The Grandparent Effect

stick_figure_family_portrait_1600_wht_2962Our social status depends largely on the status our grandparents had according to research at Oxford University.

Regardless of our parents’ jobs, incomes and education the chances of our attaining a higher social status more than double if our grandparents had professional rather than manual or unskilled jobs.

And the grandparent effect is stronger if they were from a higher social class and the parents slipped down. Then the grandchildren get pushed up again.

Looking at data for children born in 1946, 1958, and 1970, the researchers found that 80% of men born in families with both parents and grandparents in professional jobs maintained those positions.

Of men who had parents in the professional classes but grandparents in unskilled work only 61% retained the higher status.

The effect was weaker for women but their participation in the workforce would have been lower in the immediate post-war period and in the fifties.

Family has always had an influence on social class but these studies show the influence of grandparents who want the best for their grandchildren regardless of the parents’ situation.

Other research has shown the impact of grandparents on specific types of occupations and also the impact of breastfeeding on upward social mobility.

Are you happy? – part 2

Married people are happier than single people (it could be that happy people get married more easily).

And the 30% improvement in happiness due to being married makes up for  all the negative affects of unemployment.

Just don’t get divorced (the two worst life events are losing a spouse and unemployment).

But how do you know if people are really happy? Women look less happy but angrier than they are, whereas men look less angry and happier than they are.

Probably because we expect women to be happier than men and men angrier than women and we notice when people display behaviour that doesn’t fit our expectations.

Optimism is associated with happiness, good physical and mental health and longevity whereas stress lowers our immune system so we are more likely to become ill. So middle-aged people who are happy have fewer physical symptoms of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Older people also focus more on the positive aspects of goods and services because they focus more on emotional goals than young adults.(See “Are you happy”).

We are attracted to happy people because we think they will give good genes to our children.

Extraverts are happier than Introverts because they spend more time doing enjoyable things. But introverts who are asked to behave as extroverts can be even happier than real extroverts.

Happiness IS NOT associated with: wealth (once basic needs are met), education, high IQ, youth (20-24 year olds are more depressed than 65-74 year-olds) or watching TV more than 3 hours a day – especially watching soaps.

But it IS associated with: religion (although it may be the community rather than the belief), having lots of friends, and drinking in moderation (compared to tee-totallers).

We are not evolved to be happy all the time otherwise we would have nothing to strive for. However 50% of happiness may be due to our genes compared to les than 10% due to our circumstances. We may have a “set point” or range of happiness to which we return after experiencing ups and downs. So  winning the lottery may not make us happy forever.

According to ideas from positive psychology we can raise our happiness levels by enjoying life more eg by savouring sensual experiences, by becoming more involved in things, and by finding ways of making our lives more meaningful.

Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness: a practical guide to getting the life you want”, suggests the following  to raise your levels of happiness:

  1. Count your blessings – keep a gratitude journal each week of 3-5 things
  2. Practise being kind – both randomly and systematically
  3. Savour life’s joys
  4. Thank a mentor
  5. Learn to forgive
  6. Invest time and energy in friends and family – these are more important than work to your happiness.
  7. Take care of your body and health
  8. Develop strategies for coping with stress and hardship – having a strong belief system helps.

Womb to Gloom & behavioural problems

Your risk of developing anxiety or depression can be traced back to events in the womb according to researchers at the Medical Research Council.

In their National Survey of Health & Development psychiatrists looked at over 5,000 people born in 1946 and took diagnostic measures at 5 points in their lives up to age 53.

They analysed the data and identified 6 distinct categories which they called life course trajectories.

  • 45% were symptom-free throughout their lives.
  • 34% had persistent minor symptoms.
  • 11% had few symptoms in adolescence with minor symptoms in adulthood
  • 6% had symptoms in childhood but not in adulthood.
  • 3% had few symptoms in childhood but suffered severe symptoms in adulthood
  • Almost 2% had persistently severe symptoms all their lives.

So what were the key factors that influenced these outcomes?

Birth weight and the age at which they first stood and walked were good predictors. The heavier the baby and the earlier they walked the less likely they were to show psychiatric symptoms later in life.

This is because low birth weight and delayed developmental milestones were indicative of poor conditions for the baby in the womb.

In their paper in Biological Psychiatry the researchers think their findings add to the general consensus that adverse conditions for the foetus can have significant implications for the baby’s neurodevelopment and could permanently alter the stress response resulting in a lifetime of poor mental health.

However the authors are at pains to point out that this data doesn’t tell the whole story and consideration has to be given to other facts like stressful life events, poor physical health, and genetics. The nature-nurture discussion continues!

Other research suggests that mothers who are stressed during pregnancy have a greater chance of producing children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). Neurologists at the Institute of Psychiatry in London studied thousands of children from before birth to primary school and found a strong link between antenatal stress, mixed-handedness – the use of different hands for different tasks ie not ambidexterity, and childhood behavioural problems of which ADHD was the most common.

