A collaborative research project looks into health benefits of green infrastructure
The University of Salford is partnering with the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University on a £700,000 research project that looks into the benefits and values of green infrastructure on an ageing population.
Green infrastructure (GI), a term used in reference to green and blue spaces (areas of grass, and canals or waterways), has direct and indirect influences on human health and wellbeing. However access to such health and wellbeing benefits isn’t shared equally amongst the population, particularly for those based in urban areas. Additionally with people aged 65 and over more susceptible to environmental stressors, this age group in particular may also be the least likely to benefit from GI.
The ‘Green Infrastructure and the Health and Wellbeing Influences on an Ageing Population’ project (GHIA), which has been funded under the Valuing Nature Programme by NERC, ESRC and AHRC, intends to look into the relative benefits and stressors of GI and how GI should be valued in the context of the health and wellbeing of older people. This value might include the monetary value of preventing ill-health but also broader interpretations, such as the historical, heritage or wildlife value which influences whether older people actively seek experiences in green and blue spaces
The project will involve collaboration with Greater Manchester health organisations that specialise in improving the health and wellbeing of older people and the design and management of GI across GM – an example of the health ICZ. These organisations will include GM’s Red Rose Forest, Public Health Manchester, Manchester City Council and Manchester Arts and Galleries Partnership.
Penny Cook will be working with Philip James from the School of Environment and Life Sciences on Salford’s contribution to the GHIA project. Salford’s role will be to look for relationships between health outcomes, using hospital data, and the occurrence of green infrastructure across space. Researchers will work with the Salford Institute for Dementia to involve people with early-onset dementia to understand how they appreciate the urban landscape through different sensory perceptions.
Alcohol and pregnancy are a dangerous mix. The physical effects of alcohol on a developing foetus are well known and potentially devastating. It is known to impact physical development – causing stunted growth, craniofacial abnormalities, reduced head and brain size, sight and hearing problems, and limb and organ defects. Foetal alcohol exposure causes problems in cognitive and psychological functions such as learning, speech and language, memory, attention, inhibition, social cognition, planning, motor skills, attachment, and behaviour. The name given to the range of outcomes caused by prenatal exposure to alcohol is foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).
Double jeopardy: adding childhood neglect
Children who are exposed to alcohol prenatally are also at risk of what has been described as a case of double jeopardy: they are much more likely to experience adverse environmental experiences during the first months and years of development. These experiences can include neglect of daily care, abandonment, and emotional, sexual and physical abuse. The effects of such experiences can compound the effects of prenatal alcohol exposure, as they impact development in a similar way. Maltreatment such as neglect and abuse, especially if this is prolonged and lasts beyond the first six months of life, can have a significant impact on attachment, cognitive, psychological and social development and even physical growth.
By D Sharon Pruitt [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
To make matters worse, children who suffer maltreatment during early childhood miss out on normal attachment development. This can seriously impact their own parenting skills as adults, and lead to dysfunctional attachment behaviour if and when they become parents themselves. Those who suffer from foetal alcohol spectrum disorders are more likely to develop alcohol misuse issues, and are more likely to be involved in risky sexual behaviours. This can increase the risk of unplanned pregnancies, and so the cycle can be self-perpetuating.
Forthcoming research on FASD and neglect
The effects of a) prenatal alcohol exposure and b) early childhood maltreatment are well documented, but there is a surprising lack of research into their combined effects. My research will address this gap, first of all by conducting a systematic review into all published studies into the combined effects of prenatal alcohol exposure and early childhood maltreatment. I am currently writing up the results of this review for publication. It found only six articles on the subject, four of which used experimental methods to assess the impact of both issues. The main finding of these four articles is that speech and language deficits are more likely in children with both issues, compared to children with one or the other.
There are several other aspects of cognitive development that are yet to be addressed in this population, and so the next stage of my research will assess deficits in social cognition and executive function – two of the most prominent areas of deficit in children with foetal alcohol spectrum disorders and in children with a history of maltreatment. I aim to study these deficits using a combination of caregiver reports and behavioural tasks conducted in a lab at the University of Salford. I am also planning to incorporate a measure of brain activity using functional near infra-red spectroscopy (fNIRS) – a non-invasive technology that uses light waves on the near infra-red spectrum to measure blood movement in the cerebral cortex – the outer layer of the brain. This technology is especially useful in samples of young children, and this will be the first time fNIRS will have been used in this population.
