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WHO report reveals number of men smoking falling for first time in 20 years

The global smoking epidemic is mainly a male issue — data from the WHO suggests that there were 1.34 billion smokers across the globe in 2019. Eight in 10 smokers are male, making up 1.093 billion of the total figure.

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While rates of smoking among men have fallen fast in developed countries like the UK, the USA, France, and Germany, the same is not true of the rest of the world. The rate of uptake in developing countries continued unabated over the last twenty years, due to rising incomes, growing populations, and increased city migration. 

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That state of affairs, however, could be changing, at least according to a massive data collection effort from the World Health Organization. The international agency set up to promote global health and wellbeing found that 2019 was the first year since the millennium in which the number of men smoking fell

The global smoking epidemic is mainly a male issue — data from the WHO suggests that there were 1.34 billion smokers across the globe in 2019. Eight in 10 smokers are male, making up 1.093 billion of the total figure. 

The number of male tobacco smokers worldwide, however, has risen much more slowly than the total population. In 2000, 1.05 billion men smoked; 43 million lower than it is today. The world’s population, however, rose by nearly 1,500 million people over the same period. The fact that the number is now falling, therefore, suggest that we’ve turned a corner. Despite the growing number of people living today, the proportion of smokers is going down. 

For many, these changes don’t come soon enough. The World Health Organization estimates that tobacco usage leads to around eight million premature deaths per year. Most of those are among the people who smoke, but some result from second-hand exposure. 

Smoking releases dozens of toxic compounds into the atmosphere, like arsenic, formaldehyde, and lead believed to result in a range of diseases like lung cancer, heart disease, and COPD. The burden of these diseases is felt most strongly by the world’s poorest people who don’t have as much access to healthcare. 

Smoking Facts

The facts about smoking can sometimes be a little hazy. Here are some things that you should know: 

  • WHO analysis suggests that around half of all smokers will die for reasons related to their habit
  • The majority of smoking protection laws apply mainly in the developed world – only 20 percent of the global population. In other countries, tobacco companies are free to advertise their products how they like. 
  • Around 5.6 million children alive today in the US will die because of smoking-related causes
  • The cost of tobacco to the US economy alone is estimated at more than $300 billion. Around half of this figure is the effect due to lost productivity, and the rest is the direct cost of medical care. 
  • You can find all manner of harmful chemicals in tobacco products, including radioactive heavy metals, such as polonium.
  • The benzene in tobacco is one of the leading causes of cancer called myeloid leukemia. In countries with high levels of environmental protections, like the US, 90 percent of benzene exposure comes from tobacco products.
  • Data suggest that there are more than 4,000 chemicals in tobacco smoke. Researchers believe that more than 250 of them are harmful to health, and eleven are classified as class 1 carcinogens, putting them in the same category as processed meat. 
  • China is home to the world’s largest population of smokers, with more than 300 million people lighting up regularly. The country consumes a staggering 1.7 trillion cigarettes per year. 
  • Medical research suggests that just five cigarettes contain enough nicotine to kill an adult if eaten whole. The amount of nicotine that a smoker actually ingests is usually about 0.03 milligrams per cigarette.
  • While smoking is famous for causing lung cancer, it is not the only malignancy that researchers have linked to the habit. Smoking can also raise your risk of liver, mouth, throat, pancreatic, and rectal cancers. 
  • Smoking hits the world’s poorest people the hardest. Eighty percent of smokers worldwide live in developing or emerging market countries. 
  • Smoking cuts life expectancy by an average of around 13 years. If you smoke and also have HIV, then it reduces your life short by a staggering 16 years. 
  • The CDC estimates that there are around 37.8 million people who smoke in the United States.
  • Data indicate that one person dies from smoking-related diseases every five seconds globally.

While the costs of smoking are startling on a global scale, we’re seeing a dramatic decline in the proportion of people engaging in the habit. As information flows out about the health risks of taking up smoking, increasing numbers of people are looking for alternatives or quitting altogether. 

The latest trend is towards non-tobacco products that do not contain the hundreds of carcinogenic compounds found in regular cigarettes. The rising popularity of vape shop outlets is a testament to these changing habits. A combination of public health action and private innovation, therefore, may be what eventually leads to the demise of the tobacco industry.

