Tackle loneliness with a little help from your friends

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AUTHOR: Alexandra Thompson, PGR Student, Department of Psychology

This week (13th-17th June 2022) sees the 6th Loneliness Awareness Week hosted by the Marmalade Trust. This is one of many such campaigns in recent years with the aim of raising awareness and reducing the stigma associated with talking about feeling lonely. Intiatives like the UK’s Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission aim to share research evidence about loneliness and to demonstrate the need for national leadership and guidance to address this issue. This has resulted in the appointment of the very first Ministers for Loneliness and the creation of a cross-governmental Tackling Loneliness Strategy and team.

The problem of loneliness

This increased focus is not without good reason. Experiencing loneliness, also referred to as perceived social isolation, can potentially lead to increased risk of developing health problems. Such issues include cardiovascular disease and stroke (1), dementia and cognitive decline (2), depression and anxiety (3) and chronic health conditions such as diabetes (4). Additionally, chronic loneliness and social isolation carries the same level of health risk as obesity and smoking (5).

Traditionally, older adults are viewed as those in society that are most likely to experience loneliness. Although recent evidence suggests that younger people are equally or more likely to report loneliness (6), loneliness in older adults is still a concern in this age group. In 2018 around 1 million UK residents aged over 50 reported that they were chronically lonely, and this number is expected to increase to more than 2 million by 2025. We also have an ageing population in the UK and worldwide, meaning that the effects of loneliness are likely to be experienced by an increasing number of older adults in the near future. Loneliness therefore poses a significant public health risk and has the potential to place increased strain on health and social care services.

This risk has been compounded by the recent COVID 19 pandemic. Social distancing and successive lockdown measures meant that for many older adults their already limited social contact was further reduced. This was clearly a concern for those already experiencing loneliness, but also meant that a new wave of older adults were at risk of becoming lonely, particularly those in residential care. Since these measures have been reversed the potential for more social contact has increased and the risk has hopefully reduced. However, given that negative effects may have already occurred, it’s important that we continue to focus on re-establishing our social connections and those of older adults to minimise this impact.

As you might expect, romantic social connections, such as being in a relationship or being married, offer some protection against loneliness (7). But what about other types of social links? One social connection which appears to be particularly important to older adults are friendships. Friendships seem to be more beneficial in preventing loneliness than family relationships (8). This may not be that surprising as family relationships have the potential to be based more on obligation than friendships and also at times can be fraught with conflict. It has been shown that (9) increasing the number of friends you have generally reduces loneliness (9). However, recent evidence from our department has shown that simply making more friends might not be the answer (10).

What is the magic number?

We surveyed hundreds of older adults about their levels of loneliness and friendships. Our study (10) demonstrated that although having more friends may indeed stave of loneliness, for older adults, adding more close friendships beyond four friends has no further effect in reducing loneliness. If four is the optimal number, then this means that older adults and interventions aimed at reducing loneliness in this age group can focus on establishing and maintaining this relatively small number of close connections. Many individuals have a support group of around five members (11), so it may be possible that some older adults already have the optimal number of close friendships. For those, individuals, focus is best placed on improving the quality within these relationships or addressing other aspects linked to loneliness such as mobility and functional status (12).

About the Author

Alexandra Thompson is a PhD student in the Department of Psychology, working within the Evolution and Social Interaction Research Group and supervised by Professor Thomas Pollet. You can read more about the work of the research group over in this section of the blog

