Author Archives: jamesgoodwin1407

A Spark of Genius from the Minds of Many

Some years ago, after a very congenial dinner, a colleague of mine berated scientists for the many authors’ names which appear on their publications.  ‘Surely’, he said, ‘like those of us in the arts, brilliant minds should be able to publish independently – with just a single author’.  His remarks made me pause and think. I thought of the history of science and how many great minds have paved the road of progress with their milestone discoveries:  Newton with gravity; Lavoisier with oxygen; Darwin with evolution and Einstein with relativity.  Their names are endless and their achievements epic.  All of them individuals with the stroke of genius on their side.

Then yesterday, I pondered again, as I read the new paper in Nature by Professor Ian Deary – and no less than 19 of his fellow investigators.  Nineteen scientists to write a single article?  And not just 19 scientists: 5 institutions across two continents.  It was certainly a milestone paper. (For those of you who are not academics, ‘Nature’ is the world’s leading scientific journal. Publish in Nature and you are made.  No-one can argue with the level of your work).

Ian Deary heads up the ‘Disconnected Mind’, a project investigating why we ‘lose our marbles’ as we get older – more properly called cognitive ageing – a condition which every one of us will face.  It is also a complex one of which very little is known and in which there is little funding.   But since its inception in 2008, the project has prospered and grown to the point where Ian and his team in Edinburgh were able to publish their findings in Nature, together with their Australian colleagues.  A stunning achievement. Continue reading

The Tip of the Iceberg

In 1841, Registrar General William Farr, a distinguished mathematician and physician who famously said to Florence Nightingale, ‘Statistics should be as dry as dust’ produced the first report which identified a seasonal excess of deaths in the British winter.  Some 170 years later, we are still recording a yearly excess of between 20 and 40,000 winter deaths.  And by far the greatest numbers of those dying in the winter are those over 65, for many of whom both physiology and social conditions create a special vulnerability.

It has taken generations of scientists to unravel the causes of winter mortality.  The evidence is now clear on cause – it is the cold that is the killer.  All other factors, except in conditions of epidemic influenza, pale into insignificance.  So precise is this relationship that it has been calculated at 8,027 extra deaths for every 1°C the winter is colder than the average.  Paradoxically, this algorhythm applies only to the United Kingdom.  The irony is that the colder countries of the world – such as the Nordic lands, Russia, Canada and so on – have much lower winter mortality than the ‘warm’ UK.  It is an amazing truth that Yakutsk, the coldest city on earth with average winter temperatures of – 30°C, has virtually no seasonal fluctuation in mortality.  How can this be?

The answers are peculiarly British. Our heritage of an old and poorly insulated housing stock has meant that for years many have been consigned to winters spent in indoor cold, unable to afford their heating bills.  Add to that the exceptionally cold winters of recent years, rising energy prices and declining winter fuel benefits, we have a lethal cocktail of risk.  Fuel poverty is a real and vital issue for increasing numbers of older people.

But the evidence shows that indoor cold is only half of the story.  Deaths in the winter are largely due to respiratory illness and disease caused by blood clotting, the so-called ‘thrombotic illnesses’ of heart attack and stroke. Over the last few decades we have seen a reduction in deaths from respiratory illness in the winter, brought about it is thought by improving indoor warmth.  What has not declined is the mortality through heart attack and stroke.  These conditions are more dependent on going out into the cold, insufficiently protected by our winter clothes.  If you doubt this, look at the typical British wardrobe: how many of us have a separate winter edition? And how many of us frequently take trips outside without hat, scarf, gloves and coat? And so we are ambushed by winter cold.

Even a conservative estimate shows that the British winter, since Farr’s first report, will have been responsible for over 3 million deaths, deaths which we now know are entirely avoidable.  No wonder research tells us that older people in Britain fear the winter more than any of their European neighbours.  The question is, then, how may these deaths be avoided? Physiologists will tell you that ‘man is a tropical animal’: we must stay warm in order to stay well.  That is why Age UK, working with the Met Office, has taken the best scientific advice to launch its campaign ‘Spread the Warmth’. On the basis of new and compelling evidence, we are advising older people of the risks of both indoor and outdoor cold in an effort to stem the ‘British disease’.   And with DH, we are joining the Met Office as it seeks to alert the public of impending severe cold.  

Some estimates have said that 2,700 people every winter die because of fuel poverty. This is only the tip of a huge iceberg of winter deaths brought about by cold.  By translating the best research evidence into practice and by working with others, we are attempting win the war against the British winter.

Find out more about the Spread the Warmth campaign

Read Met Office guest blog


The Fountain of Youth

In the mythical land of Bimini, the indigenous populations of the Caribbean sought the fountain of youth, an idea which has intrigued and captivated peoples around the world and throughout history.  Beginning with Herodontus, carried in the hopes and dreams of the conquistadors and persisting into 19th Century literature, the fountain of youth has been a metaphor for increased longevity and vitality. This was not a trivial quest.  Over the centuries, mankind has had to come to terms with the nastiness, the brutishness and the shortness of life.  Within living memory in the UK, generations have experienced virulent infections, high childhood mortality and longevity of not much more than 50 years.  It is only now that society sees a reversal of its fortunes with healthy life expectancy increasing and longevity showing no signs of abatement.

