Here’s what’s actually driving up health insurance premiums (hint: it’s not young people dropping off)

‘HOW MUCH has my health insurance gone up?’ 
There’s a simple reason premiums are increasing.

Last week the government announced a raft of changes aimed at slowing the rise in health insurance premiums, as well as initiatives to improve access to mental health care.

Commentators have already expressed scepticism on the ability of these initiatives to effectively slow the inexorable rise in premiums, with discounts for young policy holders and small excess increases only one-off measures. If we look at what is actually driving the increase in premium cost, it becomes clear these measures are aiming at the wrong target.

We’re using it more

Giving discounts to young people implies cost increases are being caused by young people abandoning their health insurance, meaning the majority of insured patients are older and thus more in need of health care.

There has been some drop off in young people holding insurance, with the proportion of insurance customers aged 20 to 29 falling from 10.3% to 9.4% over the last five years. But this slight ageing of the insured population is not large enough to explain recent premium increases.

The main source of the increase is the fast-growing costs of insuring customers. Benefits paid per customer have increased by around 4.7% per year over the past five years. And the number of hospital visits funded by health insurance increased by an average of 5.5% per year over the past five years, which is more than enough to explain the increase in benefits being paid out by health funds.

The simple answer is we are paying more for health insurance because we are using more health care. Looking at some specific examples can help us understand which parts of the health care system are expanding fast and whether this is a cause for concern.

What procedures are on the rise?

To look at whether we’re using our insurance more, we can look at the number of hospital procedures where patients are treated privately. Although this includes some patients who are self-funded, the vast majority will be funded by private health insurance.

Private hip and knee replacements and cataract surgery, are growing at between 4.9% and 8.1% per year. These are all highly effective, quality-of-life improving elective surgerieswhich have substantial waiting times for treatment as a public patient.

Colonoscopy and upper-endoscopy (inserting a camera up the colon or down the throat) are primarily diagnostic procedures which have yearly growth rates of 3.9% and 4.4% and account for a large number of privately-funded procedures (just over one million combined in 2015-16).

Finally, chemotherapy and cardio-thoracic (heart) surgery (growing at 5.5% and 5.1%) include innovative life-extending treatments for cancer and heart disease.

These figures show fast growth rates in privately funded procedures can be found across a broad range of health care. It’s therefore hard to “blame” the rise in premiums on one patient group or area of medicine. All areas of private hospital treatment are expanding, explaining the increase of premiums.

And although there is some evidence of low-value care in the Australian system many areas of growth are in highly effective life-improving or life-extending treatments.

Is there anything we can or should do?

In general, this isn’t a trend we can (or necessarily should) want to moderate. Public spending is increasing at a similar rate to private spending, so this is not just an issue with private health insurance. Australian government spending on health increased by 4.4% in real terms in the decade to 2013-14.

Australia is not alone in facing these cost issues and sits near the middle of the pack of OECD countries’ health care spending growth (who average around 4% in real terms).

We’re spending more on health care because it’s increasingly valuable to us both as a society and as individuals taking out insurance contracts. More effective treatments are increasingly becoming available to be used to improve the length and quality of our lives.

While efforts may continue to tweak the system to increase uptake with young people or to remove interventions without proven efficacy, we should not be surprised if this doesn’t slow our insatiable appetite for more health care, and the resulting higher insurance costs.


This article was written by:


Peter Sivey – [Associate professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

We all have to die of something, so why bother being healthy?

W
 We all have to die of something, 
so why can’t I die by delicious donuts?

It’s 6:45 on a cold and rainy Tuesday morning. The alarm blares. As you begin to wake and wonder how it could possibly be morning already, your good intentions dawn on you. It’s run morning – and it’s the last thing you want to do. As you roll over to hit the snooze button, your mind scrambles for a valid excuse.

Why bother trying to be healthy? We all have to die of something, right?

In part this is true. Regardless of our discomfort with death, we all have to die sometime, and we all have to die from something. However, this is where the truth ends.

Today in Australia, the leading causes of death are mostly preventable – or at least can be significantly delayed. Factors like poor diet and tobacco drive ailments including heart disease, stroke, diabetes (type 2), lung disease and cancers. And when you look more deeply at what ill-health brings, it’s not just death that makes the strongest case for getting out of bed.

You’ll die later

Sure you have to die of something, but you may not have to die so soon. Science suggests having a healthier lifestyle even at age 50 can result in a four to seven year longer life expectancy.

Even at older age, improving lifestyle factors can benefit longevity. Avoiding an unhealthy weight, not smoking, maintaining a social network and engaging in leisure activities around age 75 can add a whopping five years to a woman’s and six years to a man’s life span.

You’ll be healthier, longer

Trying to be as healthy as you can is not just about adding more years to your life, but adding healthy years, or even decades. Populations who follow healthy forms of behaviour show a 60% decline in dementia, in addition to a 70% reduction in type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke when compared with unhealthier peers. Studies also find healthier 50 year-olds live longer without disability than those who are overweight or smoke.

