Booster Shots

Oddities, musings and news from the health world

Category: Science

Book Review: 'The Roadmap to 100' by Walter M. Bortz II and Randall Stickrod

April 24, 2010 | 12:25 pm

RoadmapcoverWhat if you could live to 100 and not just survive but thrive -- even in your elder years? Dr. Walter M. Bortz II and Randall Stickrod, authors of "The Roadmap to 100," say it's not only possible but probable that many of us will do so.

There will be as many as 6 million centenarians in the world by the middle of this century -- most of them healthy, functional and largely independent, Bortz and Stickrod write. But conversely, there's also a large population that may die at a younger age than the previous generation and be in poorer health while alive, putting a strain on healthcare resources, they say. 

Which of these groups people fall into largely is not determined by hereditary factors but by lifestyle choices, they write. "Longevity is neither an accident nor an isolated phenomenon. It is a product of specific healthy behaviors, a direct consequence of health maintenance."

With "Roadmap," Bortz and Stickrod say, they are "issuing a clarion call to reclaim ownership of our health, to learn to take responsibility for it and not rely blindly on medical technology to repair the damage we do to ourselves."

They present a persuasive case, backed up by numerous studies, and outline specific behaviors people can adopt to live longer and live well. However, they may be preaching to the choir. Their science-oriented book is geared to an educated reader who probably already knows the components of a healthy lifestyle. 

Bortz is no stranger to the topic. He's former co-chairman of the American Medical Assn.'s Task Force on Aging, former president of the American Geriatric Society and author of "Dare to Be 100." Stickrod, a science and technology publisher and writer, was the founding executive publisher of Wired magazine.

The two have examined studies and writings on aging, exercise, obesity, nutrition and disease and come up with several factors they believe contribute to longevity. Their top prescription for a long and productive life might be summed up in two words: Move more.
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Let's check in with the skeptics! (They're way more fun than the credulous)

February 5, 2010 |  7:00 am

BrainIf you find a heavy dose of skepticism intellectually bracing -- or you're simply weary of headlines touting unproven cures or encouraging unfounded fears -- check out these blogs. They're worth adding to your "favorites" list. Heck, put 'em on RSS feeds.

Many of the writers have been a bit preoccupied this week, as you might notice.

 Science-Based Medicine Blog: The self-description sums it up: "The editorial staff of Science-Based Medicine is composed of physicians who, alarmed at the manner in which unscientific and pseudoscientific health care ideas have increasingly infiltrated academic medicine and medicine at large, have decided to do their part to examine these claims in the light of science and skepticism. We at SBM believe that medicine based on science is the best medicine and tirelessly promote science-based medicine through discussion of the role of science and medicine, as well as the interface between science, medicine, and (unfortunately) pseudoscience."

It's more fun than it sounds. Really.

This week's topics include energy healing, antidepressants and Andrew Wakefield.

 NeuroLogica Blog: Called a daily fix of neuroscience, skepticism and critical thinking, it's written by Dr. Steven Novella, a neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. 

This week's topics include a woman who reportedly developed dystonia after flu vaccination (Novella is skeptical); YouFOs; and Andrew Wakefield. 

 Respectful Insolence. A longtime favorite, this is described as "a repository for the ramblings of the aforementioned pseudonymous surgeon/scientist concerning medicine and quackery, science and pseudoscience, history and pseudohistory, politics, and anything else that interests him (or pushes his buttons). Orac's motto is: "A statement of fact cannot be insolent." "

There's more, as you might imagine. 

This week's topics include ... well, mostly just Andrew Wakefield.

 Quackwatch: This is a goldmine. The self-description: "Quackwatch is now an international network of people who are concerned about health-related frauds, myths, fads, fallacies, and misconduct. Its primary focus is on quackery-related information that is difficult or impossible to get elsewhere. Founded by Dr. Stephen Barrett in 1969 as the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Health Fraud (Allentown, Pennsylvania), it was incorporated in 1970. In 1997, it assumed its current name and began developing a worldwide network of volunteers and expert advisors."

