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The benefits of a clinic visit: How I connected course learning, personal experience and observing a professional

e.schaessens24 April 2020

by Katie Gilchrist

I am an MSc Health Psychology student at UCL. As part of the programme, we are required to attend a clinic for observation. As a brain tumour survivor, a natural choice for me was the Neurosurgery clinic at The Unit of Functional Neurosurgery at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London.

My sense of tumour

In December 2017 I was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour called acoustic neuroma and in February 2019 I underwent surgery at The Royal Randwick hospital in Sydney, Australia to have the tumour removed. A consequence of the surgery was being left with grade 6 House-Brackman facial paralysis, single sided deafness and one less vestibular nerve. I spent the first month recuperating from the surgery, practicing walking with one balance nerve and adjusting to losing the hearing in one ear and the loss of facial movement on one side of my face. Seven months after the surgery my husband and I packed up our lives after spending seven years in Australia and moved back to the UK where I started my MSc in Health Psychology at UCL. Following my experience, naturally, I was really excited about spending a morning in a hospital clinic (a mandatory part of the course) and even more excited when I saw there was a neuro clinic!

Feeling empathy for patients

So, recently I attended the clinic at The Unit of Functional Neurosurgery at The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London with Prof Ludvic Zrinzo. The clinic specialises in cranial nerve disorders such as hemifacial spasm (involuntary facial twitch) and trigeminal neuralgia (chronic facial pain). What I didn’t realise, when I made my selection, was that the conditions Prof Ludvic Zrinzo works with can present with facial droop or weakness and that for some of the conditions the surgical approach, risks and recovery are very similar to what I had. There were a lot of patients with facial movement issues and their faces looked like mine, asymmetrical smiles and one eye looking frozen open, foreheads not able to move and I felt such empathy for them. It was difficult not to run after them and comfort them but at the same time it was like hearing my own diagnosis over and over again. There were several moments where my eye (only one produces tears) glazed over and I had to concentrate not to show too much emotion as that would have been unprofessional. While it may help the patient to see we are human, it is not good for them to feel our burden which may accidentally transfer to them if we overshare.

Learning from the best

Having met a few surgeons through my own health experience, I was really blown away by Prof Ludvic Zrinzo’s approach to patient care. It was great to see a surgeon putting into practice all the psychology aspects we have learned in class this term; building rapport, explaining in clear language, allowing time for the patient to ask questions as well as all the additional points he covered like asking who was at home to help with care, reminding them to bring partners into appointments and explaining all the options available to them and really emphasising that it was the patients decision. Before each consultation, he explained to the patient who we were (there were three students observing) and he asked if it was ok if we stayed and listened. Only one patient decided at that time it was not ok for us to stay for that appointment and Prof Zrinzo kindly asked us to wait outside. On our return we didn’t ask about the patient and nor did he offer any information. The appointment had taken longer than some and we were playing catch up. I also felt there was an understanding between us that in this instance any discussion was to stay between patient and health professional.

What will I take from this into my future roles?

  1. The importance of asking the patient what they want
    • Did they mind having students in the room?
    • What were their thoughts on which treatment?
  1. The benefits of open dialog
    • Encouraging patients to include family and friends in the conversation
    • Explaining risks and benefits in layman’s terms without provoking fear
    • Asking about family, other health issues, home/work environment
    • Having open discussion with empathy and patience, even if it has been discussed several times previously

Overall, Prof Ludvic Zrinzo had such a great approach and I am so grateful to be able to have observed this. While it was emotional for me it really reaffirmed my desire to help people with health issues and I just wanted to say thank you to UCL and The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery for arranging such a great experience.

 

Time to help our children get a move on

guest blogger17 January 2020

World Health Organisation and United States guidelines say adolescents should do at least an hour’s moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. But a new global study shows eight out of 10 fail to meet that standard – and there is a widening gender gap. Professor Yvonne Kelly and Fran Abrams outline new research revealing worrying trends which demonstrate the need for political and social choices that will help young people enjoy the social, physical and mental benefits of being active.

Physical activity has many health benefits for young people – and globally,  four in every five adolescents do not benefit from regular physical activity.

 In 2018, the WHO launched a global action plan called More Active People for a Healthier World. It aimed to reduce the proportion of people doing insufficient physical activity by 15 per cent by 2030 among both adolescents and adults. 

Now in a major new study WHO researchers have analysed information on 1.6 million school students aged 11-17 in 146 countries. They found some positive trends but argued much still needed to be done to encourage young people to exercise more.

There was a small reduction over 15 years in the proportion of boys not doing enough, though this still fell well short of the WHO’s target. But the proportion of girls meeting the target remained static and this led to a widening gender gap. 

As has been shown in the UK such gender differences start early with lower levels of physical activity in girls emerging before they become teenagers. 

The authors of a separate investigation using the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) suggest the main reason for young people not exercising or sleeping enough is the amount of time they spend using screens. This is a hotly contested area, intuitively, ‘too much screen time’ and ‘too little exercise’ might appear to sit side by side.  However, in this kind of study, it is not possible to infer that one causes the other. 

