Health and Fitness at the 2015 Cheltenham Science Festival – Part 2

This is part 2 of my account of visiting the 2015 Cheltenham Science Festival.  You can find part 1 of this account here at My Visit to the 2015 Cheltenham Science Festival for Health and Fitness – Part 1.

I have recorded a podcast for the entire visit that you can either play here now or download to listen to later.

And so here we are on the second day of my visit but actually the third day of the Cheltenham Science Festival predominantly located in Imperial Square.  Now as I look around on what is a really gorgeous day there are numerous white sided marquees.

The Times, along with EDF Energy as the main sponsors of the event have a large presence with the EDF Energy Arena at one end of the square and the Times Science Hub at the other.  I have just been for a walk and as I dodged the school parties wandering between the exhibits I came across a replica of the De Lorean car used in the Back to the Future Films.  At least I think it was a replica.

So what does the third day here offer in terms of health related presentations?

Well there is a presentation on Allergies – I personally don’t suffer so I won’t be going to that one.  And there is one that questions whether we are over medicated or not.  But the two I am interested in today are one that looks at whether or not we reduce our chances of developing Alzheimer’s and another on stress in the workplace.

So lets head over to the Winton Crucible and see what they have got to say about preventing Alzheimer’s.  I will let you know how I got on.

How Your Life Affects Your Brain

As someone who has written a number of books on memory improvement when I am interviewed by the media or indeed at one of my presentations, I am often asked about how or indeed whether we can delay or even prevent the onset of dementia.

Of course only being a keen amateur psychologist interested in memory improvement techniques rather than an expert in the clinical aspects of memory, I am always keen to keep abreast of the current thinking that I can pass on to my audiences and clients.

So this session was extremely attractive to me.

Led by Nick Fox and John Gallacher, it was extremely refreshing to have two speakers who were not only expert in their field but were also passionate about it and had the ability to communicate in a clear and concise and occasionally entertaining manner.  The question they were posing at the start of their talk was “Can the way you live reduce the chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease?”.

Nick Fox started proceedings by explaining what Dementia is and isn’t.

First of all he explained that it wasn’t just about aging.  It is a brain syndrome that impairs cognitive functioning and is usually progressive in its nature.  It has multiple causes and Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common.

Nick shared some statistics about its prevalence – 4% of 70-74 year olds will suffer, 8% of 75-79 year olds, 16% of 80-84 year olds and 38% of 90-94 year olds.  There are 44 million sufferers worldwide with 800,000 in the UK and that number is expected to rise to 1 million by the year 2025.

Symptoms that are seen in post mortem include a shrinkage of the brain though familial studies have shown that the changes in the brain occur before the symptoms begin to appear.

So is there an opportunity to intervene before the symptoms begin?

This was the question addressed by John Gallacher who stated that if we can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by 5 years we can halve the number of people who die from it.

We are very fortunate in this country because of the amount of research that is being carried out.  Over 2 million people are being studied, 100,000 of who will have their brains MRI scanned and 10,000 of those will be repeat scanned at some later point.  So the relevant data on a scale that is statistically viable is being gathered.

John referred to some very interesting research already carried out that is known as the Caerphilly Study because it was carried out in South Wales.  Researchers from Cardiff University looked at the following five lifestyle factors in men aged 45-59 from the Caerphilly area – Non-smoking, having a BMI between 18-24, eating 3 portions of fresh fruit or vegetables a day, regular exercise and a moderate intake of alcohol.

What they found was 7% of the study group didn’t follow any of these five lifestyle choices.  Approximately a third of the group participated in any one of the five.  Similarly another third of the group chose any 2 of the factors.  Less than 10% chose any three of the choices and it was very hard to find any that chose four or five.

However when looking at the incidences of Dementia, choosing none of the behaviours virtually guaranteed suffering it.

However just one behaviour reduced the risk by 30%, choosing 2 reduced it by 40% and choosing 3 reduced it by as much as 70%.  Now this research only focuses on about 2000 people but the results do give us clues as to the impact our behaviour, and the choices we make can have on our health and in particular the likelihood of contracting dementia.

As you can probably imagine, the Q&A session was very active with lots of questions and the one that came up most frequent was “Is it too late to start?”.  The advice given by the panel is that it is never too late.  The benefits of not smoking, taking moderate exercise, reducing alcohol intake and regulating your BMI do accrue very quickly.

Pause for Thought

Well that was a really encouraging session and typifies the value you get from coming to the festival because there is a lot of hype out there and you know that when you come here you are only going to get the raw science behind the health matters covered.

So the next session is one on stress which is of particular interest to me because of the productivity training I provide to leaders of small, medium and large companies.  Stress is one of the biggest blocks to being productive and is something that seriously needs addressing.

So let’s find out what they had to say.

Stress and the Workplace

Stress is a HUGE problem these days and has an impact not only on our individual health but also on businesses and the economy as a whole.  This session promised to bring the medical side of that equation together with the business side with a focus on the well being of individuals at work and how that affects the workplace.

