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Health Matters


Our babies are precious to us. We pile them with presents. We worry about all the harmful chemicals that the world has manufactured. We fill them with finest foods. But we’ve forgotten the most important ingredient. And it’s all round us, free and just waiting to be used: words. Meet the newest trend: ‘language nutrition’.

And words are going out of business. We used to live in big, extended families in big, extended streets or villages. We used to – listen to this, kids! – talk to each other round the fire, over the washing or at the peat bank. We didn’t used to have – our grannies tell us – radios, tellies, videos, iPads or even smart phones. I remember thirty years ago sitting in Australia’s Western Desert with a bunch of Pintupi Aboriginal guys, trying to convince them that the TV was only invented recently and that when I was born our family hadn’t had one!

There are now huge – and I mean really huge – differences in the amount of language we speak to our kids. Twenty years ago researchers in America followed 42 families with young children every month from the age of 7 months to 3 years. Every month the scientists sat in a corner of the room and recorded all the conversations for an hour. The results amazed everybody. After 3 years, up to 98% of the words used by the children had been used by their parents during that period. But as well as that, the kids were mimicking the way and the amount their parents talked. Some families talked much more than others. The least-talking households used 616 words an hour, while the most-talking children were hearing 2,153 words an hour. That meant that the children in the most-talking families had heard 30 million more words than those in the least-talking houses by the age of four.

Not only that, but some families ‘scolded’ their children much more than others. Some parents gave out two discouragements for every encouragement – by the age of four they were on the receiving end of 125,000 more words of discouragement than encouragement; others praised six times more than they scolded. All the families were equally loving and the kids as well-looked after as each other.

And what about ‘screen language’? Is the old parental standby of CBBC, DVD and now the kid’s own iPad just as good? Probably not. Another study from America looked at 9-month-old babies from Englishspeaking families, who were talked to in Mandarin Chinese for half an hour, three times a week for a month. At the end of this they tested the babies to see if they could tell the difference between two sounds common in Chinese – ‘chee’ and ‘shee’. The babies could do this, as well as babies brought up in Taiwan. But babies given exactly the same exposure to Mandarin on a TV or a radio hadn’t learned anything. You need the words, but you also have to have a human being in front of you.

Babies learn more if you talk to them about what’s interesting them at the time. In other words, if they’re looking at a bright red car, talk about that, not a book about hippopotamuses you’ve just got from the library. And two languages are even better. Children exposed to two languages concentrated better, and were better at solving problems, than English-only kids.

So how should we talk to babies and young children – apart from ‘a lot’? Well, you might think that being sophisticated is better. But speaking in baby talk, or what the experts call ‘child directed speech’, is the best. Sometimes called ‘parentese’, this involves a higher pitched voice, a sing-song style, stretching the words out (“Whoooose a prettyy bayyybeeee. Yes, yoooo are!”), and exaggerated facial expressions. Studies show that babies like it and they remember more from the ‘conversation’. Importantly, adults who speak baby talk actually like babies more, and infants are good at working this out – and smile at them more. They’ve got us wrapped around their tiny fingers! A baby’s first 1,000 days are the most important; words are as important to the growing brain as food is to the growing body. Scans show that babies exposed to more talking have physically bigger language centres in their brains.

As one expert said, “Brains aren’t born, they’re made.” Words are free. Fill the air with them!

Health Matters – Walking and Talking


I felt an icy trickle down my back when I heard the news. If you can remember back that far, last month’s report that our memory starts to get worse in our forties was a bit of a wakeup call. Five out of six people who get to 80 won’t get dementia. But one in six people will. It is set to become one of the most important features of care on Tiree as the rate is going to double in the next 40 years. Indeed, it is very much in our thinking at Cùram as we plan how we could look after the next generation.

Two thirds of people with dementia have Alzheimer’s disease. This is when the brain cells get clogged up with protein sludge. Another one in five have what is called vascular dementia – lots of tiny strokes, one after the other. There are other sorts of dementia too, and it is becoming increasingly important to try and find out which sort people have. The treatment is slightly different and the dementias progress in different ways.

