Why do babies laugh?

  • That’s what a scientist set out to learn… with tantalising results

    Dr Caspar Addyman running the ‘BabyLab’ studying why babies laugh
  • Groundbreaking study will survey thousands of families worldwide
  • Early research shows boys laugh more than girls in early months

Whether it’s playing peek-a-boo, tickling their tummy or blowing raspberries, parents usually have a failsafe formula for making their baby chuckle.

What most of us probably haven’t done is stopped to think about why babies laugh at these things.

Step forward Dr Caspar Addyman, a Research Fellow at London Birkbeck University’s Centre for Brain and Cognitive Development — or the BabyLab as it has been dubbed. He is overseeing one of the biggest studies into what makes babies laugh, and why.

Groundbreaking: Dr Caspar Addyman is running the world's largest study into why babies laugh and why

Groundbreaking: Dr Caspar Addyman is running the world’s largest study into why babies laugh and why

‘Understanding babies also helps us understand adults,’ he says. ‘Babies are little scientists. They are discovering the world and through them we can discover a great deal, too.’

So passionate is he that Dr Addyman — a banker turned psychologist who doesn’t have any children — is funding the research himself. He’s created a detailed questionnaire for parents, as well as asking them to send in videos and short reports of what makes their babies laugh.

So far, 1,400 parents from 25 countries have answered questions ranging from whether their baby was more likely to laugh at a particular time of day to which toys and nursery rhymes they found funniest.

‘We also asked whether they found Mummy or Daddy funniest and what the baby’s general temperament was. We are also working on a separate questionnaire to work out whether there is a correlation between laughing babies and a calmer temperament,’ Dr Addyman told the Mail.

‘The big surprise has been that, contrary to general perception, laughter is present from a very early age,’ he says.

‘Ninety per cent of babies have smiled in the first two months and laughed just a few weeks after that, while we have had reports from parents that their baby has laughed unambiguously at just a few weeks old.

Babies cry to make you stop what you're doing. But laughter is their way of telling you to continue

Babies cry to make you stop what you’re doing. But laughter is their way of telling you to continue

‘Equally, a small number reported their baby didn’t laugh at all for the first 12 months. This suggests babies have a range of temperaments that are present from early on.’

Happily, mums and dads appear to score equally when it comes to making a baby chortle.

However, it’s the boys who seem to have the biggest sense of humour, with parents reporting their sons laughed nearly 50 times a day in contrast to a mere 37 for daughters.

‘This could be reinforced by the behaviour of parents,’ says Dr Addyman. ‘If you think your boy baby is laughing more, you may try to make them laugh more.’

‘Crying is a signal they want something to change, while smiling or laughter is the opposite — it says keep doing what you’re doing.’ – Dr Caspar Addyman

As the mother of a perennially giggly ten-month-old girl, I don’t agree with the gender divide theory. Connie started to chuckle at five months, and laughs at anything from the light being turned on to us being stuck in a traffic jam.

Dr Addyman isn’t surprised in the least. ‘Laughter is foremost a social thing. You laugh in company,’ he says. ‘One of the clearest bits of evidence we’ve found is that it is not necessarily what you are doing, but the fact you are present with your baby that’s important — that is why they are happy.

‘The interesting thing, too, is that most parents play games instinctively because babies have an amazing way of getting adults to do stupid things that benefit everyone. ‘It makes them laugh, but it is a bonding experience, too, which is really important.’

Moreover, in the first year, smiles and tears are a baby’s only way of communicating. ‘Crying is a signal they want something to change, while smiling or laughter is the opposite — it says keep doing what you’re doing.’


What's tickling three-week-old Cosmo?


The parents of three-week-old Cosmo sent the BabyLab a series of pictures clearly showing him laughing as they tickled him, challenging the idea that babies don’t laugh until they are older.

‘The first way to get babies to laugh is through touch,’ says Dr Addyman.

‘Tickling has deep evolutionary roots that come from being a mammal. It’s partly related to grooming, a vital function that is also pleasurable.’

And as grown-ups know, tickling stimulates different nerve endings, which we normally react to with laughter.

Less surprising was that the laughter was linked to parental touch.

‘A professor once said the first joke humans ever make is going to tickle your baby then waiting, never quite getting to the point of tickling. It’s true — it doesn’t take long for a baby to respond to the anticipation of being tickled as much as the act itself.’

