Now of course the majority of people reading the title to today’s post would think of us humans. And what I am about to republish is for us. But dogs require exercise just as much as we humans. The question is whether dog’s brains are better protected with exercise?
The exercise pill: How exercise keeps your brain healthy and protects it against depression and anxiety.
By Arash Javanbakht, Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University, February 25th, 2021
As with many other physicians, recommending physical activity to patients was just a doctor chore for me – until a few years ago. That was because I myself was not very active. Over the years, as I picked up boxing and became more active, I got firsthand experience of positive impacts on my mind. I also started researching the effects of dance and movement therapies on trauma and anxiety in refugee children, and I learned a lot more about the neurobiology of exercise.
I am a psychiatrist and neuroscientist researching the neurobiology of anxiety and how our interventions change the brain. I have begun to think of prescribing exercise as telling patients to take their “exercise pills.” Now knowing the importance of exercising, almost all my patients commit to some level of exercise, and I have seen how it benefits several areas of their life and livelihood.
We all have heard details on how exercise improves musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, metabolic and other aspects of health. What you may not know is how this happens within the brain.
Brain biology and growth
Working out regularly really does change the brain biology, and it is not just “go walk and you will just feel better.” Regular exercise, especially cardio, does change the brain. Contrary to what some may think, the brain is a very plastic organ. Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain. One key area is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory and regulating negative emotions.
Finally, there is evidence for the positive effects of exercise on the neurotransmitters – brain chemicals that send signals between neurons – dopamine and endorphins. Both of these are involved in positive mood and motivation.
Exercise improves clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression
Exercise could even potentially desensitize people to physical symptoms of anxiety. That is because of the similarity between bodily effects of exercise, specifically high-intensity exercise, and those of anxiety, including shortness of breath, heart palpitation and chest tightness. Also, by reducing baseline heart rate, exercise might lead to signaling of a calmer internal physical environment to the brain.
It is important to note that the majority of studies examined the effects of exercise in isolation and not in combination with other effective treatments of clinical anxiety and depression, such as psychotherapy and medication. For the same reason, I am not suggesting exercise as a replacement for necessary mental health care of depression or anxiety, but as part of it, and for prevention.
There are other perks besides the neurobiological impacts of exercise. When going out for a walk, one gets more exposure to sunlight, fresh air and nature. One of my patients befriended a neighbor during her regular walks, leading to regular taco Tuesdays with that new friend. I have made some great friends at my boxing gym, who are not only my motivators, but also a great supporting social network. One might pick a dog as their running mate, and another might meet a new date, or enjoy the high energy at the gym. Exercise can also function as a mindfulness practice and a respite from common daily stressors, and from our electronic devices and TV.
So how can you find time to exercise, especially with all the additional time demands of the pandemic, and the limitations imposed by the pandemic such as limited access to the gyms?
Pick something you can love. Not all of us have to run on a treadmill (I actually hate it). What works for one person might not work for another. Try a diverse group of activities and see which one you will like more: running, walking, dancing, biking, kayaking, boxing, weights, swimming. You can even rotate between some or make seasonal changes to avoid boredom. It does not even have to be called an exercise. Whatever ups your heartbeat, even dancing with the TV ads or playing with the kids.
Use positive peer pressure to your advantage. I have created a group messaging for the boxing gym because at 5:30 p.m., after a busy day at the clinic, I might have trouble finding the motivation to go to the gym or do an online workout. It is easier when friends send a message they are going and motivate you. And even if you do not feel comfortable going to a gym during the pandemic, you can join an online workout together.
Do not see it as all or none. It does not have to be a one-hour drive to and from the gym or biking trail for a one-hour workout vs. staying on the couch. I always say to my patients: “One more step is better than none, and three squats are better than no squats.” When less motivated, or in the beginning, just be nice to yourself. Do as much as possible. Three minutes of dancing with your favorite music still counts.
Merge it with other activities: 15 minutes of walking while on the phone with a friend, even around the house, is still being active.
When hesitant or low on motivation, ask yourself: “When was the last time I regretted doing it?”
Although it can help, exercise is not the ultimate weight loss strategy; diet is. One large brownie might be more calories than one hour of running. Don’t give up on exercise if you are not losing weight. It is still providing all the benefits we discussed.
Even if you do not feel anxious or depressed, still take the exercise pills. Use them for protecting your brain.
This is a very good post. Arash Javanbakht is a scientist of the first order and we all should do as she advises. I’m going to close today’s post by republish the first two paragraphs of his bio that is also published by The Conversation:
Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University Arash Javanbakht, M.D., is the director of the Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety Research Clinic (STARC; https://www.starclab.org) at Wayne State University. Dr Javanbakht and her work have been featured on the National Geographic, The Atlantic, CNN, Aljazeera, NPR, Washington Post, Smithsonian, PBS, American Psychiatric Association, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and tens of other media.
Her clinical and research work is mainly focused on anxiety and trauma related disorders, and PTSD. She often helps civilians and first responders with PTSD. Her clinic utilizes pharmacotherapy (medication), psychotherapy, exercise, and lifestyle modification to help patients achieve their full capacity for a fulfilling life.
Luckily, her mom found the perfect place to help her come out of her shell — Home Depot.
“The Home Depot runs started as a way to help her with her fears,” Rakers told The Dodo. “She was nervous about new places and new sounds, so we’d go for five minutes and she’d get all the treats. Then we started going longer and longer and exposing her to more and more things within the store.”
The large, dog-friendly store was the perfect place for Heaven to socialize, and the pup was such a good girl on her visits that she earned her own tiny employee apron.
Now, Heaven knows that when the apron comes out, she’s about to go to her favorite place.
“I keep it in the car so we are always ready,” Rakers said. “As soon as she can tell we are in the parking lot, she just quivers until I put [the apron] on her and then she takes off towards ‘work.’”
“She walks around like she owns the place,” Rakers added.
Heaven has become a bit of a celebrity at her local Home Depot, where all the staff knows her by name, and there’s even a picture of her in the break room.
And while she may not be an official employee, when she’s at her favorite store, she offers excellent customer service.
“She walks around minding her own business and then suddenly insists on meeting someone,” Rakers said. “She just sits and stares. They always end up saying how they needed that pick-me-up. It’s like she has a sense of who needs to be shown they are loved that day — and one of her favorite places to do that is Home Depot!”
Heaven loves running errands with her mom, and everywhere they go, she finds someone having a rough day who needs her smile.
