Recognizing the approach of Mother's Day, I honor my own with this story. When it comes to sunshine and health, it turns out Mommy really did know best.
According to my mother, children needed "plenty of fresh air and sunshine" to grow up healthy. Fresh air is still allowed, I guess, but sunshine has been anathema for years. Faced with increasing cases of modern-day rickets, doctors are reluctantly allowing small amounts of sun exposure free of sunscreen, hats, and long sleeves, "but 15 minutes a day is enough!"
In a study after my own heart, researchers at the University of Edinburgh have found evidence indicating that my mother's advice was right—and not just for kids: sunshine may be necessary for good health. Quite apart from its role in vitamin D production, ultraviolet light interacts with the skin to produce nitric oxide (NO), which reduces blood pressure.
Dr Richard Weller, Senior Lecturer in Dermatology at the University of Edinburgh, said: "We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer. The work we have done provides a mechanism that might account for this, and also explains why dietary vitamin D supplements alone will not be able to compensate for lack of sunlight.
"We now plan to look at the relative risks of heart disease and skin cancer in people who have received different amounts of sun exposure. If this confirms that sunlight reduces the death rate from all causes, we will need to reconsider our advice on sun exposure."
Here's a TED talk by Dr. Weller on the same subject.
Thanks, Mom, for sending me outside to play!
I've been interested in learning and brain plasticity for a very long time, especially in young children. More recently, thanks to the book The Brain that Changes Itself and the work of Michael Merzenich and the Posit Science organization, I've extended that fascination to adults as well. Specifically, me.
Posit Science is the company that makes Fast ForWord, a training program that worked wonders for a friend who suffered from CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder). When I learned that the company was developing general brain exercise programs for adults, I was intrigued. I even went so far as to spring for one of the (much too expensive) programs. I'll admit that I never did much with it (ouch!): too many distractions, too much to do, plus I ended up getting a new computer and haven't yet tried to see if it works under Windows 7. I was also annoyed with Posit Science—and told them so—for treating the program as therapy rather than software, i.e. not only was it horribly expensive for software, but the license was for one person only. Even Microsoft lets me share Word with others as long as they're sitting at my computer to use it.
One way or another, Posit Science got the message and revised their system. The brain exercise program is now available on a subscription basis, much like my Ancestry.com subscription only considerably less expensive. It's still for one person only, but a much better price: a one year's subscription ($96) is less than a third of the cost of the program I had bought, plus I now have access to all their exercises, not just the limited selection of the previous version. What's more, as they improve exercises and add new ones, I have immediate access to them. And unlike the original program, I can come back and redo any exercise I've already "completed."
I think they finally got the system right. I've been using the program for a month now, and find I enjoy the exercises. Not enough to become addicted, but enough to keep coming back every day. It helps that you can do them on a five-minutes-here, five-minutes-there basis, so they're perfect for those "Quadrant Four" moments when you just need a break. Only this break is doing your brain good!
The program is called BrainHQ, and offers exercises in the areas of Attention, Brain Speed, Memory, People Skills, and Intelligence, with Navigation in the works. Both auditory and visual pathways are exercised. Much as for physical exercise, thirty minutes three times per week is recommended, but whatever fits into your schedule will help.
Does it work? For myself, I can't say after only one month. I've certainly improved on the individual exercises with practice; whether or not it's doing any lasting good for my brain is beyond my power to tell, at least at this point. But I'm convinced enough to keep going. In theory, the exercises are designed specifically for the way the brain works, and do more good than general intellectual activity, such as working crossword puzzles. (I'm still addicted to my World of Puzzles magazine, however.) You can read a lot about the theory, the science, the laboratory test results, and the personal testimonials beginning with Why BrainHQ?
Why am I writing about this now? It would make more sense to do so after using the program for more than just a month. But from now until May 12, Posit Science is offering a buy-one-get-one-free Mother's Day promotion, and I know enough people who might be interested at that price that I decided it was worth posting. The cost for a year's subscription is $96. (You can also subscribe by the month, though I don't think that's covered by the sale.) Even after the sale ends, subscribers can give gift subscriptions at the discounted rate of $69.
I get no kickbacks whatsoever from Posit Science for writing this, nor from any sales; I just think it's a good idea.
It's no secret that I like Michael Pollan's food books, and I'm fifth in line for his latest, Cooked, at our library. In the meantime, here's a chance to hear Pollan speak on the nutritional value of home cooking. (H/T DSTB) I'm sorry I can't embed the interview; you'll have to click on the link to hear it. Here are some quick excerpts:
Why don't people cook at home anymore? Skills have been lost over the last two generations, and people are intimidated by culture of cooking they see on television.