Cute baby can’t stop laughing at vacuum cleaner


Four-month-old Frederick is having a great time with a mirror


Like many babies, four-month-old Frederick always laughs when he sees himself in a mirror — though, as Dr Addyman explains, it’s not for the reason that parents tend to think.

‘Research suggests that babies don’t recognise themselves in the mirror until they are at least 18 months old,’ he says.

What’s so funny, then? Dr Addyman believes that the mirroring of expressions breaks natural social conventions, and babies find this funny.

‘Conversation and social interaction involve turn-taking, but the person in the mirror is breaking these conventions by doing everything at the same time.’

Polly, aged 11 months, laughs a lot in the bath

Polly, aged 11 months, laughs  a lot in the bath, upholding Dr Addyman’s theory of parental interaction being key to baby laughter.

‘A lot of parents report that their babies find bathtime funny, which I think is again linked to the supervising adult’s undivided attention,’ he says.

‘But it’s also down to sensory pleasure. Water is warm and womb-like. They also get pleasure from simple, elemental feelings and sensations.

‘One of the nicest reports was from a mum who told us her baby laughs wholeheartedly when she stands under the shower after she’s lifted out of the swimming pool.

‘She described it as a laugh of sheer joy at being in the world and I think there is an element of that about being in the bath.’


Peek-a-boo is the world's top laughter-inducing game

No parent will be surprised to hear that peek-a-boo tops the worldwide list of laughter-making games.

Dr Addyman believes it works because it is intensely interactive and also a game that can develop over time.

‘A young baby has no concept of time, so each time someone or something returns that has disappeared it is a shock.

‘And because peek-a-boo has their much-loved parents “coming back”, it’s a happy shock for the baby.

‘Over time the game becomes more sophisticated because babies develop a sense that you will come back — so it becomes about anticipation, the fun that is still to come heightens their amusement.

‘When they grow into toddlers, they realise they can make you disappear and reappear if they cover their own eyes, as with this little girl. So, in microcosm, peek-a-boo shows how a child develops.’


Three-month-old Sienna loves her puppet toy

Parents overwhelmingly reported that dolls and puppets were their baby’s funniest toys, as three-month-old Sienna demonstrates here.

‘Early on, babies seem to understand at some deep level that their toys are not real beings, but are still able to have a degree of empathy with them,’ says Dr Addyman.

‘And they also seem to find the incongruity of an animal or inanimate toy behaving in a human fashion very amusing.

‘As with peek-a-boo, it’s because their parent is there as part of  the game, too, orchestrating  the interaction.’


Connie is endlessly delighted by her rattle toy

My daughter, Connie, is endlessly delighted by her rattle, when she shakes it and when I shake it for her, writes Kathryn Knight.

I wonder why it is this, of all her toys, that pleases her most.

‘Sometimes a baby’s laughter is triumphant — a form of “I have made this happen,’’ ’ says Dr Addyman.

‘And sometimes it can just be because there is a pleasing noise or sensation that is new to them. I think there can be a cause-and-effect connection, too.

‘One of the videos we’ve been sent is of a baby laughing when their  parent presses a light switch and the light comes on and goes off. It’s hilarious every time, and it is the same thing with a noisy rattle.

‘Connie probably doesn’t quite understand what she — or you — is doing to make it noisy, but is nonetheless delighted it makes a noise.’

Cow and Gate Laughing Babies official TV Advert

New study says Autism may be caused by environmental factors.

  • A study published this week has linked autism to airborne toxins such as pesticides
  • It also showed that increases in autism rates greatly outpaced other birth defects when the womb was exposed to environmental toxins

Toxins in the environment have been revealed in a new study to possibly cause autism.

A team of researchers from the University of Chicago concluded that exposure to toxins such as pesticides while in the womb can lead to a significantly greater risk of developing the disorder.

The findings published this week in the PLOS Computational Biology Journal were culled from health records of over 100 million Americans in an effort to shift research from almost exclusively genetic to include environmental factors.