Picture of an older couple sharing a bike
Yes, we all have to die eventually, but we want to be happy, well, independent and pain-free leading up to our deaths. from www.shutterstock.com

A significant proportion of octogenarians are also living healthier, more active lives. This is seen in measures of mobility, self-care, levels of pain and discomfort, and absence of anxiety and depression. But rather than being related just to age, variations in health-related quality of life are also linked to factors such as exercise, nutrition and social engagement.

So being active and eating well could mean a healthier, more independent life for longer.

You’ll feel better in the meantime

Eating healthier and exercising have also been shown to have benefits on your day-to-day wellbeing. Exercise can improve and protect mental health. As a strategy to manage mild to moderate depression, exercise can provide comparable benefits to some antidepressants, and can complement medications to improve symptoms further. Similarly, exercise can play a role in treating anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It can also improve your sleep quality and even benefit self-esteem and confidence.

It’s thought exercise does this by reducing your sensitivity to the symptoms of anxiety, building resilience to stressful mood states, positively altering the neurotransmitters in the brain, and disrupting or distracting you from social isolation.

Getting active can also allay general body aches and pains. An Australian study recently suggested jogging improves the composition of the cushion-like discs in your spine, reducing wear and tear. Exercise not only fortifies the discs but is also generally effective in preventing and treating pain. This is particularly important given 67% of Australiansexperience pain at least monthly, with inactivity being a major risk factor.

Image of a person on an exercise bike
Exercise has benefits for most aspects of our physical and mental well-being. from www.shutterstock.com

A healthy diet combined with exercise can also strengthen your bones, reducing the risk of fractures if you do have a serious injury.

You’ll save more and spend less

There’s good evidence, including from Australia, that eating healthy food is actually more affordable than an unhealthy diet. And smoking one pack of cigarettes per day, when combined with the health costs that result, is estimated to cost a staggering US$638,750(A$812,556) to you and society over 50 years.

Type 2 diabetes, often associated with obesity, is estimated to result in A$4,025 per year per person in total costs without medical complications, or in excess of A$9,645 once complications develop. These costs are incurred not only through the need for treatment, but also in job discrimination, higher health insurance costs, lost productivity with sick days and poor physical function.

While no similar analysis exists for Australia, evidence from the US estimates lifetime social and public health costs of obesity at US$92,235 (A$117,332) per person, when combining medical expenditure and reduced productivity.

The direct medical costs to individuals in Australia may be lower due to our universal health system, but the costs from obesity still add up to A$873 million each year. A A$719 million per annum slice of the Australian budget is spent on the complications of physical inactivity alone, through heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer, depression and falls.

This isn’t noted to shame anyone or to recommend reducing care, it’s about realising policy and health inaction comes at a huge economic and social cost.

Your kids will be healthier, and maybe even their kids

Poor diet, smoking, alcohol use and a lack of physical activity can also affect your kids’ health – and maybe even the health of their kids.

Firstly, through role modelling. The kids of parents who smoke are significantly more likely to smoke themselves, and likewise with unhealthy drinking and eating. These kids are also more likely to be obese. Some of these effects could also be from socioeconomic factors.

Second, through a mechanism called epigenetics, our own health can influence the health of subsequent generations. This results from alterations in the expression of genes and not through changes in the genes themselves.

Altered epigenetics from physical inactivity, diet and environmental factors are now thought to be passed down through generations. They influence the subsequent risk of metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes.

Finally, being overweight, a lack of exercise and even consuming sugary drinks could actually reduce your chances of having kids in the first place. In women, being overweight increases the risk of polycystic ovarian syndrome, which causes irregular ovulation and can occasionally render women infertile.

While in men, excess weight contributes to infertility by reducing the quality of semen, as well as increasing the risks of sexual dysfunction.

The bigger picture

Living a healthier lifestyle is about making small, possible, simple and sustainable changes like taking the stairs instead of the lift – not totally rethinking the way you live.

Picture of people walking for exercise
Being healthy is about small, incremental, sustainable changes over many years. Flickr / TYFVMP

But while there are many compelling reasons to be healthy, personal discipline alone will never solve our chronic disease and obesity epidemics. If neighbourhoods lack safe spaces for kids to run, or fresh food is inaccessible and unaffordable, good intentions will not get you very far. Government policies need to make health easier, even preferred.

In the meantime, look to friends for motivation; your family to share and support a healthy diet; apps that map and commend the exercise you do; and your GP and important services like Quitline for assistance with alcohol reduction and smoking cessation.


This article was written by:

Image of Alessandro R DemaioAlessandro R Demaio – [Australian Medical Doctor; Fellow in Global Health & NCDs, University of Copenhagen]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

How Melbourne’s west was greened

 The Greening the Pipeline 100-metre 
pilot park at Williams Landing is the first step in transforming 27 km 
of the heritage-listed main outfall sewer into a linear park and bike track. 
Greening the Pipeline, courtesy of Melbourne Water
 

Urban greening projects in Melbourne’s west are contributing to making the region cooler, more pleasant and healthier to live in and travel through. The key to this success is the Greening the West initiative. Since 2011 this has brought together 23 organisations that, by the end of 2018, will have collectively planted more than 1 million trees in Melbourne’s west.

The program’s efforts not only offer clear health and economic benefits for the region’s residents, but are also welcome news in the face of reports that tree canopy cover in Australian cities is generally declining.

