Later On

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Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

On why old people don’t crave excitement

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Or, to put it positively, why mundane routines are pleasurable. From a book review by Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker:

. . . Consider the following scenario. One afternoon, you’re sitting in your office with wads of cotton stuck up your nose. (For the present purposes, it’s not important to know why.) Someone in your office has just baked a batch of chocolate-chip cookies. The aroma fills the air, but, since your nose is plugged, you don’t notice and continue working. Suddenly you sneeze, and the cotton gets dislodged. Now the smell hits, and you rush over to gobble up one cookie, then another.

According to Steinberg, adults spend their lives with wads of cotton in their metaphorical noses. Adolescents, by contrast, are designed to sniff out treats at a hundred paces. During childhood, the nucleus accumbens, which is sometimes called the “pleasure center,” grows. It reaches its maximum extent in the teen-age brain; then it starts to shrink. This enlargement of the pleasure center occurs in concert with other sensation-enhancing changes. As kids enter puberty, their brains sprout more dopamine receptors. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, plays many roles in the human nervous system, the sexiest of which is signalling enjoyment.

“Nothing—whether it’s being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music—will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager,” Steinberg observes. And this, in turn, explains why adolescents do so many stupid things. It’s not that they are any worse than their elders at assessing danger. It’s just that the potential rewards seem—and, from a neurological standpoint, genuinely are—way, way greater. “The notion that adolescents take risks because they don’t know any better is ludicrous,” Steinberg writes.

Teen-agers are, as a rule, extremely healthy—healthier than younger children. But their death rate is much higher. The mortality rate for Americans between fifteen and nineteen years old is nearly twice what it is for those between the ages of one and four, and it’s more than three times as high as for those ages five to fourteen. The leading cause of death among adolescents today is accidents; this is known as the “accident hump.”

Steinberg explains the situation as the product of an evolutionary mismatch. . .

Evolution again: adolescents are exploratory and experimental-minded, with benefits to the group as a whole: finding new sources of food (plant, animal, or region), thinking up new ways to hunt, and undoubtedly a fair number dying from consuming toxic food—but the group thus learns and advances. Doesn’t this remind you of the viral swarm entity a few blog posts ago?

Steinberg explains why the risky behavior is done to get attention, and why attention is so important—i.e., such a reward.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 August 2015 at 3:24 pm

More on the workplace culture exemplified by Amazon

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The Onion has a good headline: “Jeff Bezos Assures Amazon Employees That HR Working 100 Hours A Week To Address Their Complaints.”

But the problem of excessive demands—i.e., exploitation of the workforce—is serious. And, as Tim Wu points out in an interesting piece in the New Yorker, it is not necessarily due to individuals in charge. The entire article is worth reading, but let me quote just his conclusions:

. . . What all of these explanations [for the excessive demands of the modern workplace] have in common is the idea that the answer comes from examining workers’ decisions and incentives. There’s something missing: the question of whether the American system, by its nature, resists the possibility of too much leisure, even if that’s what people actually want, and even if they have the means to achieve it. In other words, the long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.

What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs. Consider the litigation system, in which the hours worked by lawyers at large law firms are a common complaint. If dispute resolution is the social function of the law, what we have is far from the most efficient way to reach fair or reasonable resolutions. Instead, modern litigation can be understood as a massive, socially unnecessary arms race, wherein lawyers subject each other to torturous amounts of labor just because they can. In older times, the limits of technology and a kind of professionalism created a natural limit to such arms races, but today neither side can stand down, lest it put itself at a competitive disadvantage.

A typical analysis blames greedy partners for crazy hours, but the irony is that the people at the top are often as unhappy and overworked as those at the bottom: it is a system that serves almost no one. Moreover, our many improvements in the technologies of productivity make the arms-race problem worse. The fact that employees are now always reachable eliminates what was once a natural barrier of sorts, the idea that work was something that happened during office hours or at the physical office. With no limits, work becomes like a football game where the whistle is never blown.

