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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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 →
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.
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.
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.
As the NHS celebrates its 70th birthday, I hope that in another 58 years there will be similar celebrations and appreciation when its research arm, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), turns 70. Continue reading →
Back when it first started, 17% of young pregnant women in the Children of the 90s study reported symptoms severe enough to indicate clinical levels of depression. This figure was already worryingly high in the 1990s, but in their daughters’ generation it is even more common: 25% of the second generation of the study – women under the age of 24 who are becoming pregnant now – are reporting signs of depression and anxiety. Continue reading →
‘Old? What is old? I don’t feel old! Old is nearly dead. Look at me, do I look nearly dead to you?!’
“Skype is a wonderful invention! I was one of those people who said I don’t understand computers, I don’t want to stare at a screen; but it’s marvellous – you feel so connected!”
These are two extracts from ‘ALONELY’, a powerful and emotive set of monologues, developed by community researchers and based on real-life experiences, and one of the research projects tackling the subject of loneliness. Continue reading →