References

  1. Valtorta, N. K., Kanaan, M., Gilbody, S., & Hanratty, B. (2018). Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 25(13), 1387–1396. https://doi.org/10.1177/2047487318792696
  2. Wilson, R. S., Krueger, K. R., Arnold, S. E., Schneider, J. A., Kelly, J. F., Barnes, L. L., … Bennett, D. A. (2007). Loneliness and risk of Alzheimer disease. Archives of General Psychiatry, 64(2), 234–240. https://doi.org/10.1001/archpsyc.64.2.234
  3. Beutel, M. E., Klein, E. M., Brähler, E., Reiner, I., Jünger, C., Michal, M., … Tibubos, A. N. (2017). Loneliness in the general population: Prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry, 17(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x
  4. Brinkhues, S., Dukers-Muijrers, N. H. T. M., Hoebe, C. J. P. A., Van Der Kallen, C. J. H., Dagnelie, P. C., Koster, A., … Schram, M. T. (2017). Socially isolated individuals are more prone to have newly diagnosed and prevalent type 2 diabetes mellitus – The Maastricht study – The M. BMC Public Health, 17(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-017-4948-6
  5. Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., Baker, M., Harris, T., & Stephenson, D. (2015). Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(2), 227–237. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691614568352
  6. Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2020). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, (January), 110066. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2020.110066
  7. Victor, C. R., & Yang, K. (2012). The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom The Prevalence of Loneliness Among Adults : A Case Study of the United Kingdom. The Journal of Psychology, 146(1–2), 85–104. https://doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2011.613875
  8. Lee, G. R., & Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1987). Social Interaction, Loneliness, and Emotional Well-Being among the Elderly. Research on Aging, 9(4), 459–482. https://doi.org/10.1177/0164027587094001
  9. Shiovitz-Ezra, S., & Leitsch, S. A. (2010). The role of social relationships in predicting loneliness: The national social life, health, and aging project. Social Work Research, 34(3), 157–167. https://doi.org/10.1093/swr/34.3.157
  10. Thompson, A., & Pollet, T. (In Press). Friendships, loneliness and psychological well-being in older adults: A limit to the benefit of the number of friends. Ageing & Society.
  11. 11. Dunbar, R. I. M., & Spoors, M. (1995). Social networks, support cliques, and kinship. Human Nature, 6(3), 273–290. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02734142
  12. Theeke, L. A. (2009). Predictors of Loneliness in U.S. Adults Over Age Sixty-Five. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 23(5), 387–396. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apnu.2008.11.00

A plant-enriched diet for a healthy mind (and a longer life!)

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AUTHOR: Dr Philippa Jackson

A study published last month revealed that adopting a diet high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and fish and low in red and processed meat and sugary beverages could lead to an increased lifespan [1]. The authors revealed that the greatest gains in life expectancy could be possible by changing to an optimal diet in your 20’s (10 years), but even changes later in life at the age of 80 might extend life by almost three-and-a-half-years.

When considering ‘optimal ageing’, thoughts may immediately turn to a long life free of chronic illness, especially non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes, and this study suggests that plant-based nutrient-dense foods are fundamental to ageing successfully. Of course, ensuring optimal mental health and brain function across the lifespan is equally important and here nutrition also has an important role to play. Indeed, a recent review found that dietary patterns containing the exact same beneficial food groups identified in the study above had a protective effect with regards to improving measures of cognitive impairment and/or reducing risk of cognitive impairment or dementia [2].

However, you don’t need to wait until older adulthood to feel the benefits of following a healthy diet; data from our lab at Nothumbria University collected over the last two decades has revealed beneficial effects of a wide variety of nutrients (e.g. vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids), herbal extracts (e.g. ginkgo biloba, ginseng, lemon balm) and plant compounds found in everyday products (tea, chocolate, berry fruits) on cognitive function and mood in healthy adults that are observable after the course of anything from a few minutes to a few weeks, depending on the item. In this blog, I’ve talked about some of our more recent findings.

There’s more than just caffeine to your morning coffee ‘hit’

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The alerting effects of coffee are often ascribed to the beverage’s caffeine content. Although not untrue, caffeine is not the only ‘active’ ingredient in coffee; in fact, the coffee bean itself contains a plethora of different compounds that have the potential to either directly affect brain function or work together with caffeine to produce effects. The major group of compounds of interest in coffee are called chlorogenic acids (CGA) and are particularly enriched in the flesh of the coffee fruit itself (coffee berry) and green unroasted beans.

Although roasting the beans diminishes the amount of CGA found in your average cup of coffee they are still present, with one study reporting CGA espresso content in several European countries in the range of 6–188 mg per cup [3]. Two recent studies from our lab investigated the effects of coffee berry extract on mood and cognitive performance and found a consistent pattern of alerting effects that was evident across the entire six-hour testing period, which cannot be attributed to the relatively small amount of caffeine found in the extract (22 mg vs 75 mg in an average cup of coffee) [4, 5].

These results support some of our previous findings, which demonstrated alerting effects of decaffeinated coffee in both younger and older adults [6]. Collectively, these data point to an alerting effect of the non-caffeine components of coffee. As it is these compounds that are also likely to underpin coffee’s beneficial effects on physical health [7], individuals choosing decaffeinated options are still getting a healthful ‘hit’ in the morning too.

