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Tom Murphy,  July 21, 2011

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Testing for diseases, of course, presents an important tool for helping us stay healthy. In many cases, it can help stop a disease before it gets to be a bigger problem. Testing for cancer is a good example. But there can be a darker side when the tests look for a disease that has no cure and no effective treatment, like Alzheimer's.  New tests may help doctors spot the disease decades before it starts to show up in symptoms, casting a shadow over a person's adult life and telling insurance companies that this person may end up costing them a lot of money.  Would you really want to know in your 30s or 40s that, if nothing else gets your first, you will die from Alzheimer's when in your 70s or 80s? Not everyone would. And do you think insurers would want to insure you?  Testing is good, but we must find a way to protect patients from unintended consequences.  The health reform package approved in 2010 will bar insurers from excluding consumers based on pre-existing conditions. That's an important first step.

Cecily O'Connor,  March 11, 2011

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Years ago, my neighbor was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news was heartbreaking, especially because the cancer had spread significantly, and doctors delivered grim outlooks. Her difficult situation often makes me think about my own health, and how self-examination is essential to my well-being. Looks like I'm not the only one who's become more proactive. That's because early detection is a chief reason cancer survival rates are rising. Better treatment options, healthy eating, less smoking and other preventative steps may also be playing a role, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Looks like boomers and elders are among those taking their health seriously. While cancer is most common in people age 65 and older, it hasn't stopped the nation's elderly population from growing in recent years. About 60 percent of the nation's 11.7 million cancer survivors were 65 or older in 2007.  That number is likely to go up as boomers cross that threshold, if only because there's a lot of them.

Tom Murphy,  December 14, 2010

Not everyone agrees about the best way to provide health care, but there are some things that almost every agrees on:  It costs too much, the government will end up paying a big share, and things will probably get worse as 78 million American boomers retire; the first boomers turn 65 in 2011. About one in eight boomers will get Alzheimer's disease, which - as things stand - will kill them after a long, expensive, agonizing period lasting several years. More will die from chronic diseases like cancer, heart attacks, stroke or diabetes. Our goal should be to prevent as much disease as we can through healthy living, then minimize the costs associated with providing competent and compassionate care. If we do nothing, America will go broke. Alzheimer's disease alone will cost America $1 trillion a year by 2050 unless things change. So we can agree, hopefully, that dramatic change is needed. The Obama plan, for all the debate, is a modest first step. Alone, it won't do the job. As a society, we should recognize the extent of this problem and start moving forward, not backward, in finding new and innovative ways to improving the country's fiscal health through massive changes to our public health system.

Tom Murphy,  October 12, 2010

Pills, pills, pills. Every time I turn around, a company is recalling this or the FDA is warning about that. Now it's bone drugs. They're supposed to help aging folks from osteoporosis and many people - especially women - take them for good reason.  One woman in two will break a bone from osteoporosis; 1 in 16 men.  But there's a hitch: it turns out these bone-strengthening drugs may counteract one of the body's natural defenses, so the risk of breaking bones may actually increase if you take the drugs. It's a decision you should make with a doctor, but this much I can tell you: From our point of view, the more you mess the mother nature, the worse off you're gonna be.

Cecily O'Connor,  September 11, 2010

With a picky four-year-old at home, I am constantly challenged to find ways to encourage him to eat more fruits and vegetables. The fact that he's selective isn't rare for a kid his age. But it appears some people never outgrow food fussiness. Most Americans don't eat enough vegetables, and their fruit consumption is actually dropping, according to a new report. When you think about how the nation's obesity rate is rising, Americans' distaste for veggies certainly doesn't help. Health officials have been trying to promote fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, and an alternative to salty, fatty and sugary foods. Despite the effort, "We aren't making progress," a CDC epidemiologist said in a recent article.  I'm stalling, too, when it comes to my son. On a good day, he'll shovel in more than a cup of applesauce. On a great day, I'll have the time to make a veggie puree and disguise it in pasta. But it seems a shame to cover up fresh organic carrots or squash. It just might be time to show him that veggies are more than something purchased at the store or farmer's market. This is where community gardens come into the picture. They are cropping up in more communities, offering one new way to change Americans' eating habits. And taking him to a garden just might work. Most people, no matter their age, would turn down an opportunity to play in the dirt.

