House prices fall further than they did in the Great Depression.

I read comments in the Economist this week about house prices in the States –how they had in effect now fallen further than they did in the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Hmm. I’m following that with extracts from a feature in the Financial Times written by Norma Cohen assessing the same issue in Britain. Oh dear. The words negative equity appear in it.

Unfortunately, new figures this week reveal that house prices have already fallen by more over the past 12 months than in any year during the Great Depression. The S&P/Case-Shiller national index fell by 14.1% in the year to the first quarter. Admittedly, other property indices show smaller drops, but most economists now favour this measure. The index goes back only 20 years, but Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale University and co-inventor of the index, has compiled a version that stretches back more than a century. This shows that the latest fall in nominal prices is already much bigger than the 10.5% drop in 1932, at the worst point of the Depression.

And things are even worse than they look. In the deflationary 1930s, America’s general price level was falling, so in real terms home prices declined much less than they did nominally. Today inflation is running at a brisk pace, so property prices have fallen by a staggering 18% in real terms over the past year. In nominal terms, the average home is now worth 16% less than at the peak in 2006, and the large overhang of unsold houses suggests that prices have further to fall.

And from the FT looking at the British situation:

House prices have suffered their biggest annual fall since the property slump of the early 1990s, a leading index revealed on Thursday, in news that sent shares in some of Britain’s largest home lenders and builders tumbling.

Year on year, house prices are now 4.4 per cent below their levels of May 2007, according to the Nationwide house price index. On an annual basis, that is the biggest fall since December 1992, when the UK was in the throes of a severe housing downturn.

In May alone the index recorded a 2.5 per cent drop, its biggest one-month fall, wiping £5,000 off the average British home. The three month moving average, which smoothes out unreliable single month volatility, also slid sharply. In the three months to the end of May house prices fell by 2.9 per cent compared with the three months to the end of April.

Fionnuala Early, Nationwide’s chief economist, said the streak of falling prices has lasted seven months, the longest consecutive period of declines since 1992.

Separately on Thursday, the CBI employers group released a survey showing retail prices were rising at their fastest rate since February 1990, which underscored the quandary facing the Bank of England as it considers future interest rate policy. Yet retail sales were reported to be below average levels for May and are set to remain so in June.

The Bank of England has said it does not believe falling house prices lead to a drop in consumption. However, the fact that inflation remained so stubbornly high – and was likely to rise further according to the Bank’s own forecasts – made it hard for its Monetary Policy Committee to consider rate cuts even if consumption slowed sharply.

Ms Early said: “As higher prices of essential items squeeze consumer spending power and housing market weakness weighs down on confidence, the balance of risks to inflation in the medium term could shift enough to lead the MPC to cut rates sooner than the markets currently expect.”

But traders did not share such expectations: sterling futures markets last night were pricing in two quarter-point rises in interest rates over the next year. The moves suggest markets have been so unsettled by inflation data they are now over-shooting.

Danny Gabay, economist at Fathom Consulting, said inflation alone was reason to believe that consumption was likely to slow this year, dragging the UK economy down with it. “Now real disposable income is being crushed by higher food and utility bills,” he said.

Gary Styles, economics director at Hometrack, cautioned against viewing the latest data from Nationwide as a precursor to the wave of negative equity in the early 1990’s. “A lot of those people who are now in negative equity that we are talking about are those who had little or no equity in the first place,” he said.

Is it OK to use brain-boosting drugs to enhance your academic performance?

I first heard this story on BBC Radio 4 when they were discussing the use of cognitive brain enhancers to boost academic performance. It appears to first come from an article in Nature magazine by Barbara Sahakian and Sharon Morein-Zamir – but I found a version published here.Basically, you’re about to take an exam – would you like an espresso with a double shot of methylphenidate…..or just soft brown sugar?