The WHO study showed the majority of adolescents did not meet physical activity guidelines, putting their current and future health at risk. Although there were small reductions in insufficient activity among boys, the prevalence of insufficient physical activity in girls had remained unchanged since 2001.

 

Figure 1 Prevalence of insufficient physical activity among school-going adolescents aged 11–17 years, globally and by World Bank income group, 2001 and 2016

Huge dataset

The dataset used in the WHO study was huge – the young people studied had provided information for at least three years and the analysis covered four World Bank income groups, nine regions, and the globe as a whole for the years 2001–16. Saying that, although  the research data covered more than 80 per cent of the global population, it still didn’t cover every county and region. And the estimates for low-income countries need to be treated with caution as the coverage there was much lower – only 36 per cent.

The overall analysis showed that more than eight out of 10 school-going adolescents aged 11–17 did not meet the recommendations for daily physical activity. The small improvements in boys’ activity levels, combined with the static position in girls’ activity, suggested a target of more than 30 per cent of adolescents meeting the recommended level by 2030 will not be met.

Globally, across all income groups and regions and in nearly all the countries analysed, girls were less active than boys.

And perhaps surprisingly, the research did not find that the problem was worse in higher-income countries. However, this was not the case for girls, for whom there was no clear pattern in relation to country income.

Differences in activity levels

In addition to variations related to gender and affluence, there were also differences in activity levels between different parts of the world. The boys least likely to meet activity targets were in the high-income Asia Pacific region, but the second-least likely were in lower-income Sub-Saharan Africa and particularly in Sudan and Zambia. 

The boys most likely to meet the targets were found in high-income western and south Asian countries with large populations such as the USA, Bangladesh, and India.

These variations might be driven by specific characteristics of particular countries – for example, as the research looked at school children the picture might be skewed in countries where disadvantaged children often do not attend school, or in places where the tradition of school or community sport is strong.

For girls, the largest proportions failing to meet the targets were in Asia Pacific and particularly in South Korea- though in some of those countries girls’ participation in education is low and that might have affected the study’s sample.

The recent MCS study by academics from Loughborough University and University College London used data from 3899 adolescents. This study, in which young people were fitted with activity monitors, found that while nine out of 10 were getting the recommended amount of sleep, just four in ten met exercise targets and a quarter were keeping to the recommended screen time. These figures were higher than those in the WHO study, which could be explained by the different methods used to measure activity and which show just how important it is to consider HOW activity is measured.

The study looked at  some correlates of physical activity and showed that adolescent girls who had depressive symptoms were less likely to meet all three of these recommendations (8-10 hours of sleep, no more than two hours of screen time and at least an hour a day of physical activity), while those from better-off backgrounds were more likely to meet them. Among boys, those who were obese and those who had depressive symptoms were less likely to meet the recommendations. However, it is not possible to rule out the potential for cyclical associations to be at play here as low levels of physical activity could lead to depressed mood and to weight gain.

What can be done? 

  • More research is needed to understand the causes of non-participation in exercise – social, economic, cultural, environmental and technological. 
  • Policy change should be prioritised and should encourage all forms of physical education – sport, active play, and recreation as well as safe walking and cycling.
  • Social marketing campaigns such as the National Lottery funded #thisgirlcan campaign combined with community-based interventions could be starting points to increase physical activity levels in girls, particularly in countries with wide gender differences. This approach has been identified as cost-effective.
  • Schools, families, sport and recreation providers, urban planners, and city and community leaders all need to become involved.

That four in every five adolescents do not experience the enjoyment and social, physical, and mental health benefits of regular physical activity is not a chance thing – it is the consequence of political  choices. 

Young people have the right to play and should be provided with the opportunities to realise their right to physical and mental health and wellbeing. Urgent action is needed, particularly through targeted interventions to promote and retain girls’ participation in physical activity. Policymakers and stakeholders should be encouraged to act now for the health of this young generation and of future ones.

Yvonne Kelly is Professor of Lifecourse Epidemiology and Director of the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL. She is editor of the Child of our Time blog.

Fran Abrams is CEO of the Education Media Centre and freelance journalist who writes for the Child of our Time blog.

Global trends in insufficient physical activity among adolescents: a pooled analysis of 298 population-based surveys with 1·6 million participants, by Regina Guthold, Leanne Riley, Fiona Bull and Gretchen Stevens, is published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health.

Regina Guthold, Leanne Riley and Fiona Bull are based at the Department for Prevention of Noncommunicable Diseases, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland and Gretchen Stevens is at the Department for Information, Evidence and Research, WHO, Geneva, Switzerland.  Fiona Bull is also affiliated with the Department of Sport and Exercise Science, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Prevalence and Correlates of Meeting Sleep, Screen-Time, and Physical Activity Guidelines Among Adolescents in the United Kingdom, by Natalie Pearson, Lauren B Sherar and Mark Hamer, is published in JAMA Paediatrics: 

Natalie Pearson and Lauren Sherar are at the School of Sport, Exercise & Health Sciences, Loughborough University, United Kingdom, and Mark Hamer is at the Institute of Sport Exercise & Health, Division of Surgery & Interventional Science, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University College London, United Kingdom.

