Dogs Double Risk for Distracted Driving

teen texting and driving-resized-600Distracted driving is something we usually associate with teens and their cell phones, or frenzied mothers and their minivan full of kids.  However the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration defines it as “anything that could potentially remove a driver’s eyes from the road, their hands from the steering wheel or their concentration from the task of driving.”

And that includes pets…

While most states have enacted legislation to curb the use of cell phones while driving, only one – Hawaii – has laws that specifically restrict drivers from having a pet in their lap. But a new study could be about to change all that.  The University of Alabama at Birmingham, research enrolled 2,000 drivers age 70 and older, of whom 691 had pets. Participants took a survey on driving habits, and those with pets were asked about the frequency of driving with pets. They also underwent visual sensory and higher-order visual processing testing.

driving-with-dogsThe results showed that senior drivers who take a pet in the car are at increased risk for being involved in a motor vehicle collision. Both overall, and at-fault, crash rates for drivers 70 years or older were higher for those whose pet habitually rode with them.

More than half the pet owners said they took their pet with them in the car at least occasionally, usually riding on the front passenger seat or in the back seat.

That is consistent with previous studies looking at all drivers, which indicate that slightly more than half of all drivers take a pet with them at times,” said Gerald McGwin, PhD, senior author of the study. “And it’s interesting to note that earlier surveys indicate that 83% of those surveyed agreed that an unrestrained dog was likely dangerous in a moving vehicle, yet only 16% have ever used any type of restraint on their own pet.”

The crash risk for drivers who always drove with their pets was double that of drivers who never drove with a pet, while crash rates for those who sometimes or rarely drove with pets were consistent with the rates for non-pet owners.

This is the first study to evaluate the presence of pets in a vehicle as a potential internal distraction for elderly drivers,” said McGwin. “The increased crash rate for elderly drivers who always drive with pets is important in the context of increasing driver awareness about potentially dangerous driving habits. There is no direct evidence that driving with pets is or is not a threat to public safety, however, indirect evidence exists based on distracted driving research on texting, eating or interacting with electronics or even other passengers and there are certainly anecdotal reports in the news media of crashes and even fatalities caused by drivers distracted by a pet in the vehicle.”

dog in carThe authors suggest that when confronted with an increased cognitive or physical workload while driving, elderly drivers have exhibited slower cognitive performance and delayed response times in comparison to younger age groups. Adding another distracting element, especially an animal, provides more opportunity for an older driver to respond to a driving situation in a less than satisfactory way.

Given the current debate about all types of distracted driving, further study of pet-related distracted driving behaviors among drivers, is warranted to appropriately inform the need for policy regulation on this issue.

Do you have thoughts on driving with pets?  Please let us know.

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Springing Forward Safely

SRxA’s Word on Health reminds you to turns your clocks forward an hour before going to bed tomorrow night. But as your dream of that extra hour of daylight, remember all good things come with a price.  First, the switch to summer time means we all lose an hours’ sleep. More worryingly, the time change may be bad for your health.

According to experts at the University of Alabama in the days immediately following the time change your risk of having a heart attack goes up by about 10%.

Because the Sunday morning of the time change doesn’t require an abrupt schedule change for most people, the elevated risk doesn’t kick in until Monday when people rise earlier to go to work.

Interestingly, the opposite happens in the fall, when we turn the clocks back. Then, the risk of heart attacks drops by 10%.

Exactly why this happens is not known but there are several theories,” says Associate Professor Martin Young, Ph.D. from the University of Alabama’s Division of Cardiovascular Disease.  “Sleep deprivation, the body’s circadian clock and immune responses all can come into play when considering reasons that changing the time by an hour can be detrimental to someone’s health.”

Young offers several possible explanations:

Individuals who are sleep-deprived weigh more and are at an increased risk of developing diabetes or heart disease. Sleep deprivation also can alter other body processes, including inflammatory response, which can contribute to a heart attack. Apparently, your reaction to sleep deprivation and the time change also depends on whether you are a morning person or night owl. Night owls have a much more difficult time with springing forward.

Circadian clock – every cell in the body has its own clock that allows it to anticipate when something is going to happen and prepare for it. When there is a shift, such as springing forward, it takes a while for the cells to readjust. It’s comparable to knowing that you have a meeting at 2 p.m. and having time to prepare your presentation instead of being told at the last minute and not being able to prepare.

Immune function – immune cells have a clock, and the immune response depends greatly on the time of day. In animal studies, when a mouse is given a sub-lethal dose of an endotoxin that elicits a strong immune response, survival depends upon the time of day they were given this endotoxin. Mice that were put through a phased advance much like Daylight Savings Time, and then had a challenge to their immune system, died, whereas the control animals that were not subjected to a phased advance survive when given the same dose of the toxin.

Fortunately, the body’s clock eventually synchs to the new time on its own.  In the meantime we offer you some tips to help you ease your body into the adjustment.

