Smart People Live Longer


Though it’s been many years since I’ve sat, frustrated and confused, in a math or science classroom, I must admit that I still feel a lingering resentment towards quick learners.  You know the kids I mean.  The ones who pick up new concepts quickly, and then apply them with ease.  The ones who barely look at their notes and still get an A+ on their test, while the rest of us work all night long and only achieve a B+, at best.

Sure, some of them suffer with social difficulties that can offset many of their mental gifts, but for the most part, they’ve got it made.  Their ease with scholastic material means they’re more likely to get more advanced degrees, with higher paychecks.   Their ability to dazzle and impress educators as well as their parents, means they get more positive attention as they grow.  And now, according to new research,  it appears that people with a high IQ also live longer.

The first evidence linking high IQ with a long lifespan came from a Scottish study that began in 1932.   That year, a cohort of 11 year old children were given an IQ test, and researchers then followed them up until the age of 76.  When the results were analyzed, children with a 15-point IQ advantage were found to have a 21% greater chance of being alive than those with a more average IQ score. You might assume this increase in longevity might be due to differences in lifestyle, or better access to health care, but the researchers controlled for those factors.  Statistically, lifestyle choices or  socioeconomic advantages explained only 30% of the link between intelligence and life span.  The rest was genetic.

Further studies were done by Rosalind Arden and her colleagues from the International Journal of Epidemiology.  They found several groups of identical and fraternal twins in which both IQ and mortality were recorded, and used those numbers to help clarify how much of the IQ-lifespan advantage is genetic, and how much is environmental.  When the analysis was finished, the more intelligent twin was found to have a longer lifespan, even if both twins shared other lifestyle factors.  Clearly, there’s something about having a high IQ that also increases longevity.

The answer may be resilience.  Gro Amdam of Arizona State University and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences has theorized that the reason people with a high IQ live longer, is because they are just engineered better.  In addition to a more impressive performance on mental tests, he believes they also have a greater ability to survive environmental onslaughts.

He tested his hypothesis by strapping honeybees to straws and then dripping a sugary solution on them.  Honeybees are often used in neurological experiments because they can be trained with positive or negative reinforcement, and in this case, Amdam wanted to isolate the smart honeybees by preceding the drip of sugar with a certain smell.  The smarter honeybees identified the link between the smell and the sugar solution faster, and learned to stick out their proboscis to receive it. The slower honeybees lost out.

The second part of this experiment involved exposing all the bees to a high oxygen environment, to see who could endure it the longest.  A high oxygen environment is a metabolic stress test that simulates aging.  It turned out that the quick-learning honeybees lived, on average, four hours longer than the slow-learning bees when exposed to unnaturally high levels of oxygen.  This show of greater resilience among the smarter bees suggests a possible survival advantage that may also be present in humans.

This evident resilience among smarter bees – and possibly humans – may occur because of a faster reaction time.  When researchers tested the reaction time of 898 fifty-six year olds, they found that those who reacted more quickly to a stimulus also lived longer.  Study participants were required to press one of four keys on a keyboard in response to seeing the identical digit on a computer screen.  There was no complicated thinking involved; you would think that anyone could do well.

Yet, when they followed up on the participants more than a decade later, those who had a faster reaction time on the test, also lived longer.   What’s more, once the reaction time was taken into account, the correlation between mortality and IQ disappeared, meaning that relationship between reaction time and longevity is stronger.  The reason that high IQ people tend to live longer, is because they react faster to external events.

It appears that the benefits of having a high IQ are more widespread than just being able to do well in school and on tests.  Nevertheless, those of us who have more average intelligence shouldn’t despair. “The intelligence-longevity link is a small one”, says Rosalynd Arden of the International Journal of Epidemiology ,  “Nothing we found counteracts the good old stuff your grandmother would have told you about how to live well”.  Eat well, exercise regularly, avoid smoking and excessive drinking, and we can all hope to live a long and healthy life.  Even those of us who suck at math.


Safety Fears Over New Drugs


My mother-in-law has never been a fan of pharmaceutical drugs.  All her life, she’s eschewed them in favour of more natural treatments, like following a healthy diet, exercising daily, and using herbal remedies.

It was no surprise, then, that when her son developed a bad case of diarrhea, that she threw away the doctor’s prescription and decided to treat the problem with herbs instead.  However, in this case, her reason for doing so wasn’t because she didn’t like pharmaceutical drugs in general.  It was because she didn’t trust this pharmaceutical drug in particular.

As a chemist, she had read laboratory reports indicating the drug could cause leukemia in children.  Several years later, the drug was taken off the market for that precise reason, and she felt vindicated in what she’d done.  But even years later, she wondered how many children had died after using the drug, with their parents never knowing the sad cause of their deaths.