The world’s most valuable spice: An unlikely mood enhancer

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Saffron is known throughout the world for its distinctive colour and taste and has been used in culinary dishes across Europe and Asia for millennia. Saffron stigmas are naturally rich in several bioactive compounds and its pain-relieving and sedative properties are recognised by traditional Asian medicine where it is used to treat a range of physical ailments including menstrual disorder, inflammation and depression [8, 9].

The anti-depressant activity of this herb has recently been explored in controlled trials; a meta-analysis of these data revealed that 30 g/d saffron extract for six weeks significantly improved symptoms in patients with major depressive disorder compared to placebo, but also had similar antidepressant efficacy when compared with mainstream antidepressant medications [10].

Our lab investigated whether these mood effects could be seen in otherwise healthy adults who reported subclinical feelings of low mood and anxiety and/or stress, who would not meet a formal diagnosis of depression. Compared to placebo, we found that eight weeks’ supplementation with 30 g/d saffron extract improved depressive symptoms, although no effects were observed for stress or anxiety [11]. Findings such as this are important as they highlight the potential for non-pharmacological plant extracts in supporting mental health. 

A humble herb with an ancient medicinal past

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Few would naturally think of their herb garden as a source of the next generation of dementia preventing products but the aromatic herbs belonging to the mint family such as peppermint, rosemary, lavender, lemon balm and sage are a rich source of phytochemicals with established psychoactive properties relevant to cognitive decline. Of all these culinary herbs, sage has the widest documented use in traditional medicine dating back to the ancient Greeks and is reputed to have cognitive or memory enhancing effects by several medicinal systems [12].

These effects were investigated by our lab using controlled trials and we have demonstrated consistent improvements in cognitive function in healthy adults following single doses of two different species of sage, Salvia officinalis (garden sage) and Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage)[13, 14]. Concurrent beneficial effects on mood such as increased calmness and alertness [15] and reduced mental fatigue [16] have also been observed.

Our lab also recently demonstrated beneficial effects on working, or short term, memory performance after four weeks’ daily consumption of a treatment combining both these sage species [17], opening up the exciting possibility of exploiting the individual chemical profiles of both species for maximum benefit.

So what should we be eating?

These are just a few examples of some of the interesting effects of different dietary items, some of which are consumed every day. The plants we ingest, in whatever form, are packed with compounds that interact with the chemistry of our bodies and brains that have the potential to help us live healthier, happier, and ultimately longer lives. The best way to achieve this is to incorporate as wide a variety of plants into your diet as you can.

About the Author

Dr Philippa Jackson is an associate professor in the psychology department at northumbria university and associate director of our Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre. The centre sits within our Health and Wellbeing Research Group.

References

  1. Fadnes, L.T., et al., Estimating impact of food choices on life expectancy: A modeling study. PLOS Medicine, 2022. 19(2): p. e1003889.
  2. Boushey, C., et al., USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Reviews, in Dietary Patterns and Neurocognitive Health: A Systematic Review. 2020, USDA Nutrition Evidence Systematic Review: Alexandria (VA).
  3. Ludwig, I.A., et al., Variations in caffeine and chlorogenic acid contents of coffees: what are we drinking? Food Funct, 2014. 5(8): p. 1718-26.
  4. Jackson, P.A., et al., A Randomized, Crossover Study of the Acute Cognitive and Cerebral Blood Flow Effects of Phenolic, Nitrate and Botanical Beverages in Young, Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2020. 12(8): p. 2254.
  5. Jackson, P.A., et al., Acute cognitive performance and mood effects of coffee berry and apple extracts: A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled crossover study in healthy humans. Nutr Neurosci, 2021: p. 1-9.
  6. Haskell-Ramsay, C.F., et al., The Acute Effects of Caffeinated Black Coffee on Cognition and Mood in Healthy Young and Older Adults. Nutrients, 2018. 10: p. 1386.
  7. Tajik, N., et al., The potential effects of chlorogenic acid, the main phenolic components in coffee, on health: a comprehensive review of the literature. Eur J Nutr, 2017. 56(7): p. 2215-2244.
  8. Rios, J.L., et al., An update review of saffron and its active constituents. Phytotherapy Research, 1996. 10(3): p. 189-193.
  9. Akhondzadeh, S., et al., Crocus sativus L. in the treatment of mild to moderate depression: a double-blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial. Phytother Res, 2005. 19(2): p. 148-51.
  10. Hausenblas, H.A., et al., Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. J Integr Med, 2013. 11(6): p. 377-83.
  11. Jackson, P. A., Forster, J., Khan, J., Pouchieu, C., Dubreuil, S., Gaudout, D., … & Kennedy, D. O. (2021). Effects of saffron extract supplementation on mood, well-being, and response to a psychosocial stressor in healthy adults: A randomized, double-blind, parallel group, clinical trial. Frontiers in nutrition, 365.
  12. Kennedy, D.O. and A.B. Scholey, The psychopharmacology of European herbs with cognition-enhancing properties. Curr Pharm Des, 2006. 12(35): p. 4613-23.
  13. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Monoterpenoid extract of sage (Salvia lavandulaefolia) with cholinesterase inhibiting properties improves cognitive performance and mood in healthy adults. J Psychopharmacol, 2011. 25(8): p. 1088-100.
  14. Kennedy, D.O., et al., Effects of cholinesterase inhibiting sage (Salvia officinalis) on mood, anxiety and performance on a psychological stressor battery. Neuropsychopharmacology, 2006. 31(4): p. 845-852.
  15. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Salvia lavandulaefolia (Spanish sage) enhances memory in healthy young volunteers. Pharmacol Biochem Behav, 2003. 75(3): p. 669-74.
  16. Tildesley, N.T., et al., Positive modulation of mood and cognitive performance following administration of acute doses of Salvia lavandulaefolia essential oil to healthy young volunteers. Physiol Behav, 2005. 83(5): p. 699-709.
  17. Wightman, E.L., et al., The Acute and Chronic Cognitive Effects of a Sage Extract: A Randomized, Placebo Controlled Study in Healthy Humans. Nutrients, 2021. 13(1): p. 218.

