Tag Archives: health

March 2017 in Review

Most frightening stories:

  • La Paz, Bolivia, is in a serious crisis caused by loss of its glacier-fed water supply. At the same time we are losing glaciers and snowpack in important food-growing regions, the global groundwater situation is also looking bleak. And for those of us trying to do our little part for water conservation, investing in a residential graywater system can take around 15 years to break even at current costs and water rates.
  • Trump admires Andrew Jackson, who I consider a genocidal lunatic and the worst President in U.S. history.
  • Fluoridated drinking water could eventually be looked back on as a really stupid idea that damaged several generations of developing brains, like leaded gasoline. Or not…I’m not sure who to believe on the issue but caution is clearly warranted.

Most hopeful stories:

  • A new political survey says there is a chance that a majority of Americans are not bat-shit crazy. Which suggests they might not be too serious about Steve Bannon, who believes in some bat-shit crazy stuff. There are a number of apps and guides out there to help sane people pester our elected representatives when they fail to represent our interests.
  • South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030.
  • Advanced power strips can reduce the so-called “vampire loads” of our modern electronic devices that are never really off.

Most interesting stories, that were not particularly frightening or hopeful, or perhaps were a mixture of both:

  • This long NASA article first gets you excited about the possibility of life on eight new planets it has just discovered, and then throws cold water (actually, make that lethal X-rays) all over your excitement.
  • Bill Gates has proposed a “robot tax”. The basic idea is that if and when automation starts to increase productivity, you could tax the increase in profits and use the money to help any workers displaced by the automation. In related somewhat boring economic news, there are a variety of theories as to why a raise in the minimum wage does not appear to cause unemployment as classical economic theory would predict.
  • CRISPR could be used to create new crops out of the wild ancestors of our current crops.

fluoride and neurotoxicity

A coalition of groups including the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and the International Academy of Oral Medicine and Toxicology is petitioning the EPA to ban the practice of water fluoridation.

EPA should exercise its authority under TSCA to prohibit fluoridation additives because application of the Agency’s own Guidelines for Neurotoxicity Risk Assessment to the existing database on fluoride shows that (1) neurotoxicity is a hazard of fluoride exposure, and (2) the reference dose that would reasonably protect against this hazard is incompatible with the doses now ingested by millions of Americans in fluoridated areas. In fact, the amount of fluoride now regularly consumed by many people in fluoridated areas exceeds the doses repeatedly linked to IQ loss and other neurotoxic effects; with certain subpopulations standing at elevated risk of harm, including infants, young children, elderly populations, and those with dietary deficiencies, renal impairment, and/or genetic predispositions.

The risk to the brain posed by fluoridation additives is an unreasonable risk because, inter alia, it is now understood that fluoride’s predominant effect on tooth decay comes from topical contact with teeth, not ingestion. Since there is little benefit in swallowing fluoride, there is little justification in exposing the public to any risk of fluoride neurotoxicity, particularly via a source as essential to human sustenance as the public drinking water and the many processed foods and beverages made therefrom. The addition of fluoridation chemicals to water thus represents the very type of unreasonable risk that EPA is duly authorized to prohibit pursuant to its powers and responsibilities under Section 6 of TSCA, and Petitioners urge the Agency to exercise its authority to do so.

I admit I hadn’t heard of these particular groups, but at first glance they appear to be reputable. I might have previously lumped the anti-fluoride movement in with the anti-vaccine movement or the anti-global warming movement, as pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo at best and a serious danger to the public at worse. But unlike vaccines, the health benefits of fluoridation might not be all that great. If something is not useful and we are not sure if it is toxic or not, there is a strong argument for erring on the side of caution. Maybe one day we’ll look back at water fluoridation similarly to how we look at leaded gasoline or mercury thermometers today – “what were we thinking?”

February 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • The idea of growing human organs inside a pig, or even a viable human-pig hybrid, is getting very closeTiny brains can also be grown on a microchip. Bringing back extinct animals is also getting very close.
  • Russian hackers are cheating slot machines by figuring out the pattern on pseudo-random numbers they generate.
  • From a new book called Homo Deus: “For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists and criminals put together. The average American is a thousand times more likely to die from binging at McDonalds than from being blown up by Al Qaeda.”

breaking the 90 barrier

 

The Lancet has an open-access article on projected life expectancies in 35 industrialized countries by 2030. A few interesting findings are that South Korea seems to have some of the longest life expectancies and some of the largest gains in life expectancy among both sexes. South Korean women are projected to be the first to break the barrier of an average life expectancy of 90, with a 50% probability of this happening by 2030. The USA is consistently below the middle of the pack. The good news is that life expectancy is projected to increase in all countries studied, and the gap between men and women is projected to narrow. The graphics in this article are really interesting – I have picked just one below.