Some of the specific take-downs are dated, but as there's always a new quack cure or product coming along, the general information holds up just fine. 

... Now for some skeptical blogs new to us. Thanks to Randy for passing them along:

Skepticblog: Described as "a collaboration among some of the most recognized names in promoting science, critical thinking, and skepticism. It also features the cast and producers of The Skeptologists, a pilot skeptical reality show." 

Seriously. A pilot skeptical reality show. 

This week's topics include ... you know.

 Skepchick: Written by "a group of women (and one deserving guy) who write about science, skepticism, and pseudoscience. With intelligence, curiosity, and occasional snark, the group tackles diverse topics from astronomy to astrology, psychics to psychology."

Alas, there seems to be no recent mention of what was his name? Oh, right, Andrew Wakefield. But the site does offer a fine list of other worthwhile sites, including {teen}skepchick, which recently tackled the "War on Splenda."

Pharyngula: Self-described as "evolution, development, and random biological ejaculations from a godless liberal."

Richard Wiseman's blog: This isn't a traditional forum for skeptical diatribes, but the blog does encourage one to think -- all by oneself! By self-described psychologist, magician, author and professor Richard Wiseman.

This week's highlight is a little psychological test for people who profess no religious beliefs. It asks: Would you sign a pact with the devil? If so, Mr. Wiseman wants to know about it.


-- Tami Dennis

Photo: No one's saying you have to agree, just asking you to think about it.


More nonsense about cellphones and cancer

September 8, 2009 |  3:36 pm

In the most recent instance of the triumph of wishful thinking over basic physics, a "collaboration of international EMF activists" last week released a new report repeating the tired old argument that "cellphones cause brain tumors."  Their evidence: that studies discrediting the link between cellphone radiation and tumors were funded by telecommunications companies, which deliberately excluded data that might have shown a link.

Many people probably first heard about the "risk" of cellphones when David Raynard, whose wife died of brain cancer, appeared on the television show "Larry King Live" in 1993 to support his lawsuit claiming that the tumor had been caused by her cellphone. His evidence: "She held it against her head and talked on it all the time." More recently, King hosted three neurosurgeons who said they would never place a cellphone against their head because of the risk. They may be good neurosurgeons, but apparently they flunked physics in college.

Cancer occurs when cellular DNA is disrupted, producing mutant strands of DNA. That is true for carcinogens, viruses and radiation. All radiation is composed of photons, and the energy they contain depends on the wavelength of the radiation. Yellow light has a frequency of 5 x 1014 Hz and is not powerful enough to break DNA bonds. Otherwise, we'd have to sit around in darkened rooms all the time. The frequency of a typical cellphone is about 1 x 109 Hz, while that used in a household microwave oven is 2.45 x 1012 Hz. In other words, the radiation from a microwave oven packs only a thousandth of the energy of yellow light, while that from a cellphone packs a millionth of the energy. (See, for example, the September/October issue of Skeptical Inquirer.) The energy of EMF radiation from power lines -- also a bugaboo of the EMF activists -- has a million-fold less energy than a cellphone.

(The risk of cancer from sunlight is caused by ultraviolet radiation, which does have enough energy to break DNA bonds.)

That is nowhere near enough energy to break bonds in DNA. For a microwave oven, it would be like trying to cut barbed wire with plastic scissors. For a cellphone, it would be more like paper scissors. And for EMF from powerlines, in the words of New Yorkers, fuhgeddaboutit.

And if that isn't enough, Danish researchers reported in in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2001 on a study of half a million cellphone users in that country, linking computerized records of cellphone use to cancer databases. The result: no detectable risk. An editorial in the same journal by physicist Robert L. Park of the University of Maryland summarized the evidence against a potential link. Many other studies have found the same results -- which is to be expected if the laws of physics do, in fact, hold in this universe.

And as for those YouTube videos purporting to show cellphones popping corn: They're fake. Cardo Systems, a manufacturer of Bluetooth headpieces for cellphones, has publicly admitted that it created the videos to scare consumers and encourage them to buy its products. The effect was created by dropping popped corn on the table, then editing out the unpopped kernels.