Cecily O'Connor,  July 28, 2010

As a journalist, I know a thing or two about taking notes. And yet I never seriously used that skill outside of work until a series of physical and medical setbacks forced me to. Nearly two years ago I suffered the first of two events that sent me on a long journey for answers. I visited multiple doctors, had multiple tests performed and sought the advice of many other people. My file on the whole matter became a lifeline of sorts, filled with my notes - and those of doctors - about the discovery of a disorder. Being diagnosed with a "disorder" was confusing enough, and the notebook was the only way to make sense of all the opinions and test results. I would cross-examine the information in my file after meeting with someone new, and cross reference it against what I was learning on the Internet. It was exhausting, but empowering. And I learned a tough lesson about being my own health advocate. Now a new project aims to teach patients a similar lesson by encouraging them to take a look at their medical chart after every appointment. The "Open Notes" project really underscores the need for individuals to "partner" with their physicians, a new article said. Like many patients, I probably wouldn't have sought copies of my medical records had I not been facing a big physical hurdle. And hopefully, I won't need those records for a while. But my resolve to be proactive is a personal health care reform I'll always take seriously. 

Tom Murphy,  July 6, 2010

Sometimes we can't change our fate. Sometimes we can. The CDC is urging more Americans to get medical tests for colon cancer, breast cancer and bone density. The cancer tests alone could save 10,000 lives a year. Have you even met 10,000 people in your life? Think of saving everyone you've ever met. Wouldn't that be a good idea? The biggest obstacle for many people is money. The CDC noted the rate for colon cancer tests is only about half as high for those who can't get the tests through insurance. That may change thanks to the Obama Administration's health reforms. But there are already cheap, home colon cancer tests available for about $10 that could be used right now. They're not quite as good as a colonoscopy that costs hundreds more, but they would catch most problems. Perhaps we could buy a few less miles of highway this year and get one of those tests for every adult who can't afford one. That would save a fortune in medical care in the long run, and it would save thousands of lives. Individually and collectively, we can make a real difference on this. Shouldn't we?

Cecily O'Connor,  June 6, 2010

If obesity is a health problem, why is it increasingly being treated with economic solutions? One of the newest involves companies paying their employees to lose weight. Another one that's been on the table for a while is an "obesity tax" on soft drinks and fast food. But I'm not convinced that dough of any color can make us slimmer. One expert thinks the payouts are a "waste of time." A study found that participating individuals lost little more than a pound. That's pretty disappointing considering that adult obesity rates have continued to climb over the past couple of decades. Many weight-loss experts place more emphasis on cultural and lifestyle changes than monetary factors. Let's face it. We all know that resisting a second helping is a smart way to manage weight. Sure, that's easier said than done, especially in a world where abundant cupcake shops and caloric Starbucks drinks are there to tempt. In addition to personal lifestyle modifications, I think there needs to be more pressure on foodmakers. They bear responsibility here. Those gluttonous portions at restaurants (ahem...Cheesecake Factory)  are a key place to start in treating high US obesity rates. Individuals have to take responsibility for their menu choices, and so do the restaurants and companies that provide the food. That's not an economic dilemma; it is just common sense.

Tom Murphy,  May 6, 2010

More and more, public health officials are focusing on a disease that used to be treated only by the police and courts: violence. Domestic abuse - sexual and physical - affects one in six adults in California, according to a new study. But that's just the start of it. In cities across the country, murder is the leading cause of death for black men. Drive-by shootings, gang-related muggings, even schoolyard bullying is taking its toll. We live in a society where people think they need to carry guns for self-defense, although they're far more likely to be used in a crime. Every year, we spend hundreds of millions to find cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, malnutrition and other health problems. Violence is something we can cure simply by saying "enough."

