Monday, May 21, 2018

New Study, Indeed!

Here is another no-brainer for the discipline-challenged.  According to this source, researchers at Harvard University released late last month “a major study” investigating the influence of behavior on longevity.  They used lifestyle questionnaires and medical records from 123,000 volunteers to understand how much longer people could live if they made some simple adjustments to their lifestyle.

The dramatic headline read: Five Habits That Can Add More Than a Decade to Your Life.”  That is an announcement sure to capture attention, especially for people looking for the easy answer, the magic bullet, to ensure longevity.  In this era of fads and gurus one is tempted to suspect such a new discovery would be about a vegan diet, avoiding processed foods with their additives and preservatives, eating only local or organic produce, going gluten-free and shunning the GMOs and fast food, drinking only bottled water instead of tap water or discarding the artificial sweeteners – and don’t forget the periodic detox.  These are the so-called secrets we hear about daily, the warnings we hear about on the news, fears that advertisers pick up on in their promotions and food packaging.  Surely a high-profile study from Harvard with a very large sample size would be able to validate at least some of these popular beliefs about healthy lifestyles.

Actually what they came up with in 2018, they could have easily come up with in 2008 or 1998.  As a matter of fact, except for some of the wording, this was common knowledge in 1968!

Here it is, straight from the article:  “The five healthy habits were defined as not smoking; having a body mass index between 18.5 and 25; taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, having no more than one 150ml glass of wine a day for women, or two for men; and having a diet rich in items such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains and low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar.”

Wow!  Imagine that! If we don’t smoke, keep our weight down, drink alcohol only in moderation, exercise, and eat healthy foods, we have a better chance of living longer, even 10 years longer.  Notice that the recommended foods were available 50 years ago, and they made no mention of the fad foods, special fruits (acai berries), super-foods (beet juice), or ancient Chinese secrets with a new one coming into vogue every year like the colors in a fashion magazine.  Where is the mention of nutritional supplements that the majority of Americans pop every morning or evening?

It seems Harvard spent a good deal of time and energy confirming what we knew, or should have known, all along.  No easy answers?  What a disappointment!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Full Moon and Other Myths

Ask any number of cops or emergency room nurses, if business picks up under a full moon, and they will quickly confirm your suspicion.  Try telling any of your friends or neighbors that this is not true and you are looking for a fight.  

It’s surprising (and distressing) how many people will strongly defend this kind of information even though they have never done or seen any research presenting evidence one way or another.  They just know it because they know it and believe that it is true.  They will swear by it because something happened to a friend or relative that confirmed it in their mind. Anecdotal evidence is given undue power.

Critical thinkers stand no chance in these situations.  They can’t carry around in their pockets information like the following:  “‘Published [research] does not confirm that there is a change in the amount of violence, reported crimes or aggressive behavior during a full moon,’ Eric Chudler told ABC News. Chudler, a research associate professor in bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, has studied more than 100 research papers on the purported effects of the full moon on human affairs.”

Even presented with this real evidence, people would continue to believe in the power of the full moon.  (Even though they may reject the idea of werewolves.) Other studies have found that some of the strongest proponents of this myth, that nights with a full moon are prone to result in a higher crime rate and more cases of trauma, turn out to be nurses and police officers. 

But doctors at the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh studied the data on health-care myths and one did a study involving area nurses. He said he found that 69 percent of surgical nurses in his study believed that a full moon led to more chaos and incoming patients that night.  The myth persists, just because people expect to see such patterns and can easily convince themselves that they exist – “See, it’s the full moon. Get ready for a busy night.”

Endorsement from such authority figures and the sympathetic newspaper stories about a lunar effect provide fuel to perpetuate the belief that the phase of the moon affects behavior.  But scientific, statistical evidence, real studies looking for any relationship, and there have been many of them, show no link between phases of the moon and abnormal or unusual behavior.

Some people, including veterinarians, tend to believe that cats and dogs act strangely on full-moon nights and “studies do show an uptick in emergency room visits for cats and dogs during a full moon and in the days before and after.”  It’s doubtful that the moon has any influence beyond the fact that the nights are brighter and people might allow their pets to stay out longer, increasing the potential for them to injure themselves or otherwise get into trouble.

The main problems with this and other myths are confirmation bias and an over-tendency to look for patterns. These are stressed in several recent books in the field of behavioral economics.  When people see an example of something they believe, they tend to embrace it.  When they see a counter example, they tend to dismiss it.  Few look at it as a research problem where the first step is to gather data, count and compare occurrences.

The second problematic tendency is to look for patterns even where none are present.  The familiar is more comforting than the strange.  Along those lines, it is tempting to assign some cause to an effect, even if the supposed cause is some supernatural or paranormal phenomenon, gods or ghosts.  When The Oprah Show revealed a very unusual meeting or situation, she and the audience would gasp – “What are the odds?” But it’s almost certain that with over 300 million people in America, those working for the show could easily find several examples of unlikely occurrences with odds greater than one in ten million.  It’s not a miracle or synchronicity, it just happens somewhere almost every day.