The Big 5 Episode 9: Nicki O’Brien “Developing visual communication methods for health challenges” (Funded PhD opportunity)

Picture of a man wearing a mask.

On this episode of The Big 5, Dr. Nicki O’Brien tells us about her innovative work using animated GIFs to teach people about COVID-19 health behaviors like mask wearing and hand washing in Guatemala. She also discusses a funded PhD project starting October 2022. Applications due February 18, 2022.

Show notes:

To follow Nicki on Twitter: @NickijObrien

Check out the GIFs here. And an article about the GIFs can be found here.

Interested in the PhD opportunity? The advert can be found here.

You can find the transcript for this episode here.

The Big 5 Episode 8 Alyson Dodd “Measuring student well-being in line with student priorities” (PhD opportunity)

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On this episode, Alyson tells us about her research on student well-being and what students struggle with during their transition to university. She also tells us about a funded PhD studentship opportunity! (See link below.)

Shownotes:

Find Dr. Alyson Dodd: on Twitter @alysondodd and on her staff profile.

You can learn more about SMaRteN and read the report Alyson references here.

Interested in this PhD opportunity? Check out the advert here.

Transcript for this episode can be found here.

Funded PhD Opportunity: Understanding persuasive effects of message framing for vaccination uptake in university students

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Author(s): Angela Rodrigues and Nicki O’Brien

The field of health communication tends to centre on analysing the effectiveness of specific information contexts and less on relationships between message framing, intentions and behaviour (Nabi & Green, 2015; Joyce & Harwood, 2014). People’s health-related decision-making is not completely rational (Witteman, van den Bercken, Claes & Godoy, 2009). Framing effect theory suggests that different presentations of health-related information can affect individuals’ decision-making preferences (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Research suggests that messages presenting gains are more persuasive in encouraging prevention behaviours (Noar, Harrington & Aldrich, 2009); Rothman, Bartels, Wlaschin & Salovey, 2006). Gain framing messaging may be more effective in promoting vaccination – a type of health preventive behaviour (Park, 2012).

Persuading young adults to get vaccinated is critical for the national vaccination programme as a whole and is also arguably the key to achieving herd immunity. Within the national vaccination programme for young adults, the following vaccinations are available: Human papillomavirus (HPV), meningitis, seasonal influenza, and COVID-19.

According to the latest figures, HPV vaccine coverage for the first dose in 2019/20 was 59.2% in Year 8 (aged 12-13) females (compared with 88.0% in 2018/19) and 54.4% in Year 8 males (Public Health England, 2020). From September 2019 the national HPV vaccination programme became universal with 12- to 13-year-old males becoming eligible alongside females (Public Health England, 2020). For females that missed or chose not to get the HPV vaccine offered in school, they can get the vaccine up until their 25th birthday; males can take up the vaccine until they are 45 years old (NHS, 2021).