Our recent report on Greening the West has found that, while it is a great success, much more work is needed – particularly from the Victorian government.

What is Greening the West?

Urban greening provides a variety of economic, mental and physical health benefits to the public. Greening an area can increase house prices, encourage walking and cycling, and make people feel happier.

Measures of socioeconomic and health status are generally poorer in Melbourne’s west. Compounding this disadvantage, the region has less quality green space than metropolitan averages. Melbourne’s western suburbs have tree canopy coverage of only 5% to 10%, compared to between 10% and 30% in the rest of the city’s suburbs.

Map showing Comparative levels of tree canopy cover (% of total area) in Melbourne’s local government areas. 
Comparative levels of tree canopy cover (% of total area) in Melbourne’s local government areas. Where are all the trees?, Author provided
City West Water began the Greening the West initiative in 2011. The focus was on the local government areas of Brimbank, Hobsons Bay, Maribyrnong, Melton, Moonee Valley and Wyndham. As well as local councils, the steering committee includes community groups, water utilities, state government agencies and a variety of other actors.

An urban greening success story

Planted trees have made a clear difference to Melbourne’s west, where many of the trees can be seen from roads, train lines and houses. This visible difference, and its associated benefits, will become more apparent as trees grow to maturity.

The difference plantings make to areas like Maribyrnong will increase as the trees grow.Greening the West, used with permission

The group obtained A$5 million in funding from the federal government’s 20 Million Trees Program. Trees were then planted in parks, waterway corridors, drainage reserves and peri-urban land.

The Greening the West group supports two other important ongoing liveability projects in Melbourne’s west:

  • transforming a 1.2 kilometre section of Upper Stony Creek back from a concreted channel into a green waterway
  • transforming 27 kilometres of the heritage-listed main outfall sewer into a linear park and bike track connecting Werribee to the CBD, known as Greening the Pipeline.

As part of the latter project, a 100-metre pilot at Williams Landing was finished in April 2017. Melbourne Water delivered the project in partnership with Wyndham City Council, City West Water and VicRoads, with funding from the Victorian government.

A final Greening the West success is the way it has shifted priorities and cultures, with local government and other stakeholders increasingly recognising the benefits of greening.

The program shows the power of a collaborative model for solving complex urban problems. Such models could not only be rolled out for greening similar regions, like western Sydney, but are also applicable to other complex urban issues such as homelessness.

Planting and greening projects on public land are not enough

It isn’t all good news, however. We found that current efforts to achieve urban greening in Melbourne’s west are unlikely to be enough to reach desirable greening levels.

Most of these efforts are focused on greening public or semi-public land. However, in many areas, the majority of existing trees and tree canopy cover is on private land. As urban densification occurs, these tree numbers are declining.

This is why, despite urban greening efforts, canopy cover has decreased in most areas of Australia between 2013 and 2016. To protect and enhance urban greening, the Victorian government should investigate ways to strengthen policies and planning regulations. This should be done as part of Plan Melbourne’s urban greening actions.

For instance, regulations could require large-scale developers to include trees in new housing lots, parks and streets. Regulations could also be used to ensure small-scale subdividers and renovators include trees on lots.

Current Victorian planning regulations require a certain proportion of public open space in new suburbs, and for housing lots in certain zones to include 25-35% garden area. There is also some guidance on retaining existing trees on lots.

However, there are no state or citywide regulations requiring the planting of new trees and vegetation. This creates a significant risk in new developments that the lots, streets and public open space will have very low tree cover.

A small number of councils, such as Brimbank City Council, have led the way by creating local planning controls that require housing lots to have two trees in the front garden and one in the back garden. This is done through the planning permit process. But statewide or citywide regulations supported by the Victorian government are needed to ensure the protection and enhancement of urban greenery across Melbourne.

In addition, more community education and engagement are required to increase awareness of the many benefits of urban greening.


The Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference is being hosted by the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities in Melbourne on October 19-20. You can register here.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Casey Furlong
Casey Furlong – [Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University];
 
Image of Jago Dodson
Jago Dodson – [Professor of Urban Policy and Director, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University]

and

Image of Kath Phelan
Kath Phelan – [Research Fellow, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Filters: a cigarette engineering hoax that harms both smokers and the environment

It was initially professed that filters reduced tar and other toxicants, and prevented tobacco flakes from entering the lungs. It was soon discovered this wasn’t the case, and cigarettes were just as dangerous with filters. But it was years before the public discovered this, and even today most smokers believe cigarettes with filters are safer, probably because the taste is milder.

The majority of Australian cigarettes are further engineered to have vented filters (holes in them), supposedly to introduce fresh air into each puff and make smoking easier on the throat. These were deceptively named “light” and “mild” until the ACCC prohibited the practice, because it implied a less harmful or “lower-tar” cigarette.

The ACCC forced the tobacco companies to change the name of cigarettes, but not the content or mechanism. Some 90% of cigarettes in Australia now have vented filters. They’re easy to identify by unravelling the paper filter wrapping and holding it to the light.

What’s the effect of filters?

Larger modern filters, with tiny holes, introduce more air into each puff, making it feel “easier” on the throat. Smokers compensate, in order to extract a constant nicotine dose, by taking deeper puffs, and more of them.

