Category Archives: Health

Their god was called Gun

Maybe you’ve heard this little story about aliens visiting us. Aliens, on first observing humans, might think we serve dogs. As soon a dog poops, their attending human quickly recovers the precious gift from the dog in a special bag.

Maybe future historians, after reviewing the actions of modern Americans, might assume the American religion was built around a god called Gun. They’d see the records of mass killings using guns occurring fairly regularly, daily self sacrifices using guns, and the constant settling of disputes (usually with someone close to the shooter) with guns. Future historians would even discover there’re more pre-schoolers shot dead in America (about 75) than police officers are in a typical year.

These future historians might speculate that mental illness, criminal activity, or racial issues were the root of the problem before coming to the conclusion current researchers have come to. Namely that American violence comes down to the vast number of guns in America. These findings could lead future historians to theorize that the  US culture’s predominate god is named Gun.

They’re a couple of good articles about in the NYT , here and here, about gun violence and possible solutions. Here’re a few takeaways from the articles. The bottom line is this: The only variable explaining the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.

Worldwide, a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting. This relationship held even when excluding the US, indicating that it couldn’t be explained by some other factor particular. And it held when controlled for homicide rates, suggesting that mass shootings were better explained by a society’s access to guns than by its baseline level of violence. 

Americans make up about 4.4% of the global population but own 42% of the world’s guns. Only in the U.S. do we lose one person every 15 minutes to gun violence.

While there’s crime in other countries, American crime is simply more lethal. A New Yorker is just as likely to be robbed as a Londoner, but the New Yorker is 54 times more likely to be killed in the process.

While mass shootings can happen anywhere, they are only a matter of routine in the US.

In 2013, American gun-related deaths included 21,175 suicides, 11,208 homicides and 505 deaths from accidental discharge. That same year in Japan, a country with one-third America’s population, guns were involved in only 13 deaths. America’s gun ownership rate is 150 times higher than Japan’s.

The US is one of only three countries, along with Mexico and Guatemala, that begin with the assumption that people have an inherent right to own guns. But the US has determined that relatively unregulated gun ownership is worth the cost to society.

Gun safety or reducing gun violence should be framed as a public health issue using auto safety as a model with its constant efforts to make the products safer and limiting access by people who are most likely to misuse them.

We don’t ban cars, but we work hard to regulate them – and limit access to them – so as to reduce the death toll they cause. This has been spectacularly successful, reducing the death rate per 100 million miles driven by 95% since 1921.

States where guns are more regulated tend to have lower gun death rates.

But the problem is that lax laws too often make it easy not only for good guys to get guns, but also for bad guys to get guns. The evidence is overwhelming that overall more guns and more relaxed gun laws lead to more violent deaths and injuries. One study found that a gun in the house was associated with an increased risk of a gun death, particularly by suicide but also by homicide.

Although it’s mass shootings that get our attention, they’re not the main cause of loss of life. Much more typical is a friend who shoots another, a husband who kills his wife – or, most common of all, a man who kills himself.

Skeptics will say that if people want to kill themselves, there’s nothing we can do. In fact, it turns out that if you make suicide more difficult, suicide rates drop.

After tightening gun laws, firearm homicide rates dropped 40 percent in Connecticut. And after Missouri eased gun laws, gun homicide rates rose 25 percent.

Our laws have often focused more on weapons themselves (such as the assault weapons ban) rather than on access. In many places, there is more rigorous screening of people who want to adopt dogs than of people who want to purchase firearms. A car or gun is usually safe in the hands of a 45-year-old woman with no criminal record, but may be dangerous when used by a 19-year-old felon with a history of alcohol offenses or domestic violence protection orders.

Sunday’s horror at a church in Texas was 100% predictable. After each such incident, we mourn the deaths and sympathize with the victims, but we do nothing fundamental to reduce our vulnerability. The question isn’t whether we’ll restrict firearms, but where to draw the line. The real impetus for change will come because the public favors it.

Sleeping

Here’s some highlights on the importance of sleep from an article in The Guardian.

  • After being awake for 19 hours, you’re as cognitively impaired as someone who is drunk.
  • Two-thirds of adults in developed nations fail to obtain eight hours of sleep.
  • If you drive having had only four hours of sleep, you’re 11.5 times more likely to be involved in an accident.
  • To successfully initiate sleep, your core temperature needs to drop about 1C.
  • A hot bath aids sleep because your dilated blood vessels radiate inner heat, and your core body temperature drops.
  • The time taken to reach physical exhaustion by athletes who obtain less than eight hours of sleep, and especially less than six hours, drops by 10-30%.
  • It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep.
  • Morning types, who prefer to awake around dawn, make up about 40% of the population. Evening types, who prefer to go to bed late and wake up late, account for about 30%. The remaining 30% lie somewhere in between.