Influenza is a vaccine-preventable disease, and annual influenza vaccination is the most effective method for prevention (WHO, 2012). Despite not part of the national vaccination programme, some universities are implementing a flu vaccine for their student communities (https://www.ucl.ac.uk/students/support-and-wellbeing/health-care/vaccinations/get-flu-vaccination).

Research has found low seasonal flu vaccine uptake and low vaccine knowledge among university-aged students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). In the US – where influenza vaccination is recommended for everyone aged ≥6 months – data show that vaccination rates range from 9-30% in university students (Ryan, Filipp, Gurka, Zirulnik, & Thompson, 2019). Recent evidence suggests that making the flu vaccine part of the national vaccination programme for young adults (<20 years old) might be cost-effective (Hill et al., 2020). 

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the urgency to vaccinate young adults and promote COVID-19 vaccination uptake in this population is particularly pronounced (Lucia, Kelekar & Afonso, 2021). Recent NHS England figures show that approximately 75% of 18-24 years olds have had one COVID-19 vaccination; but only approximately 60% have had two vaccinations (NHS England COVID-19 Dashboard 21 Oct. , 2021). Together, these figures highlight that a proportion of young adults is left unvaccinated. Vaccination of young adults can potentially provide direct protection for the recipients and indirect (herd) protection for the community (Pebody et al., 2018).

In the transition period of attending university, for many away from home, there might be an opportunity to promote a range of vaccinations to young adults, and shape these emerging adults’ vaccination habits for other vaccines, such as the COVID-19 vaccines. As settings within which students become independent, universities have both a responsibility and the potential to enable healthy development (Tsouros, Dowding, Thompson & Dooris, 1998). Accordingly, ‘health-promoting universities’ are being called upon to embed health into all aspects of campus culture and of providing health-promoting activities for students (Bachert et al., 2021).

Understanding underlying mechanisms that drive young adults’ preferences for and engagement with vaccination campaigns could inform the design of effective messaging to influence their decision-making processes when communicating during a public health crisis.

What is the aim of this PhD project?

This PhD project will develop and test, evidence-based vaccination messages targeted at young adults, using framing theory as theoretical approach.

Objectives

  1. Appraise existing vaccination campaigns directed at young adults by exploring effective behaviour change strategies and mechanisms of change associated with vaccination uptake;
  2. With young adults, co-design and develop a suite of health messages aimed at promoting vaccination uptake (such as influenza, COVID-19, HPV, meningitis);
  3. Conduct experimental and longitudinal studies to explore young adults’ preferences for and impact of the co-produced vaccination messages.

What skills and knowledge does the PhD candidate need?

We would love to work with someone who feels passionate about health-related behaviour change, and is keen to further our understanding.

You should possess a sound grounding in quantitative and qualitative research methods but have ambition to extend your skills into other research design methods

Applicants will normally have a track record of academic achievement in psychology or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent)

About the supervisors

Angela is a Senior Lecturer in the psychology department and has experience in the area of developing and evaluating complex interventions for behaviour change, with a specific focus on theory- and evidence-based interventions. Angela co-Leads the Behaviour Change Research Programme of Fuse (the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health).

Nicki is a Health Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Psychology department. She has expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions, and a particular interest in the application of co-design techniques for intervention development with stakeholders.

The supervisory team works alongside other behaviour change experts in the north east of England and the North East North Cumbria NHIR ARC

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Angela Rodrigues (angela.rodrigues@northumbria.ac.uk). Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

Details on how to submit an application are below. We’ve added some useful reading for prospective candidates at the end of the post

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

Further Reading

Ruddy, E., Moor, J., Idowu, O., Araujo Soares, V., Rodrigues, A., & Birch-Machin, M. The Impact of COVID-19 lockdown on health behaviours of the UK population: a cross-sectional study. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. [Manuscript in preparation].

O’Brien N, Vijaykumar S, Craig M, Land E, Aguilar S, Bedoya X, De la Cruz R, Najera E, Nicolau L (Under Review). A before-after cross-sectional survey of the effect of exposure to GIFs communicating Covid-19 preventive behaviours on behavioural cognitions of Guatemalan adults. Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

O’Brien N, Land E, Vijaykumar S, et al. (2021) Languageless animated gifs to communicate COVID-19 preventive behaviours to adults in Guatemala: Development and evaluation of efficacy. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 28:S11-S12.

Araújo-Soares, V., Hankonen, N., Presseau, J., Rodrigues, A., & Sniehotta, F. F. (2019). Developing behavior change interventions for self-management in chronic illness. European Psychologist, 24(1), 7-25.