Harmful: Exposure to environmental toxins while in the womb is believed to contribute to increased incidences of autism, a new study has revealed

Harmful: Exposure to environmental toxins while in the womb is believed to contribute to increased incidences of autism, a new study has revealed

Essentially what happens is during pregnancy there are certain sensitive periods where the fetus is very vulnerable to a range of small molecules – from things like plasticizers, prescription drugs, environmental pesticides and other things,’ study author Andrey Rzhetsky told Fox News.

‘Some of these small molecules essentially alter normal development,’ the University of Chicago professor of genetic medicine and human genetics continued. ‘It’s not really well known why, but it’s an experimental observation.’

The defects were especially noticeable in boys’ reproductive systems, Rzhetsky noted.

Rates were compared against those reproductive system defects and the findings were alarming – instances of autism rose 283 per cent against every one per cent rise in outnumbered congenital malformations such as micropenis, Fox News reported, citing the study.

Not just genetic: Airborne toxins such as pesticides are now believed to also cause autism


Not just genetic: Airborne toxins such as pesticides are now believed to also cause autism

Other intellectual disabilities increased by 94 per cent for ever one per cent increase in malformations, findings showed.

‘Malformations predict very strongly the rates of autism, and the rate of malformation per person varies significantly across the country,’ Rzhetsky told Fox.

‘Some counties have low rates and some have very high.  And rate of malformations is higher in counties with higher rates of autism.’

Instances were much higher in young males, but females were affected to – just not as highly.

One in 88 children suffers from autism, and diagnoses in boys greatly outnumber those in girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No clear cause has been established for the disorder.

‘The environment may play a very significant role in autism, and we should be paying more attention to it,’ said Rzhetsky. ‘We should definitely take into account environmental factors.’

Fukushima radiation to hit West Coast.

Debris from the decimated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station in Japan has been wafting toward the U.S. West Coast for years, ever since the plant was struck by a gigantic earthquake-generated tsunami three years ago this month.

Now, it is finally set to reach our shores, and it is bringing contamination with it.

According to reports, the radiation-tainted debris is set to arrive sometime next month, based on current models. And, already, the government’s “models” are predicting that the amount of radiation will be miniscule.

USA Today reported:

Current models predict that the radiation will be at extremely low levels that won’t harm humans or the environment, said Ken Buesseler, a chemical oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who presented research on the issue last week.

Go ahead, be ‘alarmist’

Hedging his bet, however, Buesseler — along with some other scientists — went on to say that more monitoring would be necessary, noting that no federal agency currently conducts sampling of Pacific Coast waters for radiation content (and a question at this point might be something like, “Why not?”).

“I’m not trying to be alarmist,” Buesseler told USA Today. “We can make predictions, we can do models. But unless you have results, how will we know it’s safe?”

Being “safe” is not being “alarmist,” for the record.

The field of debris heading towards the U.S. is enormous. When the tsunami struck, it flung 1.5 million tons of debris into the ocean; the portion heading toward the United States “is easily broader than Texas,” Fox News reported. Currently, it is located about 1,700 miles off the Pacific coast, between California and Hawaii.

More from Fox News:

The debris ranges from pulverized particles to entire docks that washed over from Japan, to intact boats, motorcycles, soccer balls, traditional Japanese flooring, and even some Japanese sea creatures never seen on the U.S. West Coast. “High windage” items reached the Pacific Northwest as early as winter 2011. Smaller debris is “sailing” here on the tides — NOAA estimates that the widely scattered detritus may show up intermittently along shorelines for a long period of time, over the next year or more.

But there’s more, say experts.

‘We’ve never seen this here before’

“At first we were only thinking about objects like the floating docks, but now we’re finding that all kinds of Japanese organisms are growing on the debris,” said John Chapman of the Marine Science Center at Oregon State University.

“We’ve found over 165 non-native species so far,” he added. “One type of insect, and almost all the others are marine organisms… we found the European blue mussel, which was introduced to Asia long ago, and then it grew on a lot of these things that are coming across the Pacific… we’d never seen it here, and we don’t particularly want it here,” he said, noting that it might be “invasive” and displace resident marine life.

And there’s more.

“In the debris we found the Northeastern sea star… as well as a type of brown algae that’s used to make miso soup. We’d never seen it here before,” Chapman told Fox News.

A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the northeastern coast of Japan March 11, 2011, creating a monstrous tsunami with waves that reached 133 feet high. More than 16,000 people were killed, 6,000 more injured, and whole Japanese communities were obliterated.