Tom Murphy,  April 26, 2010

There is a class of illnesses called "neglected diseases" that normally don't get much attention from the big pharmaceutical companies or governments. The corporations make billions from coming up with medicines that can help you stop smoking or hold your diabetes in check. But a drug with just a few hundred thousand victims doesn't provide enough profit-incentive for them to save lives. And the US government often appears more interested in supporting the massive economy of the healthcare industry and political expediency than in making tough rules to guard the public health. Maybe that's why high blood pressure is allowed to go on as the No. 2 killer in the country. If high blood pressure were a terrorist, we'd invade his country. If he were a murderer, we'd put his mug shot on Post Office walls. Instead, we allow junk food commercials to proliferate in prime time, require no phys ed in school programs, and generally treat obesity as something we can't cure. We - that means you and me and our government - can. We should. And we must stop neglecting such an obvious problem in our society.

Wendy Wolfson,  December 9, 2009

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I just returned from the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship, and will be reporting about what I learned about the machinations of health insurance companies, how to judge medical news, and the emerging concept gaining ground among policymakers, researchers and health workers that your health is mostly related to your zip code. That is right; the more money you have, the better your health will be. I learned that the case for health insurance reform goes beyond taking care of the uninsured. Millions of people work and have insurance, but cannot afford their deductibles, or can find doctors who will take their substandard plans. One problem with that is there is no preventive care and follow up to catch health problems before they worsen to be more costly and severe. We are the only developed country that doesn't have an organized system for basic healthcare. Everybody knows the emotional and moral argument for supporting people. What hasn't been pushed enough is the real economic cost and loss of competitiveness for not doing so.

Wendy Wolfson,  December 9, 2009

I just returned from the USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellowship, and will be reporting about what I learned about the machinations of health insurance companies, how to judge medical news, and the emerging concept gaining ground among policymakers, researchers and health workers that your health is mostly related to your zip code. That is right; the more money you have, the better your health will be. I learned that the case for health insurance reform goes beyond taking care of the uninsured. Millions of people work and have insurance, but cannot afford their deductibles, or can find doctors who will take their substandard plans. One problem with that is there is no preventive care and follow up to catch health problems before they worsen to be more costly and severe. We are the only developed country that doesn't have an organized system for basic healthcare. Everybody knows the emotional and moral argument for supporting people. What hasn't been pushed enough is the real economic cost and loss of competitiveness for not doing so.

Wendy Wolfson,  November 12, 2009

Daycare took a holiday, so I took my toddlers Marjana and Mr. Button shopping. But Marjana ate the shopping list. Mr. Button deliberately spit out his milk on his jacket. "When that dries you will stink like a skunk," I told him. Mr. Button and Marjana pummeled each other in the cart. But they are still young enough that a kiss from me will heal a wound, imagined or otherwise. I had planned to get them vaccinated today for H1N1, but there's no vaccine to be had. In writing about vaccine distribution last month, I interviewed various government agencies. Vaccine production was on track, they said. I wondered at the time, given that companies were growing virus in fertilized eggs, a slow and problematic production process. So far neither more advanced cell-based methods nor adjuvants which would have stretched the supply have been licensed by the FDA. Turns out I was right to wonder, as a number of "bad eggs" are holding up distribution of both seasonal and H1N1 vaccines. I just learned that the parents of a kid who used to go to our daycare didn't believe in regular childhood vaccinations. I asked my daycare provider again (I had asked her about this before) and she clarified that the girl had every vaccination but one when she was there (which one??). When that kid was in daycare,  my kids were too young to have a proper immune system. Not vaccinating kids seems unnervingly fashionable among the educated. Incredibly in California, you can get a belief-based exemption. The Department of Public Health website lists the percentage of vaccinated kids entering kindergarten, according to school. Only 55 percent of kindergartners have all their shots at the elementary school around the corner.   

Tom Murphy,  November 4, 2009

We've made such strides against breast cancer. We have such a long way to go against prostate cancer. In the world of research, cancer gets a lot of funding, although the rate of cancers is stubborn. But prostate cancer will kill every man if he lives long enough. There's an honest difference of opinion among doctors and many patients on how, or even if, to treat it in many cases. And men, succumbing to their own bravado and sexist stereotypes, often go many years without a checkup, which should be conducted annually. There some hope in a new study that shows lower rates of the worst kind of prostate cancer in men with lower cholesterol levels, but the meaning isn't clear and there's no clear path to treatment. But once again, we see a hint that living well, exercising and eating sensibly may add up to longer lives. Until there's some clear facts, that may be the best direction to head for men or women.