Rodrigues, A., Sniehotta, F. F., Birch-Machin, M. A., Olivier, P., & Araújo-Soares, V. (2017). Systematic and iterative development of a smartphone app to promote sun-protection among holidaymakers: design of a prototype and results of usability and acceptability testing. JMIR Research Protocols6(6), e112.

O’Brien N, Heaven B, Teal G, Evans E, Cleland C, Moffatt S, Sniehotta FF, White M, Mathers J, Moynihan P (2016). Integrating evidence from systematic reviews, qualitative research, and expert knowledge using co-design techniques to develop a web-based intervention for people in the retirement transition. Journal of Medical Internet Research,18(8):e210; doi: 10.2196/jmir.5790

The Big 5 podcast: Episode 7 Sarah Docherty “I wondered for over 70 year olds, what would you want to improve in your life.”

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This week PhD student, Sarah Docherty, tells us about her research on the pandemic’s effect on elderly adults and her surprising results on what health means to older adults. Sarah also has some advice for PhD students on being successful during your studies.

We’re currently advertising paid PhD studentships in our department. Please check them out here.

If you’re an older adult who would like to get involved with research, you can join this facebook group: : https://www.facebook.com/HealthyAgeingResearchNU

If you’d like to learn more about how COVID-19 lockdowns have influenced the health and functioning of older adults (70+ years old), please read Sarah’s paper.

We’ll be taking a break until the 10th of January, but I’m currently lining up guests for next semester’s episodes, so please email me if you would like to be on the podcast: genavee.brown@northumbria.ac.uk

Here’s a link to the transcript of the episode.

Funded PhD Opportunity: Languageless visual messages to prevent Covid-19 transmission

Authors: Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar and Dr Michael Craig

Background to the project

Effective public health communications are critical to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Internationally, government guidance and legislation have advocated and coerced evidence-based transmission preventive behaviours, such as physical distancing, good hygiene practices such as handwashing, and mask-wearing. Encouraging individual adherence to these behaviours is challenging, requiring input and evidence from psychology and behavioural science.

Research on the individual determinants of transmission preventive behaviours provides evidence of potentially modifiable targets for behaviour change interventions to help during the Covid-19 pandemic. Intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies have been shown to predict preventive behaviours of physical, handwashing and mask-wearing.

Information is better retained when health communications include visuals rather than text alone. Visual communications do not rely on language but use images and animations to tell the message narrative. In countries with multiple official languages, visual languageless communications can disseminate messages to the entire population.

The languageless visual messages (GIFs) that have been developed

The proposed project will extend previous work of a collaboration between the supervisory team at Northumbria University and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala, Guatemala (http://www.odhag.org.gt/). The collaboration developed evidence-based, languageless, animated messages, in the form of GIFs, which have been disseminated via social media across Guatemala and on the national catholic TV channel. The GIFs can be seen here. Guatemala is an exemplar multilingual country with 25 official languages spoken (24 indigenous and Spanish).

The effect of exposure to the GIFs on behavioural beliefs about performing the preventive behaviours has been examined through an online experimental study of Guatemalan adults. The data demonstrated that exposure to the GIFs resulted in significant improvements in key determinants of preventive behaviours, namely intention, self-efficacy and outcome expectancies. These preliminary data suggest promise of the GIFs to have a positive impact on adherence to behaviours, however, this is yet to be determined.

The aim of this PhD project

To identify and explore how different features and potential mechanisms of action of languageless health messages (GIFs), promoting Covid-19 preventive behaviours, impact on their potential effectiveness. The project will include a consensus study to identify the behavioural science evidence base (including the behaviour change features) of the GIFs and a series of experimental studies to explore the effects of exposure to the existing GIFs and modified GIFs (i.e., with varying message features and mechanisms of action) on adherence to preventive behaviours in different Latin American and UK populations.     

The supervisory team

This PhD project will be supervised by Dr Nicki O’Brien, Dr Santosh Vijaykumar, Dr Michael Craig (Department of Psychology), and Ellie Land (Department of Arts). The supervisory team combines the complementary disciplinary, methodological and topic expertise required to fully support this research: Dr O’Brien is a Health Psychologist with expertise in health behaviour and behaviour change interventions. Dr Vijaykumar is a health and risk communication scientist with expertise in public health, behavioural science and new media technologies.  Dr Michael Craig is an experimental psychologist with expertise in the investigation of human cognition and the effects of behavioural interventions. Ellie Land is an award-winning factual animation maker, director, educator and researcher with expertise in animated short, feature-length and interactive films.  