And just last July, Tokyo Electric Power Company, or TEPCO, admitted for the first time that radiation-contaminated water from the crippled plant — which will take decades to clean up, experts say — was leaking into the ocean.

“Since then, the news has gotten worse, and there is widespread suspicion that the problem is underreported,” USA Today reported.

Some estimates on the amount of leaked radiation, as noted by Natural News editor Mike Adams, the Health Ranger, are as high as 300 tons per day. Read his report here.






New zombie medical drug to hit the streets

It’s called Zohydro.

Clinical Psychiatry News (3/13) has the story. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is protesting FDA approval of the drug. He’s written a stunning letter to US Health and Human Services head, Kathleen Sebelius.

“…Sen. Manchin noted that the FDA approved the drug ‘despite strong opposition from its own Anesthetic and Analgesic Drug Products Advisory Committee.’”

This is highly significant. The FDA turned its back on its own panel of new-drug reviewers.

Senator Manchin continues:

“Simply put, the FDA’s approval of Zohydro ER, in its current form, must be stopped before this dangerous drug is sold to the public… [Zohydro] has up to 10 times as much hydrocodone as Vicodin and Lortab and will come in a formulation that can be easily crushed, snorted, and injected.”

In other words, Zohydro, used as a pain killer, is a nightmare. If you’ve ever taken Vicodin, imagine a pill with ten times the strength.

“In his letter, Manchin raised questions about the drug’s approval. ‘I am deeply troubled that the reason for Zohydro ER’s approval may be linked to allegations that the FDA gave manufacturers of prescription drugs the opportunity to pay thousands of dollars for the privilege to attend private meetings with FDA officials,’ he wrote, citing news reports. ‘Allegations have been raised that a new, scientifically questionable methodology for drug approval was created at these pay-to-play meetings.’”
“The FDA has denied any improprieties regarding those private meetings, which the agency has said were intended to help the FDA better evaluate evidence from clinical trials.”

Then let’s see every word of those private meetings. The FDA is a public agency. Let’s see exactly what went on in those secret meetings.

For background: On July 29, 2012, Martha Rosenberg published her interview with former FDA drug reviewer, Ronald Kavanagh, for Truthout. The subject was FDA retaliation against its own people who didn’t follow orders on approving new drugs, but instead relied on evidence.

Kavanagh: “…widespread [FDA] racketeering, including witness tampering and witness retaliation.”

“I was threatened with prison.”

“One [FDA] manager threatened my children…I was afraid that I could be killed for talking to Congress and criminal investigators.”

Kavanagh reviewed new drug applications made to the FDA by pharmaceutical companies. He was one of the holdouts at the Agency who insisted that the drugs had to be safe and effective before being released to the public.

But honest appraisal wasn’t part of the FDA culture, and Kavanagh swam against the tide, until he realized his life and the life of his children was on the line.

What was his secret task at the FDA? “Drug reviewers were clearly told not to question drug companies and that our job was to approve drugs.” In other words, rubber stamp them. Say the drugs were safe and effective when they were not.

Kavanagh’s revelations are astonishing. He recalls a meeting where a drug-company representative flat-out stated that his company had paid the FDA for a new-drug approval. Paid for it. As in bribe.

He remarks that the drug pyridostigmine, given to US troops to prevent the later effects of nerve gas, “actually increased the lethality” of certain nerve agents.

Kavanagh recalls being given records of safety data on a drug—and then his bosses told him which sections not to read. Obviously, they knew the drug was dangerous and they knew exactly where, in the reports, that fact would be revealed.

We are not dealing with isolated incidents of cheating and lying. We are not dealing with a few isolated bought-off FDA employees. The situation at the FDA isn’t correctable with a few firings. This is an ongoing criminal enterprise, and any government official, serving in any capacity, who has become aware of it and has not taken action, is an accessory to mass poisoning of the population.

Fourteen years ago, the cat was let out of the bag. Dr. Barbara Starfield, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, on July 26, 2000, in a review titled, “Is US health really the best in the world,” exposed the fact that FDA-approved medical drugs kill 106,000 Americans per year.

In interviewing her, I discovered that she had never been approached by any federal agency to help remedy this tragedy. Nor had the federal government taken any steps on its own to stop the dying.