Time is not a valid issue: "people make time for things they've decided are important."
Neither is demographics: "poor women who cook have better diets than wealthy women who don't."
"Built into the very nature of cooking at home is a curb on consuming the worst possible food."
The best diet for an American today? Pollan, quoting a marketing researcher in the food industry itself: "Eat anything you want, as long as you cook it yourself."
Pollan's final recommendation leaves me scratching my head, however: Cook at home, and get soda out of your house, and obesity is taken care of.
It sounds great, but reminds me of the facile advice I heard years ago that an easy way to gain more time is to cut down on television viewing, or that you can save a lot of money by quitting the smoking habit. What if you don't smoke and don't watch TV and still find yourself short of time and money? What if you already cook at home and don't drink soda?
I hate using sunscreen. It's sticky, it stinks, and if I get the water-resistant kind—what other is of any use?—I can't get it off my hands. I try to avoid using it myself, and am, shall we say, less than generous when asked by someone else to "do my back." As in "You want me to do what? Can I walk across hot coals instead? Please?"
Our trip to Hawaii may have changed my mind. Advised by friends who had been there to invest in some SPF 50 sunscreen, we picked up some Ocean Potion. I'd never heard of it, but it appeared to be the best choice. I think so! It turned out to have the most pleasant scent I've encountered in a sunscreen, and though it was water-resistant, did not feel oily, sticky, or any other kind of icky. I found I didn't mind at all donning it for our beach or crater-crossing days. Well, to be completely honest, I didn't mind as much. But it was a great improvement.
I've been hoarding the remainder, assuming it was a brand local to Hawii, which was the only place I'd seen it. But recent research has revealed that it is now available here, at Wal-Mart of all places. Considering that Ocean Potion is made in nearby Cocoa, Florida, you'd think I would have run into it somewhere before. Perhaps I had, but didn't "see" it because I didn't recognize the brand. They also have an SPF30 version, which I plan to try out for latitudes more northern than Hawaii.
O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An' foolish notion....
(from To A Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady's Bonnet at Church)
Robert Burns assumed that we hold higher views of ourselves than others do, but for many of us, especially women, the opposite problem can be devastating. Here's the latest from Dove's effort on behalf of all the young girls—and older women—conditioned by airbrushed and photoshopped media to see themselves as ugly.
You can see the sketches, and learn more, at Dove's site.
You can criticize Dove for choosing women who are all good looking in the first place. You can figure that the sketch artist let his knowledge of the program influence his sketches. You can complain that Dove's message still assumes that "real beauty" is physical. But even a small candle illuminates when the world is dark.
Having watched the documentary on GMO foods, which reveals that those in charge of food safety in this country have treated with scorn the simple request that products made with genetically modified organisms be labelled as such, I have little faith that the Food and Drug Administration will not grant the request of the dairy industry to to alter the definition of "milk" to include chemical sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose without putting "Low Calorie" or "Reduced Calorie" on the label. The artificial sweeteners would still be included in the ingredient list on the packaging, but the main label, that which most people read, would give no hint that the product was artificially sweetened.
I say that even "low calorie" is disingenuous. "Artificially Sweetened" or "Contains Sucralose" (Aspartame, whatever) ought to be in large, bold print on the package. Once upon a time, "no sugar added" was synonymous with "unsweetened." Now we must drill down to the small-print ingredient list to find out this important information, and more than once I've been caught and ended up at home with a useless product. It is as if the surgeon general's warnings were printed on the inside of cigarette packages.
In the spirit of Fruitless Fall, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Food, Inc., Everything I Want to Do Is Illegal, and similar stories about problems in our food supply, I present Genetic Roulette: The Gamble of our Lives (H/T DSTB).
I'm always a bit skeptical of one-sided documentaries, especially of the scary and countercultural kind. But this look at the unforeseen consequences of the introduction of Genetically Modified Organisms into our diet, environment, and social structure is well-done and contains much food for thought, including the rise of herbicide resistance, decreasing yield, suppression of academic freedom, and the devastation visited on third-world farmers. I had to watch in bits and snatches because the film is an hour and 25 minutes long, but I found it well worth the time invested.
Here's hoping my nephew will accede to the suggestion that he take on, as a school project, a balanced investigation of both sides of these claims. If he does, and gives his permission, I'll report the results here.
Check out Janet's great article at Power of Moms!