Wendy Wolfson,  October 12, 2009

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, an expert on the biology of stem cells who got the Nobel Prize this year, is also distinguished for standing up for scientific integrity over politics. In February 2004, she was booted off  the Presidents Council of Bioethics during the Bush administration, for publicly calling for the Council's reports on stem cells to be based on established biomedical standards rather than partisan ideology. "The public is done a disservice when science is presented incompletely; myths are then perpetuated." wrote Blackburn and her colleague, Dr. Janet Rowley, geneticist at the University of Chicago, in the April 2004 issue of PLOS Biology. But times change. In 2009, Rowley was awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work on the genetic underpinnings of cancer from the Obama Administration. And this year, Obama got the Nobel Prize for Peace. All the Nobel Prize winners are invited to a festive banquet. Perhaps Obama, Blackburn and colleagues will have a chance to catch up. By the way, the Nobel Museum in Stockholm stocks gold foil-wrapped chocolate Nobel medals. I would hope that for the sake of the kids, along with the real medals, the committee hands out the chocolate ones. One should encourage the next generation. After all, the research linking chocolate to telomere restoration still remains to be done. 

Wendy Wolfson,  October 3, 2009

We went out for a walk as a family the other night. Marjana linked hands with Mr. Button and announced "we are all together now." She and Mr. Button pointed out the moon, repeatedly, so we wouldn't miss it. It amazes me how excited they get about things we just take for granted, like the moon in the sky. Next week I've got to drag in everybody for their flu shots, but at least if you are a toddler you get a very cool sticker with your jab. It is amazing how a sticker can make the tears disappear. Twenty years ago I got the flu, and was knocked out of commission for two weeks and then weak for some time after. I have heard people discuss how they may not get the shots, but I don't want to take the risk of getting sick like that again. The H1N1 shots were tested on a study of 600 children, divided into groups of about 25 kids each, to check dosage and effectiveness. This is a small group. But the behavior of the H1N1 virus seems, to all accounts, like that of the seasonal flu - it just hits small children hard. I think what really caught my attention was a remark that Dr. Anne Shuchat of the CDC made in a teleconference. She said that so far this year, 47 children have died of flu, something they usually don't see in the usual flu statistics.

Wendy Wolfson,  September 12, 2009

That multitasking study makes one wonder if watching too much TV while text messaging and surfing the net irreparably remodels one's brain. Some people may be able to just deal with distractions better, except that the Stanford researchers suggest that really, they don't. They are more easily derailed by extraneous information, have a slower reaction time and are more likely to make mistakes. Now when I see 2-year-old Mr. Button engrossed in a video, I wonder if the brain rewiring has already begun. Like a gateway drug, Thomas the Train may lead to incessant computer game playing and turn cute Mr. Button into a pale surly teenager in a black Megadeath t-shirt. But this being California, all will be swell if he is admitted into Stanford when he grows up. Then he can volunteer for cognitive experiments to get tuition credit. My husband admits to being a pale, surly teenager who played computer games. To help better channel our children's brain development, he is now substituting Looneytoons CDs in the DVD player. Thomas the Train was created by an British vicar and is about the bad things that happen to cheeky little trains who disobey orders. Bugs Bunny is vile but anarchic, and at least Looneytoons doesn't attempt to be educational.

Wendy Wolfson,  October 3, 2009

We went out for a walk as a family the other night. Marjana linked hands with Mr. Button and announced "we are all together now." She and Mr. Button pointed out the moon, repeatedly, so we wouldn't miss it. It amazes me how excited they get about things we just take for granted, like the moon in the sky. Next week I've got to drag in everybody for their flu shots, but at least if you are a toddler you get a very cool sticker with your jab. It is amazing how a sticker can make the tears disappear. Twenty years ago I got the flu, and was knocked out of commission for two weeks and then weak for some time after. I have heard people discuss how they may not get the shots, but I don't want to take the risk of getting sick like that again. The H1N1 shots were tested on a study of 600 children, divided into groups of about 25 kids each, to check dosage and effectiveness. This is a small group. But the behavior of the H1N1 virus seems, to all accounts, like that of the seasonal flu - it just hits small children hard. I think what really caught my attention was a remark that Dr. Anne Shuchat of the CDC made in a teleconference. She said that so far this year, 47 children have died of flu, something they usually don't see in the usual flu statistics.