  • Wake up 30 minutes earlier on Saturday and Sunday than you need to in preparation for the early start on Monday
  • Eat a decent-sized breakfast
  • Go outside in the sunlight in the early morning
  • Exercise in the mornings over the weekend

These tricks will help reset both the master, clock in the brain that reacts to changes in light/dark cycles, and the peripheral clocks — the ones everywhere else including the one in the heart — that react to food intake and physical activity, thereby reducing the chance of a heart attack on Monday.

Assuming we all survive the annual time change shock to our system, we look forward to seeing you back here after the weekend.

From Silver Ball to Silver Tsunami

2011 marks yet another milestone for America’s Baby Boom generation, one they are not likely to welcome.

It’s estimated that there were 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, meaning the first of the baby boomers will turn 65 this year, and the rest won’t be far behind.. Analysts predict the number of people age 65 and older will double between 2010 and 2050. During the same period, the number of those 85 and older will increase four fold.

No wonder it has been dubbed the “Silver Tsunami.”

According to urban legend, baby boomers are associated with a rejection or redefinition of traditional values; privilege, as many grew up in a time of affluence. As a group, they were considered the healthiest and wealthiest generation and amongst the first to grow up genuinely expecting the world to improve with time.

Now the boomers are getting old, people are asking: will the country be ready to meet their extraordinary medical and social needs?

The answer, according to geriatric experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, is no.

As time passes and the boomers continue to age, they will need specialized geriatric care from specialized health care professionals in specialized facilities.

National estimates cite approximately 7,000 geriatricians currently certified to care for the rapidly growing boomer population,” said Richard Allman, M.D., Professor and Director of the UAB Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics and Palliative Care. “Yet our society will need more than 20,000 geriatricians to accommodate the increasing demand for specialized care.”

And it’s not just doctors.  Allman, who is also director of the Birmingham/Atlanta Veterans Administration Geriatric Research, Education and Clinical Center (GRECC) and the UAB Center for Aging, says the need for specialized caregivers for geriatrics extends beyond physicians to include nurses, therapists, dietitians, social workers and community caregivers.

And these are the boomers we’re talking about – traditional models of old age just aren’t going to cut it. Andrew Duxbury, M.D., a UAB geriatrician, suggests that the average boomer who reaches 65 in reasonable health will live into their 80’s or early 90’s, and more importantly, remain healthy and active well into their 80’s.

The boomers have always gotten what they want when they want it, with the demographic numbers to push society to accede to their demands,” he says. “They are not a generation to sit back and let history roll over them. They’ll go out and make their own history.”

He suggests that demand for such things as joint replacements, medications to improve aches and pains of aging and bypassing of clogged arteries will all skyrocket. Duxbury says the boomers will want the system to work around them and their active lifestyles and will not put up with all-day visits to the doctor. They won’t be sitting around playing shuffle board at the retirement center.

The boomers, with their health and vitality relatively intact into older age, will completely change how Americans conceive of what it means to be old,” Duxbury points out.

Allman says there is no public policy issue of greater importance than aging, nor one that is more ignored.

And there is work to be done in other fields besides medicine. Architects and engineers will need to design products, buildings and transportation facilities that are appropriate for an aged society. Educators will need to plan how to train people in mid career to do new tasks and use new technology in order to be affective workers. Businesses are going to need older workers to keep their enterprises going.

The last boomer will not die until sometime around 2080” says Duxbury. “They will be with us a long time.

So, whether you’re a boomer, or involved in planning healthcare for the aging boomer generation, SRxA’s Word on Health would love to hear your radical ideas on how best to address this issue.


Bacon or Bagels for Breakfast?

Did your grandmother always tell you to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper?  Turns out she may have been right.

According to a new University of Alabama at Birmingham study, starting the day by eating fat may be the best way to prevent metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is characterized by abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, insulin resistance and other cardiovascular disease-risk factors.

The study, just published in the International Journal of Obesity, examined the influence exerted by the type of foods and specific timing of intake on the development of metabolic syndrome characteristics in mice. Those fed a meal higher in fat after waking had normal metabolic profiles.  In contrast, mice that ate a more carbohydrate-rich diet in the morning and consumed a high-fat meal at the end of the day saw increased weight gain, adiposity, glucose intolerance and other markers of the metabolic syndrome.

“The first meal you have appears to program your metabolism for the rest of the day,” said study senior author Martin Young, Ph.D.  “This study suggests that if you ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast it would promote carbohydrate utilization throughout the rest of the day, whereas, if you have a fat-rich breakfast, you have metabolic plasticity to transfer your energy utilization between carbohydrate and fat.”

What does this mean for human dietary recommendations?

Word on Health cautions that further research is needed to see if the findings are similar between rodents and humans, before we start filling up with bacon and butter in the morning!