This blog article is courtesy of the Child of our Time blog, which is a blog about the health and happiness of children living in the UK. led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London

Taking the me out of social media

guest blogger9 October 2019

Emma Walker, second year BBSRC-ESRC funded Centre for Doctoral Training in Biosocial Research PhD student at University College London’s Institute for Epidemiology and Health Care, describes how getting involved with research on social media helped her to reflect on her own usage. 

It’s 00.23 and I should be in bed. I’ve got lots on tomorrow but I’ve spent the last 45 minutes scrolling. Scrolling through the profiles of Instagram “life style coaches”, yogis, models; each collection of photos perfectly curated to appeal to my desire for millennial aesthetic.

Everything feels so much better than anything I have. And actually, in the world of Instagram, I know that everything is much better than what I have. Number of followers or number of likes on each post has conveniently quantified this for me.

The next evening, as part of my public health PhD work, I’m reading Professor Yvonne Kelly’s paper laying out the effects of social media use on the mental health of girls. I diligently make notes “.. greater social media use related to online harassment, poor sleep, low self-esteem and poor body image .. ” “..girls affected more than boys..” and pause periodically to check my phone.

All my friends are at the pub having a great time, another friend just put up a post where she looks amazing, it already has 50 likes. I get to the methods section of the paper “how many times in the last 2 weeks have you felt miserable or unhappy; found it hard to think properly or concentrate; felt lonely; thought you could never be as good as other kids…”.

Then the penny drops. Why do I think I’m immune? I’m like the lifelong smoker who’s confused by their cancer diagnosis: “I never thought it would happen to me.” The idea starts to filter in: I don’t need this in my life. In fact, I need this to not be a part of my life.

The next day I deactivate my Instagram account. That day I meet a friend for coffee in a hipster café and don’t take a picture of my coffee. That night I get to sleep by 11pm. The next day I work more productively than I’ve worked in weeks.

An opportunity to get involved comes up: the National Literacy Trust are really interested in Yvonne’s work and are keen to put together an event for young people. A great group of undergraduates and I devise a series of activities to find out what young people think about the research.

The first section would involve 4 zones at the front of the Renaissance Learning centre room for Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Agree and Strongly Disagree we put a series of statements on the board and ask the pupils to move to a zone and explain why. We include statements on a range of topics including cyber bullying, sleep deprivation, self-esteem and body image and parents and social media.

On the day, the 50 enthusiastic 11-14 year olds from 3 schools across London jostle about, keen to share their opinions and to hear one another’s. I’m amazed at the diversity of ideas, overall willingness to get involved and the mental health literacy of many of the students.

Some responses are predictable; the boys happy to appear less concerned about body image, many keen to state in front of their teachers that social media does not in any way disrupt their studies. Some are surprising; only a handful of pupils had been on social media before arriving at the event that day (a significantly lower proportion than the adults running it!) Other responses are hard to read; were the gaggle of girls laughing at the very idea of social media posts making you feel left out, honest or desperate to seem not to care?

A clear feeling was the young people’s frustration at their parents use of phones and social media. Many expressed irritation at the rules their parents have established – no phones at the table, in bedrooms, after 8pm – that they, themselves constantly break.

One boy described having to ask the same question 3 times before his dad will look up from his phone. The idea that our event should be run for parents was cheered.

Next we presented them with the evidence base for the possible impact of social media and mental health then asked them to make public health campaign like posters with top tips that could go up in their schools. We were presented with a beautiful collection of posters with thoughtful advice, carefully put together information, clever slogans and eye catching drawings. Audio recordings from the day gave further insights from the young who readily offered tips and advice for younger children.

Overall, I think the event was a success. My main impression was that these young people are actually very well equipped to protect themselves from the potential mental health impact of social media. That in fact it may be people in their 20s, who have grown up in the full glare of social media and its pressures, who are at the greatest risk.

It was a real privilege being able to discuss this topic with young people and the message that stood out the most from them is the opportunity parents have to make a difference by practicing what they preach.  Chances are they’ll benefit from switching off!

As for me, it’s now been 6 months since I deleted Instagram and whilst it hasn’t been plain sailing – I have got this itch for the buzz of an influx of likes –  for the time being I’m happy and I would wholeheartedly recommend it!

Dementia research behind the Scenes: Experience of an A-level student in an academic department

guest blogger30 September 2019

We have a fantastic post below from Vennie an A-level student aspiring to study Medicine at university. She visited the Research Department of Primary Care and  and shadowed some of our academics in their various projects in July. In this post talks about her experience and what she took away from it. 

Dementia is an increasing problem especially with the growing older population in the UK. The awareness of dementia is rising, especially through the use of media and organised events such as Memory Walks. However, how much do we know about dementia?