Is the writing on the wall that smoking will cease to play a significant role in human health in the future? The answer is “probably.” As economies like China and India become wealthier, the demand for health will increase. These countries will experience a transition in attitudes, away from the notion that life is nasty, brutish, and short and more towards a western conception. People will likely actively invest in their health, looking for opportunities to stay younger and live longer. Wellness may become a dominant trend in these countries as they industrialize, just like it has in the developed world. 

While the number of people smoking globally has fallen, the WHO is still skeptical of whether it will meet its reduction targets. The agency wants to see the number of people smoking worldwide fall by 30 percent in those aged fifteen and over by the end of the 2020 reporting year. The agency knows, though, that unless countries with large populations begin robust national programs, it won’t achieve its goals. 

The tide, however, turned long ago in developed countries, and the same is now happening on the global stage. Tobacco’s days could be numbered. 

Health & Wellness

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals more likely to be autistic

Transgender and gender-diverse adult individuals were between three and six times more likely to indicate that they were diagnosed as autistic compared to cisgender individuals. While the study used data from adults who indicated that they had received an autism diagnosis, it is likely that many individuals on the autistic spectrum may be undiagnosed.

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Transgender and gender-diverse adults are three to six times more likely as cisgender adults (individuals whose gender identity corresponds to their sex assigned at birth) to be diagnosed as autistic, according to a new study by scientists at the University of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre.

This research – “Elevated rates of autism, other neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diagnoses and autistic traits in transgender and gender-diverse individuals” – was conducted using data from over 600,000 adult individuals, and it confirms previous smaller scale studies from clinics. The results are published in Nature Communications.

A better understanding of gender diversity in autistic individuals will help provide better access to health care and post-diagnostic support for autistic transgender and gender-diverse individuals.

The team used five different datasets, including a dataset of over 500,000 individuals collected as a part of UK’s Channel 4 documentary “Are you autistic?”. In these datasets, participants had provided information about their gender identity, and if they received a diagnosis of autism or other psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia. Participants also completed a measure of autistic traits.

Strikingly, across all five datasets, the team found that transgender and gender-diverse adult individuals were between three and six times more likely to indicate that they were diagnosed as autistic compared to cisgender individuals. While the study used data from adults who indicated that they had received an autism diagnosis, it is likely that many individuals on the autistic spectrum may be undiagnosed.

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals were also more likely to indicate that they had received diagnoses of mental health conditions, particularly depression, which they were more than twice as likely as their cisgender counterparts to have experienced.

In the UK, around 1.1% of the population is estimated to be on the autistic spectrum, and this result would suggest that somewhere between 3.5% to 6.5% of transgender and gender-diverse adults is on the autistic spectrum.

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, a collaborator on the study at the University of Toronto, said: “We are beginning to learn more about how the presentation of autism differs in cisgender men and women. Understanding how autism manifests in transgender and gender-diverse people will enrich our knowledge about autism in relation to gender and sex. This enables clinicians to better recognize autism and provide personalised support and health care.”

Transgender and gender-diverse individuals were also more likely to indicate that they had received diagnoses of mental health conditions, particularly depression, which they were more than twice as likely as their cisgender counterparts to have experienced. Transgender and gender-diverse individuals also, on average, scored higher on measures of autistic traits compared to cisgender individuals, regardless of whether they had an autism diagnosis.

Dr Varun Warrier, who led the study, said: “This finding, using large datasets, confirms that the co-occurrence between being autistic and being transgender and gender-diverse is robust. We now need to understand the significance of this co-occurrence, and identify and address the factors that contribute to well-being of this group of people.”

The study investigates the co-occurrence between gender identity and autism. The team did not investigate if one causes the other.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge, and a member of the team, said: “Both autistic individuals and transgender and gender-diverse individuals are marginalized and experience multiple vulnerabilities. It is important that we safe-guard the rights of these individuals to be themselves, receive the requisite support, and enjoy equality and celebration of their differences, free of societal stigma or discrimination.”

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Health & Wellness

Supportive communities and progressive politics can reduce suicide risk among LGBTQ girls

New research shows that supportive communities – and a progressive political climate – can help mitigate the effects of stigma on mental health.