Would you boost your own brain power? Cognitive-enhancing drugs are increasingly being used in non-medical situations such as shift work and by active military personnel. This is where the debate about their use begins
in earnest. How should the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs be regulated in healthy people? Should their use always be monitored by healthcare professionals? If offered by a friend or colleague, would you, the reader, take a pill that would help you to better focus, plan or remember? Under what conditions would you feel comfortable taking a pill, and under what conditions would you decline? The answers to such questions hinge on many factors, including the exact drug being discussed, its short-term and long-term benefits and risks, and the purpose for which it is used. There are instances in which most people would agree that the use of cognitive-enhancing drugs should be prevented or at least regulated and monitored, such as by healthy children or in competitive settings (including entrance exams to university). There are also situations in which many would agree that the use of drugs to improve concentration or planning may be tolerated, if not encouraged, such as by air-traffic controllers, surgeons and nurses who work long shifts. One can even imagine situations where such enhancing-drug-taking would be recommended, such as for airport-security screeners, or by soldiers in active combat. But there are no straightforward answers and any fruitful debate must address each situation in turn.
How would you react if you knew your
colleagues — or your students — were
taking cognitive enhancers?
In academia, we know that a number of our scientific colleagues in the United States and the United Kingdom already use modafinil to counteract the effects of jetlag, to enhance productivity or mental energy, or to deal with demanding and important intellectual challenges . Modafinil and other drugs are available online, but their non- prescription and long-term use has not been monitored in healthy individuals. For many, it seems that the immediate and tangible benefits of taking these drugs are more persuasive than concerns about legal status and adverse effects. There are clear trends suggesting that the use of stimulants such as methylphenidate on college campuses is on the rise, and is becoming more commonplace in ever younger students.
Universities may have to decide whether to ban drug use altogether, or to tolerate it in some situations (whether to enable all-night study sessions or to boost alertness during lectures).
The debate over cognitive-enhancing drugs must also consider the expected magnitude of the benefits and weigh them against the risks and side effects of each drug. Most readers would not consider that having a double shot
of espresso or a soft drink containing caffeine would confer an unfair advantage at work.
The use of caffeine to enhance concentration is commonplace, despite having side effects in at least some individuals
Often overlooked in media reports on cognitive enhancers is the fact that many of the effects in healthy individuals are transient and small-to-moderate in size. Just as one would hardly propose that a strong cup of coffee could be the secret of academic achievement or faster career advancement, the use of such drugs does not necessarily entail cheating. Cognitive enhancers with small or no side effects but with moderate enhancing effects that alleviate forgetfulness or enable one to focus better on the task at hand during a tiring day at work would be unlikely to meet much objection.
And does it matter if it is delivered as a pill or a drink? Would you, the reader, welcome a cognitive enhancer delivered in a beverage that is readily obtainable and affordable, and has a moderate yet noticeable effect
on your concentration and alertness?……
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I will be looking for more threads on this story in coming weeks.

Talkin’ bout my generation. X, Y or boomer?

Generation X was a term coined by Douglas Coupland. (Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, 142). Tammy Erickson uses the term when she writes in a very interesting way about the differences between our recent generations. She posted this article as part of a series called Across the Ages – it is all about generational differences in the work environment. In Across the Ages she had written earlier about gender differences amongst generation X’ers – such as when asked to mark the most important historical event of our age, X men had chosen the dropping of the atomic bomb and Pearl Harbour whilst X women had highlighted the first flight by the Wright Brothers. Hmmmmm. Her article was originally entitled 10 Reasons Gen Xers Are Unhappy at Work

I’m worried about Generation X and corporations. As far as I can tell, these two have a tentative relationship at best – and are likely headed for some rocky times ahead.

Corporations really need Gen X – folks in their 30’s to early 40’s, who should begin to serve as our primary corporate leaders over the next couple years. But I fear many current corporate executives are taking this small and therefore precious group for granted.
Many of you X’ers are not thrilled with corporate life. You tend not to trust institutions in general and deeply resent the Boomers’ confident assumptions that you will be motivated by the same things that Boomers have long cared about. Many of you have told me that you are planning to leave corporate life “soon” – to start entrepreneurial ventures or work for smaller companies – options you feel will suite you better than the corporate roles looming ahead.

Why are many X’ers uncomfortable in corporate life?

1. X’ers’ corporate careers got off to a slow start and many are still feeling the pain. You graduated when the economy was slow and the huge bulge of Boomers had already grabbed most of the key jobs. As an article in the May, 1985 issue of Fortune said: “[T]hese pioneers of the baby-bust generation are finding life on the career frontier harsher than ever . . . they’re snarled in a demographic traffic jam . . . stuck behind all those surplus graduates of the past decade.”

2. When you were teens, X’ers witnessed adults in your lives being laid off from large corporations, as re-engineering swept through the business lexicon. This engendered in most X’ers a lack of trust in large institutions and a strong desire for a life filled with back-up plans, just in case. Many of the adults you saw laid off and then struggling to reintegrate were in their 40’s – about the age X’ers are reaching today.

