The other day I was listening to a podcast and letting my mind wander. The podcast was Radio National’s All in the Mind and the topic up for discussion was daydreaming and dementia.
Do you daydream? I hope you do!
Daydreaming has a bad rap, but as it turns out, we should not be so hard on ourselves when we wander off. Daydreaming is a very healthy brain activity and while it may get you into trouble if you are zoned out when someone (like your boss) is trying to get your attention, the fact that you CAN daydream, especially if you are older, is an indication of a healthier brain.
“people living with frontotemporal dementia – a form of younger-onset dementia – lose the ability to daydream. ”
We let our minds wander a lot! Up to 50% of waking time. Daydreaming allows us to explore the unknown, practice conversations and confrontations, escape from reality, plan and problem solve. I know I write my best stories when I am out running! Pity I don’t remember them when I get back! 🙂
People with frontotemporal dementia lose this ability and remain rooted in the present and stimulus bound.
“They become increasingly focused on what is immediately in front of them, such as watching TV, listening to a piece of music, or eating food.”
They lose the ability to create their own internal world.
I have a particular interest in dementia and have done lots of reading on the topic and even an online course through the University of Tasmania. I am concerned about developing dementia (and arthritis!). Being an old chook (a female over 55), I am getting dangerously close to dementia being a real thing in my life. While I can’t change the genetic road map I have been given or do much about getting older, I can do my best to look after the modifiable factors that influence dementia risk.
It turns out that the sorts of things we have been told to do to maintain heart health will also look after the brain and the joints because they reduce inflammation. Inflammation is a big contributor to both these conditions. We need to ensure that we keep our blood pressure at a healthy level, stay active and keep moving, maintain a healthy weight, eat a healthy diet which is based mainly in plants, never smoke and drink alcohol cautiously. Easy!
Just by the by, if you are interested in things to do with the brain and psychology, the All in the Mind podcast is fabulous. I must say I have a bit of girl-crush on Lynne Malcolm, the show’s presenter!
(As this is published I’ll be in an aeroplane somewhere returning home after my epic Scottish adventure)
In modern Australian culture and elsewhere, coffee has reached near god-like status. It’s big business and for some, a life force.
According to many t-shirts, it is imbued with amazing properties.
It keeps some people alive: “I can’t function without my morning coffee.”
It can restore lost speech: “No Coffee – No Talkie.”
It can even prevent murder: Coffee helps me maintain my “never killed anyone streak.”
The science of coffee.
To be precise, it’s the caffeine (and other methylxanthines: see the diagram below) present in coffee that does the trick. Caffeine is classed as a heterocyclic nitrogen compound. Its structure is very similar to two of the important building blocks of DNA, adenine and guanine.
It is water soluble, a critical property because if it weren’t soluble, you wouldn’t be able to drink it in the first place! Caffeine has a melting point of 237°C, another important factor because it doesn’t evaporate away under normal processing conditions. It is an alkaline, white powder when in pure form. Chemically, it’s nothing like cocaine or other stimulants except that it also contains a bunch of carbon atoms joined in a complicated ring shape with a few nitrogens and oxygens and double bonds thrown in.
Caffeine and its biological precursors have been reported in over 160 species of plant. It is found in coffee beans, tea leaves, cocoa, cola nuts, guarana, and plants of the Ilex species such as maté.
Because caffeine is water soluble, the way a coffee beverage is prepared has a significant effect on the amount of caffeine in a cup. It’s all about maximising the solubility. Increasing the temperature of the water, increasing the surface area and making the beans more porous will increase the caffeine content in your daily cup. Hence we roast the coffee beans to make them porous (and tasty) then we grind them to massively increase the surface area before we soak them in hot water. Voila!
The caffeine dose can vary from around 50mg up to 150 mg per 250 mL cup.
The pharmacological effects of caffeine
In plants, caffeine is thought to act as an insect deterrent due to its extreme bitterness. Humans found out about its about stimulating effects a long time ago and have harvested and then cultivated caffeine-rich plants for millennia.