This decreases smokers’ exposure to just a few carcinogens, but increases their exposure to more harmful smoke components in the vapour phase of the smoke, because it goes straight through filters and more into the peripheral airways.

This has caused a major upsurge in the last 30 or so years in adenocarcinomas, because more smoke goes into the peripheral regions of the lungs, where adenocarcinoma usually occurs. Central squamous cell cancers, cancers of larger lung tissue, have reduced in parallel, but this has had no effect on cancer numbers overall.

review of evidence on filters causing cancer found filter ventilation has contributed to the rise in lethal adenocarcinomas, and recommended filter ventilation be banned.

Filter fibres also break off and enter the lungs, which may lead to cancer.

Why does the type of cancer matter?

2012 Japanese study found there were significantly more lung cancer deaths in patients with adenocarcinoma than in patients with squamous cell carcinoma. This means the former is more deadly.

Around the world, women are more likely to smoke what they think are “light” (filtered) cigarettes. More Australian women die from lung cancer than from breast cancer. Although breast cancer is more common, it has a much higher survival rate than lung cancer.

The 2014 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco smoking confirmed cigarette engineering had caused an increase in lung adenocarcinomas since the 1960s, because of changes in cigarette design since the 1950s.

Australian and internationalresearchers have been urging the banning of filters since the early 2000s, and the regulation of cigarette content and engineering.

What about the environment?

Cigarette filters become cigarette butts. In Australia, cigarette butts are consistently the most littered item identified in national clean-up campaigns. Around seven billion butts become litter in Australia every year. Filters are harmful to the environment, as they contain plastic and are not bio-degradable.

Our urban environment, marine lifeoceans, rivers and beaches would all benefit substantially from ending the sale of cigarettes with filters.

In 2011, the BMJ journal Tobacco Control reported the presence of heavy metals in cigarette butts were harmful to marine environments. Researchers found only one cigarette butt killed half the fish exposed to these chemicals in a lab setting.

Image of cigarette butts
Seven billion butts (filters) become litter in Australia every year. from www.shutterstock.com

Why is there no regulation?

The Commonwealth government acted in 2009 to change the engineering of cigarettes in Australia to reduced fire risk from cigarettes. Some states banned fruit-flavoured cigarettes because the flavours were designed to be attractive to children.

State and federal governments already have the power to force cigarette companies to sell less attractive, less lethal, less addictive cigarettes.

Since 2014, the Commonwealth has failed to act on two comprehensive reports on effective regulation of cigarettes. Filter cigarettes should be recalled from sale in Australia, and the tobacco industry forced to pay local government and water authorities for cleaning up their toxic waste.

We must not mislead Australians about a “safer” cigarette. There isn’t one. But without filters, the number of lethal lung cancers may be reduced, more smokers would quit because of the harsh taste, and fewer young people would start smoking.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Kathryn BarnsleyKathryn Barnsley – [Adjunct researcher, University of Tasmania]
and
Image of Haydn WaltersHaydn Walters – [Emeritus Professor, University of Tasmania]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via
 

I’ve always wondered: why your nose runs when it’s cold

 Even if you’re not sick, your nose runs 
when it’s cold. Why?

So, Why does your nose run when it’s cold? It seems counterintuitive?

About 50-90% of people get a runny nose when it’s cold. We call this “cold-induced rhinitis”, or “skier nose”. People with asthma, eczema and hay fever seem to experience it more.

It’s the job of your nose to make the air you breathe in warm and wet so that when it gets to your lungs it does not irritate the cellsWhen inhaling air through the nose at subfreezing temperatures, the air in the back of the nose is usually about 26°C, but can be as high as 30°C. And the humidity of air at the back of the nose is usually around 100%, irrespective of how cold the air is we’re breathing in.

This shows the nose is very effective at making sure the air we breath becomes warm and wet before it reaches the lungs.

So how does it do this? Cold, dry air stimulates the nerves inside your nose, which send a message through your nerves to your brain. Your brain then responds to this impulse by increasing the blood flow to the nose, and these dilated blood vessels warm the air passing over them. Secondly, the nose is triggered to produce more secretions via the mucous glands in order to provide the moisture to humidify the air coming through.

Image of a woman blowing her nose
Treatment is usually just to carry a hanky or tissue! from www.shutterstock.com

The cold, dry air also stimulates cells of your immune system (called “mast cells”) in your nose. These cells trigger the production of more liquid in your nose to make the air more moist. It’s estimated you can lose up to 300-400mL of fluid daily through your nose as it performs this function.

Heat and water loss are closely related: heating the air in the nasal cavities means the lining of the nasal cavity (mucosa) becomes cooler than core body temperature; at the same time, water evaporates (becomes vapour) to make the air moist. Water evaporation, which requires large amounts of heat, takes heat from the nose, thus making it cooler.

In response, the blood flow to the nose increases further, as the task of warming the air that’s breathed in takes precedence over heat loss from the nose (the body’s normal response to cold is to shunt blood away from the surface to the deep vessels to minimise heat loss from the skin). So it’s a difficult balancing act to achieve the correct amount of heat and moisture lost from the nose.