I am currently in the process of applying for ethical approval, and hope to begin data collection soon.
The new Department of Health guideline on alcohol says that there is no safe alcohol limit for pregnant women. Alcohol should simply be avoided.
Alcohol exposure during pregnancy can cause damage to the body and brain of the baby, causing a range of lifelong problems. These problems are grouped under the umbrella term “foetal alcohol spectrum disorders” (FASD). The most recognised form of FASD is foetal alcohol syndrome (FAS). People with FAS have distinctive facial features, are small for their age and have problems with learning.
The exact number of drinks a woman can have before harming her baby is unknown (and is likely to vary from woman to woman), so most countries, including Canada, Australia and the USA, have taken a conservative approach and recommended that no alcohol is the safest option. This new guideline now brings the UK in line with those and many other countries.
Recent research has revealed a large number of problems experienced by people with FASD. Around half of all people with FASD have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorders (ADHD), 62% have vision impairment (a rate more than 30 times higher than the general population), 58% have hearing problems (more than 100 times higher than the general population), 83% have speech and language delays and 91% suffer from impulsivity and inappropriate behaviour.
Each person with FASD may have some or all of these problems, and each person may have these problems from a mild to severe degree.
May be as prevalent as autism
We don’t know how many people have FASD in the UK, but based on a large review of data from other countries, it’s estimated that it may affect as much as 2% of the population. This would put FASD on a par with well-recognised developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder. In fact, a significant proportion of children currently diagnosed with ADHD or autism may have undiagnosed FASD as an underlying cause of their learning problem.
One problem with recognising the extent of the hidden epidemic is that FASD is significantly under reported. For example, out of a search of five years’ worth of outpatient hospital data in England, no cases of FASD were recorded. The researchers also looked at hospital admission data, expecting to find that areas with higher levels of alcohol-related illness in young women (such as in the north-west and north-east of England) would also have higher levels of FASD. This was not the case, suggesting that either FASD is not diagnosed, or it is diagnosed but not routinely recorded in hospital data.
A difficult diagnosis
Diagnosis is dogged by difficulties, including the fact that many healthcare professionals don’t know much about FASD and specialist training is needed to make a diagnosis. A diagnosis has to be made by a team of different professionals following a thorough assessment of the child that involves a physical examination, intelligence tests, occupational and physical therapy, and psychological, speech and neurological evaluations, as well as genetic tests to rule out genetic causes of problems.
Another difficulty with getting a diagnosis is that the behavioural and developmental problems that are signs of FASD may not emerge until a child is at primary school, by which time vital evidence about whether the birth mother drank during pregnancy may be missing. This information is crucial to make a diagnosis if the distinctive facial features seen in full-blown FAS are not present. Another difficulty is that people with FASD usually have other disorders (such as ADHD or autism spectrum disorder), making it difficult to isolate FASD.
To get the true number of people with FASD, it would be necessary to screen a whole group of the general population. This has been done in other countries, such as Italy, the USA and Canada, but there has been no such study in the UK.
Action at last
Last summer, a cross-party group of MPs took an interest in FASD, forming the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for FASD. In its first report, released in December 2015, it made a number of recommendations including the call for a public health campaign to raise awareness of FASD. The APPG also called for “urgent consideration to be given by the government into commissioning a UK-wide study to ascertain the prevalence of FASD”. This would be a vital first step in uncovering the true extent of FASD.
Why is such recognition important? The consequences of unrecognised and unsupported FASD are wide, including addiction, mental health problems and disengagement with education. Children can appear bright and talkative and can appear to learn, but often forget what they have learned by the following day. They can also behave inappropriately. Because the cause of their difficult behaviour is not understood, they frustrate teachers and are often labelled as “naughty”. Sadly, another tragic consequence of unrecognised FASD, is that many go on to find themselves in trouble with the law.
Early detection and intervention are important because with the right support, there is growing evidence that people with FASD can live and work independently. But, until the UK catches up with the USA, Canada and Italy, many people with FASD will continue to suffer in silence.