Their findings suggest that stress hormones in the womb disrupt the normal passage of neurons between the two hemispheres of the brain resulting in the inability for one hand to become dominant and a range of behavioural problems. Mixed handedness might in fact be an early indicator of ADHD as other research in Nordic countries showed that mixed-handed children, perhaps 5% of the population, are twice as likely to have ADHD symptoms than right-handed children. Previous studies have also shown links between ante-natal stress and low birthweight and low IQ.

Research at Imperial College found that problems with partners was a bigger cause of stress than worries about health , work or finances.

ADHD it is said to affect about 5% of the population and makes children (and some adults) appear reckless and impulsive with trouble concentrating. It can be treated with talking therapies such as CBT but Ritalin and similar drugs are commonly prescribed. But other  experts dispute its existence as there is no diagnostic test  and they see it as an excuse for poor behaviour. There is also concern about prescribing Ritalin and similar drugs as the number of prescriptions has increased dramatically from 3,500 in 1993 to over 600,000 in 2009.

Sources: The Psychologist & The Times

Are you a lark or an owl?

It’s important to know when you are working at your best because it could make a difference to your career success.

Some people are bright and breezy first thing in a morning (hard to believe if you are an owl of course) whilst others don’t come to life until later in the day.

Research by biologists in Germany found that people whose performance peaks in the morning are more proactive than people who are at their best in the evening. (There may be an element of puritan work ethic in this of course)

They tend to get better grades in school, and have better job opportunities. They also anticipate problems  and minimise them. Their proactive trait is what leads to better job performance, greater career success and higher wages.

Evening people have some advantages: they tend to be smarter and more creative than morning types, have a better sense of humour, and are more outgoing. Unfortunately they are out of synch with typical corporate schedules according to Professor Christopher Randler at the University of Heidelberg.

If you find yourself waking up at the same time every day, even the weekends, then you are probably an early bird. On the other hand if you like to take advantage of  your weekend and have a lie-in  – the scientists found a 2 hour difference on average  – then you are probably an owl.

It seems more people under 30 are evening types; from 30 to 50 it’s evenly split; and after 50 most people are morning types. You can change  your “chronotype”, 50% of which is due to genetics, by changing your sleep pattern but it only works for half those who try and only a small shift of an hour or so.

Source: HBR July/August 2010

Updated 13 November 2010: Everyone has probably heard about Winter blues, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), where lack of sunlight or daylight makes us feel depressed (and may contribute to the high suicide rates in some Nordic countries which enjoy  long Summer days followed by long Winter nights).

Experts now say that we should have exposure to bright daylight throughout the year. This is because daylight sets our body clocks and if we don’t get enough at the right time of day our body clock gets out of synch. That makes us feel tired and may influence our mood and concentration so that we rely on stimulants like coffee to keep us going.

This phenomenon has been called social jet lag, by Professor Till Roenneberg at the University of Munich, and it occurs because we evolved to live by natural patterns of daylight and night.

Bright lights in the morning stimulate the production of adrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin, which help us keep awake and feel mentally alert. When light fades the pineal gland produces melatonin and adenosine which make us sleepy.

However with modern work patterns we may wake up in the dark, go to work in artificial daylight, then as it grows dark in the evenings switch on bright lights and probably spend time in a brightly lit bathroom before we got to bed. This has the same effect as having a cup of coffee. So too much time in the wrong kind of light at the wrong time of day.

It’s estimated that  3 out of 4 people need an alarm clock to get up in the morning (I’m definitely an owl and I need two alarm clocks if I am going out to work) as their body clock is behind the real time and they are working at times which may not be biologically right for them.

The body clock also sets our metabolism and kidney functions and if yours isn’t in synch with real time you are more likely to use coffee or cigarettes to keep you awake and alcohol to help you sleep. You also run the risk of being overweight as you will eat at the wrong body clock times.

One study found that having lower levels of melatonin encourages cancer growth. Interestingly melatonin is used as a drug to help travellers overcome jet lag and I learned is also mainly produced between 2300 and 0300 when you are asleep. So owls like me going to bed in the early hours risk reducing their melatonin production. Knowing this helped me to make an extra effort to get to bed before midnight!

NB And none of this relates directly to how much sleep you might be getting – see “Are you getting enough Sleep?”

The problem is that artificial light is not bright enough and is only about 5% of the light intensity on a cloudy day. The best light is the brilliant blue sky and white sunlight which keeps us alert and prepares us for sleep. I remember the first time I went to Finland in the Summer and how wonderful it was seeing the sky so bright and the air seemed so much fresher.

The Health Protection Agency in the UK is studying  the effect of light on people in care homes and hospital to se if it can aid recovery, or even help them sleep better, and improve staff energy levels. Working without natural daylight is a definite no-no for many people and having sight of green grass and tress is a definite stress-reducer.

The challenge is not so much having bright light in the morning – at least 20 minutes a day is considered necessary to maintain out body clock’s accuracy – but having lower light levels in the evening whilst still being able to work. Scrapping British Summer Time would make the problem worse as it would give is more light at the end of the day all the year round.