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Many LGBTQ youth continue to experience stigma and discrimination despite progress made in protecting human rights. Now new research from Canada’s UBC’s school of nursing shows that supportive communities – and a progressive political climate – can help mitigate the effects of stigma on mental health.

The researchers combined data from the BC Adolescent Health Survey with an inventory of different LGBTQ events and youth supportive service in communities across B.C. They found that the greater the LGBTQ youth supports in a community, the less likely sexual minority youth, particularly lesbian and bisexual girls, were to have suicidal thoughts or attempts, or to self-harm, compared to their counterparts in communities with fewer supportive events, groups and services. The team also found that lesbian and bisexual girls in communities where more people voted BC NDP in the 2013 provincial general election were less likely to report suicidal thoughts or self-harm.

Where lesbian, gay and bisexual youth live – their community environment, and the kind of LGBTQ-inclusive supports that are or aren’t there – appears to play a role in their odds of suicidality and self-harm.

In their inventory, the researchers counted LGBTQ-youth drop-ins and LGBTQ-youth friendly health services, as well as positive events like Pride parades, anti-bullying days, and meetings for parents, families and friends of LGBTQ people. Community resources that show support for LGBTQ people more generally, such as rainbow crosswalks, supportive faith communities, and queer-friendly coffee houses, also made the list.

“The impact of stigma and discrimination continues to put the health of LGBTQ youth at risk, but this risk isn’t equal everywhere,” said lead researcher Elizabeth Saewyc, a UBC nursing professor and director of Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre (SARAVYC). “Our research found that where lesbian, gay and bisexual youth live – their community environment, and the kind of LGBTQ-inclusive supports that are or aren’t there – appears to play a role in their odds of suicidality and self-harm.”

Saewyc says research shows that safe and inclusive schools, particularly those with gender and sexuality alliances, or GSAs, contribute to LGBTQ youth well-being, but this is among the first studies in Canada to look at the importance of the wider community at the same time.

“Even after accounting for school environments, our study found community supports and progressive political climates contribute to lesbian and bisexual girls’ health. It’s an important point for health care professionals and policymakers to consider – that LGBTQ visibility and support throughout communities can make a difference. We also need to recognize that the work is not yet done–we still have a long way to go to protect the health and well-being of all LGBTQ youth,” said Saewyc.

The research was published in Preventive Medicine.

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Health & Wellness

Hedonism can lead to happiness

Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure. That’s because new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

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Relaxing on the sofa or savoring a delicious meal: Enjoying short-term pleasurable activities that don’t lead to long-term goals contributes at least as much to a happy life as self-control, according to new research from the University of Zurich and Radboud University in the Netherlands. The researchers therefore argue for a greater appreciation of hedonism in psychology.

We all set ourselves long-term goals from time to time, such as finally getting into shape, eating less sugar or learning a foreign language. Research has devoted much time to finding out how we can reach these goals more effectively. The prevailing view is that self-control helps us prioritize long-term goals over momentary pleasure and that if you are good at self-control, this will usually result in a happier and more successful life.

“It’s time for a rethink,” says Katharina Bernecker, researcher in motivational psychology at the University of Zurich. “Of course self-control is important, but research on self-regulation should pay just as much attention to hedonism, or short-term pleasure.”

That’s because Bernecker’s new research shows that people’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

Distraction disrupts pleasure

Bernecker and her colleague Daniela Becker of Radboud University developed a questionnaire to measure respondents’ capacity for hedonism, i.e. their ability to focus on their immediate needs and indulge in and enjoy short-term pleasures. They used the questionnaire to find out whether people differ in their capacity to pursue hedonic goals in a variety of contexts, and whether this ability is related to well-being.

They found that certain people get distracted by intrusive thoughts in moments of relaxation or enjoyment by thinking about activities or tasks that they should be doing instead. “For example, when lying on the couch you might keep thinking of the sport you are not doing,” says Becker. “Those thoughts about conflicting long-term goals undermine the immediate need to relax.” On the other hand, people who can fully enjoy themselves in those situations tend to have a higher sense of well-being in general, not only in the short term, and are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, among other things.