-- Thomas H. Maugh II

Women's health priorities: sleep, relax, drink water, exercise, before sex

August 25, 2009 |  1:13 pm

The magazine Cooking Light has found that when it comes to getting and staying healthy, women have the burner turned down pretty low on getting "enough sex." Finding time to exercise was hardly at the top of their list, either.

In an online survey, 1,020 randomly selected women over 25 were asked to rate their priorities in terms of health and well-being. The results: Right up there at the top was getting enough sleep--the other activity often conducted between the sheets. Keeping stress levels low, finding time to relax, eating healthfully, drinking the recommended amount of water: respondents listed these priorities, respectively, as their top five priorities for their personal health.

Where did they rank "having enough sex"? Right there, in seventh place, behind "finding time to exercise."

Perhaps the women respondents didn't value "having enough sex" because there are no guidelines issued by medical specialty groups or the federal government recommending target levels of sexual activity for Americans. After all, there are recommendations for women's top priority, sleep, as well as for nutritional intake, daily water consumption and exercise. There are, however, no specific consensus guidelines for maintaining a healthy stress level, or recommendations concerning time spent relaxing, women's priorities two and three.

Go figure!

In other findings, the Cooking Light survey found that women would rather be seen as healthy than trendy, wealthy, powerful, beautiful, sexy or successful. The only quality they esteemed higher than healthy was smart. Most women say they look younger (69%) and feel younger (58%) than they are. And majorities say their self-confidence is influenced by their appearance (74%) and their overall health and wellness (72%).

-- Melissa Healy

Girl Scouts organization says all is well with Tagalongs, Do-Si-Dos

January 26, 2009 | 12:40 pm

A salmonella outbreak in 43 states linked to peanut butter and peanut paste used in many products, including cookies, might make even an ardent Girl Scout cookie fan hesitate. But the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A., like other organizations, announced that its cookies are safe.

The Girl Scouts bakers did not buy ingredients from the company the federal government says is the source of the salmonella. For more on the cookies, check out the Daily Dish.

-- Mary MacVean

Blood, bones, smallpox, herbs, cadavers at the Huntington Library

November 17, 2008 | 12:55 pm


If you like old, old books and you're curious about the history of medicine, check out a permanent  exhibition recently opened at the Huntington Library in San Marino. Stroll through the rose garden, maybe sip a nice cup of tea, then pop into the Dibner Hall of the History of Science where you'll see:

-- prints of elegantly posed human bodies peeling back their own skins;

-- 16th century herbal books filled with illustrations of plants and their medical uses;


-- a little ivory figure of a pregnant woman that was used to teach students in the 1500s -- you can take the front of the abdomen off and see the baby underneath;

-- a book by the "first microbiologist," Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, who was the first to view single-celled organisms (he called them "animalcules") including some from matter between his own teeth;

-- the oldest illustrated printed medical textbook, from the 15th century, by Johannes de Ketham, opened at an image of a dissection;

-- so-called overlay drawings by Andreas Vesalius that allowed one to peel back layers of a human body and see the anatomical structures that lie underneath, with a replica for the museum-visitor to play with;

-- a book by Edward Jenner, discoverer of vaccination. It's open at the page at which he tries his cowpox vaccine against smallpox on an 8-year-old boy and an illustration of the resulting pustule and red radiation on the boy's arm; 

-- a 1610 reprint (you know, modern) of the works of the Greek physician Hippocrates in which he declared, among other things, that "blood ... through the mouth is bad, but through the bowels, less bad." (Is that true?)

Roll up, roll up for books on blood flow, books on head anatomy and a richly illustrated text on how to treat battle injuries that really shouldn't be looked at too soon after having that nice tea. And of course there's more in this display than medicine: A section on natural history features lots of Darwin and lots of plants; a display on light carries a cool collection of Edison light bulbs; and a section on astronomy comes with works by such notables as Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo.

Some of the art in these old science and medicine books is so gorgeous that I seriously coveted posters to take away with me. There weren't any -- disappointing. I did, however, snag a shopping bag decorated by Robert Hooke's famous flea (below).