Matthew Walker is the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC, Berkeley and was formerly a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Walker has written “Why We Sleep,”  examining the powerful links between sleep loss and Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation,” he says.

“First, we electrified the night,” Walker says. “Second, our work: not only the porous borders between start and finish, but longer commuter times, too. No one wants to give up time with their family or entertainment, so they give up sleep instead. And anxiety plays a part. We’re a lonelier, more depressed society.”

But Walker also says that in the developed world, sleep is strongly associated with weakness, even shame, “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness.”

More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime.

By looking at the brainwave patterns of people with different forms of dementia, sleep could be a new early diagnostic litmus test for different subtypes of dementia.

A lack of sleep also appears to hijack the body’s effective control of blood sugar, the cells become less responsive to insulin causing a prediabetic state of hyperglycaemia. When your sleep becomes short you’re susceptible to weight gain. Among the reasons for this are the fact that inadequate sleep decreases levels of the satiety-signalling hormone, leptin, and increases levels of the hunger-signalling hormone, ghrelin. “I’m not going to say that the obesity crisis is caused by the sleep-loss epidemic alone. It’s not. However, processed food and sedentary lifestyles don’t adequately explain its rise. Something’s missing. It’s now clear that sleep is that third ingredient.”

Getting too little sleep across the adult lifespan will significantly raise your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. In essence it has to do with amyloid deposits (a toxin protein) accumulating in the brains of those suffering from the disease, killing the surrounding cells. During deep sleep, such deposits are effectively cleaned from the brain. Without sufficient sleep, these plaques build up, especially in the brain’s deep-sleep-generating regions, attacking and degrading them. The loss of deep sleep caused by this assault therefore lessens our ability to remove them from the brain at night. More amyloid, less deep sleep; less deep sleep, more amyloid, and so on.

Sleep aids our ability to make new memories, and restores our capacity for learning.

A lack of sleep also affects our mood more generally. Brain scans carried out by Walker revealed a 60% amplification in the reactivity of the amygdala – a key spot for triggering anger and rage – in those who were sleep-deprived.

We sleep in 90-minute cycles, and it’s only towards the end of each one of these that we go into deep sleep. Each cycle comprises two kinds of sleep. First, there is NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement sleep); this is then followed by REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.

“During NREM sleep, your brain goes into this incredible synchronised pattern of rhythmic chanting,” he says. “There’s a remarkable unity across the surface of the brain, like a deep, slow mantra. Vast amounts of memory processing is going on. To produce these brainwaves, hundreds of thousands of cells all sing together, and then go silent, and on and on. Meanwhile, your body settles into this lovely low state of energy, the best blood-pressure medicine you could ever hope for. REM sleep, on the other hand, is sometimes known as paradoxical sleep, because the brain patterns are identical to when you’re awake. It’s an incredibly active brain state. Your heart and nervous system go through spurts of activity: we’re still not exactly sure why.”

Does the 90-minute cycle mean that so-called power naps are worthless? “They can take the edge off basic sleepiness. But you need 90 minutes to get to deep sleep, and one cycle isn’t enough to do all the work. You need four or five cycles to get all the benefit.”

Walker says, “I give myself a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity every night, and I keep very regular hours. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. I take my sleep incredibly seriously because I have seen the evidence.”

How is it possible to tell if a person is sleep-deprived? Walker thinks we should trust our instincts. Those who would sleep on if their alarm clock was turned off are simply not getting enough. Ditto those who need caffeine in the afternoon to stay awake. “I see it all the time,” he says. “I get on a flight at 10am when people should be at peak alert, and I look around, and half of the plane has immediately fallen asleep.”

Assholery

Whatever differences you might have had with President Obama, one thing you couldn’t say about him was that he was an asshole. The same thing goes for the presidents before him.

Now we have President Trump who many,even in his own party, feel is an asshole. Not too presidential unfortunately.

Here’s my shortened version of an interview with a Stanford psychologist about his book on dealing with assholes. It seems timely.

An asshole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt.

An asshole needs someone in their life to tell them they’re being an asshole.

There’s a distinction between temporary and certified assholes. Anyone, under certain conditions, can be a temporary asshole.  It’s more complicated than saying a certified asshole is someone who doesn’t care about other people. Certifiable assholes actually want to make you feel hurt and upset, and take pleasure in that.

Assuming you’re not the CEO and can’t simply fire an asshole, you have to do two things in terms of strategy.

First, you’ve got to build your case and a coalition. A important distinction is that some people are clueless assholes and don’t realize they’re jerks, but maybe they mean well. In that situation, you can have backstage conversations, gently informing them that they’ve crossed a line.

