Tuesday, 25th Jul 2017


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‘Buying time’ and not just things may increase life satisfaction

“Using money to free-up time is linked to increased happiness,” BBC News reports. Researchers surveyed people from a number of developed countries and found those who reported using money to free up time, such as hiring a cleaner, tended to report higher life satisfaction.

Researchers surveyed more than 6,000 participants from the US, Canada, Denmark and The Netherlands, including around 800 Dutch millionaires, about “buying time” – which was defined as paying people to do chores that participants personally found unenjoyable. Researchers found that, regardless of income, people who bought time reported better life satisfaction.

A further small experiment found that spending money on time-saving purchases rather than material goods such as wine and clothes was associated with increased happiness and positive feelings and reduced feelings of “time stress”.

However, due to the complex web of factors that affect our wellbeing, it is difficult to say that this study proves that “buying time” makes you more satisfied with your life.

Prioritising time over money and material goods may well be one route to happiness, but it may not work for everyone.

Of course not everyone can afford to hire a cleaner (or in the case of a Dutch millionaire, a butler). However there are techniques you can use that may help you manage your time more effectively.

Read more advice about time management.


Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Harvard Business School in the US, University of British Columbia in Canada, and Maastricht University and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, both in The Netherlands.

The study was funded by Public Scholars Initiative at the University of British Columbia, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Heritage Foundation, and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology Q&pAy Initiative.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal PNAS on an open-access basis, meaning it is freely available online.

The UK media’s reporting of the study’s findings wasn’t accurate, as it failed to point out that the study is not able to prove cause and effect. There could have been multiple other reasons why some people reported greater life satisfaction.

For example, the headline in the print edition of the Daily Mail: “The secret behind true happiness? Hire a cleaner” is not representative of the findings of the study.


What kind of research was this?

This research involved multiple cross-sectional studies using questionnaires. There was also a small experimental study, randomising people to spend $40 (around £30 at time of writing) on material goods one weekend and time-saving purchases another weekend and then asking them about their level of stress and happiness.

Using a questionnaire is a good way of including a lot of people and in this case allowed researchers to easily look at participants’ answers from four countries. However, this can only tell us what their levels of perceived happiness and satisfaction are in relation to the “ladder of life rung” they are on at one time point. It is likely other factors such as job, relationships and health status would have more of an effect on these perceptions, but none of these were taken into account.

The additional experimental component added little weight to their argument as again they did not take into account any other potential confounding factors.


What did the research involve?

Researchers carried out questionnaires with 6,271 participants from the US, Canada, The Netherlands (including a sample of 800 millionaires) and Denmark to investigate the effect of buying time on life satisfaction. They also conducted an experimental study to test the results of the questionnaire.

The researchers firstly carried out surveys involving questions about how much money, if any, people spend every month to free up their time by paying someone else to complete daily tasks they do not find enjoyable. They were also asked about their satisfaction with life through two questions: “Taking all things together, how happy would you say you are?”, and where they currently stand on a ladder spanning from the worst possible to best possible life imaginable.

Participants also answered questions on potentially confounding factors, including:

  • annual household income
  • number of hours worked each week
  • age
  • marital status
  • number of children living at home
  • the amount spent on groceries, material and experiential purchases (buying an “experience” such as a night out at the theatre), to account for the fact that decisions to spend money on time-saving purchases might be a reflection of income

In the Canadian and Dutch surveys, participants also reported a measure of “time stress”. This includes stating how much they agreed with statements such as “I feel pressed for time today”, “Compared to yesterday, I feel more stressed out about my time”, and “Time is my scarcest resource”.

The researchers then carried out an experiment on 60 Canadian working adults. They were asked to spend the equivalent of £30 on two consecutive weekends; on one weekend they were randomly assigned to purchase something that would save them time and on the other weekend, a material purchase.

After making each purchase, participants received a phone call at 5pm to report their feelings of positive or negative mood and time stress on that particular day.


What were the basic results?