But can we do anything about the wearing out of what has been called the most complex thing in the universe – the human brain? We’re not sure, to be honest. Dementia is such a slow process: you would have to take a thousand people, do something to one group, nothing to another –
and wait twenty years to see what works best. But exercising mind and body seems to be the key. A lot of the evidence about this comes from the poor old laboratory mouse (look away now if you find this distasteful). There is a strain of mice now which has been bred to get dementia – at 7 months of age they are showing advanced signs. But if they are given free access to a running wheel from their first weeks they are less likely to develop dementia changes, in their behaviour and in their brains. And if you allow the same strain of pregnant mice to run as much as they want on a treadmill, their offspring have less dementia changes in their brains when they grow up too. The brain needs a lot of energy, and a lot of blood. Keeping your circulation healthy is important. On the medical side this means good blood pressure, good cholesterol and good sugar. I’m sorry to say – if you have diabetes you’re a bit more likely to get dementia in old age.

And a big study in humans this year in Texas gives a useful pointer. 17 years ago they put 60 000 people (yes, 60 000 – they don’t do things by halves in Texas!) on a treadmill and measured how fit they were. Then they looked at how many of them died from dementia over the years. The fittest two thirds in the study were half as likely to die from dementia as the least fit. Of course, that doesn’t prove it was the exercise that did it. People who keep physically fit are more likely to be healthy in other ways too. But another study found that the more muscle people have, the less likely they are to get dementia.

On the mental front, another smaller study recently found that older people who used their brains a lot when they were younger had healthier looking brain scans. And we’re not talking Einsteins here. The best way to use your brain? Talk to people – and be interested in what they say. We use huge amounts of brain power remembering who has said what, to whom. Sitting and watching television look like the worst things to be doing if you want to keep your brain active.

Dementia is not a welcoming thought and there are no guarantees. The fittest granny in the world can get dementia if that’s in her nature. But, if walking and talking can keep it at bay for a bit, I’m up for having a go!

Health Matters – Let there be light (and dark!)

health matters

There’s a new medicine on Tiree. It’s free. It’s all around us (during the day, anyway). It makes us sleep like babies and wake up full of energy. It stops us feeling depressed. But, like all medicines, there’s a downside, if we don’t use it properly. It can keep us awake at night, and even encourage the growth of cancer. And some of our new gadgets are messing up our brains. Tiree is famous for it. Light.

As well as affecting our skin, light has extraordinary powers over the inside working of the body. It was only in 1995 that scientists found that the eye sends a signal to the control centre of the brain which tells us what time of day it is. This control centre (the pineal gland) pumps out a hormone called melatonin at night, making us sleepy.

Light, especially blue light, cuts production down, so we wake up and feel lively. Our sex drive is also higher (one reason why sunshine holidays are so popular!). Researchers found that if you put residents of an old peoples’ home into bright light (equivalent to outdoors on a cloudy day) for an hour in the morning, they cheer up. Students shown bright blue light did better in their tests than those exposed to green light.

On Tiree we sleep less in the summer and more in the winter. But as we age, the eye becomes less transparent (think cataracts) and we need more light to have the same effect. But this control centre, which tells us when to go to sleep and when to wake up, can also be upset by quite dim light – from a computer screen, iPad or television. Even normal room lighting in the evening (200 lux) has a big effect on melatonin production and the brain can detect levels down to 1 lux (full moonlight). And new energy saving bulbs produce more blue light than the old bulbs.

So, dimming the lights well before bedtime and using red lights if we have to get up, will help you sleep. Some people have even recommended using amber goggles in the evening to calm the brain. Shift workers (like doctors!) are exposed to light at night, messing up their sleep-wake rhythm and this makes them (us) more likely to have heart attacks, diabetes and strokes. Breast cancer in particular is more common in shift workers.

In a nutshell, I think that means– sit out in the sun every morning and turn off your screens at 9pm. Sounds like good advice to me!