When the compensatory mechanism is a little too overactive, moisture in excess of that needed to humidify this cold, dry air will drip from the nostrils. Mast cells are usually more sensitive in people with asthma and allergies, and blood vessel changes more reactive in those who are sensitive to environmental irritants and temperature changes. So nasal congestion and even sneezing can be triggered by the cold air.

Treatment is usually simply to carry some tissues or a handkerchief. Although the use of anticholinergic (blocks nerve impulses) and anti-inflammatory nasal sprays such as Atropine and Ipratropium have been trialled with some success.


Medical student Caitlin Saunders also contributed to this article.


This article was written by:
Image of David King David King – [Senior Lecturer, The University of Queensland]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Satellites are giving us a commanding view of Earth’s carbon cycle

 Carbon dioxide flux  
over China, measured by NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite. NASA

The job of monitoring Earth’s carbon cycle and humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions is increasingly supported from above, thanks to the terabytes of data pouring down to Earth from satellites.

Five papers published in Science today provide data from NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) mission. They show Earth’s carbon cycle in unprecedented detail, including the effects of fires in Southeast Asia, the growth rates of Amazonian forests, and the record-breaking rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the 2015-16 El Niño.

Another satellite study released two weeks ago revealed rapid biomass loss across the tropics, showing that we have been overlooking the largest sources of terrestrial carbon emissions. While we may worry about land clearing, twice as much biomass is being lost from tropical forests through degradation processes such as harvesting.

The next step in our understanding of Earth’s carbon dynamics will be to build sensors, satellites and computer models that can distinguish human activity from natural processes.

Can satellites see human-made emissions?

The idea of using satellites to keep track of our efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions is enticing. Current satellites can’t do it, but the next generation is aiming to support the monitoring at the level of countries, regions and cities.

Current satellite sensors can measure CO₂ levels in the atmosphere, but can’t tell whether it is coming from the natural exchange of carbon with the land and oceans, or from human activities such as fossil fuel burning, cement production, and deforestation.

Likewise, satellites cannot distinguish between natural and human changes in leaf area cover (greenness), or the capacity of vegetation to absorb CO₂.

But as the spatial resolution of satellites increases, this will change. OCO-2 can see features as small as 3 square km while the previous purpose-built satellite GOSAT is limited to observing features no smaller than about 50 square km.

As resolution improves, we will be able to better observed the elevated CO₂ concentrations over emissions hotspots such as large cities, bushfire regions in Africa and Australia, or even individual power plants and industrial leaks.

By combining these sensing techniques with computer models of the atmosphere, oceans and land, we will be able to separate out humanity’s impact from natural processes.

For example, we have long known that atmospheric CO₂ concentration rises faster during an El Nino event, and that this is mainly due to changes on land. It was only with the bird’s-eye view afforded by the OCO-2 satellite could we see that each of the tropical continents reacted so differently during the recent big El Niño: fire emissions increased in Southeast Asia, carbon uptake by forests in Amazonia declined, and soil respiration in tropical Africa increased.

Similarly, we can now examine the processes behind the extraordinary greening of the Earth over recent decades as CO₂ levels have climbed. Up to 50% of vegetated land is now greener than it was 30 years ago. The increasing human-driven CO2 fertilization effect on vegetation was estimated to be the dominant driver.

We now have satellites that can study this process at spatial resolutions of tens of metres – meaning we can also keep tabs on processes that undo this greening, such as deforestation.

What’s in store

The coming decade will see the development of yet more space sensors and modelling tools to help us keep tabs on the carbon cycle.

GOSAT-2 will replace the current GOSAT, offering significantly improved resolution and more sensitive measurements of CO₂ and methane (CH₄), another important greenhouse gas.

Meanwhile, the GeoCarb satellite will be launched into a stationary orbit over the Americas to measure CO₂, CH₄ (largely from wetlands in the tropics), and carbon monoxide (from biomass burning). It will keep an eye out for any large leaks from the gas industry.

The BIOMASS and FLEX satellite missions will provide better global estimates of forest height and carbon density, and of plants’ photosynthetic capacity, respectively.

Aboard the International Space Station, an instrument called GEDI, will also estimate vegetation height and structure, and combined with ECOSTRESS will assess changes in above-ground biomass, carbon stocks and productivity.

In Australia, we are developing an atmospheric modelling system and a dynamic vegetation model able to ingest the latest generation of satellite and ground-base observations to map carbon sources and sinks over the entire continent.

Through the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN), we are preparing to take full advantage of these new missions, and help validate many of these space-borne estimates at TERN’s Supersites and other key sampling plots.

With the wealth of information set to be generated by space sensors, as well as earth-based observations and computer models, we are moving into an era when we will have an unprecedented ability to track humans’ impact on our atmosphere, lands and oceans.


This article was co-authored by:

 

 

 

 

 

Health Check: does drinking alcohol kill the germs it comes into contact with?

 Some cultures believe drinking alcohol 
will kill the germs that cause a sore throat or a tummy bug.

Alcohol is a well-known disinfectant and some have speculated it may be useful for treating gut infections. Could alcohol be a useful agent to treat tummy bugs and throat infections?