But if it’s one of those Machiavellian assholes who’s treating you badly because they believe that’s how to get ahead,  then you’ve got to get out of there if you can.

Say you have an asshole boss, there’s a power asymmetry, so it’s not as simple as telling him he’s an asshole. What’s your advice?

First, can you quit or transfer? If you’re stuck under a asshole, that means you’re suffering and you should get out – it’s that simple.

The second question is, if you must endure, are you going to fight or are you just going to take it? If you’re going to fight, you need a plan and a posse, you need to collect your evidence, and then you have to take your chances.

Try to have as little contact as possible with assholes.

One of the simplest, but admittedly hardest, things is learning not to give a shit – which takes the wind out of an asshole’s sails. When an asshole’s being nasty to you, ignore him.

Think about how a year from now he won’t be in your life, but he’ll still be the asshole he always was.

What if you’ve got an asshole as a peer or a colleague? Your chances of getting rid of them are higher because you have more power.

I’m in academia, which means there’re lots of assholes we can’t fire. But we can absolutely freeze them out. Don’t  invite them to events or gatherings. We can shun them politely and smile at them as necessary, but other than that we just ignore them. That’s how we deal with assholes.

But there’re some situations in which you may have to be an asshole to survive because you’ve got no choice but to push back against them. This isn’t ideal, but if that’s what you have to do, then that’s what you do.

If somebody has a history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they’ll understand is a display of force. The best way to protect yourself is firing back with everything you’ve got.

Some people deserve and need to be treated badly. Sometimes you have to speak in the only language they understand, and that means  getting your hands dirty.

We know that assholes have a corrosive effect on the people around them. There’re studies demonstrating that people working for assholes for many years end up being more depressed, more anxious, and less healthy. So there’s compelling evidence that assholes are terrible humans doing harm to other people.

What else is there to say? If you’re an asshole, you’re a failure as a human because you promote unnecessary suffering.

Fixing healthcare

Most Americans are too distracted by work life and family life to have enough bandwidth left over for analyzing complex issues.Especially healthcare issues.

Like most things, healthcare needs to be kept simple and fair. Our brains just don’t grasp all the nuances and implications of most healthcare plans. Then, with our brains  confused, we default to our biases (usually party loyalty) or to a simple metric such as how many people are covered.

Our government has been amazingly robust for hundreds of years, but it seems to fail under some conditions. One is when an issue gets too complicated for the public to understand. And the other is when corporations distort the system for profit.

Here’s a solution that might work in America today. I heard it from an older doctor, I’m not sure if it’s his idea or not, but it’s straight forward and simple: Everyone would be responsible for the first $2000 of their medical costs and the first $500 of their prescriptions each year. After hitting those maximums, the government would pick up the tab.

Maybe those numbers should be a little different, but they seem pretty reasonable. Each citizen would have some skin in the game but also know they’d be covered if things go south.

Tick time

Summertime is tick time and ticks are found everywhere.

What to do when you find a tick with it’s mouth buried into your skin? Grab it by the head with fine pointed tweezers and pull firmly. It’ll probably hurt, If it doesn’t, you may have not extracted the head. Try again to get the little mouthpiece out, because it’s probably still in there. If you can’t, don’t worry too much about it. Just leave it alone and let your skin heal over.

Then wait. Tickborne diseases can take weeks to show symptoms. So be vigilant and look for any rashes. If you have any unusual symptoms, even if you think you’re just coming down with a summer cold, go to the doctor and take advantage of modern medicine.

By the way, this picture isn’t from information about ticks. It’s just what I imagine is going on beneath the skin after a tick bite.

Squatting article

After leaving childhood, our ability to get into a deep squat gradually disappears, at least for most of us in the Western world. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’re a couple of points, and a workout, from a New Yorker article by Jamie Lauren Keiles that will help reclaim your squat.

Trainer and author Mark Rippetoe writes, “A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong. This reality is offensive to some people who would like the intellectual or spiritual to take precedence.”

The (workout) app was designed by the Belgian fitness expert Mehdi Hadim, based on a classic five-by-five routine—five sets of five reps for each of the lifts, increasing the weight with each successive workout.

On Workout A days, I row, bench press, and squat. On Workout B days, I deadlift, do overhead presses, and squat again.

The OTC “pill”

Here’s this Friday’s pick. It’s an article from The Outline about how odd it is that something as safe, easy, and effective as the birth control pill can’t simply be bought without a prescription. This is my condensed version:

Many countries, including China and India, sell birth control over-the-counter. The US and many European countries require a prescription.

Doctors have been arguing since the late 1960s that it could be sold safely without a prescription, and the The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists officially endorsed doing so in 2012. The American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family also agree that it is safe for over-the-counter use.