Caffeine does indeed have many well researched pharmacological effects, but most cherished is its ability to perk you up. In 1983 I wrote:
“Caffeine is a stimulant and considered the most widely used of self-administered drugs in the form of coffee, tea and cola beverages. Most people have been exposed to the stimulating effect of these substances and the majority of the population consumes pharmacological doses [~100mg] of the drug at regular intervals throughout the day.”
The list of effects is long.
Dilation of the blood vessels
Increased urine output
Increased gastric secretions
Relaxation of smooth muscle tissue
Reduced the blood supply to the brain
Stimulation of the central nervous system
Increased motor activity and response to sensory stimuli (aka makes you more alert!)
Elevation of plasma free fatty acids and glucose. Some research shows that it can assist in weight loss by increasing fat metabolism while exercising.
Caffeine is absorbed rapidly and appears in the blood within 5 minutes of consumption. In most people, it takes about 3.5 hours to clear the blood and be excreted in urine, but in some individuals (like me!) who lack sufficient metabolic enzymes, it can remain active for much longer. Because it is cleared so quickly from the blood, it does not accumulate in the body.
Too much caffeine can lead to headache, tremors, abnormal heart rhythms and irritation of the gut. In addition, we all know about the effect caffeine can have on sleep. Chronic overconsumption of caffeine results in symptoms that are indistinguishable from anxiety neurosis. It would take about 10 g of pure caffeine to kill you.
Nutritional value of coffee
A cup of black coffee has no nutritional value. It has no fat, no carbohydrates, no protein, no vitamins and only minuscule traces of magnesium. We have to agree the only reason we drink it is because of the caffeine. BUT who drinks coffee black? Not many people! It’s all the stuff we add to coffee that boosts its nutritional status. The data in the table below is taken from Gloria Jean’s website and is fairly typical of the data available.
The energy value of a whole milk cappuccino is going to cost you between 484 kJ (116 kcal) – 725 kJ (173 kcal) depending on size. For skim milk, you are looking at about half that. Soy milk is a little higher than skim milk for energy. The milk is going to provide you with protein, fat, calcium and some lactose. If you add sugar, you can add another 64 kJ (16 kcal) per teaspoon. A large cappuccino could, therefore, represent a fair proportion of your daily energy intake and must be considered if you are avoiding weight gain. If you go for something fancy, like a full cream caramel latte, you’re talking around 1000 kJ (220 kcal) or the same amount of energy in 3 eggs!
So, is coffee good for you?
My thesis is too old to give me good advice in regards to the overall health effects of caffeine and coffee. So a search of the interwebs turns up some interesting information.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in a review on the Safety of Caffeine concluded that moderate caffeine consumption, of around 400mg caffeine per day (the equivalent of up to 5 cups of coffee), can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced diet and an active lifestyle. Pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to limit their caffeine intake to 200mg per day.
It even goes so far as to say that caffeine consumption is associated with a reduced rate of mortality. Is this from the coffee itself or from the social aspect of coffee? That’s a whole other kettle of fish. Once again however we are talking about caffeine not the coffee beverage of choice. Sure, caffeine might have no ill effects, but if you pile in the sugar and cream, that’s a different story entirely!
In my own case, if I have more than one cappuccino a day, I end up with a belly full of gas. I know from anecdotal experience I am not the only one who suffers this consequence. As stated above, caffeine stimulates the production of gastric juices which speeds up digestion, milk contains lactose which challenges many adults at the best of times and with the relaxation of smooth muscle, which incidentally is the type of muscle in your intestines… well … well, you know how it’s going to end!
I guess you need to consider whether your personal circumstances can cope with the increased energy consumption of milk based coffee beverages. If it can’t, you might want to consider black coffee or even a splash of milk in a cup of International Roast!
I have never had dreams of being a astronaut but the prospect of a week at Space Camp in America was exciting. Educational, related to my work as a science teacher and 100% tax deductible! After a few emails back and forth with my science-nerd travel buddy Bec, we had applied, been accepted and booked. We built a science-based trip around the week in Huntsville, Alabama. It would start with a few days in San Francisco, a week in Montana doing a dinosaur dig, a road trip through Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. We flew to Alabama from Los Vegas after a few days of non-science-y luxury in a casino resort.