“She was scared of everything, but with a lot of training and patience she learned to trust and now it’s like she pays it forward,” Rakers said. “She finds who needs her and gives them that smile and a cuddle.”
The only downside of all their Home Depot runs is that every time they visit, Rakers comes up with a new home improvement project. But all the retail therapy is worth it when she sees how happy Heaven is and how far she’s come.
“She’s the perfect example of what happens when you meet someone where they are at and love unconditionally,” Rakers said. “She went from so scared and so sad to the happiest dog.”
Thank goodness our local Home Depot here in Grants Pass (Oregon) don’t have a Heaven in the store. For if they did Jean and I would be in the store every day of the year. OK, maybe a small exaggeration but only a small one!
Seriously, Home Depot are to be congratulated. It’s good for the store. It’s good for the employees. It’s good for the customers. But it is fantastic for Heaven!
Sometimes realisation comes in a blinding flash. Blurred outlines snap into shape and suddenly it all makes sense. Underneath such revelations is typically a much slower-dawning process. Doubts at the back of the mind grow. The sense of confusion that things cannot be made to fit together increases until something clicks. Or perhaps snaps.
Collectively we three authors of this article must have spent more than 80 years thinking about climate change. Why has it taken us so long to speak out about the obvious dangers of the concept of net zero? In our defence, the premise of net zero is deceptively simple – and we admit that it deceived us.
The threats of climate change are the direct result of there being too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So it follows that we must stop emitting more and even remove some of it. This idea is central to the world’s current plan to avoid catastrophe. In fact, there are many suggestions as to how to actually do this, from mass tree planting, to high tech direct air capture devices that suck out carbon dioxide from the air.
The current consensus is that if we deploy these and other so-called “carbon dioxide removal” techniques at the same time as reducing our burning of fossil fuels, we can more rapidly halt global warming. Hopefully around the middle of this century we will achieve “net zero”. This is the point at which any residual emissions of greenhouse gases are balanced by technologies removing them from the atmosphere.
This is a great idea, in principle. Unfortunately, in practice it helps perpetuate a belief in technological salvation and diminishes the sense of urgency surrounding the need to curb emissions now.
We have arrived at the painful realisation that the idea of net zero has licensed a recklessly cavalier “burn now, pay later” approach which has seen carbon emissions continue to soar. It has also hastened the destruction of the natural world by increasing deforestation today, and greatly increases the risk of further devastation in the future.
To understand how this has happened, how humanity has gambled its civilisation on no more than promises of future solutions, we must return to the late 1980s, when climate change broke out onto the international stage.
Steps towards net zero
On June 22 1988, James Hansen was the administrator of Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, a prestigious appointment but someone largely unknown outside of academia.
By the afternoon of the 23rd he was well on the way to becoming the world’s most famous climate scientist. This was as a direct result of his testimony to the US congress, when he forensically presented the evidence that the Earth’s climate was warming and that humans were the primary cause: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.”
If we had acted on Hansen’s testimony at the time, we would have been able to decarbonise our societies at a rate of around 2% a year in order to give us about a two-in-three chance of limiting warming to no more than 1.5°C. It would have been a huge challenge, but the main task at that time would have been to simply stop the accelerating use of fossil fuels while fairly sharing out future emissions.
Four years later, there were glimmers of hope that this would be possible. During the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, all nations agreed to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases to ensure that they did not produce dangerous interference with the climate. The 1997 Kyoto Summit attempted to start to put that goal into practice. But as the years passed, the initial task of keeping us safe became increasingly harder given the continual increase in fossil fuel use.
It was around that time that the first computer models linking greenhouse gas emissions to impacts on different sectors of the economy were developed. These hybrid climate-economic models are known as Integrated Assessment Models. They allowed modellers to link economic activity to the climate by, for example, exploring how changes in investments and technology could lead to changes in greenhouse gas emissions.
They seemed like a miracle: you could try out policies on a computer screen before implementing them, saving humanity costly experimentation. They rapidly emerged to become key guidance for climate policy. A primacy they maintain to this day.
Unfortunately, they also removed the need for deep critical thinking. Such models represent society as a web of idealised, emotionless buyers and sellers and thus ignore complex social and political realities, or even the impacts of climate change itself. Their implicit promise is that market-based approaches will always work. This meant that discussions about policies were limited to those most convenient to politicians: incremental changes to legislation and taxes.
Around the time they were first developed, efforts were being made to secure US action on the climate by allowing it to count carbon sinks of the country’s forests. The US argued that if it managed its forests well, it would be able to store a large amount of carbon in trees and soil which should be subtracted from its obligations to limit the burning of coal, oil and gas. In the end, the US largely got its way. Ironically, the concessions were all in vain, since the US senate never ratified the agreement.
Postulating a future with more trees could in effect offset the burning of coal, oil and gas now. As models could easily churn out numbers that saw atmospheric carbon dioxide go as low as one wanted, ever more sophisticated scenarios could be explored which reduced the perceived urgency to reduce fossil fuel use. By including carbon sinks in climate-economic models, a Pandora’s box had been opened.
It’s here we find the genesis of today’s net zero policies.
That said, most attention in the mid-1990s was focused on increasing energy efficiency and energy switching (such as the UK’s move from coal to gas) and the potential of nuclear energy to deliver large amounts of carbon-free electricity. The hope was that such innovations would quickly reverse increases in fossil fuel emissions.
But by around the turn of the new millennium it was clear that such hopes were unfounded. Given their core assumption of incremental change, it was becoming more and more difficult for economic-climate models to find viable pathways to avoid dangerous climate change. In response, the models began to include more and more examples of carbon capture and storage, a technology that could remove the carbon dioxide from coal-fired power stations and then store the captured carbon deep underground indefinitely.
This had been shown to be possible in principle: compressed carbon dioxide had been separated from fossil gas and then injected underground in a number of projects since the 1970s. These Enhanced Oil Recovery schemes were designed to force gases into oil wells in order to push oil towards drilling rigs and so allow more to be recovered – oil that would later be burnt, releasing even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Carbon capture and storage offered the twist that instead of using the carbon dioxide to extract more oil, the gas would instead be left underground and removed from the atmosphere. This promised breakthrough technology would allow climate friendly coal and so the continued use of this fossil fuel. But long before the world would witness any such schemes, the hypothetical process had been included in climate-economic models. In the end, the mere prospect of carbon capture and storage gave policy makers a way out of making the much needed cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.
The rise of net zero
When the international climate change community convened in Copenhagen in 2009 it was clear that carbon capture and storage was not going to be sufficient for two reasons.