But don’t try to argue that with Oprah or a full-moon believer. They will blow you away!

Monday, May 14, 2018

A Thinly Veiled Fable

Once upon a time on a planet on the distance side of the galaxy there was a large and powerful country.  The economy was doing well and most people were so well off they no longer had to worry from day to day how to feed themselves or how to get some sleep without becoming a meal for some predator.  Some would consider them an advanced society based on their technology, but their behavior lagged far behind. Unappreciative of how well off they were, they began to obsess about trivial matters and get caught up in fads and trends.

One day a group of obscure scientists in an attempt to gain a little fame (and possibly fortune) published a press release revealing startling new findings.  They found by comparing survey results to health records for over 1000 people that those whose beds measured exactly 7 flecks above the floor had better health and longer lives.  (The fleck was their unit of measure.)  Those whose bed height deviated from the ideal got proportionately sicker and died sooner. 

Word spread like wildfire! Network news picked it up and it made the rounds on social media.  Everyone was talking about the need for their beds to be exactly 7 flecks from the floor. It was vital; the health of their families was at stake.

Those with lower beds propped them up as a temporary measure.  The rest had to shop for new beds.  They arrived at the furniture stores with measuring devices in hand to make sure they got the right bed.

Before long bed manufacturers and stores responded to customer demands.  They began advertising 7-fleck beds.  Consumer groups said that they didn’t want to force everyone to buy a 7-fleck bed, but insisted that all beds be labeled so everyone knew what they were buying.

Although many noted scientists failed to replicate the original findings, that news was usually buried in less prominent spots or not reported at all.  Most people that did see it, ignored it because they just knew they felt better since getting a new bed at exactly the right height.  Other companies took advantage of this by advertising sophisticated bed adjusters so you didn't have to buy a new bed, claiming to be sharing "secrets the bed manufacturers don’t want you to know.”

Soon the government got involved.  In response to complaints and lawsuits, the governmental trade commission found itself in the business of inspecting beds at the plants and in stores to ensure they were accurately labeled.  Lawmakers that cared more about votes than about beds, health, longevity or science passed bed legislation.  Some, understanding that the poor health of some led to overall healthcare costs, wanted to make it illegal to sell or possess a bed that didn’t measure up.  Some people wanted a free choice, but this became impossible because options for the risk takers (and those who understood science) were already few.  Besides those people were labeled by the masses as deniers, their opinions marginalized.

As this same dynamic was repeated over and over from one subject to another, they muddled along with technology that allowed them to spread news, whether it was true or false, at lightning speed.  Both citizens and professional media published and pushed their own version of events and beliefs with little interest in checking or verifying facts. The search for easy answers based on poor discipline, the spread of useless products and services and faulty political and economic policies based on lack of critical thinking and perspective, and the slow loss of their freedom as they abandoned their responsibility to a government happy to eliminate every possible danger through regulations, undermined the future of this society.  Meanwhile, all the citizens scratch their heads wondering what happened.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Are We Getting Too Lazy About Truth

Since the latest presidential race, the expression “fake news” has become widespread; not only for politicians, but everyday people use it either as a joke or a jibe or a serious comment.  So when I saw an article about news, particularly fake news, on Facebook a number of questions came to mind. How many people are getting news from Facebook? And why do they expect Facebook to do a better job of vetting the news than anyone else.

A little over a year ago Facebook began putting red flags on news stories debunked by third-party fact-checkers, labeling them as fake news. Unfortunately the scheme backfired causing them to change tactics late last year. “Users who wanted to believe the false stories had their fevers ignited and they actually shared the hoaxes more.” Instead Facebook began showing related articles from trusted news sources. Now, instead of calling attention to news they decide is incorrect, they reduce the size of the link post in News Feed.

But I thought Facebook was in the business of bringing the world together (or something like that) so they can earn revenue by delivering eyeballs to ads, not serving as a news source.  Apparently it’s both. And more people seem to be getting news from there.

A Pew Research poll from the summer of 2016 gives a fairly up-to-date picture.  Overall, most people still get their news from television, though that doesn’t apply to the under-50 crowd who rely more on the Internet. Newspapers, especially among younger Americans lag far behind.  

The survey goes into a lot of detail about news sources.  For example, those who“ever get news on a mobile device” rose from 54% in 2013 to 72% three year later. Of online news consumers, 36% say they often get news from professional news organizations and about 15% from friends, but they trust both sources about the same – having either “a lot of trust” or “some trust” at a level of about 76%. Trust in social media as a source of news is much lower, but still at about 34% in the combined categories of “a lot of trust” or “some trust.”