US Space and Rocket Center
The US Space and Rocket Centre is not part of NASA but has close ties to them. They have lots of equipment related to the Apollo Missions and a decommissioned space shuttle. They run summer camps for children and occasionally camps for educators. These Educators’ Camps are for STEM teachers and concentrate on the disciplines of maths and physics as they relate to space travel. We spent our days participating in hands-on activities that we could use in our own classrooms. The photos below show an experiment where we made our own heat shields. The idea was for the egg NOT to get cooked.
Science teachers work as teams
We worked in teams, my team, Destiny; had teachers from the US, Canada and Bec and I from Australia. Destiny trained for two simulations; landing the space shuttle and piloting the moon lander. I am afraid to say we crashed the Space Shuttle! Even though we all knew it was a simulation it was a very intense experience. Using the thick folders of procedures the “real” astronauts use, we flicked switches, punched in numbers, and ran a communications log. The two hours went by in a flash and we all emerged in a cold sweat.
Space Camp Food?
We stayed in student accommodation at the near-by University of Alabama in quad-share apartments. Comfortable but not glamorous. All our meals were at the camp centre. I have to say this was the worst part of the experience. The meals were not good, although the meals provided for the teachers were 100% better than those provided for the kids who were on camp at the same time!
I made some strong friendships at Space Camp and keep in contact with several team members. It’s probably a once in a lifetime adventure that I wouldn’t repeat but my life is richer for it. I still look back on my photos and giggle at the fun we had. The white rabbit belonged to my niece and nephew and he was the trip mascot.
The fee for the camp was all inclusive. It was around $US750. There was a scholarship which could cover the cost but we didn’t get that and had to pay ourselves. There were very few opportunities to spend money as our time was almost completely booked up with Space Camp activities. We went out to a nearby bar once. So apart from the initial cost we didn’t spend much.
This machine simulates the use of an external jet pack.
It’s July, in Hell Creek, Montana. The daytime temperature hovers around 45ºC (113ºF). Your lips crack, and the water you guzzle seems to evaporate before you get a chance to swallow it.
The barren landscape is speckled with low buttes, rounded striated mounds that rise abruptly from the otherwise flat landscape. Tufts of serrated grass struggle to grow in the grey popcorn-like clay that breaks easily under the pick.
Weather-beaten bone fragments are abundant under your feet and ignored by the experts. The real treasure is still underground. The dark brown, almost purple bones that have been encased for millions of years are not hard to find. Isolated fragments of skeletons are common. It’s the whole skeleton, intact and in one place – now that’s the mother lode.
To find these, the researchers concentrate on landforms they call washes. The remnants of watercourses; these are places where bones congregate in a tangle to form bone beds. Here the dead beasts became stuck and then covered in mud and silt in a Triassic flood. They have lain here undisturbed, the bones becoming fossilised as the living tissue is replaced by minerals. Hard and locked in time.
taking a rest
Fifteen long hours of bright sunshine makes sleep a problem. The extended twilight, a photographer’s delight. The six hours of darkness that finally comes is not enough to recover from the day’s hard labour, yet you press on. The heavy pick is replaced by a small hand pick and then a soft brush and dental pick. Your tiny little pick hits something that “tinks” when the metal hits it. You’ve found it! You’ve found the rib of a triceratops. More digging, slowly, slowly with painstaking tedium you brush away more dirt. Wait! Stop! Is that the vertebrae? YES! The joy punctures the eerie mood. You are the only human who has ever seen this bone.
The feeling of time stretched out behind you becomes unnerving. What catastrophic event lead to these massive creatures being nothing but a pile of bones? Will it happen again?
Dinosaur dig vacations
A dinosaur dig is not your typical vacation destination. It’s not glamorous. You actually have to do some digging! It’s hot and dusty. Most “holiday” digs are part of research programs, and you become the cheap labour and pay for the privilege. My dig was with a group called Paleoworld Research Foundation who operated during the summers from a ranch about 50 km out of the town of Jordan. The two women (Hannah and Jess) who ran the operation where both Masters students who were collecting specimens for their studies. We slept in an old caravan and ate simple meals with the family who owned the ranch.
