SBM 2017: Reflections on Science

Throughout my time in graduate school I’ve been to several conferences, but this one was different.  There have been a few big changes over the last year, and these changes may have drastic effects on the scientific community.  As a health psychologist, I can’t help but be troubled by this.

Medicine has come a very long way over the many previous decades and because of research, we are better at both treatment and prevention of chronic and acute illness.  However, this doesn’t mean “mission accomplished, we solved health!”  Health in the United States is not good right now.  

There are many indicators of health, but let’s take a quick look atobesity rates
a few. On the right, the first graph you see is obesity rates in the US over time.  It is projected that by 2030, half of the US population will be obese.  Half of the United States!  While this data is for adults, we are also seeing obesity rates rise in children as well.  In fact, 20% of school aged children are obese, a rate that has tripled since the 1970’s (
1). The californiadiabetessecond chart was presented at SBM.  It illustrates that over half the population of California, often considered a comparatively healthy state, has either diabetes or prediabetes. This is also an extremely frightening number.  Lastly, another theme of this conference was consideration of health disparities.  Even though our country has made great progress, we still have great health disparities due to a multitude of reasons.  In the last graph on the right we can see that, overall, disparitiescaucasian Americans live longer than black Americans.  Health equity should be a nonpartisan issue, and we need to continue to do research to bring optimal health to all.

 

While I make the point that scientific advancement should be imperative for our country, science isn’t perfect.  In my opinion, there are two main skills that we as a scientific community need to keep improving on.  The first is our methodologies.  We need to continue to refine study methods, so we can learn more about the causal mechanisms between treatment, prevention, disease, and many other biopsychosocial principles.  Second, and in my mind perhaps the most important, is to improve dissemination.  Again, this is a skill that has shown great progress but we still have a long way to go.  One of the keynote talks at SBM focused on a call to action, specifically for scientists to make calls to congress.  Unfortunately, congress members are not always aware of the science that is being done!  If health legislation is being passed on unscientific reasoning, then the policies that are put into place have a real potential to not only halt the progress we have made, but also set us back years.

In conclusion, we need science.  Especially recently, we too often see that people disregard scientific evidence and instead base their “facts” on their own opinions and experiences.  This is dangerous thinking, and the scientific community needs to do something. Maybe one reason this is happening is that scientists just have not done a terrific job explaining what we actually do and how science works.  So, we are starting a new series of posts that will delve into what science is, what it isn’t, how we should interpret science, and much more.  Stay tuned!

 

  1. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyschools/obesity/facts.htm

 

Postpartum Depression: What about the Dad?

There are several different forms of depression (i.e. major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder), but one that is not talked about as often is postpartum depression (PPD). PPD is diagnosed when there is an onset of major or minor depression during pregnancy or within the first 12 months after giving birth, and affects 1 in 7 new moms (14.5%). There is not a clear cause of PPD, but it is believed to be caused by physiological changes, a previous history of depression, poor sleep, or the burden of childcare.

No matter the cause, it is a disorder with extreme consequences. Beyond the depression in the mother and marital conflict, it also impairs family functioning and child development. For instance, a mother with PPD may not attend to the child’s needs as much, impairing child health and growth. It may also influence the child’s psychopathology later in life, increasing their risk for anxiety, depression, or emotion disorders.

A large portion of the current research has focused on PPD in mothers, but it is missing something important: the father. Men can also suffer from PPD, and it affects approximately 10% of new dads. This compares to a depression incidence of 5% in men in the general population (not new dads), revealing just how serious of an issue this is.

What causes PPD in men? This is a very new area of study, and one can only formulate educated guesses as to why men also suffer from PPD. According to Family Systems Theory, a family member’s emotions influence the emotions of those in their household, so it is possible that men develop PPD if their wife also has PPD. In fact, PPD in men and PPD in women are positively correlated, such that the father is at higher risk for PPD if the mother also develops it. An explanation for this relationship has to do with social support. A male’s strongest source of support is his wife, and if she has PPD she may not be as emotionally available to help him with the stress of being a new father.

While not yet shown with any empirical data, I would hypothesize that poor sleep also influences PPD in men. Following birth, sleep schedules in both parents are drastically changed and impaired sleep is a risk factor for the onset of depression. Further, more dads now than ever are stay at home dads, thus embodying the role of the infant’s primary care taker.

We know that research on PPD is important because it influences the physical and mental health of both the infant and the parents. Dads may be a particularly important group to learn more about in relation to PPD. A 1998 study found that a non-depressed father may buffer the negative effects of the relationship between a mom with PPD and child development. In other words, the dad may compensate for the mother’s PPD and take a larger role in caring for the infant. Overall, PPD research in both new mothers and fathers is extremely important, and future investigations need to learn more about PPD etiology, prevention, and treatment.

 

Goodman, J. H. (2004). Paternal postpartum depression, its relationship to maternal postpartum depression, and implications for family health. Journal of Advance Nursing, 45 (1), 26-35.

Grace, S. L., Evindar, A., & Stewart, D. E. (2003). The effect of postpartum depression on child cognitive development and behavior: a review and critical analysis of the literature. Archives of Women’s Mental Health, 6 (4), 263-274.

Paulson, J. F., & Bazemore, S. D. (2010). Prenatal and postpartum depression in fathers and its association with maternal depression: a meta-analysis. JAMA, 303 (19), 1961-1969.

Smartphone Addiction

Human connection is the most vital aspect of our existence, without the sweet touch of another being we are lonely stars in an empty space waiting to shine gloriously. – Joe Straynge

With classes starting up again, students have flooded back onto campus. Since Michelle and have decided to dedicate this month to writing about technology and social media, my attention has focused on a disturbing occurrence that can be seen everywhere on campus; students glued to their smartphones. I admit that I myself am on my phone constantly. But are we addicted to them? Smartphone addiction has garnered considerable attention as of late, due to its potential to lead to addiction. Smartphones can even more addictive than TV because of its mobile nature.