I knew the importance of rest going into motherhood, but for some reason, my beautiful and demanding son didn’t know that Sunday was my day off. He somehow missed the memo that on this “day of rest” he should sleep through the night, take long naps, not need to nurse on my bleeding breasts, and not cry so that I can be refreshed and a good mother for the remainder of the week
Often as mothers we are either working or feeling guilty that we’re not working (and sometimes both at once!) We need to learn to rest guilt-free because rest isn’t restful if we’re feeling guilty!
Trust me (the objective, unbiased proud, excited mother), you'll want to read it all.
It's been more than a decade since a family tragedy forced me to look into how childbirth has changed in America since our chlidren were born. It's still a major concern of mine, and so I read with heightened interest this profile of Suzanne Davis Arms in the May/June 2011 issue of the University of Rochester's Rochester Review. (Yes, I realize that is two years ago. Any regular reader of this blog knows I'm behind in practically everything.)
A few things made the article particularly interesting, beyond the basic subject.
- Arms is a University of Rochester (alma mater of three of the four people in our family, and of my brother as well).
- Betsy Naumburg, quoted in the article, was one of the doctors when Porter worked for the UR's Family Medicine Center.
- Arms wrote Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women in Childbirth in 1975. Although I hadn't read it, her book clearly influenced the attitudes and options that were prevalent when our children were born in the late 70's and early 80's. Her revised edition, Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic, and Birth came out in 1995, not long before my forced re-entry into the world of childbirth. Perhaps if I had read it then, I would have been forewarned of the return of over-medicalized childbirth.
Yesterday I had a dentist appointment, and while I was there I had a revelation in their restroom.
Sitting on the counter was a mug full of disposable, single-use toothbrushes, individually wrapped and pre-loaded with toothpaste.
When I spoke with our dentist, she said that she had gotten the idea from orthodontists, whose patients often come to the office without having had the opportunity to brush their teeth. But I saw quite a different use for them.
One of the most annoying aspects of overseas airplane travel (after the expense, lack of sleep, and forced minimal movement for hours on end) is the difficulty of brushing one's teeth. It's bad enough to have to negotiate the tiny lavatory, hoping the plane doesn't lurch as you attempt to spit into the diminutive sink. But schlepping a travel toothbrush in your carry-on luggage, and toothpaste in the TSA-approved clear, plastic, quart-sized, zip-lock bag, and negotiating their interaction within the confines of the aforementioned lavatory—well, let's just say it's enough to make many people forego dental hygiene on long flights.
Enter the single-use, preloaded toothbrush: Light. Individually wrapped. No hassle from the TSA. Brush and toss. Brilliant.
There's only one problem. You can order these NiceTouch toothbrushes from practicon.com. However, since they expect you to be a dentist, the minimum order is 144. (I so wanted to say "gross!" but that doesn't fit with toothbrushes, unless you drop yours on the lavatory floor while trying to brush your teeth on an airplane.) So either you must plan a lot of travel, or go in with a lot of travelling friends, or have a nice, friendly dentist who will get some for you.
If you succeed, remember this caveat from our own nice, friendly dentist: they really are for one use only. They're not made well enough to stand up under repeated use, and have been know to fall apart in very uncomfortable ways.
I'm looking forward to brushing my teeth on my next trip to Switzerland.
Don't you love what you can do with statistics and charts? This chart is from a great article in the New England Journal of Medicine: Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates. For a less scholarly report on the data, see this Reuters article.
The article begins like this.
Dietary flavonoids, abundant in plant-based foods, have been shown to improve cognitive function. Specifically, a reduction in the risk of dementia, enhanced performance on some cognitive tests, and improved cognitive function in elderly patients with mild impairment have been associated with a regular intake of flavonoids. A subclass of flavonoids called flavanols, which are widely present in cocoa, green tea, red wine, and some fruits, seems to be effective in slowing down or even reversing the reductions in cognitive performance that occur with aging.
One day, while apparently bored in a Kathmandu hotel room—I'm guessing it was night, or cloudy—the author, Franz H. Messerli, began to think.
Since chocolate consumption could hypothetically improve cognitive function not only in individuals but also in whole populations, I wondered whether there would be a correlation between a country's level of chocolate consumption and its population's cognitive function. To my knowledge, no data on overall national cognitive function are publicly available. Conceivably, however, the total number of Nobel laureates per capita could serve as a surrogate end point reflecting the proportion with superior cognitive function and thereby give us some measure of the overall cognitive function of a given country.
The results astonished him, though perhaps he should not be surprised: he is Swiss.
