Friday, 27 January 2017

Are you getting enough vitamin B1 to help fend off Alzheimer's?

Richard Hoffman, University of Hertfordshire
A feeling of apathy or being a little forgetful from time to time is nothing unusual. But for some, this could be an early sign of not getting enough thiamine (also known as vitamin B1). Long term, this can have serious consequences, including an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

There is often a fatalistic attitude towards Alzheimer’s disease, with the belief that it’s a consequence of old age or it’s in our genes. But most old people don’t get Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s now clear that decisions made about lifestyle and diet play a huge role in singling out those who will – and those who won’t – develop the disease.

Ensuring your diet contains enough B vitamins is one of those crucial dietary decisions. And the central role of thiamine is now becoming apparent. The brain needs thiamine to use glucose for energy, and without adequate thiamine, brain cells die. The brain also needs thiamine to make acetylcholine, the main neurotransmitter that is deficient in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Thiamine levels are frequently low in patients with Alzheimer’s disease and the early stages of cognitive decline, and there are trials underway to see if taking thiamine derivatives can reduce the symptoms of this disease. The evidence is now pretty clear: a healthy brain needs an adequate supply of thiamine.


Getting enough thiamine

So how can you be sure you are getting enough of this essential brain vitamin? In the UK, thiamine is added to fortified cereals and bread, and other good sources include whole grain cereals, pork, trout, peas and beans. Government surveys in the UK present a generally reassuring picture, suggesting that for most people their thiamine intake is sufficient. But these surveys only report average intakes, and do not take into account groups who, for one reason or another, may be vulnerable to thiamine deficiencies.

One of the groups vulnerable to thiamine deficiencies is the elderly. And there are other groups, too, such as the steadily increasing numbers of people who avoid most cereal products (such as bread and pasta) because of gluten intolerance. These food products are the main source of thiamine in the average UK diet, so it’s not surprising that many gluten-intolerant people are thiamine deficient. Fortifying gluten-free alternatives with thiamine and other vitamins would be an obvious solution, but, unfortunately, this is not usually done. Followers of the Paleo diet also avoid cereal products, leaving this group vulnerable to thiamine deficiencies as well.

Pork is an especially good dietary source of thiamine, but many people do not eat pork. Also, if you prefer your pork as sausages rather than fresh meat, then you are waving goodbye to most of the thiamine, since, in the UK, pork sausages are preserved with sulphites that destroy the thiamine. Some countries, such as the US, take a more sensible approach and have banned the use of sulphites in sausages for this very reason. Isn’t it time that the UK also removed sulphites from sausages and other foods where it is not necessary?

Is it time the UK banned sulphites from sausages? Treacle creative/

Sausages are also very popular as part of ready meals. Ready meals are a rapidly increasing sector of the food market, but there is no requirement to label their vitamin content. This is especially concerning for the many, such as many older people, who rely on ready meals for a large part of their daily vitamin intake.

And it’s not only sausages that are of concern. Thiamine is heat sensitive, and being water soluble as well, it leaches out of vegetables and beans during cooking, and so could easily be lost during the manufacture of ready meals. Without adequate labelling, we simply don’t know the extent to which this may be occurring. As I have argued, the rapid growth of the ready meals market means there is a strong case for demanding greater information on the vitamin content of these meals.


The whole diet matters

Taking a vitamin supplement may seem an obvious way to boost thiamine intake to help maintain a healthy brain. This may be a good idea for some people, but thiamine – unlike most other vitamins – is poorly absorbed when taken as a supplement. There is a consensus among nutritionists that a better approach is a healthy diet, not least because multivitamin pills are linked to an increased risk of cancer in some people. Also, it is only with a healthy diet that we can be sure of obtaining the myriad of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients needed for a healthy brain.

It is probably the wide range of brain-friendly nutrients – including thiamine – in the Mediterranean diet that makes it so effective at reducing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In a way, it’s a shame that the Mediterranean diet wasn’t “invented” by a drug company as a means to help prevent or delay Alzheimer’s. If it was, it would probably be one of the most widely marketed and prescribed drugs in the world.

