorporated accelerometer, but its real claim to fame comes from its apparent ability to detect metabolites in your blood, without having to cut yourself to do so. AIRO also claims to be able to detect the quality of the food you’re eating as well which, from what I can tell by looking at their website, seems to be related to the macro-nutrient breakdown. As someone who regularly struggles to get enough calories to support their goals (yeah I’m one of those people, believe me it’s not as great as you might think it is) and really can’t be bothered to use a calorie tracker this is of particular interest to me, something I’d consider plonking down a chunk of change for.
Of course the sceptic in me was instantly roused by the idea that a device could non-invasively determine such things because such technology would be a boon to diabetics, not to mention any research program looking at monitoring caloric intake. Indeed something like this is so far out of left field that most of the mainstream coverage of the device doesn’t go into just how it works, except for referring to the fact that it measures calories and macro-nutrient breakdown based on light. It sounds like a great theory but since there’s no source material provided to show how their method works, nor any validation using standard means like doubly labelled water or even short term experiments with strictly controlled caloric intake.
I was going to leave it at that, and indeed not even write about it since I wanted to see some validation of the idea before I said anything, but then I stumbled across this article from ScienceDaily which links to a German study that has been able to measure blood glucose with infrared light. The function of their device sounds different to the one AIRO purports, instead using the infrared light to penetrate the skin and cause a resonance in the glucose within the bloodstream which their device can then pick up. Their device sounds like it would be anything but wearable however with a “shoebox sized” device planned to be released within the next few years. This doesn’t validate the idea behind AIRO but it does lend some credence to the idea that you’d be able to extract some kind of information about blood metabolites using light pulses.
So I’m definitely intrigued now, possibly to the point of shelling out the requisite $159 to get one delivered when they come out, but I would love to see some validation of the device by the inventors to prove their device can do what they say it can do. It’s not like this would be particularly difficult, hell if they send me a prototype device I’ll happily engage in a tightly controlled caloric diet in order to prove it can measure everything, and it would go a long way to convince the sceptics that what they’ve made really is as good as they say it is. Heck I bet there’s even a couple other startups that’d love to do some testing to prove that their products also work as intended (I’m looking at you, Soylent) and having that kind validation would be extremely valuable for both involved.
I have to try hard to avoid the echo chamber I find myself in sometimes where the combination of my like minded friends, carefully tailored RSS feed and social media network can easily warp my view of the larger world. It’s for that reason specifically that I often find myself diving deep into opinions that disagree with my own, seeing if there’s any merit to the opposite side of the story. Sometimes this leads to amazing insights and there have been times when I’ve had to do a completely 180 on a long held stance because of it (climate change being the best example I can think of). One subject that hasn’t been changed by doing so is vaccinations, despite the torrent of “evidence” that anti-vaxers have heaped on my blog.
What really annoys me though is the pandering that the Australian government continually engages in with people who disagree with hard, scientific evidence. Initially this was due to the conscientious objector exemption for those who didn’t want to vaccinate and also didn’t want to lose their Family Tax benefit. Realistically it only punishes the stupid and lazy, not those who have deliberately decided not to vaccinate because of some belief that doesn’t hold up to casual scrutiny. Further reading suggests that this is exactly who the legislation was meant to target, those who are simply not responsible enough to get their children vaccinated unless they’re threatened with a loss of benefits. Whilst I’m sure that number is non-zero I still feel the legislation doesn’t go far enough as it doesn’t solve the underlying issue of anti-vaxers chipping away at herd immunity which puts everyone at risk.
Indeed when I first heard about the No Jab, No Play legislation that was coming in for NSW I thought we might be in for some real change as initially I didn’t hear of any exemptions past medical (which can be legitimate) and religion. However it seems like it will include the same dreaded exemption on “philosophical” grounds, essentially giving parents an out should they not want to vaccinate as long as they sit in a doctor’s office and ignore them for 30 minutes. This completely nullifies the point of the legislation as I’d hazard a guess that the rate of people who just plain forgot is far lower than those who are actively avoided vaccinations due to beliefs that can’t be backed up by anything more than a gut feeling.
Realistically I believe there should be no exemptions at all, regardless of your religious or philosophical point of view. The reason for this is simple: we have a responsibility to not endanger the health of others and refusing to vaccinate, for whatever reason, puts this at risk. There’s a very small percentage of people who can’t be vaccinated for sound medical reasons and they’re put at an ever increasing amount of danger by those who simply choose not to. This is not a matter of your beliefs only affecting yourself (something which I have no problem with) as your choices will have a direct impact on other people’s lives, no matter how hard you’ve convinced yourself otherwise.
It’s easy to miss the bigger picture when you’re in a modern, western country where virulent diseases that causes untold numbers of deaths have been a non issue for decades. If you look at other countries, ones where the vaccination rates aren’t as high as they are here, you can see a direct correlation between when the campaigns falter and the resurgence of the diseases they were trying to prevent. Additionally there’s also strong correlation with the increased numbers of vaccinations decreasing the rates of diseases like measles showing pretty clearly that they work exactly as intended. Suffice to say if the anti-vaxers had their way we’d be seeing diseases which are essentially non-existent making a resurgence, something which I don’t think many of them have considered as a consequence of their actions.
I know I’m mostly preaching to the choir here but hopefully these kinds of posts give you enough information to fight the torrent of bullshit that flows from the anti-vax crowd. It’s a hard war to fight, especially when the effort gap between saying something ludicrous and disproving it is so large, but the longer we keep at it the more chance we have of eradicating this particular brand of ignorance entirely. Indeed we can think of knowledge as a vaccination against stupidity, a disease that would lead you to trust strangers on the Internet over the scientists and doctors who worked so hard to save you from real diseases.
I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.
Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.
The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:
The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.
I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.
The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:
Perceptions of harmfulness and strength were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands; would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.
Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.
The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:
Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.
It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.
We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.
I wasn’t much of a health nut up until about 3 years ago. Sure I wasn’t exactly out of shape thanks to my innate ability to not gain weight but I wasn’t exactly fit either. Sure I had done 3 years of martial arts prior to that but overall my level of activity was pretty low. Today however you’ll find me working out about 5 times per week, drowning myself in supplements (although I wouldn’t recommend that for everyone, I’m just a nutter experimenting to see if these things work) and being in the best physical form of my life. Since starting down this path I’ve become an advocate for exercise as being some of the best medicine you can get, but I’ve always had trouble of convincing people otherwise.
This video, which I tweeted about last week, puts it all into perspective:
There’s a mounting body of evidence that even small amounts of exercise, as little as 92 minutes per week, is enough to extend life expectancy by 3 years. So if you’re questioning whether or not you have the time to do something ask yourself this, can you take a break from sitting/lying down for 23.5 hours a day in order to improve your quality of life significantly? If you’re answer is no leave me a comment below, because I can’t fathom the reasons why you can’t spare that time.