Robyn and Judy – Montana
cold beer greasy food
female bird side on
Bird on post 2
I travelled to America with Bec, a friend I had met at a Science Teachers’ workshop a few years before. Our trip was 100% science-based. After the dig, we drove down through the Yellowstone National Park (geology) and onto the Grand Canyon (more geology) and Los Vegas. From Los Vegas, we flew to Alabama to join an Educators’ Space Camp at the Huntsville Space and Rocket Center. (Maths and physics!) (Ok…. so Los Vegas wasn’t very scientific!)
Paleoworld Research Foundation are no longer operating. Some internet research shows that Judy Lervick, the ranch owner, sadly died in July 2017. There are other groups who offer a similar experience, although I cannot in any way vouch for them.
You all know by now that I am no spring chicken and I joyfully refer to myself as an Old Chook. I categorise Old Chooks as women over 55. That is, women like me. I want to be a fabulous Old Chook! I want to stay healthy. I want to be productive and fulfilled and I want to make a difference. As I get older, I worry about the health issues that will raise their ugly heads – those diseases or problems where just being old is a risk factor.
Like arthritis and dementia.
Dementia, in particular, has been on my mind lately because I have been noticing a few changes in my cognitive patterns that are a bit scary. For instance when I am typing, and especially when I am trying to type quickly, I will get homonyms mixed up. For instance, I will be thinking “sure thing” but look up at the screen and see that I have typed “shore thing”. Once, I was just a bad typist but now I have begun to select the entirely wrong word. It’s OK, because I realise immediately it’s incorrect when I read it back over. Still, I am interested in the process of why my fingers are not doing what my brain is telling it to.
I thought I would do a bit of study about dementia, its causes and its prevention. I recently completed a MOOC (a massive open online course) run by the University of Tasmania. (You can see details for that course here Wicking Institute )
In VERY simple terms dementia is a progressive disorder that leads to cognitive decline. Loss of memory is only part of the problem. There is currently no cure for dementia. The biggest risk factor is age. If you live long enough you will end up with some form of dementia. There are, however, some modifiable risk factors. That is, if you modify the factor you can change the risk. The trouble is, like with most health issues, you need to start doing the modification WAY before you are going to see the benefits.
You need to live well in your early life to ensure you have a good older life!
Risk factors for dementia
The modifiable risk factors for vascular dementia (a common form of dementia) are:
Midlife hypertension (high blood pressure)
Physical activity (lack thereof)
Alcohol. Although with this one there is a caveat. It seems that low to moderate consumption of alcohol may have a protective effect. Whereas high consumption will have a negative effect.
Looking at this list you might think it’s identical to a list you would see for heart disease – and it is.
Some non-modifiable factors include
Some other factors which can affect your risk include things like
Social isolation. Isolated people are more likely to develop dementia
Vision and hearing loss will lead to greater risk – possibly because they can increase social isolation.
Higher education will lead to reduced risk. This is thought to be because of the potential for cognitive reserves. People who have had more education have more in reserve. They have more ways to solve problems. Crudely, if they forget how to do it one way they will work out another.
Depression – successive bouts of depression over your lifetime will increase your risk.
Living a rich cognitive lifestyle will decrease your risk.
Don’t you like the sound of that?! A rich cognitive lifestyle!
A rich cognitive lifestyle is one where you are learning new things all the time. The learning should be sustained, complex and preferably include a physical and social aspect as well. Learning a new language, for instance, is a great activity.
I am thinking writing a weekly blog post and traipsing around the countryside taking photos is also contributing to my cognitive lifestyle! I sure hope it’s making my brain rich!
This post, of course, does not constitute medical advice in any way shape or form and you should see your own doctor if you are worried. There are plenty of places to get good information on dementia like here, Dementia Australia and I would recommend the course mentioned above
These images don’t have much to do with dementia per se but are simply here to break up the text!
I have a list of reminders on my fridge. Number 7 says
“Don’t forget the day job pays the bills!”
Sometimes when I get so caught up with writing stories, editing photos and fooling around with my creative side I don’t pay enough attention to my day job – being a high school teacher. I need to remind myself that this aspect of my life needs attention too. I need to calibrate my work-life balance, otherwise I won’t be able to do the other stuff!
