SECOND OPINION | Perfectionism can be deadly

In this week's roundup of interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science, perfectionism can be deadly and the surprising science of shade.

Also: the surprising science of shade

Alice Cooper, seen here in August 2015, is not a perfectionist, but his song Man of the Year inspired Canadian researcher Danielle Molnar to write her PhD dissertation on perfectionism. Cooper gave her paper an A++. (Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images)

Hello and happy Saturday! Here's our roundup of the week's interesting and eclectic news in health and medical science.

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Perfectionism can be deadly

A song by Alice Cooper changed Danielle Molnar's life forever. One day, as the young perfectionist and avid Alice Cooper fan was starting to work on her PhD in psychology, she listened closely to the lyrics of the song Man of the Year.

"It's a very tongue-in-cheek song about this man who on the outside appears to have a perfect life and he strives for a perfect life, but at the end of the song he commits suicide," Molnar said. 

A dark side to perfectionism? She had to find out.

"Before I got into the field, I thought, like most people, being a perfectionist is a good thing."

What she discovered is that striving to be perfect is associated with depression and early death.

"That really got my attention," she told CBC Health. And her research at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., has confirmed that connection, although the causal mechanisms have not been worked out. Perfectionists tend to be more stressed and have less social support to manage that stress, and experts suspect that could trigger negative health outcomes.

Molnar's new paper suggests that some perfectionists are also cursed with a tendency to procrastinate, to fail to complete important tasks even when they know the delay will result in negative consequences. It's especially prevalent in the form of perfectionism scientists call "perfectionistic concerns."  

"These are people who set extremely high standards and feel compelled to reach them but are also preoccupied by what other people think of them," Molnar said. "They're very sensitive to external pressure. They tend to be motivated by a fear of failure rather than by approaching success."

Another form, known as "perfectionistic striving," is driven by an internal compulsion to reach unrealistically high standards, and it tends to be associated with self-criticism.

Alice Cooper signed Danielle Molnar's PhD dissertation that was based on one of his songs. (Danielle Molnar/DPHWB Lab/Twitter)

And there's a third type of perfectionist who projects their demand for high standards onto others.

"You may be a perfectionist, but you don't want to be," Molnar said. "What you want to be is conscientious, striving for excellence but giving yourself latitude to make mistakes, and your identity isn't tied up in all the tasks that you're doing."

Because perfectionism has been associated with poor health, Molnar believes it should be part of mental health assessments.

"If someone comes in depressed, we would argue that you should definitely assess whether they have perfectionistic tendencies."

Molnar is now researching perfectionism in children, and the effect of perfectionism in romantic couples.

And she's still a huge Alice Cooper fan. He even signed her PhD dissertation and gave her an A-plus-plus.

So, is Alice Cooper a perfectionist? "I asked him, and he laughed and he said, 'No way."

Enjoying the shade? Think about this: It's not just blocking the sun, it's also keeping the air clean

The shade from Canada's forests is preventing a dangerous air pollutant from forming in the air at ground level, a senior Canadian government scientist found. (Eduardo Lima/Canadian Press)

It was a eureka moment for Paul Makar, a senior Canadian government scientist, when he realized that the shade from Canada's forests is actually preventing a dangerous air pollutant from forming in the air under the trees.

His colleagues at Environment and Climate Change Canada were scratching their heads, trying to figure out why the ozone predictions on their computer models were so much higher than their actual readings. That's when Makar realized it must be the trees.

His research, just published in the journal Nature Communications, raised an important question: What if the shaded area under the pine trees wasn't there? It matters because ground-level ozone can be dangerous to human health.

Makar was surprised when he ran the models without the forest shade. "What we saw was that the ozone sometimes doubled, at different times, in different parts of North America," he told CBC Health.

Ground-level ozone is a major component of smog. It develops out of a chemical reaction between sunlight and nitrogen oxides and organic compounds that circulate as gases in the air.

The cool darkness on the forest floor prevents the chemical from forming. That means if those trees disappear, ozone levels in some parts of North America would be up to 50 per cent higher than they are now, according to Makar's research.

The findings will improve the accuracy of computer climate models. It's also one more reason to protect Canada's forests.

Listen to Makar describe his insight in an interview with Levon Sevunts, at Radio Canada International.

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