Well, in simple words, dementia is the ongoing decline in the brain. This is only an umbrella term for 200+ different sub-types of dementia that exists, some of which you may have heard off. For example the most common two are Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

During my placement in the Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health at the Royal Free Hospital, I was able to shadow members of the team that are involved at different levels of research projects.

I discovered that there are many stages which make up the process of a research project. Starting with the planning and design of the research project, ethics, and recruitment through to finally analysing and presenting the results produced. Alongside all this and integrated throughout are processes to ensure the results are implemented into clinical practice and policy, to make a difference. I learnt about the different types of studies such as qualitative studies and large clinical trials. Due to the involvement of human participants including often patients from the NHS in the studies the department runs, a major part of the research process is the ethical application and review. The purpose of the review is to establish if the project has more benefit than risk to the person and their family as well as is the project being conducted sensitively. For all of this to happen, it may take 5 to 20 years to see a difference in practice and policy.

In order for, this project to be successful, a range of people are required to take part, which in turns bring a variety of skills into the mix. These individuals may include designers, programmers, clinicians, psychologists, sociologists, statisticians, qualitative researchers, and importantly patients and their family themselves. A few of the most prominent skills are communication, teamwork, determination and resilience. For example, a project with Dr Davies and Prof Rait I observed on producing a support package for people with dementia and their families, communication has a massive role to play. The project uses workshops with people with dementia, their family and professionals to develop the support package. There is a need for clear communication between the ranges of people for this project to progress smoothly. The communication may come in the form of discussion-based in meetings, emails and many other ways. Therefore, teamwork is essential as each person will have a special role in the project. Finally, determination and resilience are required from every member of the team as there will be challenges along the way, which could be out of your control that must be overcome. For example, if the project does not meet the criteria of the ethics committee it may be returned to the researcher, and his or her team must go back and amend the plan.

In conclusion, research of any kind similar to this project requires a range of people to be involved with a variety of skills that are vital for the research to work. This work experience has been a fascinating and exciting opportunity for me to experience what goes on behind the scenes of a research project.

How to podcast

guest blogger30 July 2019

With the help of a Researcher-Led Initiative award, PhD students Fran Harkness and Jo Blodgett, and Research Fellow Aradhna Kaushal organised a day of podcast training for early career researchers to learn how to beam their findings straight into the ears of the general public. Here they explain what a podcast is and how you can get started making your own.

Why podcast?

Do you want to learn how to share your research discoveries beyond academic community (and pay-) walls? It would be unusual for a non-academic to read a journal, and as researchers, it’s not possible control how findings make headlines. But 6 million people in the UK listen to a podcast every week. And with people almost entirely listening to episodes as a lone activity- often on their phones whilst driving or travelling- the podcast has their full attention. Podcasts such as ‘All in the Mind’, ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, and our own Institute’s ‘The Lifecourse Podcast’ are easy to access (freely available online), and able to build a relationship with audiences through regular episodes. They disseminate new research in an informal style, often by chatting about new research with a fellow host, or interviewing academics.

Researcher-led initiative

We knew we wanted to make a podcast, but we didn’t know how. That’s where the Researcher-Led Initiative awards came in. We successfully applied for £1000 from the UCL Organisational Development to invite an experienced podcast trainer, Chris Garrington, and fellow academic and journalist Jen Allan to teach us everything we needed to make our own episodes.

Along with 13 other early career researchers, we learnt about the practical aspects of making a podcast such as how to conduct an interview, choosing recording equipment, incorporating jingles, editing audio files and disseminating podcasts online. We practiced recording and editing our recordings. It was such a buzz hearing our voices “introducing” our own podcast after the jingle. Of course 10, 000 more practice hours are needed before any Poddies are won but it was much easier than we thought it would be.

Recording a podcast series

We learnt that before you make your podcast, it’s important to consider the ideal format for the topic. For example, will a monologue or interview work best? Is the role of the presenter to ask questions on behalf of the audience or to offer their own opinions and thoughts? We also considered how many episodes are feasible to make, how often and how long should they be. Who are the audience and what kind of tone and style will appeal to them?

We experimented with sound quality between recording straight onto our laptops or enhancing it with different microphones, and received sage advice such as not to record in a coffee shop and to record some background sound separately when on you are on location in case you need to loop it in behind new recordings back in your studio (ahem bedroom). Jen then gave us a session of how to get the information you need from your interviewees, including to learn to soundlessly agree with them so to not cut them off (as qualitative researchers probably already know), and how to get around difficult questions.

What kit do you need?

You don’t need highly specialised equipment to make a podcast. An investment in a good microphone will ensure the quality of the audio recording. You may also consider different types of microphones (such as lapel microphones or hand-held) for different needs. You can also record interviews via Skype or Zoom using an Ecamm Call Recorder. Once you have your audio file, you can edit this using freely available software such as GarageBand (Mac) or Audacity (Windows). When you are ready to share your podcast with the world, you can share this using a podcast hosting website such as Libsyn: A podcast host simplifies and automates both the RSS feed and file hosting and delivery to your subscribers. But a good host does more than that by providing useful stats, tutorials, and support.

