Our deteriorating minds

If you’re getting on a bit and find it takes longer to remember something, you will be cheered by Frontiers’ shaping of the reality of ageing.  We are invited to “reframe” our understanding of data retrieval in the brain by thinking about all of the extra information (memories) that an older brain contains.  Put simply, a younger person has fewer memories to search through for the required information and consequently is bound to find it more quickly.  This was likened to a brand new computer which runs faster than it ever will once it’s been filled with all your data.  So taking longer to remember the name of an acquaintance isn’t a sign of mental deterioration — it means you simply have more hay to search through for the needle than that sharp youngster beside you.

This model of mental data processing may or may not be accurate (and it is disputed).  But the same programme offered another, unqualified case of shaping reality.  In mental agility tests, people who held a negative view of the effect of age on the mind performed worse than those who did not.  If you believe age is slowing you down, it will slow you down.  How’s that for a reason to choose your truths carefully?

The “tidal wave” of cancer

A report from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that the number of new cancer cases worldwide in a single year will rise by 70 per cent from 14.1 million in 2012 to 24 million in 2035.  Annual deaths from cancer will almost double, from 8.2 million to 14.6 million.  One of the editors of the World Cancer Report, Dr Bernard Stewart from the University of New South Wales in Australia, talked about the need to combat “the tidal wave of cancer which we see coming across the world”.

This is alarming language, and the numbers are big, but are we getting the right story here?  The headline words and figures suggest that some great change is upon us that’s putting all of us at greater risk of contracting cancer.  In fact, in the developed world, the opposite is true.  The biggest contributor to cancer is smoking, and the habit is in decline in developed nations.  Other factors thought to contribute to cancer, including environmental pollution, are generally moving in the right direction.  The main reason why cancer rates are increasing in developed countries is in fact a positive one: we are living much longer than ever before.  Where previous generations might have succumbed to infectious disease or malnutrition, we are living long enough to give a range of different cancers time to take hold.

Longevity  is also a major contributing factor to the predicted increase in the developing world.  Again, this is good news.  In Asia particularly, people are now living long enough to contract diseases associated with the affluent West — heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer.  It is true that smoking is on the rise in the developing world, that environmental pollution has increased dramatically in countries like China, and that some affluent dietary choices that may play a role in certain cancers are also spreading.  But essentially the expected rise in cancer prevalence worldwide is the product of an increasingly long-lived population.

Cause to celebrate the coming tidal wave surely?

Is nicotine good for you?

CRUSH THE EVIL NICK O'TEEN

CRUSH THE EVIL NICK O’TEEN (Photo credit: Leo Reynolds)

When I was growing up, Nick O’Teen was a villain so heinous that even Superman struggled to contain him.  Created by DC Comics in 1980 as part of the US Health Education Council’s anti-smoking campaign, Nick O’Teen was a vivid warning to impressionable young minds on the perils of tobacco.  I never did take up smoking.

After such clear childhood messaging, it was something of a surprise to hear that e-cigarettes, which contain nicotine, are to be licensed as medicines in the UK from 2016.  As medicines are generally understood to be products that improve or at least stabilise our health, one might take this to mean that e-cigarettes, and the nicotine within, are now considered good for you.

In fact, the rationale for licensing is not so positive. With e-cigarettes becoming more popular, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has become concerned at the poor quality, efficacy and safety of some brands.  Licensing allows for tougher quality regulation.

Nevertheless, the move raises the question: will people be misled by one truth, that e-cigarettes are (from 2016) medicines, into forgetting another truth, that nicotine is a highly addictive substance that…?

That what?  Is nicotine in fact bad for you?

A photo of 117mm e-cigarette

e-cigarette (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not at all, it seems.  It’s the tar and various toxins in regular cigarettes that makes them so damaging, not the nicotine.  E-cigarettes don’t contain these substances.  Nicotine was only ever bad for smokers in the sense that it made them want to inhale more tar.  Mr O’Teen was cruelly defamed.  Indeed nicotine even has some health benefits, with possible applications in treatments and therapies for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ADHD and Tourette’s syndrome.

So there’s one staggering truth: Nicotine is good for you (if you have certain medical conditions).

But the competing truth is still valid: Nicotine is bad for you (if you become addicted to it and so keep smoking regular cigarettes).

There’s a whole different debate to be had (with competing truths on both sides) as to whether nicotine (in promoting smoking) is good for the economy and the Treasury…