First, it still did not exist. There were no carbon capture and storage facilities in operation on any coal fired power station and no prospect the technology was going to have any impact on rising emissions from increased coal use in the foreseeable future.
The biggest barrier to implementation was essentially cost. The motivation to burn vast amounts of coal is to generate relatively cheap electricity. Retrofitting carbon scrubbers on existing power stations, building the infrastructure to pipe captured carbon, and developing suitable geological storage sites required huge sums of money. Consequently the only application of carbon capture in actual operation then – and now – is to use the trapped gas in enhanced oil recovery schemes. Beyond a single demonstrator, there has never been any capture of carbon dioxide from a coal fired power station chimney with that captured carbon then being stored underground.
Just as important, by 2009 it was becoming increasingly clear that it would not be possible to make even the gradual reductions that policy makers demanded. That was the case even if carbon capture and storage was up and running. The amount of carbon dioxide that was being pumped into the air each year meant humanity was rapidly running out of time.
With hopes for a solution to the climate crisis fading again, another magic bullet was required. A technology was needed not only to slow down the increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but actually reverse it. In response, the climate-economic modelling community – already able to include plant-based carbon sinks and geological carbon storage in their models – increasingly adopted the “solution” of combining the two.
So it was that Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage, or BECCS, rapidly emerged as the new saviour technology. By burning “replaceable” biomass such as wood, crops, and agricultural waste instead of coal in power stations, and then capturing the carbon dioxide from the power station chimney and storing it underground, BECCS could produce electricity at the same time as removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. That’s because as biomass such as trees grow, they suck in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. By planting trees and other bioenergy crops and storing carbon dioxide released when they are burnt, more carbon could be removed from the atmosphere.
With this new solution in hand the international community regrouped from repeated failures to mount another attempt at reining in our dangerous interference with the climate. The scene was set for the crucial 2015 climate conference in Paris.
A Parisian false dawn
As its general secretary brought the 21st United Nations conference on climate change to an end, a great roar issued from the crowd. People leaped to their feet, strangers embraced, tears welled up in eyes bloodshot from lack of sleep.
The emotions on display on December 13, 2015 were not just for the cameras. After weeks of gruelling high-level negotiations in Paris a breakthrough had finally been achieved. Against all expectations, after decades of false starts and failures, the international community had finally agreed to do what it took to limit global warming to well below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels.
But dig a little deeper and you could find another emotion lurking within delegates on December 13. Doubt. We struggle to name any climate scientist who at that time thought the Paris Agreement was feasible. We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.
Instead of confront our doubts, we scientists decided to construct ever more elaborate fantasy worlds in which we would be safe. The price to pay for our cowardice: having to keep our mouths shut about the ever growing absurdity of the required planetary-scale carbon dioxide removal.
Taking centre stage was BECCS because at the time this was the only way climate-economic models could find scenarios that would be consistent with the Paris Agreement. Rather than stabilise, global emissions of carbon dioxide had increased some 60% since 1992.
Alas, BECCS, just like all the previous solutions, was too good to be true.
Across the scenarios produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) with a 66% or better chance of limiting temperature increase to 1.5°C, BECCS would need to remove 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. BECCS at this scale would require massive planting schemes for trees and bioenergy crops.
The Earth certainly needs more trees. Humanity has cut down some three trillion since we first started farming some 13,000 years ago. But rather than allow ecosystems to recover from human impacts and forests to regrow, BECCS generally refers to dedicated industrial-scale plantations regularly harvested for bioenergy rather than carbon stored away in forest trunks, roots and soils.
Currently, the two most efficient biofuels are sugarcane for bioethanol and palm oil for biodiesel – both grown in the tropics. Endless rows of such fast growing monoculture trees or other bioenergy crops harvested at frequent intervals devastate biodiversity.
It has been estimated that BECCS would demand between 0.4 and 1.2 billion hectares of land. That’s 25% to 80% of all the land currently under cultivation. How will that be achieved at the same time as feeding 8-10 billion people around the middle of the century or without destroying native vegetation and biodiversity?
Growing billions of trees would consume vast amounts of water – in some places where people are already thirsty. Increasing forest cover in higher latitudes can have an overall warming effect because replacing grassland or fields with forests means the land surface becomes darker. This darker land absorbs more energy from the Sun and so temperatures rise. Focusing on developing vast plantations in poorer tropical nations comes with real risks of people being driven off their lands.
And it is often forgotten that trees and the land in general already soak up and store away vast amounts of carbon through what is called the natural terrestrial carbon sink. Interfering with it could both disrupt the sink and lead to double accounting.
As these impacts are becoming better understood, the sense of optimism around BECCS has diminished.
Given the dawning realisation of how difficult Paris would be in the light of ever rising emissions and limited potential of BECCS, a new buzzword emerged in policy circles: the “overshoot scenario”. Temperatures would be allowed to go beyond 1.5°C in the near term, but then be brought down with a range of carbon dioxide removal by the end of the century. This means that net zero actually means carbon negative. Within a few decades, we will need to transform our civilisation from one that currently pumps out 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year, to one that produces a net removal of tens of billions.
Mass tree planting, for bioenergy or as an attempt at offsetting, had been the latest attempt to stall cuts in fossil fuel use. But the ever-increasing need for carbon removal was calling for more. This is why the idea of direct air capture, now being touted by some as the most promising technology out there, has taken hold. It is generally more benign to ecosystems because it requires significantly less land to operate than BECCS, including the land needed to power them using wind or solar panels.
Unfortunately, it is widely believed that direct air capture, because of its exorbitant costs and energy demand, if it ever becomes feasible to be deployed at scale, will not be able to compete with BECCS with its voracious appetite for prime agricultural land.
It should now be getting clear where the journey is heading. As the mirage of each magical technical solution disappears, another equally unworkable alternative pops up to take its place. The next is already on the horizon – and it’s even more ghastly. Once we realise net zero will not happen in time or even at all, geoengineering – the deliberate and large scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system – will probably be invoked as the solution to limit temperature increases.
One of the most researched geoengineering ideas is solar radiation management – the injection of millions of tons of sulphuric acid into the stratosphere that will reflect some of the Sun’s energy away from the Earth. It is a wild idea, but some academics and politicians are deadly serious, despite significant risks. The US National Academies of Sciences, for example, has recommended allocating up to US$200 million over the next five years to explore how geoengineering could be deployed and regulated. Funding and research in this area is sure to significantly increase.