The skills and experience a candidate needs

We are looking for someone who is keen to develop the science of behaviour change within the context of languageless visual health messages. Candidates would be expected to have a background in psychology, public health, health communication or a related discipline, demonstrated by a first class or upper second undergraduate honours degree and/or a master’s degree (or equivalent). An interest in design is desirable but not essential. Knowledge and experience of quantitative research methods are needed.  

More information and how to apply

If you’d like to discuss the opportunity, please contact the principal supervisor, Nicki O’Brien (nicki.obrien@northumbria.ac.uk).

The advert for the post can be found here, this includes full eligibility requirements. As part of the application process you will need to submit a 1000 word proposal of how you would approach the project by 18th February 2022

Full details of the application process can be found here

The Big 5 episode 3: Dr. Nick Neave on Digital Hoarding “We keep possessions and form attachment to possessions. That’s what humans do.”

Photo of digital files on a computer screen.

On #CleanYourVirtualDesktopDay, Dr. Nick Neave tells us about his research on Digital Hoarding. We learn more about how humans anthropomorphise their possessions and why we have such a hard time throwing things away.

Show notes:

You can find the transcript of this episode here: Episode 3 Nick Neave transcript.docx

For more information on Nick’s research, visit his page here.

To find out more about types of digital hoarders, you can read this paper.

For more on the anthropomorphism questionnaire, you can read this paper.

Understanding Menopause

The 18th October is World Menopause Day. Researchers in the psychology department are working to futher our understanding of menopause, how it impacts women and how we can alleviate some of the negative symptoms of menopause. In this post, Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay explains the basics of menopause and tell us about her teams current research projects, from research in to sleep disturbances, dietary changes and menopause in the workplace.

Photo by Teona Swift on Pexels.com
author: Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay, department of psychology, northumbria university

Menopause – The Basics

Menopause is a normal, natural life event experienced by most women, and some men. Menopause results in lower levels of oestrogen and other hormones and is defined as the permanent loss of menstrual periods, usually confirmed when a period is missed for 12 consecutive months. This typically occurs between ages 40 and 58, with the average age being 51.

Perimenopause is the stage from the beginning of menopausal symptoms to the postmenopause and can last anywhere from a few months to several years. During the perimenopause, hormone levels change and the ovaries start to produce fewer eggs. Although over half of the world will experience menopause and the potential for debilitating symptoms associated with it, this important life event receives very little attention and is often not discussed.

Hot, sweaty and sweary

There are a number of common physical symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause, including:

  • Changes to your menstrual cycle
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Incontinence and bladder problems
  • Weight gain
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Difficulty sleeping

Common psychological symptoms include:

  • Feeling depressed
  • Anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Problems with memory and concentration – “brain fog”
  • Loss of interest in sex

However, experience of the menopause is different for everyone and a lack of awareness of the full array of symptoms both from the point of view of the individual and often within the medical profession can lead to menopause not being diagnosed. Psychological symptoms are particularly likely to be missed and often anti-depressants are prescribed without identification of menopause as the underlying cause.

Managing menopause symptoms through diet

Alternatives to anti-depressants include dietary supplements and herbal extracts and there are a range of these supplements that are marketed with claims to improve symptoms related to menopause. Unfortunately, research examining the effects of these supplements is limited and there is a lack of good evidence to support the claims made. However, research has indicated that a high intake of oily fish and fresh legumes is associated with delayed onset of natural menopause whereas refined pasta and rice was associated with earlier menopause. A higher intake of vitamin B6 and zinc was also associated with later age at menopause.

A limited number of studies have also assessed the role of diet in reducing or exacerbating menopausal symptoms. A recent systematic review indicated that lower intensity of symptoms was associated with a diet comprising of more vegetables, whole grain and unprocessed food. However, the majority of studies in this area have focused on specific aspects of menopause symptoms or on specific aspects of the diet, with a lack of studies conducted in the UK.

Overall, evidence on the relationship between dietary intake and menopausal symptoms is inconsistent and inconclusive. Within the Psychology department at Northumbria we are currently conducting research exploring the relationship between menopause symptoms, mental wellbeing, and diet in a UK population.