And now we have Zohydro, a new drug ready to hit the streets. You’ll know it when you see more zombies walking.

Senator Manchin has just introduced a bill to slap down the FDA approval of Zohydro (official press release and copy of bill here).

Here are official black-box warnings contained in Zohydro packaging:

* Long-acting hydrocodone exposes patients and other users to the risks of opioid addiction, abuse, and misuse, which can lead to overdose and death.

* Serious, life-threatening, or fatal respiratory depression may occur.

* Instruct patients to swallow Zohydro ER capsules whole; crushing, chewing, or dissolving capsules can cause rapid release and absorption of a potentially fatal dose of hydrocodone.

* Accidental consumption of even 1 dose of hydrocodone, especially by children, can result in a fatal overdose of hydrocodone.

* For patients who require opioid therapy while pregnant, be aware that infants may require treatment for neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome.

* Prolonged maternal use during pregnancy can result in neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, which may be life-threatening and requires management according to protocols developed by neonatology experts.

Why Women Need More Sleep Than Men: Research Shows Stronger Mental, Physical Response To Inadequate Rest

Women need more sleep than men, according to a recent study. Researchers from Duke University have discovered that, compared to men, women experience more mental and physical consequences from inadequate rest. Besides giving half the population a legitimate reason to sleep in, the findings could also inspire new health recommendations for women at greater risk of heart disease, depression, and psychological problems.

woman sleeping

The study, which was led by clinical psychologist and sleep expert Michael Breus, estimated men and women’s respective needs for sleep by assessing their ability to deal with insufficient rest. According to Breus, the experiment suggested a sharp difference between genders. “We found that women had more depression, women had more anger, and women had more hostility early in the morning,” he told reporters.

Who Needs How Much?

Many biological factors are thought to contribute to this disparity. However, some experts believe that it ultimately comes down to mental energy expenditure. Women, they say, simply use their brain more than men do.

“One of the major functions of sleep is to allow the brain to recover and repair itself. During deep sleep, the cortex — the part of the brain responsible for thought, memory, language and so on — disengages from the senses and goes into recovery mode,” Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Center at Loughborough University in England, told The Australian. “The more of your brain you use during the day, the more of it that needs to recover and, consequently, the more sleep you need. Women tend to multi-task — they do lots at once and are flexible — and so they use more of their actual brain than men do.”

It follows that, if men used their brains more during the day, they would need a couple of extra hours too. “A man who has a complex job that involves a lot of decision-making and lateral thinking may also need more sleep than the average male — though probably still not as much as a woman,” Horne said.

The Science of Sleep

Breus’ and his colleagues’ study adds to a growing number of scientific inquiries into the health outcomes of sleep deprivation. In a paper published earlier this year, researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine showed a correlation between inadequate rest and accelerated skin aging. Other studies have linked poor sleeping patterns to an elevated risk of heart disease, blood clots, stroke, and psychiatric problems.

The average American adult requires between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every day. That said, 80 percent of the population say they habitually fall short of this quota. To learn more about sleep and improving rest patterns, visit The National Sleep Foundation’s online resources.

Rich will live fuller lives for up to 20 years longer than the poor, official study shows.

Figures highlight huge divide in quality of life between children growing up in the richest and poorest areas of England and Wales

Children growing up in the richest areas of Britain can expect not only live longer, but to enjoy a fuller, active and more healthy life for up to 20 years longer than those living in deprived areas, official figures have shown.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found a “large, persistent” health inequality gap remains in terms of life expectancy and health expectations of people growing up in the richest and poorest areas.

Those from affluent backgrounds are likely to enjoy good health for a much bigger proportion of their lives than those in the poorest areas.

According to the ONS, men living in the most deprived areas have an average life expectancy of 73.4 years, nine years less than men from the least deprived ten per cent of the population, who have an average life expectancy of 82.7 years.

Women are expected to live for 6.8 years less on average than females in the least deprived areas, who are also forecast to spend 16.9 per cent less of their life in good health.

A boy growing up the most statistically deprived area of Britain could only expect to live a full, healthy life until he is 52.1 years old, compared with a boy living in the least deprived area of England, who can look forward to 70.5 years of full health on average.