In principle there is nothing wrong or dangerous about carbon dioxide removal proposals. In fact developing ways of reducing concentrations of carbon dioxide can feel tremendously exciting. You are using science and engineering to save humanity from disaster. What you are doing is important. There is also the realisation that carbon removal will be needed to mop up some of the emissions from sectors such as aviation and cement production. So there will be some small role for a number of different carbon dioxide removal approaches.
The problems come when it is assumed that these can be deployed at vast scale. This effectively serves as a blank cheque for the continued burning of fossil fuels and the acceleration of habitat destruction.
Carbon reduction technologies and geoengineering should be seen as a sort of ejector seat that could propel humanity away from rapid and catastrophic environmental change. Just like an ejector seat in a jet aircraft, it should only be used as the very last resort. However, policymakers and businesses appear to be entirely serious about deploying highly speculative technologies as a way to land our civilisation at a sustainable destination. In fact, these are no more than fairy tales.
The only way to keep humanity safe is the immediate and sustained radical cuts to greenhouse gas emissions in a socially just way.
Academics typically see themselves as servants to society. Indeed, many are employed as civil servants. Those working at the climate science and policy interface desperately wrestle with an increasingly difficult problem. Similarly, those that champion net zero as a way of breaking through barriers holding back effective action on the climate also work with the very best of intentions.
The tragedy is that their collective efforts were never able to mount an effective challenge to a climate policy process that would only allow a narrow range of scenarios to be explored.
Most academics feel distinctly uncomfortable stepping over the invisible line that separates their day job from wider social and political concerns. There are genuine fears that being seen as advocates for or against particular issues could threaten their perceived independence. Scientists are one of the most trusted professions. Trust is very hard to build and easy to destroy.
But there is another invisible line, the one that separates maintaining academic integrity and self-censorship. As scientists, we are taught to be sceptical, to subject hypotheses to rigorous tests and interrogation. But when it comes to perhaps the greatest challenge humanity faces, we often show a dangerous lack of critical analysis.
In private, scientists express significant scepticism about the Paris Agreement, BECCS, offsetting, geoengineering and net zero. Apart from some notable exceptions, in public we quietly go about our work, apply for funding, publish papers and teach. The path to disastrous climate change is paved with feasibility studies and impact assessments.
Rather than acknowledge the seriousness of our situation, we instead continue to participate in the fantasy of net zero. What will we do when reality bites? What will we say to our friends and loved ones about our failure to speak out now?
The time has come to voice our fears and be honest with wider society. Current net zero policies will not keep warming to within 1.5°C because they were never intended to. They were and still are driven by a need to protect business as usual, not the climate. If we want to keep people safe then large and sustained cuts to carbon emissions need to happen now. That is the very simple acid test that must be applied to all climate policies. The time for wishful thinking is over.
I can’t add anything to this article because it is written by scientists and that is one thing that I know I am not!
But I can comment as a very concerned adult and really can do more that repeat what I said in yesterday’s post:
Thank goodness for our younger generation. Because these young people are coming together to fight for change. May they have universal encouragement from those of us who will never see our younger days again!
This is one of the most important posts since I started blogging!
I was born in 1944 and that makes me 76. I am reasonably engaged in the issues facing us but, in a sense, protected from the realities of the modern world because I have a loving wife, two loving young people, as in my son Alex and my daughter Maija, and a special grandson, Morten.
We are also very lucky in that my wife, Jean, and I are both retired and we live on 13 rural acres in a beautiful part of Southern Oregon and enjoy immensely our six dogs, two horses, two parakeets and feeding the wild birds and deer.
But it can’t stay that way because of the encroaching elephant in the room.
I am speaking of climate change that if not dealt with in the near future, say in the next 10 years, will lead to an unimaginable state of affairs.
Now one could argue that you come to Learning from Dogs to get away from climate change and the like. But this is too important and, also, involves all of us including our gorgeous dogs.
First, I want to include an extract from a recent Scientists Warning newsletter (and please read this extract carefully).
Recently, one article on the climate emergency above all others has cut through – with over ONE MILLION views, “Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap” published in The Conversation is being talked about by many thousands, and led Greta Thunberg to tweet: “This is one of the most important and informative texts I have ever read on the climate- and ecological crises.”
So why is this article so very important?
In our latest interview, I talk with two of the authors – Dr. James Dyke, global systems scientist at the University of Exeter and Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, climate scientist at Lund University. And the conversation does not make for comfortable viewing. We discuss what led James, Wolfgang and Professor Bob Watson to write an article that they have described as being one of the hardest they have ever written. The article is *not* an attack on net zero, nor does it advocate a fatalistic position. Instead, as you will hear, the interview reveals the heartfelt concerns of two scientists who are profoundly worried about the failure of a climate policy system that suppresses the voice of science and is fundamentally flawed. A climate policy system that year after year has failed.
But it is not just the climate policy system that has failed. Academia has failed too, and continues to fail Greta and young people like her. And this *must* stop. Young people have become the adults in the room. We cannot place this burden on their shoulders. They have shown their courage and bravery. Now it’s time for academia to step up to the challenge and to critically examine why we are failing.
Secondly, I want to share that interview with you. This is a 36-minute interview. Please, please watch it. If it is not a convenient time just now then bookmark the post and watch it when you can sit down and be fully engaged. You will understand then and agree with me that this is one of the most important videos ever!
Lastly, I would like you to read the article published in The Conversation. I have included a link to it but I am also going to republish it on Friday.
Because we have to listen to the scientists without delay and press for change now.
Thank goodness for our younger generation. Because these young people are coming together to fight for change. May they have universal encouragement from those of us who will never see our younger days again!
Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology & Microbiology and Molecular Genetics; Interim Assistant Vice President of Research & Innovation, Michigan State University.
As a species, humans are wired to collaborate. That’s why lockdowns and remote work have felt difficult for many of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For other living organisms, social distancing comes more naturally. I am a plant scientist and have spent years studying how light cues affect plants, from the very beginning of a plant’s life cycle – the germination of seeds – all the way through to leaf drop or death. In my new book, “Lessons from Plants,” I explore what we can learn from the environmental tuning of plant behaviors.
One key takeaway is that plants have the ability to develop interdependence, but also to avoid it when being connected could be damaging. Generally, plants are constantly communicating and engaged with other organisms in their ecosystems. But when these ongoing connections threaten to cause more harm than good, plants can exhibit a form of social distancing.