Menopausal sleep disturbance

Sleep disturbances are extremely common during menopause, where specific problems include difficulties with falling asleep, frequent awakenings, awakening too early, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness. Therefore, interventions which improve or prevent menopause-related sleep disturbances are extremely important and are likely to aid physical and psychological health. To date, there are no systematic reviews of nutritional interventions to treat menopause-related sleep disturbances. Researchers within the department are currently completing a systematic review of the literature exploring nutritional interventions for menopause-related sleep disturbances.

The findings from both of the current projects relating to diet will inform the development of subsequent nutritional intervention trials examining the impact on menopausal symptoms and specifically on sleep disturbances in menopause.

Menopause in the workplace

As menopause is rarely discussed this can lead to a lack of support and issues in the workplace. Almost one million women in the UK have left jobs as a result of menopausal symptoms. As the issue mainly affects those in their late 40s and early 50s, this leads to women eligible for senior management roles leaving work at the peak of their career. This also leads to knock-on effects to workplace productivity, the gender pay gap and the gender pension gap.

In July it was announced that an inquiry was being launched by the Commons cross-party women and equalities committee examining “An invisible cohort: why are workplaces failing women going through the menopause?”. This inquiry will scrutinise existing legislation and workplace practices and will draw up recommendations with a view to shaping policies to address gender equality. As stated by the Chair of this committee:

“Three in every five women are negatively affected at work as a result of the menopause. The repercussions of that are not merely individual. Excluding menopausal women from the workplace is detrimental to our economy, our society and our place on the world stage.”

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP

Whilst this issue is gaining some attention there is still a lack of awareness of individual’s experiences of menopause in the workplace and particularly the types of support that may lead to improvements in psychological symptoms of the perimenopause/menopause.

About the author and research team

Professor Crystal Haskell-Ramsay is a professor of Biological Psychology in the psychology department. She is also Director of Postgraduate Research and a member of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group

The projects described above are all being conducted in collaboration with paid student interns or placement students (Abi Glancey, Maddy Lane, Dominik Polasek) as well as staff members in Psychology: Greg ElderVicki Elsey, Nayantara Santhi and Michael Smith.

If you are interested in learning more about this research, please contact crystal.haskell-ramsay@northumbria.ac.uk

Northumbria researchers win Prolific Grant Competition

Richard Brown and Dr Gillian Pepper’s research proposal was crowned the overall winner of  Prolific’s Grant Competition. This will provide valuable funding for Richard’s next PhD study, supervised by Gillian, which aims to investigate perceptions of control over risk.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

Over 2000 users of the recruitment platform Prolific voted to select the top 5 proposals out of more than 100 entries from universities and research institutions from around the word. Prolific’s internal review panel then selected the Northumbria Psychology Department’s research duo as the overall winner. The proposal requested £4,700 to pay for future research costs and the winners were awarded this amount in full.

Their winning proposal was entitled “Die young, live fast? Does the feeling that you’ll die young, no matter what you do, encourage unhealthy behaviour and worsen health inequalities?” The study will aim to investigate what causes of death are widely believed to be uncontrollable and what information people use to assess personal risk. This looks to build on previous research conducted by Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University into the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis (1, 2).

The Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis

This suggests that people who believe they are likely to die due to factors beyond their control take less care of their health because they are less likely to live to see the long-term benefits of a healthy lifestyle. This is of particular relevance to social class differences in health behaviours. Those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are typically exposed to greater levels of uncontrollable risk. This may cause them to be less motivated to engage in preventative health behaviours, thus worsening existing health inequalities. To encapsulate the point, the proposal asks, “If you believed you were likely to be a victim of a stabbing before the age of 30, would eating your 5 a day seem very important?”

Little is known about what causes of death are thought to be beyond individual control, or why. By investigating perceptions of control over death, and identifying the informational sources of these perceptions, this study hopes to provide valuable insights for public health interventions. These insights may inform structural interventions aimed at reducing specific types of environmental risk, or help to produce targeted health messaging to influence perceived levels of control. Ultimately, the aim is to produce findings that help to understand health behaviours and how to reduce avoidable deaths.

Richard and Gillian are thrilled with the outcome of the competition and would like to thank everyone that helped and voted for their proposal. Time to get to work!

References

1.         Pepper GV, Nettle D. Out of control mortality matters: the effect of perceived uncontrollable mortality risk on a health-related decision. PeerJ. 2014;2:e459.

2.         Nettle D. Why are there social gradients in preventative health behavior? A perspective from behavioral ecology. PLoS One. 2010;5(10):e13371.

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