Across samples from all included countries, 28.2% of participants spent money to buy themselves time each month with a mean spend of $147.95 US dollars per month in those who “bought time”.

When controlling for variables, those who spent money in this way reported slightly better life satisfaction than those who did not. This effect was not altered by wealth or income.

The researchers then considered a broader definition of time-saving purchases, to cover any way a respondent might spend money to provide more free time.

Of a sample of 1,802 US working adults, 50% reported spending money in this way, with most buying their way out of cooking, shopping and household maintenance.

Again, when controlling for variables, those who spent money in this way reported slightly better life satisfaction, when controlling for the amount spent on groceries, material goods and experiences.

In the experiment phase of the research:

  • Participants reported a greater end of the day positive mood on a 12-item scale after making a time-saving purchase versus material purchase.
  • Participants reported a lower end of the day negative mood on a 12-item scale after making a time-saving purchase versus material purchase.
  • Participants reported lower feelings of time stress after making a time-saving purchase versus material purchase.


How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that “across several distinct samples, including adults from Canada, the United States, Denmark, The Netherlands, and a large sample of Dutch millionaires, buying time was linked to greater life satisfaction. These results held controlling for a wide range of demographics, as well as for the amount that respondents spent on groceries and material and experiential purchases each month. These results were not moderated by income, suggesting that people from various socioeconomic backgrounds benefit from making time-saving purchases.”



This large multi-country study on adults of various incomes found that buying time was linked to greater life satisfaction, even when considering a wide range of demographics and spend on other items each month. It also seemed to show that people were in a better mood when buying something that saved them time versus buying something material.

These results are interesting in the busy, time-pressured culture many of us face today. The researchers suggest using money to buy time may reduce feelings of time pressure and buffer against negative effects of time pressure on life satisfaction.

While this may be the case, before you start giving up all household chores, you might want to consider some limitations to the research:

  • These were mainly cross-sectional studies with responses given at one time point. This means they cannot show that paying people to do tasks for you improves life satisfaction or happiness. Both will be dependent on a variety of factors that were not taken into account, such as employment, work/life balance, social situation, family life, personality and health status.
  • For the small experimental study, the researchers did not look at what other activities or events were occurring on those two particular weekends that may have affected mood and stress levels rather than what they had purchased. In addition, the participants knew what the money was being spent on, which could have biased the results.
  • Participants self-reported their activities. It might be that not all wanted to admit that they pay other people for housework.
  • Participants also self-reported life satisfaction. People might want to seem like they are happier with their life to justify paying someone to do housework, which might not necessarily be the case.
  • As the results showed, the question around paying money to free up time is subjective – some people might include paying for a ready-made lunch in this category whereas others might just think of paying other people to do housework as fitting into this definition.
  • The median age in the millionaires category was 68 compared with 30 in one of the US samples. This variation in age, as well as other factors such as number of children in the household, might mean people have different amounts of time to spend doing household chores so might be more or less stressed at the prospect of doing such activities.

If you are feeling “time stressed” there are time management techniques that can help as well as ways to help relieve feelings of stress.

Links To The Headlines

Time, not material goods, ‘raises happiness’. BBC News, July 25 2017

Money CAN buy you happiness, as long as you spend it on time-saving luxuries: Forget trying to ‘do it all’ and spend cash on a cleaner or cook as it will give you greater life satisfaction. Mail Online, July 24 2017

Money can buy you happiness, claim researchers. The Independent, July 24 2017

Links To Science

Whillans AV, Dunn EW, Smeets P, et al. Buying time promotes happiness. PNAS. Published online June 24 2017

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Snoring link to Alzheimer’s disease unproven

“Snoring linked to Alzheimer’s,” the Mail Online reports. A US study reported an association between sleep-disorder breathing and Alzheimer’s disease in later life. But no definitive link between the two has been proven.

Sleep-disordered breathing is a general term to describe pauses in breathing during sleep that restrict oxygen supply to the body. At the most severe end of the spectrum is obstructive sleep apnoea, which can itself range in severity.