3. Most corporate career paths “narrow” at the top – the perceived range of options diminishes as individuals become increasingly specialized in specific functions or roles. X’ers crave options, which assuage your concerns about being backed into a corner, laid off from one path. The sense of narrowing career paths and increased vulnerability is often most palpable at the transition from middle to upper management – just where many of you are today. This step also often brings demands for relocation and separation from established social networks – an additional assault on your sense of self-reliance.

4. Just your luck – the economy was slow when you entered the workforce and now its slowing once again – just as you are standing at the threshold of senior management. Stepping into leadership roles right now looks more difficult and the roles themselves, more vulnerable than they have at any point in the past decade.

5. And then there are those pesky Gen Y’s. Many X’ers are charged with “managing” Y’s which – let’s face it – is an impossible task, at least if you define “manage” as controlling their channels of communication. While vying for promotions and trying to look good, many of you feel that Y’s are doing an end run around.

6. X’ers are, in fact, surrounded by a love fest – and not feeling the love. As I wrote in last week’s post, Boomers and Y’s are learning from each other – and enjoying their interactions. It’s easy to feel left out.

7. X’ers are the most conservative cohort in today’s workforce – and you’re surrounded by “shake ‘em up” types on both sides. In your personal lives, X’ers are not particularly keen on rules, but you had to follow them in the workplace – and you resent it when others now don’t. It seems unfair to be rewriting corporate etiquette when you’ve had to toe the line for so long.

8. Many X’ers’ are guarding a closely held secret: you’re not all as comfortable with the technology that is changing the way things are done as everyone seems to think you are. While it’s perfectly acceptable for Boomers to feign ignorance and ask for help, it’s embarrassing for X’ers to do so.

9. And if Boomer colleagues are annoying, the Boomer parents of your Y reports are down-right over-the-top. X’ers can’t believe the frequency of Y-parent interactions and are deeply turned off by parents who make their presence felt in the workplace.

10. Finally, your own parenting pressures are at a peak. You’re deeply committed to spending more time with your kids than your parents did or were able to spend with you, but juggling is getting more and more difficult.

Is it time to jump off the corporate train?

I hope not – at least not for most of you. Corporations really need your leadership. But I understand that we need to create corporate environments that are more conducive to your needs and preferences.

I’m in the middle of my latest writing project – a book on career options and strategies for Gen X’ers. I’d love to hear from you about your experiences, frustrations, and success. What works? What doesn’t? What do you worry about? What would you most like to know?

The predictable Premiership. The naked truth.

Brian Viner, who writes about football for the Independent, correctly predicted all the Premier League positions before the season had even started. However one of his wrong predictions nearly had him doing a naked conga across London’s Soho Square. Not easy to do on your own. This article originally ran under the heading “The naked truth about football”

Far be it for this column to blow its own trumpet, but here goes anyway. On 11 August last year, on the opening day of the Premier League season, it began thus: “You don’t have to be Nostradamus, or even Eileen Drewery,…

Actually I feel I have to put a note in here. Brian Viner must be one of the best informed people writing about English football and for him people like Eileen Drewery are part of modern English folklore. Eileen was the lady hired by England manager Glenn Hoddle ten years ago in the 1998 World Cup finals to help his team prepare for the competition – much to the amusement of the rabid British tabloid press she was a faith healer…

…..to predict what is going to happen in the Premier League season, which begins today with no certainties except that Manchester United will win it, Chelsea will finish second, Arsenal will finish third and Liverpool fourth. That I know this before the season kicks off is of course dispiriting beyond belief, and means that as a source of excitement I must already focus on the relegation battle: any three from Derby County, Wigan, Birmingham City, Fulham, Reading and Sunderland.”

Even though first and second places have yet to be decided, I wish I’d backed my own prescience with a visit to Mr Ladbroke, as one Liverpool fan, disgruntled by my prediction for his team, suggested I should. He emailed me to say that if I could prophesy the order of the top four with such assurance, then perhaps I should put my mortgage where my mouth was.

Regrettably, I didn’t. Instead, that same column has risen again this past week and bitten me on the backside, in an almost literal sense, because of something else I wrote. Continuing the theme of English football at the top level having become wearyingly predictable, I undertook to lead a triumphant conga across Soho Square, naked, in the almost unimaginable event of none of the so-called “Big Four” reaching the FA Cup final. As we now know, none of the Big Four did and, last Sunday, the good people on The Observer Sport Monthly magazine, obviously keen readers of this column, thoughtfully reprinted my promise, together with the telephone number of The Independent’s sports desk, so that people could ring in to encourage me to honour my pledge.