-- Rosie Mestel


Twins. From George Spratt, Obstetric Tables, London, 1841. Photo credit: Huntington Library

Aloe from an early herbal, a book describing plants and their uses. From Hieronymus Bock, Neu Kreuterbuch (New Plant Book), Strasburg, 1551. Photo credit: Huntington Library

Flea under magnification. From Robert Hooke, Micrographia, London, 1665. Photo credit: Huntington Library

Sarah Palin's newborn puts Down syndrome in spotlight

September 2, 2008 |  4:01 pm

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with husband Todd and son Trig in April.

As prenatal genetic testing has become more widespread, disabilities rights activists have grown concerned that children like 4-month-old Trig Palin will become an increasing rarity. Trig is the son of presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and he has Down syndrome, a chromosomal abnormality that affects about one in 800 babies born alive in the United States each year. A 1999 study found that 90% of women  who learn their baby has the genetic abnormality chose to end the pregnancy.

But parents of children with Down syndrome have grown increasingly vocal about their choice to give birth to their babies, and to share the challenges and rewards of raising a child with a disability. See, for example, Family Village. With one in every 33 children born in the United States having some birth defect causing lifelong disability, a community also has sprung up to share information on the wide range of federally mandated educational programs and social services available to families.

Pediatric practitioners see it as particularly important that parents like Sarah and Todd Palin seek out and secure services quickly for their children with disabilities, since early intervention can be crucial to improving the function of those with Down syndrome. One study probing the effectiveness of early intervention found that a two-month delay in treatment was associated with lower gross motor, fine motor, language and social outcomes by the time the baby reached 18 months. Another study showed that newborns with Down syndrome who received immediate language intervention had better language development than those who didn't get it until 3 months or 6 months of age.

Palin's decision to give birth to her son Trig already has made her a popular choice among anti-abortion activists. She now becomes a highly visible parent of a disabled child. Her turn in the spotlight already has autism activists questioning whether the Palins will have Trig vaccinated.  That question comes out of evidence that having Down syndrome may put an infant at greater risk of autism, and out of lingering but unproven fears that the preservatives in vaccines may cause autism. (See:  How will Sarah Palin vaccinate her son Trig?)

More links to sites aimed at parents of children with disabilities are:

National Assn. for Down Syndrome

Family Voices

National Parent Network on Disabilities (NPND)

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities (NICHCY)

T.A. Alliance for Parents (PACER Center)

-- Melissa Healy 

Photo: Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin with husband Todd and son Trig in April. Photo credit: Al Grillo / Associated Press   

Performance-enhancing ... clothing?

April 24, 2008 |  4:07 pm

Sleeve200 Who needs performance-enhancing substances when you can wear performance-enhancing fabric? Researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's national science agency, have invented an "interactive" garment that plays specific, individualized tunes when athletes move correctly.

The garment is made of a stretchy spandex material and contains sensors that monitor movement. When a basketball player takes a shot, for example, the sensors transmit information to a laptop, which produces audible tones in sync with the arm and wrist movements. The idea is to give athletes audible, real-time feedback. Through repeated use of the device, the athlete eventually recognizes the pattern of tones associated with a successful shot, kick or throw, or can recognize when his or her mechanics are off. Moreover, remembering the unique tune or beat could help athletes maintain correct mechanics while under the stress of competition. An interactive sleeve is demonstrated on the CSIRO website. But the material could be fashioned into running shorts or even a whole bodysuit, as noted in an article in MIT Technology Review

Click here to see videoThough unlikely to turn up on fashionistas, these garments could be used in many fields, such as entertainment, education, sports, military, rehabilitation and medicine, the creators believe. Maybe the clothing will turn up in toy stores. The first interactive garment was an "Air Guitar" shirt, a long-sleeved shirt that, depending on the movements of the wearer, produces a range of guitar chords from a remote computer. A fun new way to exercise, perhaps?

-- Shari Roan

Click to see video of interactive sleeve.

Photos: Courtesy of CSIRO

Booster Shots

March 20, 2008 | 10:38 am

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