There was a close, significant linear correlation (r=0.791, P<0.0001) between chocolate consumption per capita and the number of Nobel laureates per 10 million persons in a total of 23 countries. When recalculated with the exclusion of Sweden, the correlation coefficient increased to 0.862. Switzerland was the top performer in terms of both the number of Nobel laureates and chocolate consumption. [emphasis mine]
The only possible outlier ... seems to be Sweden. Given its per capita chocolate consumption of 6.4 kg per year, we would predict that Sweden should have produced a total of about 14 Nobel laureates, yet we observe 32. Considering that in this instance the observed number exceeds the expected number by a factor of more than 2, one cannot quite escape the notion that either the Nobel Committee in Stockholm has some inherent patriotic bias when assessing the candidates for these awards or, perhaps, that the Swedes are particularly sensitive to chocolate, and even minuscule amounts greatly enhance their cognition.
Which perhaps explains why I need to eat more chocolate than Porter does, he being 1/4 Swedish.
Dr. Messerli reports regular daily chocolate consumption, mostly but not exclusively in the form of Lindt's dark varieties.
The above quotations were all from the NEJM article; the final ones from Reuters.
Messerli ... said that despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, he does believe chocolate has real health effects—although people should stay away from the sweeter kinds.
"[D]ark chocolate is the way to go. It's one thing if you want like a medicine or chemistry Nobel Prize, ok, but if you want a physics Nobel Prize it pretty much has got to be dark chocolate."
In case you were wondering, the date on Messerli's article is October 10, 2012. I guess they couldn't wait six more months.
The shows will be available for one week at PBS video (maybe not in Europe, sorry). Here is the link for Part 1. I'll update with Part 2 when it is released, which should be tomorrow. And here's Part 2.
Note on flu shots: This year they're pushing the intradermal shot. Personally, I think it's because they can use a lower dose, and therefore make the supply go farther. But they're hyping it as less painful ("90% smaller needle"). No matter how many times I told him needles don't bother me ("I gave blood yesterday!"), the nurse practitioner who administered the shot kept emphasizing the small needle and consequent reduced pain.
Based on a sample size of two, I'm here to say that that is bunk. Both Porter and I agreed that the intradermal shot hurt more than a regular injection, not less. I hope our grandkids appreciate the sacrifice. :)
Last Saturday was the opening concert for the Orlando Philharmonic's 20th Anniversary season. Pausing only briefly to wonder how the "new kid on the block" can be twenty years old already—I've done that several times already, the latest being only last month, with the first of our nephews to leave the teenage years behind—I'll just say that Maestro Christopher Wilkins once again began the season with a blockbuster program guaranteed to fill the house. One work: Mahler's Third Symphony. No intermission. Nearly 110 minutes long. The first movement alone is longer than the entirety of Beethoven's Fifth. The orchestra did a great job, but I have to say that they were upstaged by the members of the Florida Opera Theatre Youth Program. Some of those kids were as young as seven, they were highly visible on a platform well above the orchestra, the part that they had to sing was brief and late in the symphony, and they did not fidget. They sat still, they kept their hand in their laps most of the time, and they at least appeared attentive. In short, they did better than me.
I was not familiar with Mahler's Third; it's not programmed often, and I can see why: the orchestra is much larger than that required for most performances, and there's a large chorus as well. E-X-P-E-N-S-I-V-E. I'm glad the OPO took the plunge to offer it. I do have to say, however, that—unlike Mahler's First, which was love at first hearing for me—this one may take a little more exposure for me to appreciate. I found most of the movements reasonably enjoyable, but the sixth and last was interminable. I don't think that had to do with the fact that we'd been sitting for so long as that to my ears it didn't seem to get anywhere. Slowly.
Still, it was a good experience, quite possibly once-in-a-lifetime. We don't even have a copy of Mahler's Third in our extensive music library, though that of course could be remedied.
I know that most of you are waiting for more important posts, with vacation pictures and grandchild adventures, but tonight you get the Blue Light Blues. I saw this article in the Hartford Courant while on vacation; the link here is to Harvard Health Publications, but it's the same text.
In case you needed one more thing to worry about, all that after-hours screen time is exposing you to excessive blue light. And blue light at night is bad.
At night, light throws the body's biological clock—the circadian rhythm—out of whack. Sleep suffers. Worse, research shows that it may contribute to the causation of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
But not all colors of light have the same effect. Blue wavelengths—which are beneficial during daylight hours because they boost attention, reaction times, and mood—seem to be the most disruptive at night. And the proliferation of electronics with screens, as well as energy-efficient lighting, is increasing our exposure to blue wavelengths, especially after sundown.
Did you catch the bit about energy-efficient lighting? Those highly-touted compact fluorescent bulbs and LED lights put out more blue light than incandescent bulbs. Being green can make you blue, too.