The so-called ‘Healthy Life Expectancy’, which measured the amount of time people can normally expect to lead a healthy, full and active life for found the difference between the richest and the poorest to be up to 19.3 years.

The study split England and Wales into over 30,000 areas, which were then ranked by level of deprivation.

Deprivation was defined using a standard Government measure which looks at factors such as average income, crime and education and existing figures. These were used to calculate a local life expectancy.

The ONS said: “Inequality in health outcomes have been a concern for over 150 years since the early Medical Officer of Health reports (Wellcome Trust), with health outcomes generally worsening with greater socioeconomic disadvantage.

“Even though notable improvements across society in indicators such as life expectancy have occurred, a large, persistent health gap remains.”

Excess weight blamed for eighth of hospital admissions for women over 50.

Million Women Study says conditions caused by obesity and excess weight responsible for extra 2m days in hospital a year.
Excess weight blamed for eighth of hospital admissions in women over 50

Researchers looked at all the diseases in women with a BMI (body mass index) of 25 or more and not just those commonly associated with being overweight, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Photograph: Jon Super

One in eight admissions to hospital of women over 50 are caused by overweight and obesity, according to research that highlights toll our modern lifestyles are taking of the NHS.

The figures come from the biggest health research project in the UK, which found that obesity-related diseases and ill-health in women were responsible for 2m days in hospital a year.

While the researchers the Million Women Study run from University of Oxford have not put a figure on the overall cost, the bill to the taxpayer would amount to an annual sum of well over £500m based on the cost of more than £250 a day for an NHS bed.

This is preventable disease, said Gillian Reeves, lead author of the study published in the journal BMC Medicine. “A lot of the work I do is related to cancer. A lot of the risk factors for breast cancer, in particular, you can’t change.”

But weight, one of the breast cancer risk factors, can be altered. “In some sense, it is quite nice to think this is a modifiable risk factor – there is a lot to be gained by not putting on excess weight,” she said.

The Million Women Study is able to look at changes in the health of a whole population over time because of its size – between 1996 and 2001 it enrolled a quarter of all women in the UK between 50 and 64 by inviting them to join when they first went for breast cancer screening. The group consists of 1.3 million women.

Most studies on the impact of being overweight have focused on one or more diseases that are commonly associated with it, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. The Oxford researchers, however, were able to look at all the diseases in women with a BMI (body mass index) of 25 or more, which is the usual classification of overweight.

They had full information on height and weight for 1.2 million of the participants. Most were either overweight (36%) or obese (18%), giving a total of 54% – slightly lower than the official figure for women in England, which is almost 58%. Those who were overweight in the study were less likely to take strenuous exercise, but also less likely to smoke, take hormone replacement therapy or drink alcohol.

The most common reason overweight women were admitted to hospital was for cataract surgery (more than 45,000 admissions), followed by gallbladder disease (more than 35,000). After these two, which are not immediately thought of as weight-related, came breast cancer (34,307 admissions) and heart disease (32,483).

“All but three of the 25 categories of admission considered showed clear associations with BMI, although the magnitudes, and sometimes the shape, of the associations varied considerably,” says the paper.

Among those overweight (BMI 25+), 74% of diabetes admissions, 66% of knee replacements, 38% of gallbladder disease and one in five heart attacks were attributable to weight. In the obese group (BMI 30+), their weight was the cause of 59% of diabetes admissions, 51% of knee replacements, one in five hip replacements and 10% of strokes. Weight also caused more minor conditions, such as carpal tunnel syndrome (31% in the overweight and 23% in the obese), which are a big cost to the NHS because they are so common.

By looking only at diseases like stroke and breast cancer, said Reeves, “previous reports may have under-estimated the effect of BMI”.

The more excess weight women put on, the more time they were likely to spend in hospital, the study found. “The increased risk is quite steady,” said Reeves. Even moderately overweight women were more likely to be admitted to hospital than those of normal weight.

The team have not looked at the cost of the admissions to the NHS, but intend to do further work on that. Some conditions will be much more costly for the NHS to treat than others.

Hospital admissions for men will not exactly match those for women, because some diseases affect one sex more than the other. But there is no reason to think men’s excess weight is less of a health problem or costs the NHS less. More men carry excess weight than women – 67% in England – but although 42% of men are overweight compared with 32% of women, the numbers that are obese are much the same, at around 25%.

