How renting could affect your health

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Amy Clair, University of Essex and Amanda Hughes, University of Bristol

Our homes play a number of vital roles in our lives. They are where we rest, spend time with friends and family, and can be most ourselves. Given this central role it is not surprising that researchers have found a number of important relationships between the homes we live in and our health. Continue reading

Touchscreens can benefit toddlers – but it’s worth choosing your child’s apps wisely

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Elena Hoicka, University of Bristol

Young children learn through play. That’s why it’s the basis for early education in the UK, the US, Canada, Australia and many other countries around the world.

But with more and more young children now spending a lot of time in front of screens, a big question for many parents is whether time spent on touchscreens is good or bad for a child’s play and development.

Data shows British three- and four-year-olds spend around four hours a day on screen time – including at least one hour on games. And one worry is that screen time leads to poor outcomes for children.

For instance, the more young children watch television, the less sleep they get. There are also moderately higher rates of obesity in young children who watch television on weekdays compared to those children who do not. So one argument is that if children have more screen time, this could also displace the time young children spend playing, and hence learning.

Time well spent?

But that said, some research shows touchscreens have direct benefits for play itself. A study that followed a group of six preschoolers in their homes – covering a total of 17 hours of video footage – found the children showed 15 different types of play when interacting with touchscreen apps. They communicated, explored, and imagined, among other types of play. This suggests using touchscreen apps is play itself.

The children in the study also used apps as the basis for traditional play – for instance, by acting out the Netflix children’s series Paw Patrol in the real world. Research has also shown how apps can benefit preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder. A study following four children found after playing with an app that encouraged pretend play, three of these children increased how much they pretended to be characters when playing with actual toys. This suggests apps could be used to teach children how to play more generally.

Screen time can be time for learning, too.
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Experimental research also shows playing with apps can have positive benefits on learning. One study showed how a group of four- to six-year-olds played with the Tower of Hanoi task on a touchscreen app. This task involves figuring out how to move a stack of rings from one rod to another without ever putting a larger ring on a smaller ring. After children played the task on the touchscreen app, they were then able to solve the problem with a physical version of the task without any additional time needed. This shows how children can learn through play on a touchscreen app, and transfer that learning to the real world.

Another study found that when preschoolers were given maths and language apps they enjoyed engaging with, their scores on standardised maths and language tests improved. This shows that playing with engaging and fun apps can help children learn some of the fundamentals at school. Even two-year-olds can learn language through apps, with research finding young children learn new words through Skype, but not television.

Play and learning

It seems, then, the relationship between touchscreen apps and play is complex. On the one hand, perhaps playing with apps will displace traditional play, leading to lower levels of activity in young children. But on the other hand, based on the research to date, it seems playing with apps could actually encourage play and learning – provided the apps have appropriate content for this function.

That said, the research in this area is still limited, so our lab is now running studies to find out whether apps show benefits or limitations to children’s play. Anyone around the world with a one- to three-year-old can participate in our longitudinal online survey. And it is hoped that by collecting this data over time, we can not only see if there is a relationship between touchscreens and play, but we can also find out if touchscreen use predicts children’s play long term.

We are also running lab studies in Bristol, England, to see whether playing with touchscreen apps makes two- and three-year-olds more or less likely to play later on – and whether children can learn to play from apps. Parents can find more information and sign up here.

So, for any parents out there who are wondering how to handle screen time with their young children, based on the current research, I would say choose app content that looks like it will help your child play or learn, but be wary of letting your children play with apps for too long, particularly near bed time.


The author is keen to interview children’s app designers, daycare workers, and parents about apps and one- to three-year-olds. If you’re interested in being interviewed, email Elena Hoicka at elena.hoicka@bristol.ac.ukThe Conversation

Elena Hoicka, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nanny states and grown-up debates on alcohol policy

Reducing arguments to simplistic – even incoherent – claims and accusations is not good for reasoned, public deliberation, says Professor John Coggon

Professor John Coggon, Professor of Law, Bristol University

27 November 2018 – Debates on alcohol policy are necessarily complex and controversial, and a complete consensus on how we should regulate this area will not be achieved. Like other lawful but regulated products, alcohol presents benefits and harms that may be understood from ranging perspectives. Continue reading

Much we can do and even more to learn about COPD

For World COPD Day 2018 and the publication of Life of Breath’s new Policy Report, consultant respiratory physician and honorary senior lecturer at the Academic Respiratory Unit (University of Bristol) Dr James Dodd writes…

What is COPD?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is an umbrella term which includes ‘chronic bronchitis’ and ‘emphysema’, it causes a progressive decline in lung function and health. It is common, effecting 2% of the adult population and is projected to become the 3th leading cause of death in the UK. People with COPD experience breathlessness, cough and wheeze and often suffer with repeated chest infections, these ‘exacerbations’ are the 2nd most common reason for emergency admissions to hospital. Continue reading

Why some people overeat when they’re upset

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Comfort food.
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Laura Wilkinson, Swansea University; Angela Rowe, University of Bristol, and Charlotte Hardman, University of Liverpool

The idea of eating a tub of ice cream to cope with being upset has become a bit cliche. Though some might not need a tub of chocolate swirl to help perk themselves up again, there do seem to be systematic differences in the way that people cope with upsetting events, with some more likely to find solace in food than others. Continue reading