One thing I can say about teaching is that it is NEVER boring. Often frustrating, sometimes amusing, rarely profound, it is never boring. I teach science and it’s a joy to open kid’s eyes to the complexity of the universe and the the beauty of the subatomic intricacies of matter. To see students understand the impact humans are having on the planet and listen to their strategies to solve problems.
The best part though is when we can go outside the classroom. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to take a small group of Year 11 students to France, Switzerland and the Czech Republic to visit a number of scientific institutions including the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. A rare opportunity, I learnt a lot – more than the students I think. This post is not to share the science but the scenery!
CERN – Near Geneva
The blue tube is part of a particle accelerator at CERN
As I dragged my bag from the airport carousel my Mum said “I will warn you now the cicadas are really bad this year”
Despite Mum’s warning I was not prepared for the deafening, throbbing assault to my senses. Mum told me she had taken ill with vertigo for a few days as her eardrums rattled and reverberated due to the dreadful din. You could feel the rising crescendo as your whole brain is engulfed by solid sound.
Starting at 4:30 AM and eventually quietening down around 10:30 PM there is little rest from the cacophony. As a grand finale, frogs chime in just after dark adding a melodic bass note to the whining irritating insects.
Cicada shells festoon almost every vertical surface with trees and fence posts laden down with the grotesque dried-out exuvia that support their own tiny ecosystem of smaller bugs.
Rather than grumble, I decided to make the most of their presence and photograph these abundant subjects. So here is a photo essay about cicadas in Gordonville, NSW in the days leading up to Christmas.
Where did they all come from?
The life cycle of cicadas is still not fully understood. Females lay eggs in slits in tree bark they make with a scythe-like appendage on their abdomen called an ovipositor. The eggs hatch after 2 – 7 months and the little nymph hatchling falls to the ground before burrowing in for a long wait. The nymphs grow underground for an unknown period depending on the species. Same say four years, others seven and in the North America there is a species which apparently remains underground for 17 years. However long it is, some years are better cicada years than others.
My hypothesis would be that cicada bumper years would be coincident with previous hot, wet summers. Given they have to burrow in the ground, wet soil would make it easier for the nymphs and more would survive to subsequently emerge and drive us batty. (I haven’t found anything to back up my hypothesis!)
The nymphs feed by tapping into the fleshy roots of trees with their straw-like mouthpieces and suck the fluids from xylem and phloem tubes. During their time underground they moult several times. Returning to the surface in a distant summer, cicadas climb up any convenient vertical structure before splitting their shells to emerge as adults. Their soft wings need to air dry and stiffen before they can fly making them vulnerable to their predators, mainly birds, bats and reptiles like goannas.
The males are the chirpers and produce the noise by vibrating thin membranes over hollow slits on either side of their abdomen. The volume is amplified by air filled cavities. Females remain silent. One wonders how one male can be distinguished from the thousands of others with so much noise all around. How can they tell a Tom from a Dick or Harry?
To us humans, the 86dB 15-16 kHz love song is simply noise, unwanted and enervating on a hot summer day. Double drummers have been recorded at 120 dB!
There’s an estimated 700-1000 species of cicadas in Australia, these photos show four that were in the trees around Mum’s place in Gordonville, inland from Coffs Harbour, NSW in the week before Christmas.
Want to know more about cicadas? Have a look here – http://www.cicadamania.com/cicadas/category/locations/australia/ these people are cicada crazy!
Earlier this year I was sitting in a writing class in Sydney. It was winter, the room was not over-heated but comfortable, say 19 – 20oC. I was trying to listen to the presenter but the woman next to me was a festival of distraction. She had a very slight build and was well rugged up. I watched as she repeatedly followed a sequence of moves
Fingerless gloves off
Long sleeve T-shirt off
Pull out remaining T-shirt at neckline and fan vigorously with a paper fan for 2 minutes
Sit quietly for 10 minutes then
Long sleeve T-shirt on
Fingerless gloves on
Wait and repeat!
All friggen day! Jeez! She was driving me crazy!