Wine has long been known for its disinfecting and cleansing properties. According to historical records, in the third century AD Roman generals recommended wine to their soldiers to help prevent dysentery.

Can alcohol kill germs in our guts and mouths?

Wine was examined as part of a 1988 study that tested a number of common beverages (carbonated drinks, wine, beer, skim milk and water) for their antibacterial effect. The beverages were inoculated with infectious gut bacteria such as salmonella, shigella and E.coli. After two days it was found the organisms fared worst in red wine. Beer and carbonated drinks had an effect but were not as effective as wine.

A number of years later a laboratory study was carried out to work out what in wine was causing the antibacterial effect. The researchers tested red wine on salmonella and compared it to a solution containing the same alcohol concentration and pH level (acidic).

Red wine was seen to possess intense antibacterial activity, which was greater than the solution with the same concentration of alcohol and pH. Even though a large proportion of the antibacterial effect of red wine against salmonella was found to be due to its acid pH and alcohol concentration, these factors only partly explained the observed effects.

The concentration of alcohol is certainly important for the effect on bugs (microbes). For alcohol hand rubs a high alcohol concentration in the range of 60-80% is considered optimal for antimicrobial activity.

laboratory study looked at the penetration of alcohol into groups of microorganisms in the mouth and its effect on killing microbes. Alcohol concentrations lower than 40% were found to be significantly weaker in affecting bacterial growth. Alcohol with a 10% concentration had almost no effect.

The exposure time of alcohol was also important. When 40% alcohol (the same concentration as vodka) was used the effect on inhibiting the growth of these microorganisms was much greater when applied over 15 minutes compared to six minutes. It was determined that 40% alcohol had some ability to kill oral bacteria with an exposure time of at least one minute.

Can alcohol damage the stomach?

In a study involving 47 healthy human volunteers, different alcohol concentrations (4%, 10%, 40%) or saline, as a control, were directly sprayed on the lower part of the stomach during a gastroscopy (where a camera is inserted down into the stomach through the mouth).

The greater the concentration of alcohol, the more damage was observed in the stomach. Erosions accompanied by blood were the typical damage observed in the stomach. No damage was observed in the small bowel. Stomach injury caused by higher alcohol concentrations (greater than 10%) took more than 24 hours to heal.

So in theory a high enough concentration of alcohol swallowed (or kept in the mouth for at least a minute) would kill a large number of gut and oral bacteria, but it would very likely do some damage to the stomach lining.

Chronic use of alcohol can also lead to an overgrowth of bacteria in the small bowel. This has been thought to be linked to gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, which are frequently noted in alcoholic patients.

So what’s the verdict?

Alcohol consumption can lead to some immediate damage to the gut, with greater damage seen at higher concentrations. In theory a high enough alcohol concentration with sufficient exposure to gut or oral tissue could kill bacteria but will in all likelihood also damage the gut lining.

It’s not advised alcohol be used as a regular disinfectant to treat tummy bugs or throat infections.


This article was written by:
Image of Vincent HoVincent Ho – [Lecturer and clinical academic gastroenterologist, Western Sydney University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Eight simple changes to our neighbourhoods can help us age well

 

Staying physically active can play a
big part in ageing well – and a well-designed neighbourhood helps with that. 

Where we live can play a big part in ageing well, largely because of the links between physical activity and wellbeing. Research shows that two-thirds of Australians prefer to age in place. That is, we want to live independently in our homes for as long as we can. Our neighbourhoods and their design can then improve or hinder our ability to get out of the house and be physically active.

The rapid ageing of Australia’s population only adds to the importance of neighbourhood design. In 2016, 15% of Australians were aged 65 or older. That proportion is projected to double by 2056.

These trends present several social and economic challenges, particularly for the health sector. Designing neighbourhoods in ways that promote physical activity can help overcome these challenges.

Eight simple steps

The following is a short list of evidence-based steps local and state governments can take to assist older people to be physically active. These involve minor but effective changes to neighbourhood design.

Improve footpaths: Research indicates that older people have a higher risk of falls. Ensuring footpaths are level and crack-free, and free from obstructions, will encourage walking among older people – especially those with a disability.

More crap that should not be on the city’s footpaths. There is ample room on the roadway- no bike lane or clearway to block 

Connected pedestrian networks: Introducing footpaths at the end of no-through-roads and across long street blocks reduces walking distances to destinations. This makes walking a more viable option.

Slowing traffic in high-pedestrian areas: Slowing traffic improves safety by reducing the risk of a collision. It also reduces the risk of death and serious injury in the event of a collision.

Age-friendly street crossings: Installing longer pedestrian crossing light sequences gives older pedestrians more time to cross, and installing refuge islands means those who walk more slowly can cross the street in two stages.

Disabled access at public transport: Although a form of motorised transport, public transport users undertake more incidental physical activity compared with car users. This is because they walk between transit stops and their origins and destinations. Improving disabled access helps make public transport a viable option for more older people.

Greg Day, man about  is now able to be man about Melbourne following @yarratrams terminus upgrade on  

  

Places to rest: Providing rest spots such as benches enables older people to break up their walk and rest when needed.

Planting trees: Planting trees creates more pleasant scenery to enjoy on a walk. It also provides shade on hot days.