More isn’t always better

“The pursuit of hedonic and long-term goals needn’t be in conflict with one another,” says Bernecker. “Our research shows that both are important and can complement each other in achieving well-being and good health. It is important to find the right balance in everyday life.”

People’s capacity to experience pleasure or enjoyment contributes at least as much to a happy and satisfied life as successful self-control.

Unfortunately, simply sitting about more on the sofa, eating more good food and going to the pub with friends more often won’t automatically make for more happiness. “It was always thought that hedonism, as opposed to self-control, was the easier option,” says Bernecker. “But really enjoying one’s hedonic choice isn’t actually that simple for everybody because of those distracting thoughts.”

Conscious planning of downtime

This is currently a topical issue with more people working from home, as the environment where they normally rest is suddenly associated with work. “Thinking of the work you still need to do can lead to more distracting thoughts at home, making you less able to rest,” says Bernecker.

So what can you do to enjoy your downtime more? More research is needed, but the researchers suspect that consciously planning and setting limits to periods of enjoyment could help to separate them more clearly from other activities, allowing pleasure to take place more undisturbed.

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Lifestyle & Culture

3 Ways to always feel that you are moving upwards in life

Here are a few things you can do to increase the chances that you always feel that you’re moving positively upwards in life.

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One of the best feelings in life is the sensation that you are constantly moving upwards. That you’re going from strength to strength and, that when you look back, you’ll see that you’ve travelled a long way in the right direction.

Of course, if you just leave life to sort itself out, the odds are high that you won’t end up feeling as though you’re consistently moving upwards. Rather, you will likely end up repeating the same patterns over and over, feeling stuck, and – in many ways – remaining where you are.

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Here are a few things you can do to increase the chances that you always feel that you’re moving positively upwards in life.

1. Always seek work that is fulfilling, and continually develop your professional skills

It might be that you are in a career that you love, and just don’t feel that your job is the perfect match for you. Or, maybe you’re not even a big fan of your general career.

We all spend a huge amount of our total time at work, so actively seeking out work that is fulfilling to you is one of the best ways of enhancing your well-being, as a whole.

Of course, the sense of moving upwards doesn’t just come from finding a new job, whether via a Practice Match service, or any other mechanism. In fact, even if you don’t find your dream job in the near future, the simple fact that you are always on the lookout can have a dramatically positive effect on your psychology.

By the same token, you should always work to develop your professional skills whenever you have the opportunity – both to make you more valuable as a potential employee, and also so that you keep moving upwards.

2. Pick up, and stick to, a good fitness routine

Physical exercise has all sorts of benefits, ranging from improved health outcomes and lifespan, to an enhanced ability to navigate the physical challenges of everyday life more easily, capably, and comfortably – whether that means carrying the groceries, or running for a bus.

Of course, regular physical exercise can also help to boost your confidence and your sense of well-being, both by releasing feel-good hormones, and also by helping you to move closer towards your ideal physique.

Perhaps one of the best things about a good fitness routine, though, is that it allows you to make measurable, incremental progress on a goal over time.

3. Practice healthy introspection, and assess the direction you’re heading in, regularly

If you don’t know where you want to go, you will be largely incapable of paying attention to the signs along the way that let you judge whether you are on the correct path or not.

Not only is it important to have goals and a clear sense of where you want to be, but it’s also important to regularly practice healthy introspection, and to assess the direction you’re heading in.
One great and time-honoured way of doing this is by journaling. When all is said and done, writing in a journal is basically the art of having a conversation with yourself.

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Health & Wellness

Laughter acts as a stress buffer – and even smiling helps

People who laugh frequently in their everyday lives may be better equipped to deal with stressful events – although this does not seem to apply to the intensity of laughter.

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People who laugh frequently in their everyday lives may be better equipped to deal with stressful events – although this does not seem to apply to the intensity of laughter. These are the findings reported by a research team from the University of Basel in the journal PLOS ONE.

It is estimated that people typically laugh 18 times a day – generally during interactions with other people and depending on the degree of pleasure they experience. Researchers have also reported differences related to time of day, age, and gender – for example, it is known that women smile more than men on average.