Which was a little unkind to my colleagues, who had better things to do than field all the calls, but I am flattered that the boys at OSM are so keen to see me in the altogether. Whatever, this column does not renege on its pledges. On the other hand, there’s no such thing as a one-man conga. So, if I can find a few others, as delighted as I am at the prospect of an FA Cup final not featuring United, Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool, and as willing as I am to take their kit off in celebration, then I will do my stuff across Soho Square, subject to permission from the local constabulary.

I’ve already been practising in the bathroom mirror, trying to perfect the technique of covering my tackle with one hand while waving the other, in the manner of naked men doing novelty balloon dances in front of appreciative audiences on the northern variety circuit. Moreover, my friend Chris, a fellow Evertonian, has very supportively promised to take his clothes off and do the conga right behind me (he has long arms, I’m pleased to say), should my pledge reach fruition. He says we can call ourselves the alternative Big Four.

In the meantime, I confess to being ever so slightly miffed that everything I got right in that column, assuming United do the business at the JJB tomorrow, has been overshadowed by what I got wrong. I tried to emphasise its percipience when I was interviewed by BBC radio, alerted by the OSM item, on Thursday.

But the presenter wasn’t interested in that; he just wanted to know when I was going to bare my bum in central London. Fair enough, I suppose. As for the broader picture, I was gratified to find my theme of last August being taken up by Kevin Keegan this week. He was dead right; it might seem like a perverse thing to say on the eve of the tightest finish for years, but the Premier League is boringly predictable, and the Champions League is squarely to blame.

Like Keegan, I see no likelihood of any other team breaking up the Big Four cartel any time soon, not with all the riches they get to splash in the transfer market. The best hope for the chasing pack this summer is that Liverpool implode in an internecine struggle between their co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, or Arsenal continue to suffer from the departure of David Dein, who, it seems fair to say, would never have let Arsène Wenger lose players of the calibre of Mathieu Flamini and the seemingly unsettled Alexander Hleb.

That said, “chasing pack” is pitching it a little strongly. Even though Everton pressed Liverpool most of the way for fourth place, the Merseyside rivals will finish the season at least eight points apart.

So, what will be the one-two-three-four a year from now? Nobody can make any kind of informed prediction until the summer transfer dealings are over, and even then I might think twice. I’ve learnt the art of circumspection, the hard way.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

The naked man dancing – silly but fun – is by David Chien.

Food price inflation hits 20% year on year.

The issue of the rising cost of food in comparison to other items has to be salient for anyone who shops regularly in Britain. Ordinary commodities like apples, eggs and milk seem to have soared in price in the last three months. When I read this piece by John Henley in The Guardian, he actually puts some real figures down showing the amounts which these items have risen by. Scary. Particularly if you’re living on a tight budget. Me, I’ve been shopping in Lidl for years now.

There comes a point when you can no longer afford to ignore it. You may, if you are lucky, have found it hard to get worked up about the fact that the average loaf of sliced bread now costs £1.15, compared with less than £1 last year. You may have shrugged on learning that a pint of semi-skimmed milk will currently set you back approximately 20% more than it did in May 2007. But you would have to be really very relaxed – or very flush – indeed not to be moved by the realisation that when a dozen medium free-range eggs are also up 47%, salted butter 62%, Basmati rice 60%, cheddar 25%, pork 7% and beef nearly 5%, you are paying an awful lot more for your groceries than you were a year ago.

According to the Office of National Statistics, food prices have climbed 6.6% over the past 12 months (and April’s hike equalled the fastest increase recorded since the consumer price index was invented 11 years ago). The big supermarkets, which constantly juggle prices across the whole of their range, dispute this figure. But a survey of 24 staple products this week by the myconsumer.co.uk website, which compares prices at Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and online supermarket Ocado, found that the average family is now spending around 20% more on its weekly food shopping than it was 12 months ago – equivalent, based on a trolley filled with £100 of groceries, to rather more than £1,000 a year.

As a result, it seems, we are beginning to change the way we shop. The evidence? Cheaper retailers such as frozen-food chain Iceland and German-owned Aldi have seen their sales soar as shoppers who would usually grace the aisles of upmarket alternatives such as Waitrose or Marks & Spencer poke their noses round the doors of the long-disdained, deep discounters. Canny consumers who have been loyal to particular brands for longer than they can remember have suddenly started switching, in search of better bargains. And sales of organic products, which only a short time ago were seen as the bright new future of food retailing, have slowed dramatically.