Litigation may be an extreme example, but I do not doubt that many other industries have their own arms races that create work that is of dubious necessity. The antidote is simple to prescribe but hard to achieve: it is a return to the goal of efficiency in work—fulfilling whatever needs we have, as a society, with the minimal effort required, while leaving the option of more work as a hobby for those who happen to love it. In this respect, it seems like no little irony that Amazon should be a brutal workplace when its ostensible guiding principle is making people’s lives better. There must be a better way.

In a situation such as this, a government that is by, for, and of the people and is focused on the general welfare can play a role. While no single company can afford to slack up because of competitive pressure, the government can set (and enforce—important aspect) ground rules that protect workers and level the playing field for all companies. For example, enforcing a 40-hour work week for all employees would enable companies to give their workforce time for family, rest, and activities other than work.

As an example of how this works, automobile manufacturers are required to meet certain safety standards by law. Without such laws, there would be a race to the bottom as companies cut costs by jettisoning the safety measures built into their cars. (You can see that they would by noting how strenuously and vigorously the automobile industry has fought the introduction of each safety requirement: if it were left up to them, they would never incorporate such measures for fear that their competitors would undercut them on price by having lower costs. But a law requiring the observance of such safety standards takes off the table the option of ignoring the standards, so no one can get a competitive advantage by ignoring safety.

Because of the nature of the system, however, the change probably must be imposed from without, since the companies have entered a trap from which they cannot otherwise escape.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 August 2015 at 12:08 pm

Jimmy Carter’s decades-long program to eradicate Guinea worm has worked

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In DailyKos a blog post by distraught notes:

Today, Jimmy Carter discussed his cancer diagnosis and treatment, even saying “I hope the last Guinea worm dies before I do.” [full video of his press conference]

What a gift to future generations it would be. Humanity has only eradicated smallpox before this, and there was a vaccine for that. In May, the WHO reiterated its commitment to interrupt transmission of the Guinea worm–technically a nematode–by the end of 2015.

Cheap water filters and dedicated public health practitioners made it possible. The leadership of Jimmy Carter brought the necessary financial resources and galvanized local governments to make this happen.

Through July of 2015, there have been just 11 cases in the 4 endemic countries (Chad [7 cases], Ethiopia [1], Mali [1] and South Sudan [2]). If these communities can pull it off, then after 3 years of no further disease, WHO would officially declare eradication.

Earlier this year on NPR, President Carter said:

“It’s a despicable disease. And it was in such remote villages that no one wanted to take on the task. So we decided to take it on. We started in 1986 and we’ve been going at it ever since. Twenty-six thousand five hundred villages were affected — and [the Carter Center] has been to every one of them.”

At that time, an estimated 3.5 million people in 20 countries in Asia and Africa suffered from a parasitic infection Carter describes as “horribly painful … caused by drinking contaminated water from rain ponds, which is often the only source of water for a village.” Once ingested, the microscopic larvae begin to grow and within a year develop into stringy three-foot-long worms that slowly and agonizingly emerge from lesions that can appear anywhere in the body.

The American Museum of Natural History in NYC has an exhibit dedicated to the eradication of Guinea worm (and other disease candidates for eradication). Here’s their video about the disease eradication effort. . .

Continue reading. Video “Countdown to Zero: A Case Study in South Sudan” at the link.

Written by LeisureGuy

21 August 2015 at 2:25 pm

How DuPont slipped past the EPA

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Sharon Lerner continues the series on DuPont and C8, a toxic substance that is used to make Teflon and is now found in the bloodstream of 99.7 percent of Americans and in the environment. The current installment in the series explores the reasons the EPA failed to take action against the pollutant.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 August 2015 at 3:54 pm

Pushback against the low-carb diet

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Very interesting article by Richard Harris at NPR (with podcast at the link):

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably gotten drawn into the argument over whether it’s better to cut carbs or fat from your diet. A new study doesn’t completely resolve that question, but it does provide an important insight.