Now, researchers from the Division of Clinical Psychology and Epidemiology of the Department of Psychology at the University of Basel have recently conducted a study on the relationship between stressful events and laughter in terms of perceived stress in everyday life.

Questions asked by app

In the intensive longitudinal study, an acoustic signal from a mobile phone app prompted participants to answer questions eight times a day at irregular intervals for a period of 14 days. The questions related to the frequency and intensity of laughter and the reason for laughing – as well as any stressful events or stress symptoms experienced – in the time since the last signal.

Using this method, the researchers working with the lead authors, Dr. Thea Zander-Schellenberg and Dr. Isabella Collins, were able to study the relationships between laughter, stressful events, and physical and psychological symptoms of stress (“I had a headache” or “I felt restless”) as part of everyday life. The published analysis was based on data from 41 psychology students, 33 of whom were women, with an average age of just under 22.

Intensity of laughter has less influence

The first result of the observational study was expected based on the specialist literature: in phases in which the subjects laughed frequently, stressful events were associated with more minor symptoms of subjective stress. However, the second finding was unexpected.

When it came to the interplay between stressful events and intensity of laughter (strong, medium or weak), there was no statistical correlation with stress symptoms. “This could be because people are better at estimating the frequency of their laughter, rather than its intensity, over the last few hours,” says the research team.

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Health & Wellness

Experiences of loneliness may differ by age

Some factors were found to be associated with loneliness across all age groups. These included living alone, frequency of neighbour contact, psychological distress, and psychological and emotional wellbeing. The strongest association with loneliness was found for those who felt excluded from society.

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Loneliness in adult life is experienced differently depending on age, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Public Health. The research concludes that there can be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to reducing loneliness, as factors associated with it, such as contact with friends and family, perceived health or employment, may differ across the phases of the adult life span.

Thanée Franssen, the corresponding author, said: “The majority of studies focusing on loneliness have thus far been performed among specific age groups, such as the elderly or teenagers, or individuals with specific health conditions. To our knowledge, none of these studied the factors associated with loneliness among adults and how these change as people age.”

A team of researchers at Maastricht University and in the Public Health Service South-Limburg in the Netherlands used data collected in the Netherlands from September to December 2016 to examine associations between demographic, social and health-related factors and loneliness in 6,143 young (19-34 years), 8,418 early middle-aged (35-49 years) and 11,758 late middle-aged adults (50-65 years).

Overall, 10,309 (44.3%) individuals reported experiencing loneliness. Among young adults, 2,042 (39.7%) individuals reported feelings of loneliness, compared to 3,108 (43.3%) early-middle aged adults, and 5,159 late middle-aged adults (48.2%).

Some factors were found to be associated with loneliness across all age groups. These included living alone, frequency of neighbour contact, psychological distress, and psychological and emotional wellbeing. The strongest association with loneliness was found for those who felt excluded from society.

Some factors associated with loneliness were found to be present in specific age groups only. Young adults showed the strongest association between contact frequency with friends and loneliness. Educational level was associated with loneliness among young adults only, while an association between employment status and loneliness was found solely among early middle-aged adults. Frequency of family contact was associated with loneliness only among early and late middle-aged adults. For late middle-aged adults only, perceived health was associated with loneliness.

The authors suggest that people may feel lonely if what is the norm for their age group, such as completing school, being employed, having a partner or having children, deviates from their actual situation. As different factors are perceived to be the norm for different age groups, this may explain some of the difference in factors associated with loneliness between age groups.

Thanée Franssen said: “The identification of the factors associated with loneliness is necessary to be able to develop and target appropriate interventions. Unfortunately, most of the current interventions seem to be limited in their effect. A possible reason for this may be that most interventions for adults are universal. Results of this study showed that interventions should be developed for specific age groups.”

The authors caution that some factors that may affect people’s perception of loneliness, such as relationship quality, were not included in the current study, as they were not part of the original data collection. Due to the cross-sectional nature of the study, it was not possible to establish cause and effect.

Thanée Franssen said: “Our results also suggest that during the current COVID-19 pandemic, feelings of loneliness among adults may be impacted in different ways according to the important factors of their life phase. For example, young adults are not able to interact with their friends or classmates face to face anymore. This may need to be taken into account when considering the impact on loneliness of the current pandemic.”

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