It doesn’t, after all, have a lot in common with many prescription medications: It’s not habit-forming, pretty much everyone takes the same dose, it’s preventative so nothing needs to be diagnosed to begin taking it, and it rarely interferes with other medications.

The precautions for the medication are pretty run of the mill, and overall, it’s much less dangerous than many other medicines that are currently available over-the-counter. The birth control pill is linked to very few deaths. In other words: There’s pretty much no reason we need a prescription for the pill, other than the fact that that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Are you moving around enough?

Are you moving around enough? tiredThe takeaway from a new study of modern day hunter gatherers, the Hadza, is that our bodies need and respond to the kind of physical demands that these tribespeople still engage in most days.

It’s not too surprising that they move a lot, typically more than two hours a day. The men walk briskly searching for game animals off and on most days, and the women find, dig up, heft and prepare fruits, vegetables and other foods.

But, the vast majority of their activities are moderate. The tribespeople rarely run or are otherwise vigorously active.

They remain active, well into middle age and beyond, even those in their 70s moving as much as or more than the young.

The tribespeople have enviable heart health. The Hadza typically present low blood pressure and excellent cholesterol profiles across their life spans.

Some of their cardiovascular health is no doubt a result of diet, but the data intimate that the Hadzas’ active lifestyle, consisting of plenty of walking, lifting and generally being up and doing, helps to protect their hearts against disease.

Other parts of the Hadzas’ lives remain difficult and chancy. There’re real risks for untreated infections and illnesses, accidental deaths and no access to dental care.

These are risks that people in the industrial world have mitigated. But we now have the diseases of civilization which we might also be able to mitigate by following the Hadzas’ tendency of moving for a couple of hours a day. And it doesn’t have to be necessarily intense  or hard.

I’ve excerpted the information above from a recent NYT article about recent studies of the Hadza people.

The Dutch Reach

skirt-riding-upYou never know what could be passing next to your car just before you get out. And if you nail a cyclist when you open your car door you’ll feel pretty bad.

The Dutch have a solution. Enter the “Dutch Reach.” And I’m going to start using it.

A  Dutch Reach is opening your driver’s side car door with your far hand instead of using your near hand. Using  your right hand instead of your left hand it makes your body swivel, positioning your head to look out of your car so you can easily check to see approaching bikes. Maybe a better name would be the “Dutch Twist.”

If this habit can be spread, it’ll help reduce accidents, making cycling lanes less dangerous. The Dutch Reach is already part of the driver’s eduction program in the Netherlands.

It’s simple and easy to teach making it cheaper than costly infrastructure changes to make biking safer.

Decisions

lawn dartsBear with my rambling for a minute.

When I was a kid you could buy “Lawn Darts,” large heavy darts for hurling across a lawn at a target. A potentially dangerous game, possibly deadly if you were a risk taker. They were one lonesome train whistle and drunk mom away from a sad country western song, “He killt his little brotha with a lawn dart…” but they seemed to be a popular toy despite their inherent dangers.

The other day I saw an article in Smithsonian magazine about the search for LUCA, the Last Universal Common Ancestor of all life on Earth. LUCA is a sort of single-celled Eve at the base of the tree of life that all life has evolved from.

With advanced DNA analysis, it seems that life’s earliest ancestors lived in habitat with no oxygen, feeding on hydrogen gas. So it was likely an organism living near super-heated volcanic vents where hydrogen gas was likely produced. You’ve probably seen the pictures of the habitat, those deep sea vents surrounded by weird tube clams and crabs.

Anyway, LUCA got me wondering about decisions when organisms acquired mobility. When you can move you have options. At that point the most import decision became don’t do anything that has a strong chance of killing you. 

As creatures got smarter, two more important questions arose “Why?” and “Why not?” The trick is knowing which one to ask because most bad things happen quickly.

The positive things in our lives take time, usually a long time: learning new skills, fixing bad behaviors, building good relationships, rearing offspring making patience and determination among life’s primary virtues. Reinforced behaviors continue and behaviors that aren’t reinforced peter out.

Decisions about new things and situations can be difficult. Our families and experts are right about 98 percent of the time on the easy stuff, but only right maybe half the time on anything that’s unusually complicated, mysterious, or new. Who knows, if your gut feeling (intuition) disagrees with your family or the experts, take that seriously. Maybe you’re experiencing some pattern recognition that you can’t yet verbalize and their pessimism could be a failure of imagination.

Sometimes, you need to be selfish. Being selfish just means you’re taking the long view of things. That’s why on a plane, you’re told to put your oxygen mask on first before helping even your kid.

After personal needs are met, decisions automatically turn to how to make the world a better place. There’s an order. Humans are wired to take care of our own needs first, then family, tribe, country, and the world.

If you’re at a yard sale, don’t buy those seductive lawn darts.