Improving safety: Ensuring that streets are well-lit and reducing graffiti and signs of decay are likely to improve perceptions of safety among older people.

Why physical activity matters

Physical function – the ability to undertake everyday activities such as walking, bathing and climbing stairs – often declines as people age. The reason for this is that ageing is often accompanied by a reduction in muscle strength, flexibility and cardiorespiratory reserves.

Regular physical activity can prevent or slow the decline in physical function, even among those with existing health conditions.

Middle-to-older aged adults can reduce their risk of physical function decline by 30% with regular physical activity (at least 150 minutes per week). This includes recreational physical activity, like walking the dog, or incidental physical activity, such as walking to the shops or to visit friends.

By making minor changes as outlined above, the health and longevity of our elderly population can be extended. Such changes will help our elderly age well in place.


The Designing Healthy Liveable Cities Conference is being hosted by the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Healthy Liveable Communities in Melbourne on October 19-20. You can register here.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Jerome N RacheleJerome N Rachele – [Research Fellow in Social Epidemiology, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University];
 
Image of Jim SallisJim Sallis – [Professorial Fellow, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University, and Emeritus Professor, Department of Family Medicine and Public Health, University of California, San Diego]
and
Image of Venurs LohVenurs Loh – [PhD Candidate, Institute for Health and Ageing, Australian Catholic University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Money can’t buy me love, but you can put a price on a tree

 
Mountain ash in the Victorian Central Highlands. Takver/Flickr

What is something worth? How do you put a dollar value on something like a river, a forest or a reef? When one report announces that the Great Barrier Reef is worth A$56 billion, and another that it’s effectively priceless, what does it mean and can they be reconciled?

This contrast points to fundamentally different notions of value. Environmental accounting is a way of recognising and comparing multiple sources of value, in order to better weigh competing priorities in resource management.

In practice it is sometimes crude, but it’s been standardised internationally and its scope is expanding to include social, cultural, and intrinsic benefits.

Using environmental accounting we’ve investigated the tall, wet forests of Victoria’s Central Highlands to weigh the competing economic cases for continuing native timber harvesting and creating a Great Forest National Park. But first we’ll explain a little more about environmental accounting, and how we put a price on trees.

What we count

Essentially, environmental accounting involves identifying the contributions of the environment to the economy, summarised as gross domestic product (GDP). In Australia, the Australian Bureau of Statistics standardises the data and reporting of these contributions in the System of National Accounts. The Bureau also produces environmental accounts that extend the range of information presented – e.g. water and energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

 

But there are other things of value, like positive environmental and social outcomes, worth incorporating into calculations. Ecosystem accounting gives researchers a framework for doing this, extending the accounting to look at the value of different “ecosystem services” – the contributions of ecosystems to our wellbeing – and not just goods and services captured in our national accounts or environmental accounts.

For example, businesses and homes pay a price for water delivery, but the supplier doesn’t pay for the water that entered the dam. That water is an ecosystem service created by forests and the atmosphere. By assessing costs in the water supply industry, we can estimate the value of the ecosystem service of water provisioning.

The value of Victoria’s Central Highlands

Victoria’s Central Highlands are contested ground. Claims and counter-claims abound between the proponents of native timber production and those who are concerned about the impacts of logging on water supply, climate abatement and threatened species.

Our research has, for the first time, directly compared the economic and environmental values of this ecosystem. It shows that creating a Great Forest National Park is clearly better value.

With any change in land management, there will be gains and losses for different people and groups. Assessing these trade-offs is complex, made even more so by patchy and inconsistent data.

Through careful accounting, we synthesised the available data and calculated the annual contributions of industries to GDP. In 2013-14, the latest year for which all financial data were available, these came to A$310 million for water supply, A$312 million for agriculture, A$260 million for tourism and potentially A$49 million for carbon storage. (There is no current market for carbon stored in native forests in Australia – more on that in a minute.)

All of this far exceeds the A$12 million from native timber production. Although timber production is a traditional industry, its contribution to the regional economy is now comparatively small.

 
The GDP contribution in millions of dollars by primary industries in 2013-14. Author provided

The industries that use ecosystem services are classified as primary production – agriculture, forestry and water supply. This classification is comprehensive (it covers all economic activities) and mutually exclusive (there is no overlap of categories). Downstream uses of the products from agriculture, forestry and water supply are an important consideration for the industries as a whole, but are included in manufacturing industries and not in ecosystem accounts.

Older forests are more valuable

Native timber production involves clearfell harvesting (removing the majority of trees at the site) and slash burning (using high-intensity fire to burn logging residue and provide an ash bed for regeneration). Regenerating forests are younger, with all trees the same age, and have lower species diversity.

This means these young forests contribute less to biodiversity, carbon storage, water supply and recreation. Therefore harvesting native timber requires a trade-off between these conflicting activities.

 
Trade-offs between industries in their use of ecosystem services can be complementary (green) or conflicting (red). Author provided

But more than 60% of the native timber harvested in the Central Highlands is used for pulp. This can be substituted by production from plantations that are more efficient and increased use of recycled paper. Both softwood and hardwood plantations can provide substitute sawlogs.