Wendy Wolfson,  September 12, 2009

That multitasking study makes one wonder if watching too much TV while text messaging and surfing the net irreparably remodels one's brain. Some people may be able to just deal with distractions better, except that the Stanford researchers suggest that really, they don't. They are more easily derailed by extraneous information, have a slower reaction time and are more likely to make mistakes. Now when I see 2-year-old Mr. Button engrossed in a video, I wonder if the brain rewiring has already begun. Like a gateway drug, Thomas the Train may lead to incessant computer game playing and turn cute Mr. Button into a pale surly teenager in a black Megadeath t-shirt. But this being California, all will be swell if he is admitted into Stanford when he grows up. Then he can volunteer for cognitive experiments to get tuition credit. My husband admits to being a pale, surly teenager who played computer games. To help better channel our children's brain development, he is now substituting Looneytoons CDs in the DVD player. Thomas the Train was created by an British vicar and is about the bad things that happen to cheeky little trains who disobey orders. Bugs Bunny is vile but anarchic, and at least Looneytoons doesn't attempt to be educational.

Wendy Wolfson,  September 5, 2009

The park was full of things to see after a day in front of the computer screen. There was a herd of weed-eating goats chewing up the scenery. The rustling sound of 700 goats munching was like the wind before a storm. There were two ghostly barn owls lurking in the owl house. The blue heron was fishing in the lake. Mr. Button and Marjana - my 2-year-old twins - wanted to pet a goat, and then pet the border collie of Eddie, the Goats 'R Us shepherd. Eddie, a veterinarian from Peru, was chatting in Spanish with a Latino family, but said his dog was fine with toddlers. Then Marjana and Mr. Button tired of goats and wanted to run. They didn't care about the barn owls, because there was a drinking fountain and they wanted to splash and get muddy. Then they danced on top of a picnic table. I was interested to see in this week's study that just four healthy behaviors could save a lot of grief. But clearly, all I have to do is chase after a couple of 2-year-olds to stay in shape. The problem is catching them. Mr. Button ran until he fell down, then ran again. He finally stopped when he fell down in a thistle patch. After a few tears, he was fine. They both were impressively filthy, and very pleased. The expression around here for declaring that one should not be trifled with or neglected is; "I'm not a weed-eating goat." 

Wendy Wolfson,  August 29, 2009

Is brain shrinkage stemming from obesity reversible? If I get thinner, would I get smarter as well? I bet I'm not the only one who wants to know. In yet another episode of incipient parental brain atrophy, we rented a rodent from the local wildlife center to see if we were ready for a pet. Clearly not, as will become evident. This guinea pig was very sweet and didn't bite. She is a working rodent, visiting a different family every week for 15 bucks plus deposit. She supports the rehabilitated owls at the center with her earnings. Two-year-old Mr. Button dubbed her the "guinea-bunny." According to his logic, she looked more like a bunny than a pig. I put her cage on a high shelf for safety, but this morning caught Marjana just in time as she was pulling the cage with hapless guinea-bunny down on her head. The rodent was unscathed, but litter, food pellets, and tiny turds showered the floor. Marjana got time out in the portacrib, but not before I made her apologize to the guinea-bunny. When I dropped Mr. Button and Marjana off at daycare, I was shown the backside of Nika, one of their toddler colleagues. Marjana bit him yesterday, apparently from sheer caprice. Nika's parents are understandably unhappy, but I met the mom, who was understanding. I'll miss the guinea-bunny, as she is unassuming and pleasant. But I will be relieved to see her go back to the center, where she will go next week to a hopefully more civilized family.  

