Grandpa Webb's blog

Thursday, 03 October 2013

I am a stress and health statistic

On my left wrist I am wearing what looks like a watch, but it isn’t. It is a thing called a Geneactiv. This appears to be a misnomer. It gives no indication of any activity at all. As well as not telling the time, there are no bleeps, no flashing lights – it seems totally inert.

I now have a contact in show businessIt isn’t of course. What it does is monitor my activity – or lack of it. I’ve got to wear it for 10 days, and keep a note of when I go to bed and get up. If I ride a bike for more than 10 minutes, or take it off for more than 10 minutes, I must make a note of that too.

It’s all part of a stress and health study that I signed up to when I was working full-time. I must admit that then, some of the attraction was an afternoon away from the office to take part in the test programme.

Even when you retire, they don’t let you go. Every few years the organisers at University College London get in touch and ask if I will take part in another screening programme. The latest is Phase 11 – so they’re well into it.

Grandpa WebbOver the years I have noticed the tests changing a bit. The medical bit normally includes blood pressure, a blood test, measurements of height, weight, body shape and tests of lung function, but this time an electrocardiogram (ECG) and pulse wave velocity (PWV) test are included. The ECG checks heart function and the PWV measures the elasticity of your arteries. I think these may be reserved for the older guinea-pigs.

The fun bits are the questionnaires. It’s just like exams, only nobody knows whether they’ve passed or not because it’s all anonymous for the purposes of research.

In the first one I sit at a table with a tape recorder and some headphones. On the table is an A4 booklet with: Do not open this page until told to do so in big letters on the front. I put on the headphones and start the tape and a voice begins reading out random words such as clog, leak, dog. This goes on for about a minute, and after around 60 different words the voice says: write down as many words as you can remember. I think I remembered the last six.

Over the page are some jolly teasers. This sort of thing: From the number 284, subtract the first figure from the last and divide the result into the figure next to the last figure. The answer (I think) is 4. There were about 60 questions. I think I managed to answer about 40 before the voice told me to put my pencil down.

Then there was FERT (I love acronyms). This one stands for Facial Expression Recognition Test. You sit at computer with its keyboard overlaid with a plastic cover. On selected keys are words such as: angry, disgusted, frightened, happy, sad, neutral. Faces appear on the screen and the idea is to hit the key that best describes their expression.

The snag is that each face only appears for about half a second. I normally need to have a second look at most things nowadays, so when I wasn’t sure I hit the neutral key. I don’t think I did very well in this one. 

I was better at the trail-making test, or join-up-the-dots, as my grandchildren call it. I liked this because a stopwatch appeared – I am still quite competitive. Pencil on dot 1, suss out where dots 2, 3 and 4 are while the lady with the stopwatch is explaining the process, (“don’t lift the pencil from the paper”) and on the click of the watch I am off. “Thirty seconds,” says the lady researcher as I pass my imaginary chequered flag. “That’s almost one a second, that’s good.”

The next join-the-dots test is a bit trickier. They have introduced the alphabet. So the order is 1, A, 2, B, 3, C and so on. “Fifty six seconds,” says the lady after my best pencil scratching. Time allowed is 1 minute 30, she says. I am beginning to feel a bit better about my miserable score of six words in test one.

Another stopwatch appeared for the finger tapping test (finger tapping? don’t ask - it’s for research). “I want you to tap the button as fast as you can for 10 seconds,” said the man with the stopwatch. I did 80 finger taps first time, 69 the second (getting complacent) and 76 on my third go (getting tired).

The whole thing took about three hours. After the blood test you get sandwiches and coffee, and later they send you copies of the results of the important medical stuff (ECG, blood pressure, cholesterol level, body measurements) with a spare copy for you to give to your GP if you want to.

Otherwise it’s all anonymous and purely in the interests of research. Nobody (apart from you) knows it’s me that could only remember six words. I will try and do better next time. After all, if you’re going to be a statistic, you might as well try and be a good one.

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