The power of connection and interdependence
When conditions are good, most plants are networkers. The vast majority of plants have fungi that live on or within their roots. Together, the fungi and roots form structures known as mycorrhizae, which resemble a netlike web.
Mycorrhizae increase their host plants’ ability to absorb water and nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphate, through their roots. In return, the plants share sugars that they produce through photosynthesis with their fungal partners. Thus, the fungi and host plants are powerfully interconnected, and depend on one another to survive and thrive.
Mycorrhizal connections can link multiple plants in a functioning network. When plants produce more sugars than they need, they can share them via this interconnected root-fungal network. By doing so, they ensure that all plants in the community have access to the energy they need to support their growth.
Put another way, these connections extend beyond a single host plant and its fungal partner. They create communitywide relationships and interdependent networks of plants and fungi. Factors in the external environment, such as the amount of light available for photosynthesis and the composition of soil around the plants, fine-tune the connections in these networks.
Mycorrhizhae also serve as communication channels. Scientists have documented that plants pass defensive chemicals, such as substances that promote resistance against insect pests, to other plants via fungal networks. These connections also allow a plant that has been attacked by aphids or other such pests to signal to neighboring plants to preemptively activate their own defense responses.
When it’s safer to keep your distance
Sharing resources or information that helps other plants ward off danger is a valuable example of the power of connectedness and interdependence in plant ecosystems. Sometimes, however, surviving requires plants to disconnect.
When environmental cues such as light or nutrients become scarce enough that a host plant can produce enough sugars through photosynthesis to support only its own growth, staying actively interconnected in a larger community network could be dangerous. Under such conditions, the host plant would lose more from sharing limited sugar supplies than it would gain from the network in water and nutrients.
At times like these, plants can limit mycorrhizal connections and development by restricting how many materials they exchange with their fungal partners and avoiding making new connections. This is a form of physical distancing that protects the plants’ ability to support themselves when they have limited energy supplies so they can survive for the long term.
When conditions improve, plants can resume sharing with their fungal partners and establish additional connections and interdependence. Once again, they can benefit from sharing resources and information about the ecosystem with their extended plant and fungal communities.
Recognizing kin and collaboration
Social distancing isn’t the only trick plants use to make their way in the world. They also recognize related plants and tune their abilities to share or compete accordingly. When the plants that are interconnected by a fungal network are close genetic relatives, they share more sugars with the fungi in that network than they do when the other plants are more distantly related.
Prioritizing kin may feel highly familiar to us. Humans, like other biological organisms, often actively contribute to help our kin survive. People sometimes speak of this as working to ensure that the “family name” will live on. For plants, supporting relatives is a way to ensure they carry on their genes.
Plants can also transform aspects of their environment to better support their growth. Sometimes essential nutrients that are present in soil are “locked up” in a form that plants can’t absorb: For example, iron can become bound up with other chemicals in forms very similar to rust. When this happens, plants can excrete compounds from their roots that essentially dissolve these nutrients into a form that the plants can readily use.
Plants can transform their environments in this way either individually or collectively. Plant roots can grow in the same direction, in a collaborative process known as swarming that is similar to bee swarms or bird flocks. Such swarming of roots enables the plants to release a lot of chemicals in a particular soil region, which frees up more nutrients for the plants’ use.
Behaviors like mycorrhizal symbiosis, kin recognition and collaborative environmental transformation suggest that overall, plants are better together. By staying in tune with their external environment, plants can determine when working together and fostering interdependence is better than going it alone.
When I reflect on these tunable connections and interdependence between plants and fungi, I draw constant inspiration – especially during this pandemic year. As we make our way in a constantly changing world, plants offer all kinds of lessons for humans about independence, interdependence and supporting each other.
I agree with Professor Montgomery. Who would have though it! Plants do indeed offer strong social lessons for us humans. Maybe that explains why trees, especially trees, have such a profound, beautiful appeal to yours truly as well as many other people.
Going to close with a photograph taken of our trees and pond here at home.
The unconditional love of dogs put to a very beneficial human use!
Yesterday while we were waiting to pay for a few food items in Winco we stopped behind a woman with a small service dog. The dog was a Dachshund and had a jacket on which were sewn badges saying that this was a service dog and not to make contact.
The woman suffered from panic attacks and strongly recommended an organisation that was called ADA. In fact it is a government organisation and ADA stands for Americans with Disabilities Act.
PTSD, a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening traumatic event, is a complex condition and can be hard to treat. Our lab is studying whether service dogs can help these military veterans, who may also have depression and anxiety – and run an elevated risk of death by suicide – in addition to having PTSD.
The traditional treatments for PTSD, such as talk therapy and medication, do work for many veterans. But these approaches do not alleviate the symptoms for all veterans, so a growing number of them are seeking additional help from PTSD service dogs.
The nation’s estimated 500,000 service dogs aid people experiencing a wide array of conditions that include visual or hearing impairments, psychological challenges, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
Service dogs can help vets with PTSD in many ways. The most common tasks include helping veterans remain calm and interrupting their anxiety. The veterans said they are asking their dogs to calm or comfort them from anxiety five times per day and that their dogs independently interrupted their anxiety three times per day on average.
For example, a dog may “cover” a veteran at a supermarket, allowing its owner to calmly turn to take something off the shelf, because veterans with PTSD can get startled if they don’t know if someone is approaching and benefit if their dogs signal that this is happening. If a veteran starts to have a panic attack, a service dog can nudge its owner to “alert” and interrupt the anxiety. At that point, the veteran can focus on petting the dog to re-center on the present – ideally preventing or minimizing the panic attack.
Aside from the tasks that their dogs are trained to do, veterans also shared that the love and companionship they get from simply being with their dogs is helping make their PTSD easier to manage.
Once veterans got service dogs, they described themselves in surveys as more satisfied with their lives, said they felt a greater sense of well-being and deemed themselves as having better relationships with friends and loved ones.
Not all veterans are willing or able to benefit from having their own service dogs.
Being accompanied by dogs in public can draw attention to the veterans. Some veterans appreciate this attention and the way it encourages them to get out of their shell, while others dread having to avoid well-meaning, dog-loving strangers. We’ve found that veterans do not expect this challenge, but often experience it.
Service dogs can also make it harder to travel, since bringing a dog along can require more planning and effort, especially because many people don’t understand the legal rights of people with service dogs and may ask inappropriate questions or create barriers that they aren’t legally allowed to do. Many experts believe educating the public about service dogs could alleviate these challenges.