Thanks to Chris and Jen, we somehow finished the day with a mini episode and many big plans for the future! Watch this space.

I wanna hold your hand: helping young people prepare for happy healthy relationships

guest blogger11 July 2019

The teenage years are a time for experimenting and for pushing boundaries – particularly when it comes to intimate relationships. Such experimentation is a natural part of growing up. But there are potential risks, too – particularly if these early experiences aren’t positive ones. A new study from Professor Yvonne Kelly from UCL’s Department of Epidemiology and Public  Health  and colleagues, investigates what kinds of intimate behaviour 14 year-olds engage in, and asks how this insight can help to ensure  young people are well prepared for healthy and happy adult relationships.

We know teenagers experiment with intimacy, often moving ‘up’ the scale from hand-holding or kissing to more explicitly sexual activity. But we also know teenage pregnancy numbers have been dropping in recent years. And our new study suggests that fewer young teenagers are actually having sexual intercourse than some might previously have thought.

We’ve all seen the headlines – studies have shown us (links) that 30 per cent of those born in the 1980s and 1990s had sex before the age of 16, and that among those born in the early 1990s a little under one in five had done so by age 15. But our new evidence, based on 14 year-olds born during or just after the year 2000, paints a rather different picture of this latest generation of teenagers.

Our research used data from the Millennium Cohort Study, the most comprehensive survey of adolescent health and development in the UK. It follows children born between September 2000 and January 2002 and has collected information on them at nine months and subsequently at age  three, five, seven, 11, and  14 years. We used information from the most recently available data, when the study’s participants were 14 years old, and were able to look closely at the lives of 11,000 of them.

Intimate activities

Participants were asked about a range of ‘light’, ‘moderate’ and ‘heavy’ intimate activities. Handholding, kissing and cuddling were classed as ‘light,’ touching and fondling under clothes as ‘moderate’ and oral sex or sexual intercourse as ‘heavy.’

As might have been expected, more than half – 58 per cent – had engaged in kissing, cuddling or hand-holding, while 7.5 per cent, or one in 13, had experienced touching or fondling. But in contrast to other studies, (though our sample was younger than those mentioned above) we found only a very small proportion – 3.2 per cent or fewer than one in 30 – had been involved in ‘heavy’ activities in the year before they were interviewed for the study.

And most parents can take comfort from the fact that if their children aren’t participating in other risky activities such as drinking or smoking, they probably aren’t having sex either – there was clear evidence of links between heavier sexual activity and these factors.

We also found those who were most likely to confide worries in a friend rather than a parent, those whose parents didn’t always know where they were and those who stayed out late were more likely than others were to be engaged in heavier forms of sexual activity. Other potential links were found to drug-taking and as well as to symptoms of depression.

Our findings suggest young people who push boundaries may push several at once – that those who drink, smoke or stay out late, for instance, are more likely to engage in early sexual activity.

So, initiatives which aim to minimise risk and promote wellbeing are crucial – and they need to look at intimate activities, health behaviours and social relationships in relation to one another.

A key point is that if young people can learn about intimacy in a positive way at an early stage, then those good experiences can build foundations which will help them throughout their lives.

Most importantly young people need to know how to ensure their intimate experiences are mutually wanted, protected, and pleasurable. The concept of “sexual competence” – used to refer to sexual experiences characterised by autonomy, an equal willingness of partners, being ‘ready’ and (when relevant) protected by contraceptives – is important at all ages, as are close and open relationships with parents.

Better understanding of this interplay between personal relationships and behaviours are key to better support for young people. The right intervention at the right time can ensure a teenager’s intimate life is set on a positive course.

Partnered intimate activities in early adolescence – findings from the UK Millennium Cohort Study, by Yvonne Kelly. Afshin Zilanawala , Clare Tanton, Ruth Lewis and Catherine H Mercer,is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

*Afshin Zilanawala is based at the Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London, and Oregon State University, United States.

Clare Tanton is based at London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Ruth Lewis is based at the University of Glasgow.

Catherine H Merceris based at University College London.

This blog article is courtesy of the Child of our Time blog, which is a blog about the health and happiness of children living in the UK. led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,

My Research was mentioned in Parliament, and yours can be too.

guest blogger10 December 2018

In this blog piece, Emily Murray (IEHC’s Research Department of Epidemiology and Public Health) provides some helpful advice on how to get research mentioned in Parliament.

The 13th of December 2017 dawned like any other day.  I was sitting at my desk with my favourite coffee preparing to dive into another day of researching…when a Twitter notification popped up:

Professor Jenny Head, my supervisor and head of our research group at the time, had provided a link to a video recording of the all parliamentary meeting of the Women’s & Equality sub-committee. I clicked over & started to listen.  Fifteen minutes into the recording, something wonderful happened:

Someone mentioned my research.  My research.  MY. RESEARCH.  In a parliamentary meeting.

To put it mildly, I was elated.