Some proponents of the low-carb diet insist that you must cut carbs to burn off body fat. Their reasoning goes that when you cut carbs, your body’s insulin levels drop, and that’s essential in order to burn fat.

To put that question to the test, Kevin Hall at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases and colleagues recruited 19 obese volunteers (average weight over 230 pounds) to participate in a rigorous study.

For two weeks they were kept in a lab around the clock, where scientists could provide them a precise diet. One group got a low-carb diet that reduced their total calories by 30 percent. Another group went on a low-fat diet that also reduced their total calories by 30 percent. Then, after a few weeks of rest, the two groups switched diets.

As Hall now reports in the journal Cell Metabolism, cutting carbs did work.

“We cut the carbohydrates, insulin went down, and fat burning went up, exactly the way that theory predicts, and people lost fat,” Hall says.

The average participant lost about a pound of fat over two weeks, and about 4 pounds of weight total (the rest was probably water).

But Hall’s study also showed that the low-carb, low-insulin conditions were not necessary to shed body fat. In fact, the low-fat diet also led to the loss of about 1 pound of body fat. So it was just as good.

Hall says, so much for the idea that only low-carb diets can help people shed fat. “That theory, as it stands — that very strong claim — is certainly not true,” he says.

Instead, his evidence favors those who say if you want to lose body fat, total calories matter most. . .

Continue reading.

Now that I am trying reduce if not eliminate meat from farm-raised animals from my diet (I still am comfortable eating wild-caught fish), my net-carb amount (total carbs minus dietary fiber) has gone up somewhat, but I still try to keep it below 50g. And I strenuously avoid refined flour (products such as bread, pasta, pizza (crust), doughnut, and so on), simple starches (potatoes), and sugar (cake, ice cream, jellies and jams, fruit juices, and so on). So the carbs I get are complex and tend to be high in fiber. (E.g., I just made a lentil soup, a Lebanese lentil salad, and a bean salad I made up using Corona beans.) Tofu and tempeh have, of course, re-entered the menu.

So my diet is not so low-carb as before, but I still avoid simple carbs and sugar and am more relaxed about fats. Fats are slow to digest and convey feeling of satiation (plus, of course, they’re delicious: evolution’s handiwork given that they’re 9 cal/gram vs 4 cal/gram for proteins and for carbs: more bang for the weight/buck). There’s a reason so many like bacon.

Recipe note on the Lebanese lentil salad. I use French green lentils, which hold their shape well. (Black Beluga lentils also work well in salads.) Since 3/4 c of chopped red bell pepper is pretty much 1/2 a pepper, I think next time I’m just going to double the recipe, using the full 1 pound package of lentils. (1 pound ≈ 2 cups: “a pint’s a pound the world around”).

Lentils Monastery Style is my standard recipe, from Diet for a Small Planet:

Lentils Monastery Style

1/4 cup olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 cups stock or seasoned water
1 CUP dried lentils
salt to taste
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 14.5-oz can of tomatoes
1/4 cup sherry
3/4 c grated Swiss cheese

Use a Parmesan rind in the soup if I have it on hand.

Heat oil and sauté onions and carrot for 5 minutes. Add thyme and marjoram and sauté 1 minute more. Add all but sherry and cook covered until lentils are tender, about 45 minutes. Add sherry. Put 2 Tbs of grated cheese in each serving bowl and top with soup. Very good with corn muffins.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 August 2015 at 11:37 am

The Teflon Toxin: DuPont and the Chemistry of Deception

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Corporations are sociopaths. Sharon Lerner reports in The Intercept:

Ken Wamsley sometimes dreams that he’s playing softball again. He’ll be at center field, just like when he played slow pitch back in his teens, or pounding the ball over the fence as the crowd goes wild. Other times, he’s somehow inexplicably back at work in the lab. Wamsley calls them nightmares, these stories that play out in his sleep, but really the only scary part is the end, when “I wake up and I have no rectum anymore.”