Starting off, we had endocrinologist Jonathan Seckl explain what stress was from a scientific perspective.

First of all it is important to understand there is no agreed definition for stress.  The term’s origins are from mechanics but it has been borrowed for use when discussing the impact of threats and challenges on human beings.

The stress reaction is a survival mechanism that automatically prepared the body for dealing with a potential threat.  Simply put, when threatened, the brain produces cortisol causing the body to adapt by mobilising fuel, increase the blood pressure and tense the body so it is ready to either fight or flight.

Additionally the body will inhibit other functions such as the immune system and digestion so as to preserve energy for the more pressing needs of potentially needing to stay alive in the face of an immediate threat.

That is all well and good in the primitive environments we found ourselves in as human beings thousands of years ago but in the today’s workplace it is having negative consequences for those struggling to cope.

Stress increases blood pressure, increases the risk of diabetes and leaves sufferers more prone to earlier heart disease.  Some people though are not susceptible to stress.  Work done with survivors of 9/11 showed that approximately half suffered with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and half did not.

So having understood the stress reaction a little better the baton was handed over to Louise Aston, a Director of the Workwell Project developed by Business in the Community.

The biggest challenge with stress and mental health as a whole is that people don’t talk about it.  It is very easy to comment on someone’s broken leg because you can see it but people struggle with the ”invisible” challenges to mental health.

Stress is however recognised as a huge problem.

The Health and Safety Executive define stress as being the adverse reaction to excessive pressure or demands placed on at work.  It stops people being at their best and results in poor decisions, poor performance and low productivity.

And unfortunately there is a culture of silence because it is a huge taboo subject.  However it is extremely common because 1 in four people will suffer some form of mental illness such as stress, anxiety or depression every year.

The cost to UK business each year is estimated to be approximately £1000 per person per year or something approaching £70 Billion which represents 4.5% of GDP.

Absenteeism is a big problem with people needing to take time off from work to recover but another problem is that of Presentee-ism – sufferers still turning up to work but not able to perform.

And the problem is getting worse.

In 2010 it was estimated that 10million working days were lost due to stress.  In 2013 that estimation had risen to 15.2 million.  And the tendency for people to suffer in silence is not only preventing them from getting the help they need but it is holding back UK Plc.

It was very interesting sitting listening to Louise share her side of the stress story and it was encouraging to hear of the work her organisation was doing to create the parity of esteem between mental and physical health issues.

However what did strike me is that stressed out workers is probably symptomatic of deeper issues that need to be addressed.  The way our businesses and companies work needs to be looked at because unless the factors at that level which cause stress are addressed, we are going to continually be faced with this as a problem.

Certainly having a more open and positive attitude towards mental health issues will help deal with the challenge, but let’s also look at fixing part of the problem too.  And it seems that Louise’s organisation is also making steps in that direction too, which is extremely encouraging.


And so with two days left of the festival there are still numerous sessions related to health and the topics covered include the truth about sugar, why sitting is the lazy killer, the effects of recreational drugs, a session about funny public health films form the 1950s, conflicting health advice in the media and a story about how someone defeated cancer.

I have really enjoyed exploring the different topics and I think it is fair to say that coming along to the Cheltenham Science Festival is a good thing if you want to stay informed from reliable sources about matters relating to your health.

I found that broadly speaking the sessions fell into two main groups – there were those that explored the science to a detailed degree and focused on the science – the session on Epigenetics was an example of that – and there were those sessions that also offered some pointers on things we can do to stay healthy.

Whilst they weren’t dishing out health advice they were giving strong indications as to the effectiveness of some of the health practices you and I choose to partake in.

This has been a very productive and encouraging use of my time and perhaps the biggest take away for me is how simple behaviours such as regular exercise and eating fresh fruit and vegetables have a significant impact on the quality of our health.

My 5 Top Tips For The Cheltenham Science Festival

So I shall leave you with my top five tips on how to get the most out of the Cheltenham Science Festival:

1.     Do get hold of the programme early and book on line ahead of time where you can – the more popular topics will fill up very quickly.

2.     If a session you want to attend is full, do ask at the box office in the hour before as there are occasionally tickets returned – that is how I got into the Mindfulness Session

3.     Don’t worry about booking sessions that follow immediately after each other, even if there is a bit of distance between venues – the Q&A session at the end of each presentation typically lasts about 20 minutes which will give you plenty of time to sneak out if you need to.

4.     Do get your hand up quickly if you want to ask a question – the presenters are all very open and willing to answer questions and those with their hands up first catch their eye and usually get their question answered.

5.     Many of the speakers are promoting books so if you don’t get your question answered, you can always track them down in the bookstore where they will usually go immediately after.

So that’s it for this year from the Cheltenham Science Festival and this special podcast.  I look forward to seeing you at next year’s festival.