For many, 60 is truly the new 40 and increasingly the benefits of a healthy third age are becoming an accepted reality.  But there are many others, some 12 million in the UK, who are plagued with long term chronic illness.  And there are equal numbers who either do not know how or who do not have the means to secure a healthy future.

Over the last 40 years, notably since the establishment of a strategic programme of ageing research in the USA, science has slowly revealed the secrets of ageing.  The myths of ageing are slowly being dispelled: our lifespan is not determined at birth; ageing does not begin when we retire; its process is ongoing throughout life and marvel upon marvel, we may influence it and slow it down. And if we can slow it down, we can remain healthy for longer.

This therefore begs the question: what does science tell us about slowing down ageing, about remaining healthy and about retaining a productive and quality older age?  Age UK has worked with leading scientists and physicians to distil their accumulated wisdom into advice which is accessible and clear.  We call it our top ten tips – ten pieces of precious advice which if followed will translate into a happier and healthier life.  Re-iterated here, they are:

  • Take regular exercise
  • Engage socially with others
  • Have a positive attitude about ageing
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Protect your eyes
  • Don’t smoke
  • Get regular health check-ups
  • Avoid excessive sun exposure
  • Get sufficient, good quality sleep
  • Pay attention to your pension and get expert financial advice.

Some of this advice may appear no better than what grandma said. But grandma said lots of things and not all of them were true. And some of the details of the advice may be surprising to many people. I would focus on just two, by way of illustration.  The research evidence for thinking positively about ageing is remarkable. Our beliefs and attitude influence our health – and we can control our beliefs. So much so that thinking positively can put, on average, 7.5 extra healthy years on our life. Another example would be sleep. Science has shown that poor quality sleep dramatically affects our health and our risk of disease; it is directly related to increased risks of diabetes type 2, a killer disease and it raises the levels of inflammation in the body, accelerating the ageing process.  These two examples are but part of a paradigm, a new way of thinking, a discipline of ageing. We can control it, we can slow it down and we can reap what our forebears would say is a sprinkling, if not a veritable fountain of youth.


The End of Nurture vs. Nature

This blog was written by James Goodwin, Head of Research, Age UK

Since John Locke wrote of ‘tabla rasa’ in his essay of 1690 and more recently Francis Galton of ‘Hereditary Genius’ in 1869, scientists, philosophers and social commentators have argued long and hard on the issue of Nature vs Nurture. It has been a polemic and inevitably a politicised argument. Through twin studies, behavioural genetics and other approaches, scientists have variously argued the proportion of our ‘genius’ which is due to either pedigree or poverty – or their interaction.  Now for the first time, a milestone scientific study confirms unequivocally – based on measured genetic data – that a large proportion of intelligence is inherited.  Moreover, the data show inherited intelligence is the result of small contributions by lots of genes rather than a big effect of just one or two genes.  In other words, a substantial proportion of individual differences in human intelligence is due to genetic variation.  The study made the discovery after analysing half a million genetic markers in a large sample of 3,500 older people in Scotland and England.  The data were checked against a separate group of older people in Norway.  And it was led by scientists from the University of Edinburgh funded by Age UK, using a new type of analysis, invented by Professor Peter Visscher and colleagues in Brisbane.

These unique data reveal that the proportion of intelligence that is down to genes is 40% for crystallised intelligence and 51% for fluid intelligence. Crystallised intelligence refers to learning, knowledge and skills that are accumulated over a lifetime. This type of intelligence tends to increase with age.  Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason quickly, think abstractly and deal with complex information around us. It tends to decline with age.

The significance of these findings is hard to appreciate. In the past, the view existed that it might never be possible to separate out, in a quantitative sense, the various proportions of nature and nurture.  And not only that, those scientists who searched for ‘intelligence genes’ had been unable to find them or had their methodology or findings derided on the grounds of racism or other prejudice.  The study too is not without its criticisms but it represents a watershed development in our understanding of one of the most intractable issues in science.  It has generated huge interest in the world’s scientific press and for good reason.  Not only does it represent a paradigm of excellence in the quality of its science but it also opens the way for a clearer, less equivocal understanding of the role of those modifiable factors in the environment which influence how we maintain good cognitive function as we age.

Age UK is proud to have supported this study.  Good science is never quick.  Findings take years, even decades to emerge and even longer to influence thinking, the view of society and policy change in critically important areas.  The decline of our mental function as we age is one of these areas, feared by millions and affecting increasing numbers in our ageing society.  As a result of this study, we are one step closer to real solutions which will enable present and future generations to age healthily and well.