Wamsley is 73. After developing rectal cancer and having surgery to treat it in 2002, he walks slowly and gets up from the bench in his small backyard slowly. His voice, which has a gentle Appalachian lilt, is still animated, though, especially when he talks about his happier days. There were many. While Wamsley knew plenty of people in Parkersburg, West Virginia, who struggled to stay employed, he made an enviable wage for almost four decades at the DuPont plant here. The company was generous, helping him pay for college courses and training him to become a lab analyst in the Teflon division.

He enjoyed the work, particularly the precision and care it required. For years, he measured levels of a chemical called C8 in various products. The chemical “was everywhere,” as Wamsley remembers it, bubbling out of the glass flasks he used to transport it, wafting into a smelly vapor that formed when he heated it. A fine powder, possibly C8, dusted the laboratory drawers and floated in the hazy lab air.

At the time, Wamsley and his coworkers weren’t particularly concerned about the strange stuff. “We never thought about it, never worried about it,” he said recently. His believed it was harmless, “like a soap. Wash your hands [with it], your face, take a bath.”

Today Wamsley suffers from ulcerative colitis, a bowel condition that causes him sudden bouts of diarrhea. The disease also can — and his case, did — lead to rectal cancer. Between the surgery, which left him reliant on plastic pouches that collect his waste outside his body and have to be changed regularly, and his ongoing digestive problems, Wamsley finds it difficult to be away from his home for long.

Sometimes, between napping or watching baseball on TV, Wamsley’s mind drifts back to his DuPont days and he wonders not just about the dust that coated his old workplace but also about his bosses who offered their casual assurances about the chemical years ago.

“Who knew?” he asked. “When did they know? Did they lie?”

Until recently, few people

had heard much about chemicals like C8. One of tens of thousands of unregulated industrial chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — also called C8 because of the eight-carbon chain that makes up its chemical backbone — had gone unnoticed for most of its eight or so decades on earth, even as it helped cement the success of one of the world’s largest corporations.

Several blockbuster discoveries, including nylon, Lycra, and Tyvek, helped transform the E. I. du Pont de Nemours company from a 19th-century gunpowder mill into “one of the most successful and sustained industrial enterprises in the world,” as its corporate website puts it. Indeed, in 2014, the company reaped more than $95 million in sales each day. Perhaps no product is as responsible for its dominance as Teflon, which was introduced in 1946, and for more than 60 years C8 was an essential ingredient of Teflon.

Called a “surfactant” because it reduces the surface tension of water, the slippery, stable compound was eventually used in hundreds of products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Concerns about the safety of Teflon, C8, and other long-chain perfluorinated chemicals first came to wide public attention more than a decade ago, but the story of DuPont’s long involvement with C8 has never been fully told. Over the past 15 years, as lawyers have been waging an epic legal battle — culminating as the first of approximately 3,500 personal injury claims comes to trial in September — a long trail of documents has emerged that casts new light on C8, DuPont, and the fitful attempts of the Environmental Protection Agency to deal with a threat to public health.

This story is based on many of those documents, which until they were entered into evidence for these trials had been hidden away in DuPont’s files. Among them are write-ups of experiments on rats, dogs, and rabbits showing that C8 was associated with a wide range of health problems that sometimes killed the lab animals. Many thousands of pages of expert testimony and depositions have been prepared by attorneys for the plaintiffs. And through the process of legal discovery they have uncovered hundreds of internal communications revealing that DuPont employees for many years suspected that C8 was harmful and yet continued to use it, putting the company’s workers and the people who lived near its plants at risk.

The best evidence of how C8 affects humans has also come out through the legal battle over the chemical, though in a more public form. As part of a 2005 settlement over contamination around the West Virginia plant where Wamsley worked, lawyers for both DuPont and the plaintiffs approved a team of three scientists, who were charged with determining if and how the chemical affects people.