In this latest study, researchers looked at data regarding sleep in 1,750 middle aged and older adults. They then looked at whether problems with sleep breathing were associated with their performance in cognitive testing.

Researchers in the current study found a link between certain measures of sleep-disorder breathing and worse attention, short term memory and information processing speed. However, there was no link with overall cognitive function (which also includes aspects such as language, judgement, fluency of speech and visual thinking). The reason for this was unclear but it suggests the evidence of any link is inconclusive.

Some of the links were stronger in people who carried a form of a gene called APOE-e4, which is a known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

In conclusion, this study does not prove that sleep-disorder breathing is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. This study did not specifically look at whether people developed dementia or not. It only looked at their performance on cognitive tests at a single point in time.

These limitations aside, it is important to see your GP for a diagnosis if you suspect you may have sleep apnoea. Left untreated, sleep apnoea may increase the risk of more serious conditions, such as heart attack and stroke.


Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston), Harvard Medical School, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (Boston), University of Washington, Wake Forest School of Medicine, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, and Stanford University School of Medicine. It was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in the US.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society. Both the Mail and The Sun suggest a link between snoring and Alzheimer’s has been found, but this is not the case. A cohort study analysis, where people are assessed for dementia over the course of many years, would be a better way to look at the question.

Also, while it looked at performance on cognitive tests it did not investigate whether people went on to develop dementia. The media also did not mention that it’s not possible to say from this type of study whether the breathing problems during sleep are actually the cause of the problems with brain function, because both were measured at around the same time. They also didn’t mention that the size of the effect of sleep problems on brain function was small.


What kind of research was this?

This was a cross-sectional analysis of data from the ongoing Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA) cohort study in the US. The main goal of MESA is to look at how various lifestyle factors impact on the risk of developing atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).

The researchers aimed to see if breathing problems during sleep (sleep-disordered breathing or SDB) were associated with problems in brain functions such as attention and memory. The researchers say that previous studies examining this question have had mixed findings – some showing a link and others not.

They also looked at whether the presence of a variant of the apolipoprotein-E gene called e4 (APOE-e4) also affected the risk of developing problems with brain function. The APOE-e4 variant is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. The Alzheimer’s Society report that people with one copy of the variant gene have twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease compared to the population at large.

While a cross-sectional analysis can identify a link between two different factors, it cannot prove that one causes the other, as we can’t be sure which factor came first. Links identified using this type of study need to be followed up by studies that can identify the sequence of events.


What did the research involve?

Researchers analysed sleep and brain function data from participants of the MESA study They looked at whether people with breathing problems during sleep had poorer performance on cognitive tests.

The MESA study involved adults aged between 45 and 84 years old. Study participants underwent a sleep study at home. This involved attaching various monitors to their body overnight to record:

  • episodes of shallow breathing (called hypopneas)
  • episodes of stopping breathing completely (called apnoeas)
  • the levels of oxygen in the blood (oxygen saturation) – as sleep breathing problems can reduce these levels
  • the total time of sleeping
  • the timing of the different stages of sleep

The participants also filled out the Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS) questionnaire, which asks various questions to assess whether someone has excessive sleepiness during the day. The minimum score is 0 (no daytime sleepiness) and the maximum score is 24 (most daytime sleepiness).

For each participant the researchers calculated the:

  • apnoea-hypopnea index (AHI) – a measure of how many apnoea and hypopnea episodes a person has per hour of sleep
  • percentage of time during sleep when the oxygen levels in their blood were under 90%

Participants with an AHI score of 15 or more were considered to have moderate to severe sleep disordered breathing. People with an AHI of five or more, and an ESS score of more than 10 were considered to have sleep apnoea.

The cognitive assessment involved three tests that assessed:

  • overall brain function, including areas such as attention, concentration, short and long-term memory and language using the Cognitive Abilities Screening Instrument
  • how quickly the brain could perform tasks (processing speed) and attention using the Digit Symbol-Coding test
  • memory and attention using the Digit Span Test (DST)

The researchers also carried out genetic testing to identify participants with at least one APOE-e4 gene variant (an Alzheimer’s “risk gene”).