If we phased out native forest harvesting, increases in the value of water supply and carbon storage would offset the loss of A$12 million per year contributed by the industry. (It would also most likely increase profits for the tourism and plantation timber sectors.)

Older trees use less water than young regrowth, and allowing native forests to age would increase the supply of water to Melbourne’s main reservoirs by an estimated 10.5 gigalitres per year. That’s worth A$8 million per year. Security of water supply for the increasing population of Melbourne is an ever-present concern, particularly with projected decreases in rainfall and streamflow.

Older forests also store more carbon than younger regrowth forests. The federal government’s Emission Reduction Fund does not recognise native forest management as an eligible activity for carbon trading, but if this changed the forest could earn carbon credits worth A$13 million per year. This would provide an ongoing and low-cost source of carbon abatement, which could be used to meet Australia’s emissions reduction targets, while the Victorian government could use the money gained to support an industry transition.

Of course, economic benefit is only one way of looking at land. We know that the Central Highlands is home to unique flora and fauna that cannot be replaced (much of which is increasingly under threat). But careful environmental accounting can help explicitly define the various trade-offs of different activities.

It’s particularly important when legacy industries – like native timber harvesting – are no longer environmentally or economically viable. The accounting reveals the current mix of benefits and costs, allowing management of this area to be reconsidered.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Heather KeithHeather Keith – [Research Fellow in Ecology, Australian National University];
 
Image of David LindenmayerDavid Lindenmayer – [Professor, The Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University]
and
Image of Michael Vardon Michael Vardon – [Visiting Fellow at the Fenner School, Australian National University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

 

 

 

 

 

Weekly Dose: from laughing parties to whipped cream, nitrous oxide’s on the rise as a recreational drug

 
Nitrous oxide inhaled out of a balloon gives the user euphoric feelings.

Nang is a slang name for the small metal cylinders usually used in whipped cream siphons. They are also called nossies or whippets. The cylinders have about eight grams of nitrous oxide in them that can be inhaled for a euphoric effect.

The 2016 global drug survey found nitrous oxide is the seventh most popular drug in the world excluding alcohol, tobacco and caffeine.

 

Who uses nangs?

Nang use seems to be increasing in Australia. An annual national survey of people who use ecstasy found a significant increase in the number of people also reporting recent nitrous oxide use from 26% of people surveyed in 2015 to 36% in 2016. But not much is known about how widespread nang use is.

The Australian household drug survey does not report nitrous oxide use specifically and does not list it in the range of pharmaceutical drugs or inhalants. A 2013 survey of 1,360 university students in New Zealand found 12% of the sample reported using nangs in the past year. The average number of bulbs used in one session ranged from two to six.

Picture of young people inhaling from balloons
  A survey of NZ university students found 12% had used nangs in the past year. from www.shutterstock.com

How do they work?

Nangs are cheap, legal and easy to get. A box of ten costs less than A$10 and they are stocked in supermarkets and service stations. To use them, the cylinder is pierced and the gas released into a balloon, then inhaled.

A balloon is used because the gas is freezing and can burn the face and lips. It takes about one minute to feel an effect that lasts about one minute.

Nitrous oxide is a colourless gas used for pain relief in hospitals and dentistry. It’s a dissociative anaesthetic. This means that at low doses, it gives a sense of floating and separation from the body without causing unconsciousness.

The positive effects of nangs are reported as euphoria, a feeling of floating and heightened consciousness. The negative effects include nausea, vomiting, disorientation and lack of oxygen to the brain. Some people make strange sounds and movements while intoxicated.

Picture of canisters
Canisters are very cheap. from www.shutterstock.com

Heavy users may get a vitamin B12 deficiency, because nitrous oxide inactivates B12 in the body. The symptoms include numbness and tingling in toes and fingers. Difficulty walking may happen in serious cases, that lasts until B12 levels are increased. Some regular users have reported memory loss and trouble concentrating. Seizures and collapse have also been reported, but usually when nangs are used in combination with other drugs.

How was it developed?

Nitrous oxide was synthesised by an English chemist, Joseph Priestly, in 1722 and used as a recreational drug at laughing gas parties. It wasn’t used as an aid to surgery until 1844.

Manufacturers started using nitrous oxide for whipping cream and making aerosols in 1869 and to increase engine performance in cars. An explosion in a Florida factory where nitrous oxide was made has reduced supplies in the USA, including in whipped cream products.

The word “nang” as a name for small nitrous oxide cylinders appears to be Australian. It’s thought to come from Western Australia, and mimics the sound distortion people hear while intoxicated. Nang is also a British slang word for excellent or awesome.

What are the long-term risks?

Seventeen deaths in six years in the UK were reportedly caused by nitrous oxide, while the USA reports about 15 deaths per year. Australia has not reported any. The long-term health risks associated with nitrous oxide use include B12 deficiency, brain damage from reduced oxygen, incontinence, depression and psychological dependence.

However, there are few reports of people using nangs for long periods of time. Nang use may be overlooked as a health risk because most people using them are likely to use other drugs as well. It’s also important to note that nitrous oxide is linked to climate change, so there are environmental risks too. This gas is about 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.


This article was written by:
Image of Julaine AllanJulaine Allan – [Senior Research Fellow, Charles Sturt University]

 

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via