It is not known to what extent thiamine deficiencies are contributing to the rise in Alzheimer’s disease. But despite the gloomy news about the rising tide of Alzheimer’s disease, there is certainly no need to feel powerless, as current research suggests that a healthy Mediterranean-style diet containing adequate thiamine can go a long way to help you fend off this disease.

The Conversation
Richard Hoffman, Lecturer in Nutritional Biochemistry, University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Is the end of time in sight for Doctor Who?

Ivan Phillips, University of Hertfordshire
When this year’s Doctor Who Christmas Special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, airs on BBC One on December 25, fans of a certain age will be watching with some trepidation. This is not just because their hero, a stranger to latex and six-packs, will team up with a Superman-style character called The Ghost. It is also because there are whispers of crisis around the 53-year-old series.

In a recent visit to a well-known toy store, this particular middle-aged child was struck by the absence from the shelves of any Doctor Who merchandise. No action figures, no lunch boxes, no sonic screwdrivers. Star Wars was everywhere. Like the recent announcement that the Cardiff-based Doctor Who Experience will close next year, this seemed ominous. It felt like 1985 all over again.

In 1985, the original Doctor Who Exhibition closed its doors on Blackpool’s Golden Mile. This was also the year when, following the first season of Colin Baker’s Doctor, the show was put “on hold” for 18 months. When it returned with the gloomily-titled 14-part portmanteau tale The Trial of a Time Lord, the programme’s days were numbered. Within three years, despite the efforts of a new Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and an ambitious team of fresh writers, it would fade from production again. No announcement, no ceremony: it simply disappeared. Apart from the curate’s egg of the 1996 TV movie starring Paul McGann, it remained off-screen for 16 years.

A new broom?

Christmas specials aside, Doctor Who has been on hold again. When it returns in spring 2017, it will have been 16 months since the last season. There have been downbeat rumblings during the hiatus, most recently when it was claimed that the BBC has instructed Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall to be the new broom that sweeps clean the decks when he takes over from Steven Moffat as showrunner next year. The talk is of “a brand new show”, with Peter Capaldi destined for rapid regeneration and new companion Bill (Pearl Mackie) being allowed only the briefest of journeys on board the TARDIS.

The BBC is said to be frustrated by the decline in ratings over recent seasons and a concurrent collapse in merchandise sales. If reports are accurate, Chibnall is tasked with putting a more youthful, “dashing” actor into the role alongside a young female companion.

The ideal is a version of the David Tennant-Billie Piper coupling of 2005-6, which would seem to preclude the oft-discussed possibilities of a black, Asian and/or female Doctor. There are also suggestions that Chibnall is being directed to simplify the storytelling in the series, moving away from the elaborate narrative convolutions that some have attributed to Moffat.

Bill (Pearl Mackie), the Doctor’s new companion. BBC

The implications are that Capaldi, undoubtedly a fine actor, is too old for a modern Who audience, and that Moffat is too baroque a tale-teller for tea-time family viewing. If nothing else, this points to a perceived staleness in the franchise. But the state of decay has undoubtedly been exaggerated.

Under Russell T Davies, Doctor Who reinvented the cross-generational television audience when it returned in 2005 and, by any standard of 21st century broadcasting, it continues to gain impressive ratings on a global scale. Moffat has noted that overnight figures for television audiences are misleading in the digital age, with consolidated data (after catch-up, repeats, and so on) telling a more positive tale. He has also, with Capaldi, lamented the BBC’s scheduling of Doctor Who to a later, family-unfriendly, autumnal slot during recent seasons, nudged to 8.25pm to make room for Strictly Come Dancing.


It is undeniable that Doctor Who has benefited from change. Change is at the heart of its story, embodied (literally) in the character of its hero. But it is equally arguable that the BBC has never quite learned to love its most unlikely success story, that it has always seemed slightly embarrassed by the popularity of this eccentric myth concocted by committee in 1963.

