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.

Want to learn more?

Head over to our Health and Wellbeing Blog

Northumbria PhD Students’ Prize Winning Research

One of our current PhD students, Richard Brown, has been awarded runner up in the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group awards for his research conducted in his time on our MSc Psychology programme. Richard is now a PhD student, working with Dr Gillian Pepper, and Dr Liz Sillence and also works as a research assistant with Liz and Professor Lynne Coventry as part of the INTUIT project. He completed his Psychology master’s conversion course at Northumbria in 2020 after previously working in law and education.

Richard’s master’s research

Richard’s master’s thesis investigated perceptions of risk and health and information seeking behaviours during the COVID-19 pandemic, surveying a nationally representative sample of 500 UK adults. From this study, he was able to produce two publications alongside Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Lynne Coventry.

The first paper investigated the relationship between perceptions of risk and health behaviours during lockdown. It was found that greater perceived threat to life from COVID-19 predicted increased compliance with infection control measures. It was also suggested that the pandemic may have made people feel less control over what is likely to kill them. Feeling less control over what may kill you was also associated with a worsening of health behaviours for diet, physical activity and smoking. This suggests that health messages that highlight threat to life may increase adherence to infection control, but may also lead to a reduction in health-promoting behaviours.

The second paper looked at demographic and occupational inequalities in experiences and perceptions of COVID-19. Men reported lower levels of perceived threat to life from the virus than women and, among workers, lower occupational class was associated with greater levels of perceived risk of infection and perceived threat to life. Most notably, key workers during the pandemic who reported feeling that they are insufficiently protected by their PPE experienced increased levels of perceived threat, which may lead to negative health behaviours. This highlights the need for employers to ensure that key workers feel they are adequately protected from COVID-19.

What’s next?

Richard is now looking to build on this research during his doctoral studies. He has submitted a position paper for publication that outlines the theoretical and empirical case for the expanded study of the Uncontrollable Mortality Risk Hypothesis, developed by his supervisor Dr Gillian Pepper and Professor Daniel Nettle at Newcastle University. He has also finished collecting data for the qualitative study of feelings of control over different causes of death, which he hopes will expand into further quantitative research later in the year. Finally, he is planning to investigate health misinformation on Facebook to determine some of the key message characteristics that lead to enhanced sharing online.

Advice for students wanting to publish during their studies

Richard’s advice to students looking to publish their work is to cast the net wide when looking for opportunities and to be creative in disseminating their ideas. In addition to the Psychology Postgraduate Affairs Group, various organisations advertise student essay competitions which offer the opportunity to have your work published in their affiliated journals (for example the Royal Society for Public Health). There are also opportunities to pitch your ideas to The Conversation and other information outlets. For example, Richard published an article on Open Science in the Psychologist earlier this year. Finally, inspired by Dr Santosh Vijaykumar’s work on The Batsapp Project and Dr Daniel Jolley’s videos on conspiracy theories, Richard has created an explainer video to summarise his first study in a fun and accessible way. This provides a fresh and creative approach for getting your ideas noticed.

You can watch his video below!

Living with dementia during the pandemic

AUTHORS: Anna Svorenova and Dr Michael Craig

Medical discoveries, improved healthcare, and innovations in technology mean that people are living longer than ever. But this great news comes with a catch; age is the biggest risk factor for dementia.

Dementia is an umbrella term which refers to a group of neurodegenerative conditions that progressively damage the brain and impact a person’s thinking skills, often including their memory, attention, and language abilities. Current statistics suggest that around 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK, and, strikingly, 1 in 3 people born today will develop dementia in their lifetime. By 2050, it is expected that there will be more than two million people in the UK with dementia.

For people in the later stages of dementia, completing even basic everyday tasks, such as counting money to pay for something in a shop, making a cup of tea, telling a story to a friend, or recognising a family member, might become difficult. Because of these challenges, people with dementia often rely on help from others. This can range from basic support to more complex care. In most cases, this help can only be delivered in person and not remotely or online. In-person social activities, for example, dementia cafes in the community, also play an important role in the social support network for people with dementia. 

These social support networks are important. In a recent study, it was found that people with dementia who live alone and are deprived of social interaction are more likely to experience loneliness, feelings of depression, and poorer quality of life. Social support and stimulation can also benefit thinking skills. A review of research findings found there was good evidence that engaging in stimulating activities can help to maintain and possibly even improve thinking skills in people with dementia. Amazingly, they suggested that social stimulation was more beneficial than any existing medications.