Concerns about drug safety haven’t changed.  What is new is the large amount of drugs approved by the FDA each year, many of which have been inadequately tested before going to market.  A  study done this year by researchers at the Yale School of Medicine found that nearly a third of FDA-approved drugs released between the years 2001 to 2010 were later found to have major safety issues, and were either taken off the market, or required safety announcements about new risks, including “black box” warnings, which is the FDA’s more serious safety alert.

Why are newly approved drugs so risky?  Serious side effects are often missed because of the small size of clinical trials (typically just 1,000 patients or less), and their short duration (results evaluated after just six months).  Many of the subjects are also cherry picked so that the most optimal results are found, and perhaps most critically, the success of the drug is based only on its ability to bring down blood pressure, for example, and not on whether it increases the risk of death by doing so.

Many new drugs aren’t even very “new”.  An independent analysis done in 2015 by the British Medical Journal found that most drugs expedited through the FDA approval system didn’t provide any notable clinical advances.  That’s a lot of risk for so little benefit.

Dr. Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness, says, “All too often, patients and clinicians mistakenly view FDA approval as [an] indication that a product is fully safe and effective.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  We learn tremendous amounts about a product only once it’s on the market, and only after use among a broad population”.

This assumes that people don’t mind being used as guinea pigs for the long term safety testing of new drugs.   Many people do mind; they’re just not aware that big pharmaceutical companies are essentially using their bodies to save money on clinical trials.

If your health condition has been successfully treated in the past with an older medication that’s been on the market for ten years or more, there’s no reason for you to feel pressured into using a newly approved drug.  Many people assume that “new” means “better”.   When it comes to drugs, “new” means “not fully tested”.

To be fair, drug research is both risky and expensive.  It takes about twelve years to get a drug from the research phase to patient, and only five in 5,000 drugs in pre-clinical testing ever make it to human trials.  Of those, only one in five is ever approved for human use.  Pharmaceutical companies need to recoup those costs somehow.

Lead author of the Yale study, Dr. Joseph Ross says, “We know that safety concerns, new ones, are only going to be identified once a drug is [through clinical studies and] used in a [the] wider population. That’s just how it is”.  The question is:  how important is it that we get these new drugs so quickly?  Are these drugs really providing much-needed, innovative cures that will save more lives, or are they merely used to line the pocketbooks of industry executives?




The Magic Power of Swearing


In the religious home where I grew up, swearing was strictly forbidden.  My parents didn’t swear, my grandparents didn’t swear, and neither did my aunts, uncles, or cousins (as far as I know).  They considered themselves respectable, educated, moral people whose standards were above the vileness of a potty mouth.

Having rarely heard swear words as I was growing up, I never had much temptation to use them when I was young.  When I grew older and my peers began to swear, I occasionally tried out a word or two, but they always felt foreign and uncomfortable on my tongue.  Since the words weren’t part of my usual vocabulary, they sounded false and inauthentic when I used them.  I envied people who could roll multiple swear words off their tongues with ease.  They always seemed more relaxed and uninhibited.

It turns out I had reason to be jealous.  In the last several years, several studies have confirmed the power of curse words.  In 2011, it was found that study participants who swore could better withstand the pain of having their hand plunged in ice water.  Other recent studies have shown that cursing enhances social ties, and aids in the processing of overwhelming emotions.   Now, a new study has shown that swearing can increase your physical strength.

In this new study, participants were asked to ride an intense cycling course which strongly increased their heart rate, and then perform a low intensity handgrip test.  Those who cursed during the cycling test increased their peak power by 24 watts, and when they cursed during the grip test, they boosted their hand strength by 2.1 kg.

Interestingly, the powerful effect of cursing wasn’t dependent on volume (participants were told to swear in a neutral tone), but frequency was important.   When curse words were repeated too many times, the effect began to wear off:  the strongest burst of strength was during the initial 5 seconds of the cycling test when the cursing had just begun.  Strength gradually diminished during the remaining portion of the test.  Clearly, the magic of swearing can wear off if overused.

During each physical test, the researchers also measured heart rate, to see if the effect of the swear words was due to a surge of adrenaline due to perceived stress.  In all the previous studies on swearing, heart rate increased with the use of curse words, which seemed to confirm increased adrenaline as the cause of these effects.  However, in this latest study, there was no difference in heart rate between those who swore and those who didn’t, leaving researchers flummoxed.

Clearly, we still have much to learn about the power of swearing.  In the meantime, if you are facing a difficult task where extra strength is required, popping out a quick expletive can do plenty to ensure your success.

As for my own proficiency with swearing, it took a great leap forward when I began driving during rush hour traffic in Toronto.   Belting out a quick expletive whenever someone cut me off seemed to decrease my level of stress.  No doubt, a study will soon prove a link between cursing and reduced stress too .  Says psychologist Richard Stephens, “We’re not telling people something they don’t already know, …we’re [merely] verifying that in a systematic and objective way.”