Isn’t this what we as researchers aspire to in our work?  That the findings of our work makes its way into the ears of the people who make the decisions?  That someday, hopefully, what we have researched will change policy, improve health & well-being of the population and generally improve the lives of all our brethren?

But I get ahead of myself.

I don’t know whether my findings being relayed in a parliamentary meeting has changed anything (yet).  What I do know is that it didn’t happen by accident.  It wasn’t entirely planned either, but a series of steps and activities that our project, RenEWL (Research on Extending Working Lives), undertook made the outcome much more likely. I share them with you now so that you will hopefully be even more successful than I was.

Emily’s top tips for getting your research mentioned in Parliament:

  1. Start Early – at RenEWL, we set up an impact sub-group from day one. We charted out ideas for impact events, discussed who we wanted to target with our research and mapped out timelines. This is important.  If we had waited until we had had actual research results, we wouldn’t have had the time to plan effective events.

*Note: If you are not a part of a large group, or solo researching, find an impact officer at your institution.  If you don’t have one of those, find a researcher you admire for their impact work and ask them how they plan out their impact.

  1. Build Relationships – One of our first impact events was a launch event we held within the first 6 months of our project. We invited a select group of experts in government, academic and the third-sector who we knew worked in our subject area.  Part of the event was to introduce the project and project plans to the participants.  But what I also think was particularly important, was to build in time to listen to THEM.  We set up group discussions where we asked what they thought of our project aims, but also importantly what topic areas they were interested in that we were missing.
  2. Bring in the experts – One of the initial collaborators on our programme was the International Longevity Centre (ILC-UK). ILC-UK has vast experience with planning events and disseminating results to policy-makers.  Our project commissioned them to help disseminate our findings to policy-makers. I believe it was this collaboration which was instrumental in making our policy maker-focused event ‘Overcoming Inequalities: Addressing barriers to extending working lives’ such a success.  They additionally briefed individual ministers, government units and journalists.
  3. Stay Aware – Find our how Parliament works. To get started, there are simple guides on the Parliament’s website.  Here is the guide for Select Committees. Sign up for the UK parliament newsletter to receive notifications of events and offered trainings.  Find out what topic areas are accepting submissions of evidence here.  We submitted evidence to a number of government consultations, including in person to the Independent Review of the State Pension Age.
  4. Act quickly – Or at least be prepared to act quickly. Don’t wait for a consultation to pop up on your radar to start drafting a document.  Policy-makers act on quick timescales.  You will most likely only have a few hours or days (weeks if lucky) to submit a document.  Don’t get caught out.
  5. Network, network, network – A few of the initial attendees at our launch event agreed to serve on our advisory committee. Other participants later invited us to present findings at their (external) institutions.  From submitting evidence to the Independent Review, John Cridland agreed to be the key-note at our policy-maker event.
  6. Disseminate, disseminate, disseminate – Every person we met through project activities was asked if they wanted be included on our mailing list. We have a project-specific web-site and twitter account.  Every published finding was sent to our mailing list, posted on the web-site and tweeted.  This included our final report, titled ‘Working for Everyone’, that was written in conjunction with ILC-UK and additionally sent to their contact list as well.

Contact Emily Murray via: emily.murray@ucl.ac.uk | @emilytmurray

View Emily Murray’s IRIS profile

Acknowledgements: Professor Jenny Head and Professor Nicola Shelton designed this impact structure.  Professor Head, Dr Nicola Shelton and I planned all impact activities together.  ILC-UK was instrumental in the success of our policy-maker event and report.  The entire RenEWL team was instrumental in the success of our programme. 

Work stress and ill health – what’s the link?

guest blogger2 October 2018

Lots of studies have suggested stress can be a cause of ill health – and that leads to people ceasing to work before they reach retirement age. But most have offered only a snapshot on the issue. José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado and  Tarani Chandola from the University of Manchester describe a major new study, which has shed new light on how work stress can affect an employee’s health over a longer period.

Many animals have the ability to adapt to environmental changes and pressures so that they’re better prepared the next time they happen. Bears can put on fat as winter approaches, for instance, to help them stave off hunger and stay warm.

And human beings can do this too. Stressful situations trigger chemical responses which can help to give us extra resources when things are tough. Our neuroendocrine systems, for instance, trigger hormonal responses which enhance our physical performance when we need it most.

But these valuable systems can have a down-side. In our research, we wanted to look at how repeated exposure to stressful situations might contribute to health problems, particularly in people nearing the end of their working lives. We call this stress-induced effect ‘Allostatic Load’ – the wear and tear” on the body that accumulates as an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress because of fluctuating hormonal responses.

Given that many governments are looking for ways to extend working lives, there’s particular interest in finding out how stress can affect the health of older workers. We were able to tap into a rich source of information – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a representative sample of almost 10,000 over-50s since 2002.

These participants have been interviewed regularly and one of the things they’ve been asked to report is whether they’ve experienced a sense of imbalance between the effort they put into their jobs and the rewards they get out.

