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Sunday, September 27, 2015

Anxiety Can Speed Aging

Angst and anxiety are supposed to be the special plight of teenagers. But older adults also have a lot to worry and be anxious about. And the worry makes them age faster.
Almost all of us seniors worry about our health. Will we have a heart attack or stroke? Will we get cancer or Alzheimer's Disease? Will we become invalid and need a nursing home? Will we go out with boots on or slippers on?
Then too, many seniors worry about finances. Will savings last until death? Will we become wards of the state or a burden to our children?
We worry about our children? Did we do the best we could in raising them? Will they suffer as they age? And our grandchildren: it seems they will not have the bright future we had at their age. They are growing up amid moral and cultural decline. Their country and government is becoming dysfunctional. The world teeters on the edge of chaos.
As if these worries are not enough, there is now evidence that anxiety as such can speed our own aging. A study just reported out of the Netherlands examined a cardinal sign of aging, shorter telomere length in chromosomes, in 2300 people with and without anxiety disorders. The subjects were relatively young, averaging 41.7 years. The anxiety group had shorter telomeres, proportional to the degree of their anxiety scores.
Effect of stress on activity of the enzyme (telomerase) that protects telomeres.
From Proc. Nat. Academy Science ( caption
Less shortening was observed in patients who had long recovered from their anxiety. Maybe telomere shortening is reversible by eliminating the anxiety and stress. Of course some other undiscovered factors may exist that promote psychological recovery and protect telomeres in an independent way.
 The anxiety-telomere correlation held up, even after accounting for other factors that are associated with shorter telomeres (smoking, heavy drinking, abnormal weight, and a number of specific diseases).  The projected shortening of life ranged from 3.5 to 8 years, depending on the specific kind of anxiety. The underlying problem is probably excessive release of cortisol, oxidative stress, and inflammatory cytokines, all of which are associated with shorter telomeres.
Another study that tracked middle-aged adults found that people who felt socially isolated had over 200 genes that were expressed differently from socially secure people. Many of the genes that were turned on were involved in promoting inflammation, while many genes that were involved in protective immune responses were poorly expressed. Similar findings have been reported for other kinds of stresses, such as abuse as a child, poverty, or rejection by close friends. These kinds of gene expression changes make people more susceptible to diseases. I suspect that this even applies to cancer. Over the years, I have been stunned by learning of so many people coming down with cancer almost immediately after an intense stressful experience.
Even young people are not resistant to stress. Studies show that students have poor immune function at examination times. Studies show that chronic work stress is associated with higher incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and other medical problems.
We all have access to coping skills that can reverse stress-induced sickness. For example, inflammatory gene expression was reduced in a group of 200 women who underwent a 10-week stress-management course. Exercise can reduce anxiety and depression, as well as improve general health. Healthy diets help. We can get engaged more with others and with activities that help take us outside of ourselves. Social isolation is a common source of stress for seniors. We can find some inner peace through yoga and meditation.
Most of all, we can find new purpose for our life as we discover that age has made our old purposes untenable. We should focus on a present purpose for our life rather than on all the things we should have done or cannot undo. No one gets to re-live the past, but everyone can influence their own future.
Most useful is to think and pray more deeply about our religious convictions. Communist Karl Marx called religion the "opiate of the masses." He meant this despairingly, but religious faith does relieve anxiety and emotional pain. That is a good thing. This is an imperfect world, but the burden of saving the world is not on our shoulders. It is o.k. to do what we can even when that is not enough. We can be forgiven our sins and failures. Accept that the fate of those we love is not under our control, nor is much of the future. We can pray for strength to endure and believe it will come. We can believe that the world's problems and dysfunctions are in God's hands and that He works for the best for us.
Worry and anxiety are not in our best interests. Rejoice in the extra years of happiness that a stress-free life can bring.
To know more about aging well, check out my e-book, Improve Your Memory for a Healthy Brain. Memory Is the Canary in Your Brain's Coal Mine. Available at
Cossins, Danile. (2015). Stress fractures. The Scientist. January. p. 33-38.
Verhoeven, J. F. et al. (2015) Anxiety disorders and accelerated cellular ageing.The British Journal of Psychiatry January 2015, DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.151027
Warren, Rick. 2002. The Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

PowerPoint: A Communication Curse?