Any of the corporation’s executives who have forgotten this will perhaps also have forgotten that doubts about the age of the leading actor are a recurrent theme (Peter Davison was “too young”, as was Matt Smith). They might also have forgotten that one of the most popular companions remains Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, who was approaching 40 when she first took the role, and that another, Sarah Jane Smith, won over a whole new generation of children when the actress who portrayed her, the late Elisabeth Sladen, was already in her 60s. Doctor Who audiences are not as shallow as some people seem to believe.

The Doctor Who Christmas Special. BBC

Despite much criticism, the Moffat era has featured some of the finest writing in the show’s long history (not least the 50th Anniversary Special, The Day of the Doctor) and Capaldi’s Doctor has appeared in some remarkable and edgy stories (Heaven Sent, for instance). Both Moffat and Capaldi have a lot to deliver before the new regime takes over, and the actor could do so much more in the role if given the opportunity. Meanwhile, the continuing vitality of the extended Doctor Who narrative has been demonstrated by the critical and popular success of Class, the Patrick Ness-created spin-off drama for teens that premiered recently on BBC3. It is a peculiar staleness that produces work like this.

Anyone hoping for a revolution in Doctor Who will not be disappointed. The series has been in a condition of permanent revolution since the moment its first producer, Verity Lambert, chose to ignore the strictures of her boss Sydney Newman against “bug-eyed monsters” and allowed the Daleks to trundle into view. As John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado noted over 30 years ago, the series discovered “television’s recipe for success” very early: “something different but something the same”.

Chibnall, like Moffat, like Davies, like Capaldi, Tennant, and many others involved in the triumphant reboot, is a lifelong Doctor Who fan. His arrival should remind us of the full version of the old adage: a new broom sweeps clean but an old broom knows all the corners. There are lives in the old Doctor yet.

The Conversation
Ivan Phillips, Associate Dean of School (Learning and Teaching), University of Hertfordshire

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Why race should be high on the student attainment agenda in 2017

There is little sector-wide motivation to address the attainment gap between white and BME students, says Min Rodriguez.

[First published on The Times Higher Education]

The proportion of UK students identifying as black and minority ethnic (BME) attending university reached 21 per cent in 2014-15 – its highest ever. Despite this increase, there is a 15 per cent attainment gap between white and BME students achieving a 2:1 or above – aka, a “good degree”.

This gap is greatest between white and black students. It has closed incrementally each year since 2005-06 when it was 29 per cent, but it is still at 26 per cent.
This improvement is slow and disproportionate when compared with the progress in white student attainment. This has gone from 65 per cent getting a 2:1 or above in 2005-06 to the 77 per cent presently achieving a “good degree”.  

Woman facing to the right

Therefore, we in higher education should be asking ourselves with more rigour why this might be. Why is it that the rate of improvement for white students significantly surpasses that of BME students? 

A Department for Education and Skills (DfES) research report from a decade ago highlighted the issue of degree attainment. This was followed by a further study in 2008 from the Higher Education Academy (HEA) and Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) that supported those initial findings.

The research confirmed that even after controlling for the majority of contributory factors, being from a minority ethnic group was still found to have a statistically significant and negative effect on degree attainment.

A number of recommendations were made for higher education institutions and sector organisations to address the issues identified in the study. Yet there is an aspect of the report that has moved on since it was published in 2008, and that warrants a mention now: the legislative environment of the time and where we find ourselves today.
When the 2008 report was published, the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 required higher education institutions to meet a three-stranded general duty to:
  • eliminate unlawful discrimination
  • promote equality of opportunity
  • promote good race relations between persons of different racial groups.

This was known as the “positive duty”, as it required institutions to pre-empt unlawful discrimination before it occurred and be proactive in meeting the three strands outlined above. The aim was to help institutions ensure that students and staff of all ethnic backgrounds could make the most of their experiences in higher education.

This was accompanied by four specific duties, which could be considered as the tools institutions could use to meet these aims. These were to:
  • create and maintain a race equality policy
  • monitor the admission and progress of students and staff recruitment and career progression by racial group
  • assess the impact of all institutional policies for their impact on different racial groups
  • regularly publish the results of all its work on race equality, in particular the results of work outlined above.