Pesticides and suicide prevention – why research needs to be put into practice

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Duleeka Knipe, University of Bristol; David Gunnell, University of Bristol, and Ian Hussey, Ghent University

As many as 800,000 people around the world die every year by suicide, with 76% of these deaths in low and middle income countries like India and China. Between 110,000 and 168,000 people die from self-poisoning using pesticides – the same pesticides which are banned in wealthier countries due to human health and environmental concerns. Continue reading

Difficult childhood experiences could make us age prematurely – new research

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Amanda Hughes, University of Bristol and Meena Kumari, University of Essex

We know that comparatively disadvantaged people, even in rich countries, have worse health and shorter life expectancy than others. But what is it exactly about socioeconomic disadvantage and other environmental difficulties that affects our biology? And at what age are we most vulnerable to these effects? Continue reading

Advice is a lifeline for people claiming benefits – but support services are under threat from cutbacks

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Michelle Farr, University of Bristol

Controversial changes to disability welfare benefits have left many ill and disabled people unable to access the support they need. In his speech to the Labour Party conference, the party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, spoke of how benefit assessments had “created a ‘hostile environment’ for disabled people”. Continue reading

Penicillin was discovered 90 years ago – and despite resistance, the future looks good for antibiotics

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Alastair Hay, University of Bristol

When the NHS turned 70 this year, I was reminded of another anniversary which has had an enormous impact on healthcare over many years. Penicillin is 90 this year.

Discovered in September 1928 by Alexander Fleming, it was first used as a cure when George Paine treated eye infections with it in 1930. A method for mass production was devised by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1940, and it was first mass produced in 1942, with half of that total supply used for one patient being treated for streptococcal septicaemia. Continue reading

A healthy BMI when you’re young could safeguard your heart for later life

A healthy weight means a healthy heart.
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Kaitlin Wade, University of Bristol

Your body mass index (BMI) indicates whether you are within a healthy weight range based on your height. Having a higher BMI – meaning more weight relative to height – can increase your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. While BMI is partly determined by your environment and lifestyle – including your diet and how much you exercise – our genes also play a role.

Genes are inherited from our parents. When this genetic information from the egg and sperm combine, the DNA is replicated continuously – doubling the number of cells until an entire baby is formed. DNA replication is not perfect and every single base in the human genome – the single blocks of code which make up entire DNA strand – has the potential to be mutated for good or for bad. Importantly, this creates a huge amount of random genetic variation at a population level, which is like a huge natural genetic experiment. If we know that these random genetic changes are linked to small changes in BMI, we can test whether BMI influences lots of different things, including cardiovascular health – like a randomized controlled trial.

Broadly, there are two ways of identifying parts of our DNA which are linked with particular traits. Studies of patients affected by rare obesity-related disorders (candidate gene studies) or large-scale population-based genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Findings from the latter of these methods – studies that look to see whether a change at any position in our DNA is linked with a particular trait – have implicated hundreds of common genetic variants associated with BMI.

A 2015 study conducted by the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) consortium and published in Nature found 97 places in our DNA which influence BMI levels and which were responsible for small differences between people, regardless of how different their environment and lifestyles were. This means that, while we cannot predict an individual’s BMI with genetics, we can refer to genetics to understand if patterns materialise in populations.

Small, genetically driven changes in BMI provide an opportunity to determine whether differences in BMI between people have a role in health and disease. Genetic mutations which are randomly allocated at conception aren’t easily changed by our environment and experiences later in life. As a result, our BMI, weight and chances of developing obesity-related diseases could partly be determined before we’re even born.

Your BMI tells you if you’re a healthy weight for your height.
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Low BMI, low heart disease risk

Using this property of genetic variation, we undertook a study that was recently published in the scientific journal Circulation. Our research showed that higher BMI is likely to have an influence on measures of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure, in more than 3,000 healthy 17-year olds from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as the Children of the 90s).

The Children of the 90s study, based in Bristol, has followed families in the UK through data collected from questionnaires, clinics and biological samples since the early 1990s. Using MRI scans from 400 21-year old Children of the 90s participants, who were recruited based on genetically driven differences in BMI, we also demonstrated that having a higher BMI is likely to lead to structural damage to heart tissue, including an enlarged left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber.

An enlarged left ventricle can restrict the flow of blood leaving the heart.
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Until now, studies have typically looked at the link between BMI and cardiovascular health in adults by observing patterns within populations. However, it’s difficult to conclude a relationship between the two without confusing the role that lifestyle factors play or finding how cardiovascular disease changes BMI rather than the reverse. Surveying people is also open to many sources of bias, such as recalling or reporting information incorrectly.

We wanted to isolate the property of genetic variation to improve our confidence in drawing conclusions about the relationship between BMI and cardiovascular health in a population of healthy young people.

Our results support the idea that having a healthy, normal BMI from a young age is likely to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and help prevent heart disease later in life. Modern genetics allow us to investigate the causes of disease more quickly and cheaply than ever before, and the availability of genetic data in studies such as the Children of the 90s means we can more readily overcome limitations of traditional studies. We hope these findings lead to increased efforts to tackle the obesity epidemic at all stages of life, starting in early age.The Conversation

Kaitlin Wade, Research Associate in Genetic Epidemiology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.