The Many Benefits of Generosity


Every year on September 4th, Bob Blackley of North Carolina stands on a street corner holding a sign.  It reads “I have  home.  I have a job.  Could YOU use an extra $5.00?”  Anyone who stops is given a crisp, new $5.00 bill, no questions asked.  The first year he did it, he gave away $700.  The next year, it was $750.  He says he wishes he could win the lottery.  Then, he could give away $100 bills instead of only fives.

When asked the reason for his generosity, he says “It’s my birthday!” He doesn’t care what people spend the money on.  He just wants to spread a little happiness.  His yearly gift to himself is to make others smile.

A recent study from the University of Zurich in Switzerland confirms that Bob Blackley is on to something.  Generosity really does breed happiness.  When researchers used fMRIs to scan the brains of study participants, specific areas of the brain related to altruism and happiness lit up in those who gave to others, but not in those who acted selfishly.  Also, when asked how they felt after the experiment was over, those who gave reported greater feelings of happiness than those who didn’t.

Interestingly, the amount of money given away made little difference in the outcome.  Says researcher Philippe Tobler, “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier.  Just being a little more generous will suffice”.   In fact, the generous participants experienced an increase in happiness just by pledging to give, before they actually gave anything at all.

In previous studies, generosity was also linked with reduced mortality, better overall health, and a reduced risk of heart problems.  So, when you spend a little extra money in the morning to bring your work-mates a cup of coffee, you’re not just helping them.  You’re also benefiting yourself.












Help For Arthritic Knees


Until now, it was commonly thought that osteoarthritis was virtually unavoidable.  As people get older, years of wear and tear on knee joints naturally take their toll, causing cartilage to wear down.  This, then, allows roughened joint surfaces to rub together, causing the familiar symptoms of inflammation and pain.

However, a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals that other factors may be involved – factors that are well within our control and may be used to help prevent arthritis from taking hold.

By looking at skeletons, both ancient and modern, Professor Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University has found that the incidence of arthritis is now twice as common as it was prior to the 1950s.  It’s not just because our population is aging either, or because the rate of obesity is rising.  Even after correcting for those factors, the increased incidence for arthritis remained.

These numbers have convinced Dr. Lieberman that “wear and tear” may not be the true cause of the problem.  His research is supported by several long term studies that were completed around the year 2009.

One study was conducted at Stanford University and tracked nearly 1,000 members of a running club, along with non-runners, for 21 years.  The data tabulated in that study showed that the runners were no more likely to develop osteoarthritis than the non-runners, despite the increased wear and tear on their knee joints.

A second study completed in 2007 followed 1,279 elderly residents of Framingham, MA.  Here, the results were similar:  the most active residents had no greater incidence of arthritis than the non-active residents, showing that physical activity very likely had little effect on the condition.   At the time, this news was absolutely revolutionary,  and overturned decades of speculation that had no doubt prevented many people from taking up running, and had also greatly enriched the makers of high-quality, cushion-soled running shoes.

A third study, published in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism in 2007 showed that people who exercised vigorously had thicker and healthier knee cartilage than their sedentary peers.  Although study participants weren’t followed to see who would develop arthritis and who would not, it was theorized that based on these results, those who exercised would probably have fewer joint problems as they aged.

With this new Harvard study of skeletons, data is increasingly showing that, far from causing osteoarthritis, physical activity must help to prevent it.   It now appears that the regular pumping action of running and other high-impact exercises works a lot like lymph circulation.  It’s only when your feet hit the pavement and the synovial fluid in the joints squishes out, that it comes into contact with greater oxygen and nutrients from your blood.  When your body becomes airborne again, this newly enriched fluid is sucked back in, nourishing and strengthening the cartilage and preventing it from breaking down.

Strong muscles also appear to play a part.  In another study published this year in the journal Arthritis Care and Research, researchers found that women with weaker quadriceps muscles (the muscle on the front of the thigh), had a 47% greater chance of developing knee arthritis than women whose muscles were stronger.  Strong hamstrings were also important.  The researchers concluded that strong quadriceps muscles and hamstrings may prevent osteoarthritis by acting as shock absorbers and stabilizers for the knee joint.

While dietary factors and early sports injuries may still play a part, it seems clear that there’s no reason to avoid running or jumping exercises if you want to protect your knees.  In fact,  the more you move, the better off your knees will be.

For those who already have osteoarthritis, continued movement should help to ease pain.  You may prefer to sit as much as possible, but according to Chinese medicine, the stimulation of blood circulation is important for relieving pain.   In this case, vigorous exercises that pound your knee joints should be avoided.  Instead, you should try to perform gentle, deep breathing exercises, like yoga, tai chi, or our own Y-Dan exercises, available on DVD.  These slow and gentle exercises not only increase circulation, but also improve balance, which helps to prevent falls, and also straighten posture, improve coordination, and promote relaxation, which reduces feelings of stress.