Overweight and obesity are a concern for Public Health England (PHE), which advises the local authorities who have now been given control of the public health budget so that they can develop initiatives specific to local issues. But Prof Kevin Fenton, national director of health and wellbeing at PHE, said more needs to be done at every level about obesity, which is “entirely preventable”.

He said: “Obesity is a complex issue that requires action at national, local, family and individual level. Everyone has a role to play in improving the health and wellbeing of the public, and children in particular

“More than five out of 10 women are overweight or obese, that is 57.8% of the [female] population. The prevalence of obesity increases with age; 20.9% of women are obese in the 25-34 age group and 33.7% of women in the 65-74 age group.

“PHE are committed to helping to tackle obesity through a range of approaches that support action on the local environment to make eating less and being more physically active, easier.”


One in eight hospital admissions of women over 50 due to overweight or obesity

Extra weight in women over 50 is responsible for 2m days of hospital stay

Almost 58% of women and 67% of men in England are overweight or obese

Overweight causes an estimated 74% of admissions of women over 50 with diabetes and 66% of admissions for knee replacements.

Source: Million Women Study recruited 1.3 million – of whom 1.2 million were eligible for the weight study

• This article was amended on 15 March to correct spelling errors.

Gravitational waves: have US scientists heard echoes of the big bang?

Discovery of gravitational waves by Bicep telescope at south pole could give scientists insights into how universe was born


Big bang

Primordial gravitational waves would provide evidence of inflation in the moments after the big bang. Photograph: Alamy

There is intense speculation among cosmologists that a US team is on the verge of confirming they have detected “primordial gravitational waves” – an echo of the big bang in which the universe came into existence 14bn years ago.

Rumours have been rife in the physics community about an announcement due on Monday from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. If there is evidence for gravitational waves, it would be a landmark discovery that would change the face of cosmology and particle physics.

Gravitational waves are the last untested prediction of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. They are minuscule ripples in the fabric of the universe that carry energy across space, somewhat similar to waves crossing an ocean. Convincing evidence of their discovery would almost certainly lead to a Nobel prize.

“If they do announce primordial gravitational waves on Monday, I will take a huge amount of convincing,” said Hiranya Peiris, a cosmologist from University College London. “But if they do have a robust detection … Jesus, wow! I’ll be taking next week off.”

The discovery of gravitational waves from the big bang would offer scientists their first glimpse of how the universe was born.

The signal is rumoured to have been found by a specialised telescope called Bicep (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) at the south pole. It scans the sky at microwave frequencies, where it picks up the fossil energy from the big bang.

For decades, cosmologists have thought that the signature of primordial gravitational waves could be imprinted on this radiation. “It’s been called the Holy Grail of cosmology,” says Peiris, “It would be a real major, major, major discovery.”

Martin Hendry at the University of Glasgow works on several projects designed to directly detect gravitational waves. “If Bicep have made a detection,” he says, “it’s clear that this new window on the universe is really opening up.”

According to theory, the primordial gravitational waves will tell us about the first, infinitessimal moment of the universe’s history. Cosmologists believe that 10-34 seconds after the big bang (a decimal point followed by 33 zeros and a one) the universe was driven to expand hugely.

Known as inflation, the theory was dreamed up to explain why the universe is so remarkably uniform from place to place. But it has always lacked some credibility because no one can find a convincing physical explanation for why it happened.

Now researchers may be forced to redouble their efforts. “The primordial gravitational waves have long been thought to be the smoking gun of inflation. It’s as close to a proof of that theory as you are going to get,” says Peiris. This is because cosmologists believe only inflation can amplify the primordial gravitational waves into a detectable signal.

“If a detection has been made, it is extraordinarily exciting. This is the real big tick-box that we have been waiting for. It will tell us something incredibly fundamental about what was happening when the universe was 10-34 seconds old,” said Prof Andrew Jaffe, a cosmologist from Imperial College, London, who works on another telescope involved in the search called Polarbear.

But extracting that signal is fearsomely tricky. The microwaves that carry it must cross the whole universe before arriving at Earth. During the journey, they are distorted by intervening clusters of galaxies.

“It’s like looking at the universe through bubbled glass,” said Duncan Hanson of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, who works on the South Pole Telescope, a rival that sits next to Bicep.