They then compared the cognitive performance of people with the quality of breathing during sleep. They looked at whether results were any different for those people with the APOE-e4 variant. The researchers took into account a number of factors that could affect the results (potential confounders) in their analysis, including:

  • race
  • age
  • body mass index (BMI)
  • level of education
  • smoking
  • high blood pressure
  • depression
  • use of benzodiazepines (a class of drugs used as sleeping pills and tranquilisers)
  • diabetes


What were the basic results?

The sleep studies showed that 9.7% of the participants had sleep apnoea, and 33.4% had moderate to severe sleep disordered breathing.

There was no association between AHI score and any of the cognitive outcomes. There was also no link between any of the sleep breathing measures and one of the more challenging cognitive tests used (The DST Backward), or with the test of overall brain function.

Lower oxygen levels in the blood and being more sleepy during the daytime were associated with a small reduction in attention and short-term memory on one cognitive test (the DST Forward). Having sleep apnoea and greater daytime sleepiness were also associated with small reductions in attention and the speed that the brain could process simple mental tasks on another cognitive test.

Some – but not all – of these links were stronger in people carrying at least one copy of the e4 form of the APOE gene (the links were between having lower levels of oxygen in the blood and poorer attention and memory, and between greater daytime sleepiness and poorer attention and speed of brain processing).


How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that their results “suggest that more severe overnight [low blood oxygen levels] and sleepiness may be related to poorer cognitive function, especially attention, concentration, and process speed in middle-aged to older adults, and that the risk is greater among carriers of the APOE-ε4 alleles, a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.”



This relatively large cross-sectional analysis has found a link between certain measures of breathing problems during sleep and poorer cognitive function in middle-aged to older adults.

The strengths of this study include its size and use of a prospective sleep study to assess whether people had sleep apnoea or other problems with breathing during sleep. The use of standard cognitive tests is also a strength.

However, the study does have its limitations:

  • The study did have mixed findings – while certain measures of problems with breathing during sleep (e.g. oxygen levels) were associated with cognitive outcomes, others (e.g. Apnea-Hypopnea Index) were not. This suggests that findings are not conclusive. In addition, previous studies have also had mixed results. This suggests that a systematic review which brings together all of the available evidence on this question would be helpful to assess whether, on balance, the research suggests a true link.
  • It’s not possible from this type of cross-sectional analysis to prove that breathing problems during sleep cause the differences in brain function seen. This is largely because it’s not possible to establish whether participants only developed problems with brain function after they experienced sleep breathing problems. It’s also difficult to be sure that the effect of all potential confounders has been removed.
  • The study measured brain function at one time point and did not assess whether people had (or went on to develop) dementia. Therefore we don’t know if the brain function differences were temporary or long lasting, whether it had any impact on the participants’ lives, or whether there is a link between problems with breathing during sleep and dementia.
  • Sleep was only assessed on one night and may not be indicative of longer term sleep breathing problems.
  • The participants were older and middle aged adults so it may not be possible to generalise these results to younger adults.

Some of the risk factors for sleep apnoea are similar to some of those for dementia. These include being overweight or obese, smoking, and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

So maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking, and limiting your alcohol intake are likely to reduce both your risk of developing sleep apnoea and dementia.

Links To The Headlines

Snoring linked to Alzheimer’s: Difficulty breathing while asleep accelerates memory decline in people at-risk of the condition, reveals study. Mail Online, July 21 2017

Snoring can increase the chances of getting dementia in later life, new study reveals. The Sun, July 21 2017

Links To Science

Johnson DA, Lane J, Wang R, et al. Greater Cognitive Deficits with Sleep-Disordered Breathing among Individuals with Genetic Susceptibility to Alzheimer’s Disease: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. Published online July 21 2017

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Site last updated July 25, 2017 @ 6:30 pm; This content last updated December 11, 2011 @ 12:55 pm