What’s more, feeding, walking, grooming and otherwise taking care of a dog also entails additional responsibilities, including making sure they see a veterinarian from time to time.
There can also be a new sense of stigma that goes along with making a disability that might otherwise be hidden readily apparent. Someone who has PTSD might not stick out until they get a service dog that is always present.
Most veterans say it’s worth it because the benefits tend to outweigh the challenges, especially when appropriate expectations are set. Clinicians can play a role in helping veterans realize in advance what caring for the animal entails, to make the intervention positive for both the veterans and the dogs.
We are now completing the first registered clinical trial comparing what happens when these veterans get the usual PTSD interventions with what happens when they get that same treatment in addition to a trained service dog.
As our research proceeds, we are trying to see how the effects of a service dog last over time, how the service dogs affect veterans’ families and how we can support the partnership between veterans and their service dogs.
I am still struggling with WordPress. For example I haven’t yet worked out how to place the credit for the photograph underneath the picture. (It did it all on its own!) And there doesn’t seem to be a ‘blockquote’ command.
But coming back to the article it was a perfect description of the way that dogs are so, so good to us humans whether we have a medical need for a service dog or not.
Nothing to do with dogs but everything to do with the future!
An item in The Conversation recently was not only interesting from a scientific point-of-view but also it had real lessons for the way that we humans are interfering with the planet.
As The Conversation introduced the article:
A mile below the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, an ancient Arctic ecosystem is preserved in the frozen soil. How scientists discovered its leaves, twigs and mosses is a story in itself. It starts with a secret military base built into the northern Greenland ice.
So, for a change, read something that has nothing to do with our furry friends.
Ancient leaves preserved under a mile of Greenland’s ice – and lost in a freezer for years – hold lessons about climate change
In 1963, inside a covert U.S. military base in northern Greenland, a team of scientists began drilling down through the Greenland ice sheet. Piece by piece, they extracted an ice core 4 inches across and nearly a mile long. At the very end, they pulled up something else – 12 feet of frozen soil.
The ice told a story of Earth’s climate history. The frozen soil was examined, set aside and then forgotten.
Half a century later, scientists rediscovered that soil in a Danish freezer. It is now revealing its secrets.
Using lab techniques unimaginable in the 1960s when the core was drilled, we and an international team of fellow scientists were able to show that Greenland’s massive ice sheet had melted to the ground there within the past million years. Radiocarbon dating shows that it would have happened more than 50,000 years ago. It most likely happened during times when the climate was warm and sea level was high, possibly 400,000 years ago.
And there was more. As we explored the soil under a microscope, we were stunned to discover the remnants of a tundra ecosystem – twigs, leaves and moss. We were looking at northern Greenland as it existed the last time the region was ice-free. Our peer-reviewed study was published on March 15 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
With no ice sheet, sunlight would have warmed the soil enough for tundra vegetation to cover the landscape. The oceans around the globe would have been more than 10 feet higher, and maybe even 20 feet. The land on which Boston, London and Shanghai sit today would have been under the ocean waves.
All of this happened before humans began warming the Earth’s climate. The atmosphere at that time contained far less carbon dioxide than it does today, and it wasn’t rising as quickly. The ice core and the soil below are something of a Rosetta Stone for understanding how durable the Greenland ice sheet has been during past warm periods – and how quickly it might melt again as the climate heats up.
Secret military bases and Danish freezers
The story of the ice core begins during the Cold War with a military mission dubbed Project Iceworm. Starting around 1959, the U.S. Army hauled hundreds of soldiers, heavy equipment and even a nuclear reactor across the ice sheet in northwest Greenland and dug a base of tunnels inside the ice. They called it Camp Century.
It was part of a secret plan to hide nuclear weapons from the Soviets. The public knew it as an Arctic research laboratory. Walter Cronkite even paid a visit and filed a report.
One of the original scientists, glaciologist Chester Langway, kept the core and soil samples frozen at the University at Buffalo for years, then he shipped them to a Danish archive in the 1990s, where the soil was soon forgotten.
A few years ago, our Danish colleagues found the soil samples in a box of glass cookie jars with faded labels: “Camp Century Sub-Ice.”
On a hot July day in 2019, two samples of soil arrived at our lab at the University of Vermont frozen solid. We began the painstaking process of splitting the precious few ounces of frozen mud and sand for different analyses.
First, we photographed the layering in the soil before it was lost forever. Then we chiseled off small bits to examine under the microscope. We melted the rest and saved the ancient water.
Then came the biggest surprise. While we were washing the soil, we spotted something floating in the rinse water. Paul grabbed a pipette and some filter paper, Drew grabbed tweezers and turned on the microscope. We were absolutely stunned as we looked down the eyepiece.
Staring back at us were leaves, twigs and mosses. This wasn’t just soil. This was an ancient ecosystem perfectly preserved in Greenland’s natural deep freeze.
How old were these plants?
Over the last million years, Earth’s climate was punctuated by relatively short warm periods, typically lasting about 10,000 years, called interglacials, when there was less ice at the poles and sea level was higher. The Greenland ice sheet survived through all of human history during the Holocene, the present interglacial period of the last 12,000 years, and most of the interglacials in the last million years.
But our research shows that at least one of these interglacial periods was warm enough for a long enough period of time to melt large portions of the Greenland ice sheet, allowing a tundra ecosystem to emerge in northwestern Greenland.
We used two techniques to determine the age of the soil and the plants. First, we used clean room chemistry and a particle accelerator to count atoms that form in rocks and sediment when exposed to natural radiation that bombards Earth. Then, a colleague used an ultra-sensitive method for measuring light emitted from grains of sand to determine the last time they were exposed to sunlight.
Lessons for a world facing rapid climate change
Losing the Greenland ice sheet would be catastrophic to humanity today. The melted ice would raise sea level by more than 20 feet. That would redraw coastlines worldwide.
About 40% of the global population lives within 60 miles of a coast, and 600 million people live within 30 feet of sea level. If warming continues, ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica will pour more water into the oceans. Communities will be forced to relocate, climate refugees will become more common, and costly infrastructure will be abandoned. Already, sea level rise has amplified flooding from coastal storms, causing hundreds of billions of dollars of damage every year.
The article is republished with the full permission of The Conversation.
I hope you read it because the way the climate is changing is affecting all of us now and sooner rather than later we have all got to amend our ways. Indeed, when I look at anyone who has potentially thirty or more years of life in them I ponder what their future is going to be like. And, of course, it won’t be a drastic change in thirty years it is already happening now albeit at times difficult to see.