In 2011 and 2012, after seven years of research, the science panel found that C8 was “more likely than not” linked to ulcerative colitis — Wamsley’s condition — as well as to high cholesterol; pregnancy-induced hypertension; thyroid disease; testicular cancer; and kidney cancer. The scientists’ findings, published in more than three dozen peer-reviewed articles, were striking, because the chemical’s effects were so widespread throughout the body and because even very low exposure levels were associated with health effects.

We know, too, from internal DuPont documents that emerged through the lawsuit, that Wamsley’s fears of being lied to are well-founded. DuPont scientists had closely studied the chemical for decades and through their own research knew about some of the dangers it posed. Yet rather than inform workers, people living near the plant, the general public, or government agencies responsible for regulating chemicals, DuPont repeatedly kept its knowledge secret.

Another revelation about C8 makes all of this more disturbing and gives the upcoming trials, the first of which will be held this fall in Columbus, Ohio, global significance: This deadly chemical that DuPont continued to use well after it knew it was linked to health problems is now practically everywhere.

A man-made compound that didn’t exist a century ago, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood. A growing group of scientists have been tracking the chemical’s spread through the environment, documenting its presence in a wide range of wildlife, including . . .

Continue reading.

The way that DuPont seems forced by the profit imperative to keep churning the stuff out in spite of the obvious dangers reminds me of how oil and coal companies continue to encourage use of their product despite the obvious (and now occurring) dangers of global warming.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 August 2015 at 9:34 am

Change in direction: Low-meat/no-meat low-carb eating

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My weight has been stubborn, and I do know the benefits of vegetarian diets—indeed, at various periods I have lived on a vegetarian diet—but when I switched to a low-carb, high-fat diet (no change in protein amount), it just was easier to go meatward.

But then this morning Minhee Cho has in ProPublica a podcast and article “The Disturbing Ways America Keeps Up With Its Demand for Meat“:

When we go to the supermarket, we rarely think about how that piece of chicken or piece of pork ended up on the shelves. There’s a high level of disconnect when it comes to our food, author Sonia Faruqi says. We don’t know how the animals were treated, or the conditions on these industrial farms.

She joins ProPublica reporter Cezary Podkul on the podcast to discuss her book, “Project Animal Farm” – pulling back the curtain on how America keeps up with its insatiable demand for meat, dairy and other products, often with little regulation or concern for the external costs.

[Article has audio here. – LG]

  • The ‘Frankensteinian genetics’ sown into our livestock: Chickens today grow at an extremely unnatural rate. Their legs often cannot keep up with the weight of their bodies and actually collapse underneath them, Faruqi says. “It would be similar to a human being gaining hundreds of pounds in the first couple of months of life.” (1:28)
  • The environmental cost of factory farms: “They contribute more to global warming and to climate change than all the transportation in the world combined,” Faruqi says. The industry is really becoming a “global goliath.” (5:34)
  • How America’s factory farm model has been exported elsewhere, much like Hollywood and our fast food obsession. (10:26)
  • What can consumers do? For starters, we can reduce our meat consumption. Per capita, Americans consume 300 pounds of meat, dairy, eggs and other animal products per year. “It’s unsustainable, it’s inhumane and it’s also very unnecessary,” Faruqi says. (20:02)

You can listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher, and check out Faruqi’s book, “Project Animal Farm,” for more on America’s food industry.

So I used a search engine on “vegetarian low-carb diet” and “vegetarian low-carb diet recipes” and the like and got a good collection of stuff to try. While I may not eliminate meat entirely, I am going to be cutting it way back. It should help the budge, help me lose weight, and help my conscience: the way factory farming treats animals really is shameful. But… profit: anything that improves profits is not only allowed but actually mandatory, so treating food animals well is simply not going to happen.

I feel chagrined that it’s taken me this long.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 August 2015 at 10:31 am

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