The article offers some suggestions for reducing blue light exposure:
- Use dim red lights for night lights. Red light has the least power to shift circadian rhythm and suppress melatonin.
- Avoid looking at bright screens beginning two to three hours before bed.
- If you work a night shift or use a lot of electronic devices at night, consider wearing blue-blocking glasses.
- Expose yourself to lots of bright light during the day, which will boost your ability to sleep at night, as well as your mood and alertness during daylight.
According to #1, I need to stay up for at least another two hours, but that's not going to happen. I'll try to do better tomorrow. For now, I'll go to bed feeling happy that my bedside clock has a red display.
They say a pound a week is a pretty good rate of weight loss, but today I lost a pound in six minutes.
Unfortunately, I've gained it all back by now, since the people who took my blood encouraged me to drink a lot tonight.
Did I say six minutes? That's all it took from needle-in to needle-out. However, from home to home was over two hours. At the first bloodmobile I tried, the computer went down. After waiting 45 minutes or so, with no progress in sight, I took my paperwork and drove to another site.
It seems there's always something they don't like about my paperwork, and this time it was my travel—never mind that at my last donation, just two months ago, this had posed no difficulty at all. (At that time, it was something entirely different.) "Exactly when, and for how many days, were you in Switzerland, Italy, Germany, and France in the past three years?" If this had been one grand European vacation, I might have had the dates readily to hand. But it was a struggle to remember, since—I'm amazed to say—I've made the trip a lot. Fortunately, the lady with veto power over my ability to donate blood lightened up once she concluded that none of those countries is, or ever has been, in the United Kingdom....
Having read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I was acutely aware that the consent form I signed gives the blood bank pretty much unlimited rights to use my blood as they see fit, which is somewhat unsettling, I will admit.
I hadn't intended the adventure to take up most of the afternoon, but the time actually passed rather quickly, as I had brought with me Made to Stick, by the authors of Switch. Guilt-free reading time, a bottle of water, a movie ticket, and two chocolate chip cookies—and all it cost was two hours and a pint of blood. Plus I may save someone's life, which isn't a bad deal, either.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Broadway Paperbacks, 2011)
I was a kid who'd failed freshman year at the regular public high school because she never showed up. I'd transferred to an alternative school that offered dream studies instead of biology, so I was taking [a community college biology class] for high-school credit, which meant that I was sitting in a college lecture hall at sixteen with words like mitosis and kinase inhibitors flying around. I was completely lost.
But it was in that biology class that Rebecca Skloot first heard the name: Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta died in 1951 from a vicious case of cervical cancer. ... But before she died, a surgeon took samples of her tumor and put them in a petri dish. Scientists had been striving to keep human cells alive in culture for decades, but they all eventually died. Henrietta's were different: they reproduced an entire generation every twenty-four hours, and they never stopped. They became the first immortal human cells ever grown in a laboratory.
By the mid-1970's, when I was working in the University of Rochester's Analytical Cytology Laboratory, the HeLa cell line, as it was called, had been a standard research tool for over 20 years.
[The] cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson's disease; and they'd been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. ... Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta's cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse.
"HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years," Skloot's professor told her.
What he couldn't tell her, however, was anything at all about the woman behind the cells, Henrietta Lacks herself. The quest for that information would consume much of her life, culminating in this book.
Although The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has special interest for me because of my background in cervical cancer research, such inside information is hardly necessary for finding the book very difficult to put down. Skloot weaves together the story of Henrietta's famous and ubiquitous tumor cells and that of her short and difficult life in such a way that neither the science nor the sorrow becomes overwhelming. Henrietta's cells, holding an honored and essential place in modern biomedical research, contrast sharply with Henrietta's family, which could be the poster child for the poor and marginalized in our country. Reading about their lives in Clover, Virginia confirmed my conclusion that the smartest thing my great-grandparents did was to flee their own hometown on the other side of the Appalachians. Without a doubt, it was harder on Henrietta's family because they were black, but poverty, inbreeding, and, shall we say, non-traditional morals take their toll without regard to race.
The book leaves one with many questions, from medical ethics ("Will our descendants look upon those who profit from people's discarded cells—excised tumors, biopsies, blood taken for newborn testing—as we now look upon 19th century grave robbers?") to social justice ("How can we help someone whose whole community is dysfunctional?"). But I'm left with one especially pressing question, from outside of the book, as it were: How did the troubled teen that Skloot describes herself as end up an excellent and award-winning science writer? There's hope, even for the apparently dysfunctional.
Many thanks to my sister-in-law, the library book sale master, for this gem!