These findings show how important social networks and stimulation are in helping people with dementia to live healthy, independent lives. It is therefore reasonable to assume that any major disruption to these activities could have profound consequences. Unfortunately, the landscape for dementia support changed dramatically in early 2020.

On 23rd March 2020, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would enter a national lockdown to reduce the spread of a novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Since then, further lockdowns have been imposed alongside more general restrictions, including social distancing and stay at home guidance. These restrictions have helped reduce the transmission of COVID-19 and reduce fatalities, especially in high risk groups that included older adults and people with underlying health conditions such as dementia.

The wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia and their close ones is being monitored closely by organisations such as the Alzheimer’s Society. This is partially because many people with dementia have had limited access to in-person support networks and activities in the year since the first lockdown was announced. This has included, for example, a limited ability to attend dementia cafes in the local community and an extended period where visits to care home residents were not permitted.

We know that these types of social activities are important for wellbeing and thinking skills, so what impact has this had? It is possible that lack of social interaction and engagement has negatively affected people with dementia through increased loneliness, feelings of depression, and encouraged declines in their thinking skills. This possibility is in keeping with a report from the Alzheimer’s Society in June 2020 that suggested that people with dementia were the “worst hit” by the initial lockdown, where a striking 82% of people affected by dementia reported an increase in dementia symptoms. Also, 79% of care home managers reported that lack of social contact had contributed to health and wellbeing deteriorations in their residents with dementia. Continuing research in this area will be important to help us understand the impact of the pandemic and how to best manage future possible lockdowns to protect people with dementia as best possible.

The dramatic change from normal ways of working meant that dementia organisations and service providers were required to respond rapidly and deliver social support in new ways that could be as impactful as possible. While in-person support will continue to hold a special role in the lives of those with dementia, one success story is the ability to deliver Playlist for Life activities online and remotely. Playlist for Life uses music from an individual’s life to stimulate conversations, singing, and general wellbeing. A 2017 review of research investigating the effectiveness of music therapy in dementia concluded that it is “the only convincingly effective intervention” for reducing behavioural symptoms, including aggression and agitation. During the pandemic, the Alzheimer’s Society successfully converted their Singing for the Brain activities to an online format that can be delivered through Zoom or over the phone (“Ring and Sing”). The flexibility of this programme and ability to deliver it online offers new opportunitis for ways to provide social support for people with dementia.

What does the future look like for providing social support to people with dementia? While the wider impact of the pandemic on people with dementia will not be known for a long time, green shoots are emerging. Vaccination rates are rising, and restrictions are easing, so it should be possible for people to return to attend regular social activities soon. It is hoped that we can also learn from the success of converting some social activities to run remotely. In the future, it might become standard practice to deliver a mix of in-person and remote social support activities that can improve accessibility for people who can’t attend in-person events. This could help these activities reach more people with dementia in the community. Research in this area could be of great benefit.

Dementia Action Week

This article was written for Dementia Action Week (17 – 23 May 2021), which is an annual weekly event to raise awareness of dementia. You can read about Dementia Action Week and how you can help here and by following #DAW2021 on social media.

Can you help with our research on this topic?

We are investigating whether people feel the coronavirus restrictions have affected their memory and general thinking skills. We hope the outcomes of this – and other excellent work being conducted around the world – can inform our understanding of the impact of social restrictions and how we care for people with dementia if we experience future pandemics.

The study is recruiting people aged 18 and over who live in the UK. You can read more about the study and take part here.

About the authors

Anna Svorenova is a 2nd Year Psychology student in the Department of Psychology. Dr Michael Craig is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and a member of the Psychopathologies subgroup of our Health and Wellbeing Research Group. You can read more about the work of the group in the Health and Wellbeing blog

References

Abraha, I., Rimland, J. M., Trotta, F. M., Dell’Aquila, G., Cruz-Jentoft, A., Petrovic, M., … & Cherubini, A. (2017). Systematic review of systematic reviews of non-pharmacological interventions to treat behavioural disturbances in older patients with dementia. The SENATOR-OnTop series. BMJ open, 7(3), e012759.

Alzheimer Research UK. Dementia Statistics [2021]. Retrieved from: https://www.dementiastatistics.org/statistics/numbers-of-people-in-the-uk/

Alzheimer’s Society (2020) Worst hit: dementia during coronavirus. Accessed on 20th April 2021. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-09/Worst-hit-Dementia-during-coronavirus-report.pdf

Alzheimer’s Society. Survey: Caring for a person living with dementia during the COVID-19 pandemic. [Online] 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/COVID-19-report-news

Pedersen, S. K., Andersen, P. N., Lugo, R. G., Andreassen, M., & Sütterlin, S. (2017). Effects of music on agitation in dementia: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 742.