But there is not one scintilla of doubt that we humans are the cause and we humans have to be the solution!
But to be honest the answer is just as interesting for those a tad older than a kid!
When dogs bark, are they using words to communicate?
By Clive Wynne
Professor of Psychology, Arizona State University
February 8th, 2021
When dogs bark, do they have words? – Sarah W., age 9, Clinton, New York
Does your dog bark a lot? Or is he one of those quiet pooches who barks only when things get really exciting? Most dogs bark at least a little.
Dog barks are not words. But although your dog will never tell you about his parents or the weather or the amazing bone he had yesterday, his barks still communicate important information.
Dog barks are much closer to the noises people make when they accidentally hit their thumb with a hammer – “Ow!” – or open a fantastic present – “Wow!” These sounds convey how someone feels, but not why they feel that way. When other people hear these kinds of sounds, they often come over to see what has happened: How did you hurt yourself? What is this wonderful gift you received?
Dog barking also brings groups together – but it’s not a beautiful sound. It is a much more urgent noise, just like the sounds you make when you are hurt or very pleased. Many smaller animals, like scrub jays, meerkats and California ground squirrels, make such noisy sounds. They do this when they feel frightened by something. In dogs, barking can bring a group together to defend against a danger that can’t be coped with alone.
Wolves don’t need to make sounds like this because they are big and fearsome and don’t often feel threatened. Dogs, on the other hand, are much smaller and weaker than their wolf ancestors – and often need to call the group together.
This is why dogs bark. They are calling their group to get help with something they are not confident they can handle on their own. This doesn’t mean a barking dog is always frightened. He may just be very excited. He badly needs the family to know that there is a stranger coming to the door, or another dog coming close to the house.
Your dog’s barks may not be words, but he probably barks a little differently depending on what kind of thing has got him excited. If you listen closely, you may find you can tell the difference between a bark directed at a package deliverer and one directed toward a friend at the door. The bark to a passing dog may be different than the bark at a passing car.
Your dog doesn’t understand much of what you say, but he listens hard to try to make sense of human language. If you return the compliment and listen hard to his sounds, you may find you can also understand him better, and the two of you will have a richer life together.
This touches on something that I saw elsewhere; the business of dogs having emotions (which they really do!).
I will try and find the article and see if I have permission to republish it.
I make no apologies for republishing this further article about the health of one’s gut. Apart from the relevance at this time in terms of defeating Covid-19 the health of one’s digestive system is key and, essentially, the digestive system is the gut.
Read it and if you need to adjust your diet, DO IT!
A healthy microbiome builds a strong immune system that could help defeat COVID-19
By Ana Maldonado-Contreras
Assistant Professor of Microbiology and Physiological Systems, University of Massachusetts Medical School
Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria that are vital for keeping you healthy.
Some of these microbes help to regulate the immune system.
New research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, shows the presence of certain bacteria in the gut may reveal which people are more vulnerable to a more severe case of COVID-19.
You may not know it, but you have an army of microbes living inside of you that are essential for fighting off threats, including the virus that causes COVID-19.
In the past two decades scientists have learned our bodies are home to more bacterial cells than human ones. This community of bacteria that lives in and on us – called the microbiome – resembles a company, with each microbe species performing specialized jobs but all working to keep us healthy. In the gut, the bacteria balance the immune response against pathogens. These bacteria ensure the immune response is effective but not so violent that it causes collateral damage to the host.
Bacteria in our guts can elicit an effective immune response against viruses that not only infect the gut, such as norovirusand rotavirus, but also those infecting the lungs, such as the flu virus. The beneficial gut microbes do this by ordering specialized immune cells to produce potent antiviral proteins that ultimately eliminate viral infections. And the body of a person lacking these beneficial gut bacteria won’t have as strong an immune response to invading viruses. As a result, infections might go unchecked, taking a toll on health.
I am a microbiologist fascinated by the ways bacteria shape human health. An important focus of my research is figuring out how the beneficial bacteria populating our guts combat disease and infection. My most recent work focuses on the link between a particular microbe and the severity of COVID-19 in patients. My ultimate goal is to figure out out how to enhance the gut microbiome with diet to evoke a strong immune response – for not just SARS-CoV-2 but all pathogens.
How do resident bacteria keep you healthy?
Our immune defense is part of a complex biological response against harmful pathogens, such as viruses or bacteria. However, because our bodies are inhabited by trillions of mostly beneficial bacteria, virus and fungi, activation of our immune response is tightly regulated to distinguish between harmful and helpful microbes.
Our bacteria are spectacular companions diligently helping prime our immune system defenses to combat infections. A seminal study found that mice treated with antibiotics that eliminate bacteria in the gut exhibited an impaired immune response. These animals had low counts of virus-fighting white blood cells, weak antibody responses and poor production of a protein that is vital for combating viral infection and modulating the immune response.
Patients with chronic illnesses including Type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease exhibit a hyperactive immune system that fails to recognize a harmless stimulus and is linked to an altered gut microbiome.
In these chronic diseases, the gut microbiome lacks bacteria that activate immune cells that block the response against harmless bacteria in our guts. Such alteration of the gut microbiome is also observed in babies delivered by cesarean section, individuals consuming a poor diet and the elderly.
Research in my laboratory focuses on identifying gut bacteria that are critical for creating a balanced immune system, which fights life-threatening bacterial and viral infections, while tolerating the beneficial bacteria in and on us.
Given that diet affects the diversity of bacteria in the gut, my lab studies show how diet can be used as a therapy for chronic diseases. Using different foods, people can shift their gut microbiome to one that boosts a healthy immune response.
A fraction of patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, develop severe complications that require hospitalization in intensive care units. What do many of those patients have in common? Old age and chronic diet-related diseases like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Discovering microbes that predict COVID-19 severity
The COVID-19 pandemic has inspired me to shift my research and explore the role of the gut microbiome in the overly aggressive immune response against SARS-CoV-2 infection.
My colleagues and I have hypothesized that critically ill SARS-CoV-2 patients with conditions like obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease exhibit an altered gut microbiome that aggravates acute respiratory distress syndrome.
Several studies described in one recent review have identified an altered gut microbiome in patients with COVID-19. However, identification of specific bacteria within the microbiome that could predict COVID-19 severity is lacking.
To address this question, my colleagues and I recruited COVID-19 hospitalized patients with severe and moderate symptoms. We collected stool and saliva samples to determine whether bacteria within the gut and oral microbiome could predict COVID-19 severity. The identification of microbiome markers that can predict the clinical outcomes of COVID-19 disease is key to help prioritize patients needing urgent treatment.