He said the distortion must be removed in a convincing way before anyone can claim to have made the detection. The prize for doing that, however, would be the pinnacle of a scientific career. “The Nobel Prize would be for the detection of the primordial gravitational waves.”

“Yeah, I would give them a prize,” said Jaffe.

Exercise advised for cancer swelling

Exercise contributes to general health and well-being

Women who suffer swelling following breast cancer treatment should be encouraged to exercise, say experts.

New National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidance says exercise will not make the problem worse and could improve well-being.

One in five people treated for breast cancer will go on to develop lymphoedema in their arm, hand, fingers or chest.

It is a long-term condition that can lead to pain and loss of mobility.

The new NICE guidance, which is subject to consultation, says doctors and nurses should discuss with patients how exercise may improve their quality of life.

They should also stress that the current evidence shows “exercise does not prevent, cause or worsen lymphoedema”.

Clearing ‘confusion’

Many people with breast cancer go on to develop lymphoedema in their arm or chest following surgical or radiotherapy treatment.

It occurs when the body’s lymphatic system becomes damaged and is unable to drain fluid in the normal way.

Prof Mark Baker, director of the NICE centre for clinical practice, said: “For breast cancer patients, lymphoedema may occur as a result of treatment – such as surgery or radiotherapy – or cancer cells blocking the lymph system.

“Some people may be cautious of taking up exercise as they may think it could make their lymphoedema worse or bring it about in the first place.

Breast cancer cell
Breast cancer cells can block the lymph system

“Our proposed new recommendations should clear up any confusion relating to the role that exercise can play for people with or at risk of this condition.”

Jackie Harris, clinical nurse specialist at Breast Cancer Care, said lymphoedema can severely restrict movement and impact lives.

“Lymphoedema can be controlled but will never go away and we know that regular exercise has many benefits for those living with or at risk of lymphoedema,” she said.

“Regular movement in everyday life or work can help keep joints supple and aids lymph drainage and extra exercises can also be useful if swelling restricts movement of the arm.”

HIV protection gel ‘a step closer’

HIV virus Gels containing drugs have had mixed results in stopping HIV infection

A gel that can be used by women after sex to protect against HIV is a step closer, according to researchers.

Drugs applied three hours after infection could protect female monkeys from a type of HIV, US scientists said.

The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, could lead to new ways to fight HIV, which is continuing to spread globally.

Experts say large clinical trials would be needed to test any new treatment, and condoms remain the best defence.

Vaginal gels containing HIV medicines have had mixed success in human clinical trials.

In the latest research, a US team took a different approach, testing a new HIV treatment in monkeys that has the potential to work after HIV exposure.

They found the gel protected five out of six monkeys from an animal-human laboratory strain of HIV when applied shortly before or three hours after infection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, which led the study, say it is a “proof of concept” in an animal model.

Dr Charles Dobard, of the division of HIV/Aids prevention, told BBC News: “It’s a promising after-sex vaginal gel to prevent HIV infection.

“Studies still need to be done to look at the window [of opportunity] – is it six, eight, 24 hours?”

Pig-tailed macaque The gel was tested on female pig-tailed macaque monkeys
Tubes of chimpanzee blood
Tubes of chimp blood infected with an animal HIV virus

So far, tests have been carried out in only a small number of monkeys infected with a combination of HIV and a related monkey virus.

Experts say there are several obstacles before any new human treatment can become a reality.

Dr Andrew Freedman, reader and consultant in infectious diseases at Cardiff University School of Medicine, said the gel contained a different class of anti-HIV drug, which attacks the virus at a later stage in infection, potentially allowing it to be used after exposure to infection.

“This is proof of concept that such a topically applied gel, applied post-coitally, might be effective in preventing HIV transmission in humans,” he said.

However, he said caution was needed as the study involved only a few monkeys and it had failed to prevent infection in one of the six.

“Much larger human trials would be required before such a gel could be licensed for routine use,” he added.

Jason Warriner, clinical director at the OTerrence Higgins Trust, said having a gel that could be applied after sex would be “another small step forward, particularly in countries where high HIV rates and cultural barriers to condom use have created the perfect storm”.

But he said no microbicide had yet been found that offered full protection against HIV.

“In the UK, condoms remain our best defence against the virus,” he added.