“I’m seeing a real change,” says Paul Foley, managing director of Aldi UK. “I’m seeing people in my stores who I would never have seen a few years ago. To be fair, it has been a growing trend over the past three years or so, but it’s true that over the past few months it has accelerated. I think rising utilities bills, fuel bills, mortgages and now food bills have jolted people into considering trying somewhere new. And that’s a big deal, you know: most people can’t remember how long they’ve been going to the same supermarket, often on the same day and at the same time. They’re almost on autopilot.”

Aldi says its shopper numbers have increased by 25% over the past three months compared with a year ago, while the number of ABC1 customers passing through its doors is up a startling 17%. Fully half the discounter’s shoppers now belong to those higher socio-economic groups, Foley says. “Part of that shift is down to the fact that we’ve changed, too,” he says. “Compared with five years ago, we offer many more upmarket ranges; we’ve won national awards for food quality; our fresh-food section has been hugely expanded. I think the people coming to Aldi now are discovering that shopping at a discounter these days isn’t quite the desperate, eastern European experience they thought it was. I think it’s quite shocked some of them.”

The bottom line for deep discounters such as Aldi, though, will always be the price of the goods in their shoppers’ trolleys: its current Super Six promotion – “Is this the best-priced fruit and veg in Britain?” – offers, for a barely credible 59p each, six oranges, six kiwis, 250g of baby plum tomatoes, or three gem lettuces. According to Foley, a full weekly shop that would cost an average family £100 at Sainsbury’s costs around £70 at Aldi. “If you only shop for the absolute basics, say a £10 basket, the difference will be smaller,” he says. “You need to shop across the full range to get maximum benefit – the price differential on milk, for example, will only be about 4% or 5%. On cosmetics, it can easily reach 50%.”

Research published this week by market information group TNS Worldpanel showed discounters such as Aldi and Iceland, and relatively cheap alternatives such as Morrisons, have fared substantially better than their more upmarket competitors over the past three months, booking sales growth of 17%, 12% and 9% respectively. “Obviously, everyone has a measure that will allow them to say, ‘We’re cheaper than someone else,'” observes Iceland’s marketing director, Nick Canning. “We’ve actually been outperforming the market for the past five or six years, but it’s certainly true that right now, the great British public have a lot less money in their pockets. They’re being a great deal more careful.”

Even the very big boys, it seems, are noticing the squeeze. Tesco this week introduced almost 1,000 new promotions and special offers “in a bid to help hard-up consumers make ends meet”. As household costs continue to increase, the company said in a statement, “Britain’s favourite supermarket will have more products on promotion than it has ever had at any one time. From bread to bathroom cleaner and with savings including half price, extra free and buy one, get one free, there will be an offer to help every customer.” Chief executive Sir Terry Leahy boasted in the supermarket’s annual review that Tesco currently has “more than 9,000 products on promotion – the highest number of offers at any one time in our history”.

Stretched budgets are not tempting everyone to ditching their regular retailer, however. “The automatic assumption is that as soon as prices go up, people switch supermarket,” says Johnny Stern, managing director of the mysupermarket.co.uk price comparison site. “That is happening to some extent, certainly. But in fact most people are actually quite loyal to their supermarket, especially to its own brands, and what they are doing more often is not swapping their whole basket, but swapping products within that basket. The cost of their basics – eggs, milk, pasta, tea, orange juice, fruit, meat and so on – may have leapt by 19% over the past year, but the cost of their basket has gone up by quite a bit less. They’re doing some quite clever product switching.”

According to Stern, smart consumers are not just alternating between, say, Heineken, Carlsberg and Becks beer, Haagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, or Evian and Volvic mineral water, but between different packaging options offered by the same brand. “They may switch to a different product if it’s really markedly cheaper,” he says. “The simple option, obviously, is to move to an own-brand. But often, they’ll save by buying their usual brand differently – a 12-pack rather than a six-pack, larger bottles, what have you. Consumers are suddenly much less product- and packaging-loyal than they have been.”

As if to confirm the picture of a nation of altogether more cost-conscious consumers, last year’s 30% growth in the sales of more expensive organic foodstuffs has slumped to just 10%. And while we now seem to be buying rather more products than we once did from the supermarkets’ premium quality ranges such as Tesco’s Finest, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference and Morrison’s The Best, this is absolutely not because we’re feeling flush enough to pay the mark-up – but because we’re not feeling flush enough to eat out in restaurants. Truly, times are hard.

The price of political opposition in Zimbabwe.