I looked on with a condescending smile which masked the burning desire to shout, “Would you just stop fidgeting!”
My impatient self was smacked down when I belatedly realised the poor woman was obviously suffering from frequent and acute temperature fluctuations – she was ‘going through the change.’
As an Old Chook, I am in peak menopause territory. I have been fortunate to sail through these potentially rough waters; smoothly, with very few issues. I can only remember having one full-blown “hot flush” and that was in Officeworks about 4 years ago. I had just picked up some photos, opened the packet to have a peek and the smell of the ink wafted up and made me gag. Simultaneously, I felt like I was about to explode as the rising tide of heat travelled from my belly up to my head. I was sweating, I felt faint. I thought I had been poisoned by the ink. I drove home in a panic and laid down. It dawned on me about 2 hours later that this was, perhaps, a hot flush and the ink smell trigger just a co-incidence. Who knows, I am just pleased I have never had a repeat. Sure, I have had some sweaty nights but nothing major. I had a strategy for smooth sailing, to stay on the Pill for as long a possible. My GP was sceptical and finally talked me into giving it a break. “It’s no fountain of youth,” she said. So I quit. I didn’t fall apart.
After some quick research on the interwebs, it appears that I am one of the lucky 20% of women who do not experience menopausal symptoms. Namely, vasomotor changes that lead to hot flushes, night sweats and a general inability to regulate temperature and vaginal dryness. Then there are the mood swings, depression and anxiety which some women experience. After menopause, the rate of somatic (cell) ageing increases. Women will become less healthy after menopause compared to before menopause. Not to mention the fact that we live in a culture where older women tend to become invisible. Something to look forward to heh, younger sisters?
The age of onset of menopause is on average 45 – 55. Back in the days of Ugg the Cave Woman, you didn’t usually make it this far. You had likely already died during childbirth or had been eaten by a sabre tooth before the big 4-0. Early humans, therefore, probably never experienced menopause because they died of acute causes before its onset. For those women who did survive, it is posited that menopause inferred some evolutionary advantage, not to themselves per se, but through the grandmother effect. By having females who were no longer reproductively active themselves but able to assist younger women in childbirth and lactation, an advantage was conferred to the whole group. Childbearing uses a lot of energy; post-menopausal women could use their energy for the benefit of the group rather than making babies. Even so, Grandma probably didn’t make it past 60.
Did Grandma Ugg have her own personal summer happening? Maybe – maybe not. Studies have shown that menopausal symptoms are greatly reduced in women who are very physically active. Grandma Ugg was very active. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle was not a sedentary one, so perhaps these older Palaeolithic women were not too bothered by menopause.
Our genome evolved a long, long time ago. In modern times, cultural evolution moves at a pace that outstrips any possible changes to our genome. Our genes can’t keep up with changes in our culture and lifestyle and therefore the age of onset of menopause has not changed significantly. Average life expectancy, has, however, increased dramatically – at least in the developed world. The average life expectancy for women in Australia is 82. This means we now live for 30 years beyond menopause. It’s unlikely that our genes know how to deal with this.
The symptoms of menopause are very real and for some women, debilitating. Our attitudes to menopause play a big role in how we manage and cope with it and our attitude towards “women’s problems” have a lot to do with Big Pharma.
Is menopause a disease?
In the developed world, we have medicalised women’s biology to the extent that menopause is seen as a deficiency DISEASE that needs to be treated with hormone replacement therapy rather than something that just happens naturally, as is the case in other cultures, such as in India. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15981376)
So, what point am I trying to make here? I think there is a lot more to say about this topic so I plan to do some more research over the next few months and re-post. So for the time being, I will leave it here: Our genetic makeup has not prepared us for living this long beyond menopause. To reduce the symptoms of menopause you should maintain a healthy weight and be physically active. But most of all you should keep in mind that menopause is a natural event that is not a disease, it may bring health issues but you’re not abnormal.
As to the photos, I didn’t really know what to post, what photos depict menopause? These are just some random ones I liked from my collection. So I will have to work on that too. Perhaps it’s good inspiration for some portraits of post-menopausal women being fantabulous?