We demonstrated, in a paper which has not yet been peer reviewed, that the composition of the gut microbiome is the strongest predictor of COVID-19 severity compared to patient’s clinical characteristics commonly used to do so. Specifically, we identified that the presence of a bacterium in the stool – called Enterococcus faecalis– was a robust predictor of COVID-19 severity. Not surprisingly, Enterococcus faecalis has been associated with chronicinflammation.
Enterococcus faecalis collected from feces can be grown outside of the body in clinical laboratories. Thus, an E. faecalis test might be a cost-effective, rapid and relatively easy way to identify patients who are likely to require more supportive care and therapeutic interventions to improve their chances of survival.
Bacteria from the gut microbiome are responsible for the proper activationof those T-regulatorycells. Thus, researchers like me need to take repeated patient stool, saliva and blood samples over a longer time frame to learn how the altered microbiome observed in COVID-19 patients can modulate COVID-19 disease severity, perhaps by altering the development of the T-regulatory cells.
As a Latina scientist investigating interactions between diet, microbiome and immunity, I must stress the importance of better policies to improve access to healthy foods, which lead to a healthier microbiome. It is also important to design culturally sensitive dietary interventions for Black and Latinx communities. While a good-quality diet might not prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection, it can treat the underlying conditions related to its severity.
Please note that obesity is regarded as a chronic illness.
Let me reprint a paragraph from the article:
In the U.S., 117 million individuals – about half the adult population – suffer from Type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease or a combination of them. That suggests that half of American adults carry a faulty microbiome army.
This is not funny. Good eating, typically the Mediterranean diet, is not difficult.
Now this has nothing to do with dogs. Well not directly but the longer we humans live the longer we can have dogs as pets.
I was having an email ‘conversation’ with Jon over in England and he pointed me to Professor Tim Spector. Prof. Spector writes on his website that he:
Tim Spector is a Professor of Genetic Epidemiology and Director of the TwinsUK Registry at Kings College, London and has recently been elected to the prestigious Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences. He trained originally in rheumatology and epidemiology.
In 1992 he moved into genetic epidemiology and founded the UK Twins Registry, of 13,000 twins, which is the richest collection of genotypic and phenotypic information worldwide. He is past President of the International Society of Twin Studies, directs the European Twin Registry Consortium (Discotwin) and collaborates with over 120 centres worldwide.
He has demonstrated the genetic basis of a wide range of common complex traits, many previously thought to be mainly due to ageing and environment. Through genetic association studies (GWAS), his group have found over 500 novel gene loci in over 50 disease areas. He has published over 800 research articles and is ranked as being in the top 1% of the world’s most cited scientists by Thomson-Reuters.
He held a prestigious European Research Council senior investigator award in epigenetics and is a NIHR Senior Investigator. His current work focuses on omics and the microbiome and directs the crowdfunded British Gut microbiome project.
Together with an international team of leading scientists including researchers from King’s College London, Massachusetts General Hospital, Tufts University, Stanford University and nutritional science company ZOE he is conducting the largest scientific nutrition research project, showing that individual responses to the same foods are unique, even between identical twins.
You can find more on https://joinzoe.com/ He is a prolific writer with several popular science books and a regular blog, focusing on genetics, epigenetics and most recently microbiome and diet (The Diet Myth). He is in demand as a public speaker and features regularly in the media.
That is quite a CV!
Then I came across an essay on The Conversation website about being healthier in one’s old age.
Keen to be healthier in old age? Tend your inner garden
Professor of Genetic Epidemiology, King’s College London
January 29, 2016
The world’s oldest man, Yasutaro Koide recently died at the age of 112. Commentators as usual, focused on his reported “secret to longevity”: not smoking, drinking or overdoing it. No surprises there. But speculation on the basis of one individual is not necessarily the most helpful way of addressing this human quest for the Philosopher’s Stone.
The “very old” do spark our interest – but is our search for a secret to longevity actually misguided? Wouldn’t you rather live healthier than live longer in poor health? Surely, what we really want to know is how do we live well in old age.
Clearly as scientists we try to illuminate these questions using populations of people not just odd individuals. Many previous attempts have approached this question by looking for differences between young and old people, but this approach is often biased by the many social and cultural developments that happen between generations, including diet changes. Time itself should not be the focus – at least, in part, because time is one thing we are unlikely to be able to stop.
The real question behind our interest in people who survive into old age is how some manage to stay robust and fit while others become debilitated and dependent. To this end, recent scientific interest has turned to investigating the predictors of frailty within populations of roughly the same age. Frailty is a measure of how physically and mentally healthy an individual is. Studies show frailer older adults have an increased levels of low grade inflammation – so-called “inflammaging”.
New research published in Genome Medicine by Matt Jackson, from our group at King’s College London, investigated this question in an unlikely place – poo. Recent evidence indicates that our immune and inflammatory systems are trained and educated in our gut, through key interactionswith gut bacteria. So we asked if changes in our gut bacteria could be part of the process of inflammation driving frailty.
Our recent work found that the frailer an individual, the lower the diversity of gut bacteria they have. We looked at stool samples from more than 700 healthy British twins and found that a group of bacteria belonging to the species with a tricky and slightly unpleasant name, Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, were found in higher amounts in the healthier twins. This is a particularly interesting microbe as it has been linked with good health in many other diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and is believed to reduce inflammation of the gut. Could this bug help protect against frailty?
There were other microbes seen in increased amounts within the frailer twins. One was Eubacterium dolichum, which has been seen to increase in unhealthy Western diets. We found the same picture when comparing frailer, more elderly, individuals from the ELDERMET study, by the University of Cork. This suggests that dietary changes might be an easy way to encourage healthy ageing.
Our study does not yet clarify whether the changes to the gut bacteria are a cause of poor ageing itself or are just a consequence of frailty – longitudinal studies that follow people over several years will be needed to sort this out. But these results are exciting for researchers in the ageing field and suggest that if you want to age well you should perhaps do fewer crosswords and spend more time looking after your microbial garden, for example by eating plenty of plant fibre, for example in a Mediterranean-type diet.
Well this essay was published nearly 5 years ago and one wonders if more information has come to light.
Certainly Jeannie and me are heavily into a plant-based diet with a small selection of fish from time to time.
I will do more research and see if there are any updates that may be published.
In the meantime stay as healthy and as happy as you can be!