These are extracts from the diary of Esther, published by the BBC. They speak for themselves about what it means to oppose Mugabe’s regime, in real terms.

Esther (not her real name), 28, a professional living and working in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, is writing a regular diary on the challenges of leading a normal life.Zimbabwe is suffering from an acute economic crisis. The country has the world’s highest rate of annual inflation and just one in five has an official job.I have a friend whose brother works as a teacher in an area that is said to be experiencing some of the worst post-election violence.When schools opened about two weeks ago, he decided to stay away from there.

After a while he thought it would be safe to return to his school, as he had heard no reports of violence there.

He was abducted from his home on Monday night, beaten up and returned to his home.

He managed to send text messages to his family, and told them not to come and collect him to seek medical treatment as he was instructed by his assailants not to leave the area “Or else.”

Because he does not hold a Zanu-PF membership card, it was assumed he was an MDC supporter.

And the worst part was that he was given a “certificate” to show he had received his beating.

He was told to produce it whenever someone else wanted to beat him as proof that it had already been done.

The paper even had a date stamp and the signature of the leader of the group.

Another friend of mine had an uncle who recently passed away. He told me he was debating whether or not to go to the countryside for the funeral.

His parents had told him that “war veterans” in the area had set up road blocks, were stopping and searching all vehicles, and telling people travelling in from Harare to go back where they had come from.

There is a good chance that warning would come after a beating they said. In the end, he decided to go and honour his uncle’s memory, and face whatever he came across.

He has not yet returned, so I do not know how he fared.

People are saying this is what the run-up to the presidential election run-off is going to be about – violence and intimidation.

The idea is to force supporters of the opposition to stay away from their homes so that on voting day they cannot cast their vote.

There is no chance that these people are lying. The reports are too numerous and are coming from too many areas.

Life in the city:

For the urbanites, the struggle is – as always – with ever increasing prices.

Public transport fares doubled over one week. Last Friday, a single fare was $50m, today, exactly one week later it is $100m.

The list of what we thought were basics that have since become luxuries continues to grow.

For example, laundry soap now doubles up as bath soap. You can do without bread, and grow your own sweet potatoes instead. If you cannot grow them, then buy them, they are still a lot cheaper.

But this week, I do not feel so much for my people as I do for the Burmese.

Cold, wet, hungry and homeless as their leaders think about whether or not to accept foreign aid.

The suffering ordinary people have to endure as the world respects sovereignty is beyond belief.

Shorter arms, shorter memory.

I found this article in today’s Neurology magazine which amazingly for me anyway shows a strong link between the length of your arms and your likelihood of memory loss in later years. Basically those with shorter arms and legs are almost half as likely to get Alzheimer’s later in life. Almost 3,000 ordinary people were tested to get these results.

People with shorter arms and legs may be at a higher risk for developing dementia later in life compared to people with longer arms and legs, according to a study published in the May 6, 2008, bonus issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Researchers say the association between short limbs and dementia risk may be due to poor nutrition in early life, which can affect limb growth.

Several studies have shown that early life environment plays an important role in susceptibility to chronic disease later in life. “Body measures such as knee height and arm span are often used as biological indicators of early life deficits, such as a lack of nutrients,” said Tina L. Huang, PhD, who was with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, when the study started.

Huang is now with the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, MA. “Because the development of the brain region most severely affected by Alzheimer’s disease coincides with the greatest change in limb length, we thought it was possible that men and women with shorter limbs could be at greater risk for developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.”

Researchers from the Cardiovascular Health Cognition Study followed 2,798 people for an average of five years and took knee height and arm span measurements. Most participants were white with an average age of 72. By the end of the study, 480 developed dementia.

Researchers found women with the shortest arm spans were 1.5 times more likely to develop dementia and Alzheimer’s disease than women with longer arm spans. For every inch longer a woman’s leg, the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease was reduced by 16 percent.

In men, only arm span was associated with a lower risk of dementia. With every increased inch in arm span, men had a six-percent decrease in risk of dementia. The associations with such measures in men and women were stronger toward Alzheimer’s disease compared to other types of dementia.

Huang says there is a strong correlation between height and socioeconomic background, and trends are reflected as early as the first two years of life. “Reduced height for age, or stunting, is thought to be most closely tied to environment and the quality of diet in early life, which corresponds with periods of the fastest leg growth,” said Huang. “As a result, environment in the first years of life may play an important role in determining future dementia risk.”

“Our findings are consistent with other studies that have been done in Korean populations, where shorter limb length was associated with greater risk of dementia,” said Huang.