Addiction to smartphones can be defined as excessive preoccupations and urges of behavior that can lead to psychological distress and impairments in daily life. For example, someone addicted to their phone may check it constantly and experience separation anxiety when not able to check notifications. Media addiction can lead to depression, decreased well-being, and substance use. Further, the more you become addicted, the more likely you are to lose social ties, thus inducing loneliness. Losing social ties can also then make social media engender more feelings of loneliness, because you then do not have anyone to connect with online either. This can turn into a deadly cycle. As I have mentioned in an earlier post, loneliness is a strong predictor of poor health outcomes.

There are several factors that could contribute to smartphone addiction. The first is self-control. As you can probably guess, low self-control is associated with smartphone addiction. Low levels of self-control may also cause compulsive checking of social media sites (i.e. repeatedly refreshing Facebook notifications to see if anyone wrote on your wall or liked your new selfie). Stress is also positively associated with smartphone use; surfing the web can be used as a form of stress relief. The inverse can also be considered, such that constantly checking your phone can be a distraction to daily tasks, and not getting this work done can cause stress.

One recent study looked at how different apps on the phone may predict smartphone use. They found that social media, games, and other forms of entertainment predicted smartphone addiction.   Of these, social media was the strongest predictor of addiction. In other words, the essential component of smartphone addiction is use of sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Here’s one more fact about this study that is greatly concerning; this study was done on 6th graders! More specifically, participants were 6th graders from an elementary school in South Korea. Researchers found that, in South Korea, 72% of children own a smartphone by 12 years old. This is similar to children in the United States, where almost 60% of kids aged 8-12 have a smart phone for themselves. Further, 21% of children in the U.S. under 8 years old use smartphones.

Smartphone addiction is a great concern, and even more concerning is how young people are becoming addicted to their smartphones. As individuals become more involved with this addiction, they spend more time on it and eventually lose touch with the outside world. Human connection is important for both physical and mental well-being, and we lose this when we spend more time on our phone than interacting with those around us.

Jeong, S. H., Kim, H., Yum, J. Y., & Hwang, Y. (2016). What type of content are smartphone users addicted to?: SNS vs. games. Computers in Human Behavior, 54, 10-17.

For stats on smartphone use in kids:

http://www.growingwireless.com/get-the-facts/quick-facts

Exercising Self Compassion

When I tell people I am an avid runner, they often share with me just how much they hate running. They say their experience with running was awful, agonizing and completely not worth it. Even as someone who has been running since high school, I can definitely see the truth in those feelings. Since I started running long distance I’ve had my share of miserable runs, especially when I first started and could barely run a mile without feeling like dying. Next weekend, I’m planning to run my fourth marathon, but I still sometimes have discouraging experiences with my running. So, I thought I’d write about a way to overcome these types of negative experiences: self-compassion.

Many people have goals related to exercise. Maybe it’s to be able to run a mile, build some muscle, or lose some weight. Unfortunately though, in exercise, there is often a feeling of self-evaluation and social comparison that blocks people from reaching these goals. When you are out of breath after a mile or struggling to lift a set of weights, it’s easy to attribute the struggle to personal weakness, or the belief you don’t have the body for it or are simply just bad at exercise. This can be even worse when you look around and see people with perfect physiques running faster and lifting heavier weights than you like it’s nothing. The combination of difficulty achieving goals, being critical of yourself, and comparing yourself to others can contribute to a sense of failure and leads many people to quit exercising.

One way to prevent this feeling of failure is to learn to treat yourself with compassion. The important thing about self-compassion is that it is not contingent on performance or competence, rather it is an unconditionally supporting yourself. Self-compassion involves self-kindness, a perception of common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness is being open and understanding about your difficulties rather than being critical and judgmental. Perception of a common humanity means that you realize your struggles are not necessarily unique to you. For example, you may have been completely exhausted after five minutes of running, but you realize that you’re not the only person who has ever struggled to run a mile. Mindfulness is having an awareness and understanding of your feelings so that you don’t ignore your feelings, but aren’t preoccupied with them either. So you may feel terrible after an unsuccessful workout, but you don’t keep feeling that way long after the workout ends.

Magnus, Kowalski, & McHugh (2010) tested the effects of self-compassion in women who exercise to see if women who were more self-compassionate would have fewer problems with self-evaluation and social comparison. They used women primarily because are typically seen as more susceptible to body image problems although it is important to note that men certainly have these problems too. They found that women who were more self-compassionate were less driven by goals related to demonstrating competence, avoiding failure and feeling incompetent. Similarly, they had less anxiety about their physique and were less likely to engage in obligatory exercise, which refers to exercising past the point where exercise is beneficial (e.g. exercising while injured).

So, self-compassion allows us to be realistic about exercising and to be accepting of where we are in our exercise goals. Bad days happen, and there are going to be people who are faster and stronger. If you happen run slower, that does not mean you are incompetent or a failure. It really does not do you any good to push yourself to the point of injury just to have a nice body or be able to run as fast as the next person. Go at your own pace and realize that the simple fact that you’re trying puts you a little closer to your goal. You are probably going to have discouraging experiences while exercising, but treat yourself with kindness, realize that you are not the only one who has ever been discouraged, and don’t dwell too long on the negative feelings. You might just find that these difficulties are a little easier to overcome.

Magnus, C.M.R., Kowalski, K.C., & McHugh, T.F. (2010). The role of self-compassion in women’s self-determined motives to exercise and exercise related outcomes. Self and Identity, 9, 363-382.