Professor Roenneberg suggests that if you suffer from social jet lag you could try wearing sunglasses from 1600 onwards. A good excuse for looking cool in the office? Source: Daily Mail 9 November 2010

Great pull-out section in The Times (8 December 2010) “Understanding Sleep”. Everything from fatigue at work, body clocks, sleep problems to medication. Well worth a read!

Updated 16 December 2010: Scientists claim to have discovered a chemical that can wind back your body clock so that you don’t suffer jet lag (reported in PLoS Biology).

A drug called “longdaysin” can slow down the body clock for up to 12  hours which means it may be possible to calibrate the dose so you can take just the right amount to offset the number of hours that your body needs to adjust. Obviously this would be a boon to frequent flyers and shift workers if it works on humans.

So far the compound – which was found after screening more than 100,000 potential ones – has only been tried on zebra fish which had their biological clock reset by 10 hours. They reportedly suffered no ill-effects and their body clock returned to normal when the treatment wore off.

Emotional Intelligence and empathy

Emotional Intelligence and empathy In an earlier post about Emotional Intelligence and marshmallows I referred to the findings of a Demos think-tank report which reported on an increase in social mobility between the end of WW2 and the 1970s followed by a period of stagnation up to 2000.

Amongst the three traits that were most important for children to improve their social lot was empathy – the ability to be sensitive to other people, to read their emotions and understand non-verb … Read More

via EI 4u with permission

What every child needs

The nature v nurture argument is probably best thought of as an agricultural model: your genes are the seed with the potential to flourish providing you have good soil, nutrition, and a supportive environment.

Much of the nature – nurture research has centred on twins separated at birth or comparing identical and non-identical twins. J McFadden’s article in the Guardian (10 July 2010) reports on new twins research from  Florida State University on reading ability which has added a new angle. They have assessed the teachers as well by comparing changes in grade averages for everyone in that teacher’s class.

They discovered that the differences in reading ability between identical and non-identical twins was greatest in classes with good teachers.

So if you have a good teacher your genes  will make a difference. With poorer teachers the differences were less pronounced because it was the environment rather than the genes which had the most influence.

In other words good teachers get the best from pupils whereas poor ones allow the child’s backgrounds to affect their performance. Jeanette Taylor, the author of the study, said; “Better teachers provide an environment that allows children to reach their potential“.

I wrote in an earlier posting about how we now know from geneticists that excellence is not just down to genes but the effects of the environment which can modify their impact; “Practice makes perfect...”. So whether it’s teachers or coaches, good ones make a real difference.

So just how wrong-headed were Zenna Atkins’ remarks last week about every school needing incompetent teachers? Her widely reported remarks in the Sunday papers, for example, received well-deserved criticism from just about everyone.

Ofsted, the supposed champions of educational standards is prepared to put up with 17,ooo sub-standard teachers, it’s soon-to-be departing chairman makes ill-informed remarks, and the General Teaching Council has only removed 18 bad teachers in 10 years.

Due in part to lack of leadership in head-teachers who prefer to give them references and let them move on (and for which they should be sued by the receiving schools) rather than manage their performance.

So where is the leadership needed to ensure children get the education they deserve and we need as a country?

Originally posted on EI 4u July 2010

Apples and pears – what fruit is your bum?

Apples and pears – what fruit is your bum? It’s no longer just a question of “Does my bum look big in this?” but “what fruit is my bum?”

Apparently pear-shaped women, such as Beyonce or Jennifer Lopez, are more at risk of developing dementia than apple-shaped women, such as Catherine Zeta Jones.

Obesity is known to be bad for your health but it’s not just whether or not you have put on weight but where it goes. Pear-shaped women tend to put weight on their hips whereas apple-shaped women … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Stress can be inherited

Scientists have known for some time that the effects of stress can be passed down through generations (See: Stress and Poverty definitely not good for you) but didn’t understand exactly how.

Researchers now believe they have solved the puzzle. Stress is thought to cause epigenetic changes to genes which don’t actually alter the DNA sequence but leave marks that influence how active genes are.

So if mice are stressed for two weeks after birth their offspring will show signs of depression and anxiety despite enjoying maternal care. There is now evidence that health problems such as diabetes, obesity, and  mental illness could be the results of stress on parents and even grandparents.

Scientists in Japan have found that chemical or environmental stress detaches a protein from chromatin the DNA that makes chromosomes. This particular protein keeps the chromatin zipped up but once detached it effectively unzips the chromatin activating genes that would normally be hidden.

The critical point is that the unzipped chromatin is inherited by all descendants of the original stressed cell. If that cell is a sperm or an egg it ends up in every cell in any offspring.

In experiments with stressed fruit flies the changes passed only to the next generation if  they mated with a healthy flies but passed to the next 3 generations if both flies had been affected by stress.

Mammals have a similar protein and the same changes have been seen in mice. So now there is a clear mechanism at molecular level that responds to stress and the implications may be useful in cancer therapy.

Source: New Scientist 2 July 2011

Despite the reported increase in stress levels (See: Stress back on the agenda)  we also now know that we are not necessarily at the mercy of our genes or our environment, and that our own efforts can make a difference (See: Practise makes Perfect)