Wendy Wolfson,  August 22, 2009

William Steig, the urbane artist who drew cynical cartoons for the New Yorker for decades, changed course in his later years.  He started writing luminous children's books, among them, Shrek. In the original book, the ogre has not been habilitated for the mass market and has habits truly disgusting enough to impress any kid. Today in conversation with a scientist about sleep apnea, I found out that if one gets fat, one's tongue does too. It's true. Steig also wrote a lovely book, called "Amos and Boris" about a friendship between Amos, a bold mouse who goes to sea in a tiny boat, and a whale named Boris. Marveling at the stars one night, Amos rolls overboard, and Boris rescues him. The book is really a musing on the nature of friendship over a lifetime. Steig wrote it as an old man. But that interpretation is for the grownup who is reading it aloud. My kids, Mr. Button and Marjana, have another favorite, "Gorky Rises" about a levitating frog. The children have recently discovered slides and swings at the playground. When being pushed in the swing, they fly like Gorky, up through the sky, into space, take a turn around the stars, and amazingly come back to earth, still sitting in the bucket of the swing. Quite extraordinary.

Wendy Wolfson,  August 8, 2009

Fish oil is good for most people, according to the latest research. But I stopped buying canned tuna a few years ago when I attended a talk by a Stanford earth sciences researcher. It was a pity, as canned tuna is affordable. Certainly we grew up on it. But he described a random test of ten cans of tuna from the supermarket. More than one had higher than advisable levels of mercury. Makes sense, as tuna are large predatory fish that move around. I'm sure we were well-dosed when we were kids. Even San Francisco Bay gets a noticeable amount of mercury. It comes with the winter rain runoff from the old mercury mines left over from the Gold Rush days. In its original form, mercury is harmless, like the mercury bound up in dental amalgams. But it is then methylated by bacteria in the water, which makes it available to be absorbed into the body.  California warns against people eating too much fish from certain places like the San Joaquin Delta. But some of our neighbors fish, not just for relaxation but to feed their families. Fishing for the stocked trout in the local lake is probably fine, given it comes from a hatchery and doesn't spend much time picking up pollutants. But there are other places I see people fishing that are more dubious. Suddenly the health of the environment is not just an abstraction. When I take the kids to the park, Marjana always wants to check the fish-cleaning station for fish guts in the trash. She enjoys saying "eeew, disgusting!" But the children are fascinated by fish, snakes, and birds, and we hope they continue to stay interested in the world around them. Then they will care about what happens to it.

Wendy Wolfson,  August 1, 2009

Popping a daily aspirin does not confer blanket protection, according to a recent Lancet study. True benefits and risks can sometimes only be seen across a large randomized study, and then the differences can be subtle. Sometimes they are self-evident, but people ignore them anyway, like that Virginia Tech study about people texting while driving. I see people talking on the phone all the time, especially while weaving across traffic without looking. One can fear being wiped out by stupidity despite regular ingestions of aspirin, but one has to go about one's business. The other night my husband came home, rattled to the core. A big plastic bag had wrapped itself across his windshield during his commute. He had to pull off a multilane freeway during rush hour to peel it off. Maybe it flew off a truck. More likely it resulted from public slovenliness exacerbated by fiscal destitution. Due to being broke, the state of California is probably not cleaning up highways as frequently. My husband called me from the road this morning to reassure me- and to report the freeway was blocked by a gang of wild turkeys.

Wendy Wolfson,  July 25, 2009

Studies of very small children show that they start developing the capacity for empathy - thinking in terms of the emotions of others - quite early.  At about 2, we saw Marjana trying to comfort her brother, Mr. Button, when he cried. And shortly thereafter, Mr. Button offered Marjana a pacifier to mollify her. We hope they'll be friends and get along as they grow up, so they will look out for each other. My husband's parents died when he was in high school and graduate school. Marjana's and Mr. Button are nicknames. My kids were really named for their grandparents. Marjana is a sort of fish, and Mr. Button just likes to push buttons. In the culture of their grandmother, where child mortality was high, calling your daughter after a fish and not counting your kids helped keep away the evil eye. In the culture of their grandfather, growing a bit of scented geranium near the door was considered highly protective. We hope to stay alive, and in sound mind and health for them for a long time, but the fact remains, we had them in our 40s. We will stick around and take care of them the best we can, and hope they won't have to take care of us too much. But just to be sure everything is in order, there are three aquariums in the house and a big scented geranium plant guarding the back door.