These have since been superseded by the general duty outlined within the Equality Act 2010. This accommodates all protected characteristics including race and now asks institutions to:
  • eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation
  • advance equality of opportunity between different groups
  • foster good relations between different groups.

There are also specific obligations universities must meet. These include reporting annually against progress and setting equality objectives. Both must be made accessible to the public.

However, a 2013 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found that of 130 universities, one in nine had not published any equality objectives at all. Of the institutions that did, just 73 per cent set objectives relating to race, and 58 per cent of those objectives were related to service delivery outcomes, not degree attainment.

Therefore, it is not difficult to see how this legislative shift may have changed the behaviour of institutions in relation to racial inequalities.

But despite the student attainment data being made available for institutions to use, there seems to be little sector-wide motivation to address this matter with urgency. The problem is a persistent one and leaves institutions to figure out the complex and varied reasons for the attainment gap. While this is a resource-consuming and difficult exercise, it is, undoubtedly, the right thing to do.

Higher education is there to develop thought, and inspire innovation and creativity. It is a springboard to the future. Yet can higher education say wholeheartedly that it is doing enough to secure the same outcomes for all?

Min Rodriguez
Head of Equality

Friday, 6 January 2017

Tips for Choosing your Student Housing

Having lived in halls and 2 different student houses, I can say from experience that they are very different prospects. Searching for student housing can be pretty daunting for students who have never had to do anything like it before. I’ve put together a few tips to consider over the coming weeks, as we enter semester B, and prepare to secure housing for the next academic year.

Choosing housemates
For first years, you may only have known your peers for three or four months, so deciding who you want to live with can be a big decision. Think carefully about who you want to live with, sometimes your best friend at university can be your polar opposite when it comes to living together. You don’t want friends to turn to enemies over some washing or not cleaning up after pre drinks. Also, consider how much your courses differ; when people have to work nights shifts, or go on placement for months at a time, it can affect the house and sometimes make paying bills, etc. more difficult.

Choosing your estate agents
There are more than enough estate agents in Hatfield to help you find the right house. Each agency has different policies, different fees and a variety of house sizes. Take some time to go around each of them, picking up their student housing lists and finding out about their individual fees. LetSU (Hertfordshire Students' Union’s own estate agency) is a great place to start.

When you find the right house, either a deposit or holding fee (depending on the estate agent you choose) is put down to secure the house for you/your group. This lump sum (which can vary from around £300 into the thousands) often isn’t budgeted for in a student loan so make sure you have access to the money when required. Without a deposit, or a delayed payment, agencies will not hold the house for you. Remember a deposit is refundable and you get it back after the tenancy has ended (however you may incur charges) but an administration fee, which is also paid with a deposit (unless you go with LetSU), is non-refundable.

Even though Hatfield is small, one must consider the best location of a house for their course. If your course is mainly based on College Lane will you be happy to get the shuttle bus from de Hav each morning?

Asking questions
Whether attending a booked viewing or simply turning up on the doorstep, it’s good to ask the current tenants questions about a property; if there’s been any problems, how much they pay for bills, etc. The opinions of current tenants are more likely to paint a clear picture of the property than the Estate agents, who are paid to rent it to you.

Visit the University’s Housing Fair
Not only will LetSU be there showing off the houses they have to offer, many companies will be there to help you with all aspects of student housing. Follow uniofherts on SnapChat where I will be taking over to show you everything going on. (11:00 - 14:00, 12 January 2016
Hutton Hub Lounge, College Lane)

Keep an eye out for future blog posts on how to prepare for moving into your home prior to the new academic year.


A little bit about me… I’m Tamsin, a member of your new University Social Media Street Team. I currently have a lifestyle and beauty blog, and I am currently a second year Biomedical Science student. I’m a pretty bubbly person, so if you see me around say hi! Visit my blog if you like random posts about anything, from makeup to political matters and everything in between.