http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)32381-9/fulltext

Figure 3 from Future life expectancy in 35 industrialised countries: projections with a Bayesian model ensemble

self-healing teeth

Teeth – I have always thought they are one of the weakest links in our evolution, and an example of how nature does not always come up with an optimal design. They just don’t make any sense. Why make them out of substances that dissolve in acid when most of our food is made of acid? They just don’t last as long as most of our other body parts, and they cause us tremendous pain and suffering. Maybe in the future we will just have them all pulled out at some point and replaced with titanium or something else durable. Something I didn’t know, though, is that teeth actually have the ability to heal themselves at a slow rate, and this ability could maybe be accelerated using drugs.

December 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The climate situation is not good. Concerns about food continue to surface, including from Bjorn Lomborg.
  • The water resources situation is not good. Asia may be headed for serious water shortages. 100 million trees have died in California during the current drought there. Drought and fire in the U.S. Southeast are an increasing problem and the region is unprepared.
  • The geopolitical situation is not good. If Russia did hack the U.S. election, it wouldn’t be the first election they have hacked. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not over, and the rest of the greater Middle East is increasingly a mess.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Scientists can synthesize proteins that could be incorporated in silicon-based life.
  • According to Bill Gates, “new genome technologies are at the cusp of affecting us all in profound ways”. But an article in Nature says we should not be too hopeful about living much past 100.
  • Maybe fish are not as stupid as we thought.

do the rich deserve more health care?

This New York Times opinion article is an economist making the somewhat offensive argument that maybe poor people should not be offered the same access to newer more expensive health care technology as rich people. I say offensive because that is the gut reaction. But part of the article’s point is that newer, higher-tech and more expensive don’t automatically mean a big benefit in terms of outcome and effectiveness. If they do improve outcomes, it is often just by a little bit compared to the lower-tech alternative, and at a much higher price. So it is an argument that a small increase in health is not worth a high price, or at least people should be helped to understand that tradeoff and then decide for themselves. It’s the economist’s basic argument that we live in a universe with finite resources available and we have to decide how to allocate them, and a large number of people making small decisions in a relatively free market will do that efficiently, if not necessarily fairly. Fairness is not really an economic argument, after all.

Consider, for example, treating prostate cancer with proton-beam therapy. It’s more expensive than alternatives like intensity-modulated radiation therapy, but isn’t proven to be any better. If given the choice, many people — especially those with lower incomes — might rather buy health insurance plans that exclude high-cost, low-value treatments.

The trouble is that insurers rarely sell those sorts of plans. Even insurers that try to exclude a particularly expensive and unproven technology from coverage are often rebuffed by legislatures and the courts.

This one-size-fits-all approach to insurance coverage disproportionately hurts low-income people, many of whom might reasonably prefer to devote their scarce dollars to housing or their children’s education. To some extent, subsidies and other monetary adjustments can mitigate this problem. Medicare and Medicaid, for example, are financed in large part out of federal income taxes. And within the Affordable Care Act marketplaces, lower-income people receive subsidies that cover some of their costs.

One way to handle this, which is not suggested in this article, is for the government to provide a minimum level of cost-effective treatment to all citizens, plus catastrophic coverage for the really big stuff like heart attacks and car accidents. The private health insurance market could still exist to cover everything in between, which you could argue is the stuff people want but don’t necessarily need. Which is the proper domain of economics. Distinguishing between high value treatments that prolong and improve the quality of life, and shiny new technologies that we might want but don’t necessarily all need, may become more and more important as technology continues to accelerate.

vaccine for the common cold

According to Inhabitat, there may soon be an effective vaccine for the common cold.

Could the common cold soon be a thing of the past? Scientists have created a breakthrough nasal spray that could block the virus as it tries to enter through the nose, where more than 90% of pathogens get in. The vaccine is called SynGEM, and it treats Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), one of three viruses that cause 80% of common colds.

Zuckerberg vs. disease

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife have decided to set a modest goal of curing all disease.

Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on Wednesday announced a $3 billion effort to accelerate scientific research with the wildly ambitious goal of “curing all disease in our children’s lifetime.”

The many components of the initiative include creating universal technology “tools” based on both traditional science and engineering on which all researchers can build, including a map of all cell types, a way to continuously monitor blood for early signs of illness, and a chip that can diagnose all diseases (or at least many of them). The money will also help fund what they referred to as 10 to 15 “virtual institutes” that will bring together investigators from around the world to focus on individual diseases or other goals — an idea that has the potential to upend biomedical science…