This gave us a sample of 2663 older adults, all over 50 and living in England, who’d reported these feelings at least once and who’d been assessed as having had an adverse reaction to them. We wanted to know whether repeated episodes had a bigger effect than just one, and whether the effect would be just as strong for past episodes as it was for more recent ones.

Health testing

Between 2004-5 and 2014-16 the group were asked about stress at work, but they also underwent physical tests to see how the various systems in their bodies were bearing up.

They were visited by nurses who carried out a battery of tests including taking hair samples to assess levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol, carrying out blood pressure checks to provide information on their cardio-vascular systems, white blood cell counts to assess their immune systems and cholesterol checks on their metabolic systems. Participants also had measurements taken of their waist to height ratios – a good indicator of coronary heart disease risk factors.

Overall, we found the more occasions of work-stress a participant had reported, the greater their ‘Allostatic Load’ index – that is, the greater the amount of biological wear and tear.

Moreover, the evidence suggests that employees who had experienced stress more recently, towards the end of their working lives, had higher levels of health risk when compared to those who had experienced it earlier in their careers.

This suggests there is an association between repeated reports of stress at work and biological stress mechanisms, which in turn could lead to stress-related disorders such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes or depression. This also suggests that previous cross-sectional studies which reported small or inconsistent associations may have suffered because they were only measuring one effect at one time.

Work-related stress is one of the reasons for labour market exit – and our findings would suggest that earlier, snapshot studies may have underestimated the true effect of work-related stress on health over a lifetime.

As this is an observational study, we cannot make any causal claims. There may be other factors that we have not taken into account that may explain the association between stress and disease risk. For example, sleep problems may be relevant – though they may also be part of the journey from stress to ill-health.

But equally it is possible that cumulative exposure to work stress is resulting in damage to employees’ physical health, which is then leading to disability and an early exit from the world of work. So, if we want to extend working lives then reducing work-related stress could be one of the keys to achieving that goal.

Allostatic Load and Effort-Reward Imbalance: Associations over the Working-Career, by José Ignacio Cuitún Coronado, Tarani Chandola and Andrew Steptoe, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

This blog article is courtesy of the Work Life blog, which is a blog about the relationship between work and  health and well-being of people, whether they are preparing for  working life, managing their work / life balance or preparing for retirement and life beyond retirement. Led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London

Working with a long-term illness – does employment status make a difference?

guest blogger27 September 2018

Across the developed world, a growing share of the population suffers from chronic disease such as diabetes, arthritis or heart problems – in the EU, around 45 per cent of those aged 55-64 had such a disease in 2015. And that affects their ability to work: just half of those with chronic illnesses are employed, compared to three quarters of those without. But how do the self-employed cope with such conditions, when compared with those in employment? Maria Fleischmann and colleagues from the RenEWL project find these differences in work status can make a major difference.

We know that when people become chronically ill, changes in their working conditions can help them to continue working. And we also know that good working conditions – being able to control how you use your time and how you do your job, whether you make the decisions and whether you feel valued, for instance – can help all of us to stay in paid work for longer.

And of course, if you become ill you’re more likely to feel the need to take time off or maybe to give up work altogether. We wanted to compare how the employed and the self-employed adjust their working conditions when facing a diagnosis of chronic disease.

Existing research tells us that many older people work for employers, and have to ask for their approval when it comes to making adjustments to their working conditions. The self-employed, meanwhile, are much more able to make their own decisions and tend to feel they have more control over their working lives.

We looked at people’s ability to control their work: physical demands, working hours, psychological demands such as how fast they had to work, and social aspects such as whether they felt valued.

And we had a great source of data for this – the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA), which has followed a total of almost 9,000 over-50s since 2002.

From that group we were able to find and study 1389 participants who reported no chronic diseases when they were interviewed in 2004-5 – the second wave of interviews – and who were in work.  We were then able to look at what happened to them before the seventh wave of interviews, in 2013-14.

A little over 40 per cent of our sample were in managerial or professional occupations, a quarter in intermediate occupations, and almost 30 per cent in routine and manual occupations.

After diagnosis

At each interview, respondents were asked whether they had been diagnosed by a doctor with lung disease, asthma, arthritis, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes or high blood sugar, stroke or heart problems.

During the study period 510 of the 1389 sample members were newly diagnosed with one of those conditions. We were able to look at how they fared at work for four years after that, and we found some striking differences between how the employed and the self-employed seemed to have been treated.

The physical demands of our participants’ jobs were pretty similar before their diagnosis, for instance. But afterwards significant numbers of those who were employed said that those demands had actually increased when they were diagnosed. The self-employed, meanwhile, told us the opposite had happened to them – they reported significantly lower physical demands at work immediately after diagnosis. This effect continued for some time, though it grew less pronounced.

How could that be? We think maybe the increase in physical demands among the employed could be due to perception – similar demands might be perceived as more strenuous by the chronically ill. The self-employed, meanwhile, have more freedom to adjust those demands when they feel they need to.

The self-employed reported that their working hours dropped by an average of 2.8 hours per week on diagnosis, while those who were employed did not see a change. This effect was not statistically significant, though.