I do a lot of public speaking, and like a lot of speakers, I use PowerPoint slides and want the audience to remember what I say about those slides. I, like probably most in an audience, have been in the audience where speakers relied on PowerPoint, and as listeners we often discover that we don't remember much of what was shown.
            Slide presentations are ubiquitous, in education, government, and industry. Their misuse has been blamed for many of the problems in education and for some bad policy thinking and decisions in government (security briefings) and the military (Iraq war decisions). Critics have complained that PowerPoints tend to be relentlessly sequential and nested, reflect sound-bite thinking, present a pitch rather than encouraging reasoning, and have more style than substance (
A recent study tested the question of how PowerPoint affects recall of the information presented. This question was prompted by several studies the authors cited showing that in school settings, PowerPoint actually interferes with learning. As a partial replication attempt, this latest study evaluated the remembering in a non-school environment, namely religious sermons.
The subjects were regular members of a church attending PowerPoint-based regular sermons at their church. Their average age was 54 and they had been members of that church on average for 16 years. Members listened to sermons under several PowerPoint conditions and were tested for recall by an on-line multiple-choice survey four days after each sermon. Each survey had 12 questions that covered content, concepts, and general points of the sermon.
The first hypothesis tested was that memory of the sermon content would be better when the preacher’s slides included images in addition to words than with images only or words only. Slightly more concepts were remembered from slides that had words and pictures than slides that only had pictures. Otherwise, there were no differences.
The second hypothesis tested was that PowerPoint with graphics would be no more effectively remembered than sermons that did not use PowerPoint. Results indicated that it didn’t matter much for recall whether slides had words only, pictures only, or both. Most importantly, no differences could be detected between recall of sermons where slides were used and where no slides were used.
No details were provided on how wordy the slides were (key words are better than long phrases and sentences) nor on how effectively the graphics reinforced the ideas (they could have been a distraction).
I agree with the authors’ conclusion that “PowerPoint has the advantage of structuring and sequencing ideas in a presentation but that “it cannot overcome the need for clarity of thought, rhetorical focus, and effective communication skills.”
Why is it hard to remember content in PowerPoint presentations? The authors did not delve into the reasons for the ineffectiveness of PowerPoint. Some of the problems in their study might be unique to a worship service environment. But let me suggest some possibilities that could exist in any presentation environment. Many possibilities exist, but of course they vary with the speaker and how the slides are constructed and used.
In the first category of problems, we can cite the slides themselves:
·         Poor slides. Too many speakers put too much material on a given slide, use too many words on each slide, and have slides that are either boring or distracting to look at.
·         Too many slides. Many PowerPoints are an information dump, overwhelming the audience with too many facts and ideas. To finish the presentation on time, the speaker may rush through the slides, compounding the cognitive overload problem.
·         Poor use of graphics. Slides may lack graphics all together or have graphics that are distracting because they do not reinforce the ideas conveyed on the slide.

In the second category of problems, we can cite how the speaker uses the slides:

·         Reading the slides. The communication should come from the speaker, which does not happen when the speaker is reading text on slides that the audience is already reading (and probably finished long before the speaker finishes).
·         Failure to interact with the audience. Audiences are passive by nature. Optimal memory requires active engagement. Slides don’t stimulate engagement the way speakers can and should. PowerPoint lectures are speaker oriented, whereas effective learning and remembering requires content and audience orientation.

I recognized these problems long ago from watching professors and in my own college lecturing experiences. This led me to publish a paper on how to make PowerPoint presentations more memorable. Even when well done, there are limits to what can be achieved with slides.
Power Point teaching can trap teachers into bad teaching. The basic problem is that such presentations promote passive listening, rather than active learner engagement.
Slide shows should engage and motivate. Too often, they actually compete with learning. Slides should provide useful animations and graphics. But slide shows may not be the best way to disseminate basic information. Basic information is best conveyed in ways where the audience, not a presenter or teacher, can control the pace. That is why books, journals, videos, and the Web are preferable for disseminating information.
A typical instructional slide show presents a continuous long series of information-dense slides without pausing for reflection, engagement, and interaction. The teacher drones on, and slide images merge into a forgettable blur. Full engagement with the content in a slide show won’t occur unless the presenter builds in frequent discussion, questions, problems, and tasks.


Buhko, A. A., Buchko, K. Jl., and Meyer, J. M. 2015. Is there power in PowerPoint? A field test of the efficacy of PowerPoint on memory and recall of religious sermons. Computers in Human Behavior. 28, 688-695.

Klemm, W. R. 2007. Computer slide shows: a trap for bad teaching.  College Teaching. 55(3), 121-124.

Dr. Klemm's books include Mental Biology, Memory Power 101,
 and Better Grades, Less Effort