Prince, M. et al. (2014) Dementia UK: Update Second Edition report produced by King’s College London and the London School of Economics for the Alzheimer’s Society

Victor, C. R., Rippon, I., Nelis, S. M., Martyr, A., Litherland, R., Pickett, J., … & IDEAL programme team. (2020). Prevalence and determinants of loneliness in people living with dementia: Findings from the IDEAL programme. International journal of geriatric psychiatry, 35(8), 851-858.

Wittenberg, R., Hu, B., Barraza-Araiza, L., & Rehill, A. (2019). Projections of older people with dementia and costs of dementia care in the United Kingdom, 2019–2040. Care Policy and Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Sciences.

Woods, B., Aguirre, E., Spector, A. E., & Orrell, M. (2012). Cognitive stimulation to improve cognitive functioning in people with dementia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (2).

University students: how to manage the stress of studying for your degree

Pexels

Dr Michael Smith, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology

According to the recently published Natwest Student Living Index, 64% of university students rated the stress of studying for their degree as seven or above out of ten. Other studies have estimated that up to 82% of UK university students suffer from stress and anxiety, and the number of students dropping out of university due to mental health problems is increasing.

The National Union of Students reports that the top three sources of stress among students are coursework deadlines, exams, and balancing study with other commitments. Going to university can also mean living away from home for the first time, less sleep, poor eating habits and money worries.

It’s clear that the majority of university students experience high levels of stress during their degree. But a few simple stress reduction techniques and small lifestyle changes can help with this. So if you’re a student, or heading off to university for the first time, here’s what you need to know about managing stress.

Talk or write about it

A major source of stress for university students living away from home for the first time can be a lack of perceived social support, if friends and family are no longer close by for a chat.

The most important thing if you start to feel stressed is that you don’t bottle up those feelings. Talk about it – with a parent, other family member, friend or a tutor. Or contact your university’s student well-being service.

Another approach could be to write about your feelings if nobody is around to talk to. Studies have suggested that writing about your emotions can be useful for managing stress.

Stay organised

A key source of stress is a perceived lack of control over a situation. Coursework deadlines and exams are an inevitable part of life for a university student, but by managing your time wisely, and not leaving your assessment tasks and revision to the last minute you can stay in control of these deadlines.

Rebecca Sharp, a psychologist from the University of Bangor, suggests that splitting a task into smaller, more easily manageable goals is a good way of organising your time and staying on top of university work.

Making time in your schedule to relax and socialise is also very important. Socialising may help you to build a network of people you can rely upon for social support. Creating some “me time” for socialising, relaxing and exercise is key to managing stress.

Make time for fun and friends. Pexels

Look after yourself

University students often have a comparatively poor diet. During those first few weeks of living away from home, it can take some time to adjust to having to plan and prepare your own meals, and bad eating habits can creep in.

University students also report getting fewer hours of sleep than the recommended eight hours a night. This is problematic because irregular sleep patterns are associated with poor academic performance at university and poor sleep quality is associated with increased stress.

All of this means that it is important to look after yourself, by exercising regularly, establishing a pattern of good quality sleep and eating healthily. A balanced breakfast, plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, and limited sugary and fatty snacks can help to optimise your brain function. This will help to keep your stress levels in check, and also help with your concentration in lectures and when revising.

One issue though, is that when our stress levels increase, it is easy to engage in “emotional eating” – consuming more sugary and fatty snacks and less fruit and vegetables. It’s important to try to avoid this vicious cycle where possible, and maintain a healthy diet through these periods.

Be mindful

Being mindful – paying more attention to yourself and the world around you by being “in the moment” – is known to reduce stress, and helps us to notice the signs of stress earlier. Research has shown that mindfulness training can reduce levels of distress in university students during exam periods.

Make time for me time. Bruce Mars/ Pexels

Even if you haven’t had any formal training in mindfulness, it can be beneficial to practice mindfulness techniques by sitting quietly and paying attention to your body and your surroundings. Mindful breathing exercises can help with relaxation and reducing negative thoughts. Although not for everyone, activities such as yoga can also help with being mindful and being more aware of your breathing.

Is stress all bad?

It is important to remember that the feelings we experience when we’re stressed are due to hormone responses that have evolved to help us survive by fighting off or fleeing from a predator. University life can be thought of as that predator – the stress response helps us to cope with and manage demanding periods such as exams and coursework deadlines. So a little stress is fine, and probably even beneficial, but if you’re experiencing frequent, high levels of stress, then do something about it.

Michael Smith, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northumbria University, Newcastle

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