Employees found that their level of autonomy at work also dropped marginally, while for the self-employed there was no significant change. We did not find any major changes in psychological or social conditions in either group.

So, what did we learn? Essentially, that improvements in working conditions after diagnosis of chronic illness were restricted to the self-employed. So employers may need to ask themselves some hard questions – do they want to hold on to workers who become unwell? If they do, then they should consider the levels of flexibility they offer, and they should think about making adjustments for those workers if they don’t want to lose them.

In an ageing society, older people are expected to work ever longer and therefore to remain at work even when they begin to suffer from health problems. Our findings should also encourage policy-makers and governments to think about how chronically ill older adults are treated at work.

Changes in autonomy, job demands and working hours after diagnosis of chronic disease: a comparison of employed and self-employed older persons using the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA)by Maria Fleischmann, Ewan Carr, Baowen Xue, Paola Zaninotto, Stephen A Stansfeld, Mai Stafford and Jenny Head, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This blog article is courtesy of the Work Life blog, which is a blog about the relationship between work and  health and well-being of people, whether they are preparing for  working life, managing their work / life balance or preparing for retirement and life beyond retirement. Led by the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies, University College London,

A comparison of new dementia diagnosis rates across ethnic groups in UK primary care

guest blogger31 August 2018

In this post Tra Pham (UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health) discusses her recent work with colleagues from the department, Division of Psychiatry and King’s College London on new diagnoses of dementia and the differences among ethnic groups.

Around 46.8 million people worldwide have dementia; this is expected to rise to 131.5 million by 2050. Recent studies have reported stable or declining rates of new dementia cases overtime.

In 2010, members of our department (Rait et al, 2010, BMJ) conducted a primary care database study to investigate survival of people with a diagnosis of dementia, and reported a stable rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 1990 and 2007. We know little about the differences in the likelihood of receiving a dementia diagnosis among different ethnic groups. Some evidence has indicated that people from Black and Minor Ethnic (BME) groups present at services (i.e. GP) later in their illness. Therefore, compared with the White British ethnic group, BME dementia patients may have less access to timely diagnosis. This can prevent them from benefiting from early intervention and treatment which may help slow the progression of the disease.

Our recent study reported the overall rate of new dementia diagnoses in UK primary care between 2007 and 2015. In addition, we reported, for the first time, the rate by White, Asian, and Black ethnic groups. Pulling together current best evidence of new dementia cases in the community and the 2015 UK census data, we estimated the proportion of White and Black people developing dementia who received a diagnosis in 2015. Our hypothesis was that there would be a smaller proportion of Black people with dementia who were diagnosed compared with people from the White ethnic group.

We analysed data of 2.5 million older people from The Health Improvement Network (THIN) database. 66,083 new cases of dementia were identified, which corresponded to an increased rate of new dementia diagnoses between 2007 and 2015 (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Rate of new dementia diagnoses per 1,000 person-years at risk (PYAR) by calendar year in The Health Improvement Network (THIN) UK primary care database.

Compared with White women, the dementia diagnosis rate was 18% lower among Asian women and 25% higher among Black women. This rate was 28% higher among Black men and 12% lower in Asian men, relative to White men. Based on diagnosis rates in THIN data and projections of new dementia cases from community cohort studies, we estimated that 42% of Black men developing dementia in 2015 were diagnosed, compared with 53% of White men.

The results thus suggest that the rates of people receiving a diagnosis may be lower than the actual rates of developing dementia in certain groups, particularly among Black men. There are several possible explanations for this. It could indicate that Black men experience barriers to accessing health services or receiving a diagnosis. GPs may be more reluctant to diagnose dementia in BME groups especially if culturally competent tests are unavailable. GPs and families might also be reluctant to name dementia in communities where more stigma is associated with a diagnosis.

Our study emphasises the need for service improvement targeting BME groups who might be facing barriers to accessing health care services and getting a dementia diagnosis. GPs should be equipped with culturally appropriate assessment tools in order to make a timely diagnosis of dementia for BME patients.

Our findings also highlight the importance of raising awareness of the benefits of getting a timely diagnosis of dementia, particularly in people from minority ethnic groups who may be more at risk of dementia. Timely diagnosis of dementia can lead to more targeted support and enable GPs to provide appropriate patient care management. These benefits can be explained to the patients by family and friends, as well as professionals such as nurses and social workers. They can also help the patients to overcome the fears of talking about dementia. Faith and community groups can contribute to ensuring that local dementia services are accessible to all.

This study is conducted in collaboration with King’s College London. This work is supported by The Dunhill Medical Trust [grant number R530/1116]. Our article and relevant references can be found at:

Pham TM, Petersen I, Walters K, Raine R, Manthorpe J, Mukadam N, Cooper C (2018). Trends in dementia diagnosis rates in UK ethnic groups: analysis of UK primary care data. Clinical Epidemiology (10): 949-960. doi: 10.2147/CLEP.S152647.

This article is courtesy of the UCL Research Department of Primary Care and Population Health blog