Wendy Wolfson,  July 18, 2009

The NIH has just added another $47 million to a $140 million study launched in 2007 to genetically chart the microbiome - the ecosystem of microbes. Our bodies carry different colonies of bacteria in our bellybuttons, the inside of our elbows, vaginas, digestive tracts and mouths. For almost $200 million in public funds, and five years of research, navel gazing may finally produce something useful. The hope is to eventually use your resident bacteria to diagnose, and hopefully predict disease. My toddlers, Mr. Button and Marjana, are busily collecting the bacteria that will populate their GI tract and regulate their immune system. There is a theory that one's environment can be too clean, leading to allergies and autoimmune disease. Given what I've seen them ingest, that is one thing we don't worry about. Mr. Button is partial to eating pennies and dimes. It is fun to concoct theories, much like that Forsyth researcher inverting the relationship between fat, inflammation and bacteria. We speculate that, should we not fish the coins out of Mr. Button's mouth in time, as they proceed through his digestive tract, they might turn into quarters. But of course, proving this hypothesis would require a lot of loose change and I really would just rather Mr. Button concentrate on eating his vegetables.

Wendy Wolfson,  July 10, 2009

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Oh dear, look at that monkey rump. After considering this picture, I went out after writing up the Colman study about calorie restriction and aging and signed myself up for some exercise classes after a year of thinking about it. Having a couple of 2-year-olds who change and grow overnight while one is slowly declining makes one blatantly aware of the passage of time.  Still, I wondered how this study influenced the humans involved. There is something poignant about spending two decades with a bunch of monkeys, looking for clues to human aging. Out of curiosity I asked Dr. Colman. She said that she joined the study in 1994; her coauthor Dr. Weindruch in 1990, but they do have colleagues who have been with the study since its inception, in particular the head lab technician, who spends most of the time working with the animals. She didn't personally change her eating habits as a result of the study. She said she sees the study  more as a tool to allow probing the mechanisms of aging than a prescription for human behavior, but she did point out that she was a proponent of healthy eating.  While calorie restriction has successfully extended the lifespan of yeast (Lin et al. 2002), spiders (Austad 1989) , flies (Loeb and Northrop 1917), fish (Comfort 1963), and rodents (McCay et al. 1935; Austad 1989), the first published calorie restriction experiment was conducted by William Jones, who reported in 1884 that he extended the life of a spider up to 200 days by cutting back its ration of flies. (See Jones, W. (1884). “Longevity in a fasting spider.” Science 3(48): 4.)

Wendy Wolfson,  July 5, 2009

We all try to game the percentages. like when 6 percent isn't 6 percent. A few years ago, my husband and I sat  in a doctor's office and were told that a certain procedure to enable me to have a baby had a 6 percent rate of success. I was willing to try, although it meant a misery of injections and drugs. I was hoping that I would be among that 6 percent. On the flip side, that procedure in my age bracket had a 94 percent chance of failure. In the end, we took a more radical, and hideously expensive approach that had a greater chance of success.  Buying a house could have to wait indefinitely, but our window to have a baby was limited. As chance would have it, we got two babies. Priceless. A few years later, on a steaming night in Manhattan my younger sister lay on a hospital gurney, about to undergo elective heart surgery. I had just flown across the country to be with her,  leaving the children in the care of my husband. Her procedure had a 6 percent chance of causing complications and death, her cardiologist said. My sister accepted the risk of the operation, because it could mean that she could reduce her cardiac drugs, which over time would be certain to damage other organs in her body. The benefits seemed to outweigh the risks in this case. I went down the street with the rest of the family to a bar near the hospital to wait out the operation and ordered a mojito, thinking about all I did a few years before for that same 6 percent. I wasn't quite finished with my drink when we got a call. The surgery was canceled, because her pacemaker wasn't working. My risk calculations were suddenly meaningless, because, if her pacemaker wasn't working, then the data it produced was garbage. Her medical team was made up of specialists, but that doesn't mean that they necessarily communicated well. My sister had said after the last pacemaker was installed that she didn't feel right, but her prior doctor dismissed her complaints. Sometimes the risks of a problem are reframed, one sees it in an entirely different light. A few months later, my sister quietly underwent the surgery, getting a new pacemaker at the same time. She gave me the old pacemaker as a souvenir. 



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