There seems to be trend, and Pew Research is tracking that trend. Overall, television is losing ground to the Internet, radio is stable and newspapers continue to fall out of favor. As far as the Facebook question, from 2012 to 2016 the number of U.S. adults reporting seeing news on social media rose from 49% to 62% and then up to 67% by last October, with those citing it as a frequent source moving from 18% to 20%. So apparently Facebook is right to be concerned about fake news, as more Americans move from newspapers and TV to the Internet and social media for their news and Congress is eager to grill them and others about why they didn’t intervene when the fake news appears.

This brings up a couple of concerns. First, the worry that people trust news from their friends as much as they do news from professional news organizations, while at the same time some of their friends are more likely to share bogus information that happens to agree with what they want to believe than to share true stories.

The second is the notion that the government holds these companies accountable to, in a sense, censor the news they pass along. With ¾ believing that the professional news sources are biased, what guarantees that the Internet companies can be more responsible?  What prevents them from mimicking their own customers and be more prone to pass along “facts” that agree with what they want to believe?

As everyone gets so busy that they leave these decisions to others, critical thinking goes away and we move closer to the concept behind 1984.

Monday, May 7, 2018

To Breakfast or Not To Breakfast?

That continues to be the question.  When I was growing up many years ago, we were told that breakfast was your most important meal.  The government still subscribes to this as many communities provide breakfast as well as lunch to qualifying students, subsidized with federal funds through the USDA’s School Breakfast Program (SBP).

It wasn’t too long ago that the news took the opposite view of breakfast.  Only 16 months ago I published the original To Breakfast or Not To Breakfast telling how breakfast had been declared optional based on a paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  This opinion was backed up by an earlier (Summer 2014) study reported by the Huffington Post and USA Today.

The emphasis was on whether people who were skipping breakfast to lose weight were making a good decision.  They surmised that from a standpoint of weight loss, skipping might hold a slight benefit.  If you are hungrier at lunch and eat a little more, it will usually not be enough to offset all the calories missed from skipping breakfast.  So the net intake would be favorable.

But that stance was so 2017! The latest study is in and we are back to eating breakfast as a better solution.  (I originally saw the story on a TV health segment but these two sources are available on line here and here).

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic divided 347 healthy adults into three groups, those who never ate breakfast, those who ate infrequently (one to four times a week), and those who regularly ate breakfast (five to seven days a week).  Then they followed them for 12 years and found that the breakfast eaters ended up with “smaller waistlines and were less likely to be obese.”

But the really scary part of the report came next. The “people who ate breakfast regularly only gained about three pounds over the past year. People who ate breakfast occasionally put on five pounds, while people who skipped a morning meal entirely gained eight pounds and developed dangerous belly fat.”  (Since this was a 12-year study, it is unclear why they only reported on weight gain over the past year.)  In any case, notice that the breakfast eaters did better, but on average no single group lost weight!  Isn’t it interesting that success is now defined not as losing weight, but as not gaining as much as the other guy.

After reporting on the study, each of the news sources turned to their expert who dazzled readers with such earth-shattering observations as:  people should “stick to healthier foods in the morning [and]…avoid high density, sugar-filled foods.” They should also “consider how many nutritionally empty foods they eat during the day – and then cut those out.” (Not earth-shattering after all - just common sense.) This sounds more like the dimension of discipline than any magical link between breakfast and weight loss.

This whole breakfast question, like so many others in the health-research category, is like being on an amusement park ride with abrupt corners, twists and turns only to end up in the same place we started.  Of course, no one can explain why there would be a link between eating breakfast and weight loss, so the issue is still up in the air until the next study is published. 

Friday, May 4, 2018

Foods That May Kill You

Nothing the media and others like better than to find ways to scare us.  If one subject works, gets followers or assists in raising funds, we hear it over and over.  A reliable standby continues to be food safety.  Here are two examples: one with an erroneous, but widely believed, message; and one with possibly serious, but mostly ignored, consequences.

Everyone should know that when you pick fruits or vegetables from the garden or fresh at the grocery store, they must washed (sometimes soaked) before anyone eats them.  If this is not yet common knowledge, it would be quite reasonable to start a campaign to inform and remind the public.  Instead for the last 15 years we have gotten the "Dirty Dozen" list from the Environmental Working Group (EWG).  They use inspections of popular fruits and vegetables to rank them according to pesticide contamination.

“EWG emphasizes studies that show pesticides in high concentration can lead to health problems, especially in young children.” But they fail to point out that the resulting levels, based on USDA- and FDA-sponsored tests of almost 39,000 non-organic fruit and vegetable samples “found that overall pesticide chemical residues…are far below what has been scientifically deemed tolerable for human consumption…[and] do not pose a health risk.”  Nevertheless, the group, characterized by CBS in this report as an “activist group,” continues to peddle the fear.

Notice that the list is based only on non-organic fruits and vegetables, which allows the EWG to promote organic food.  But there’s a catch.  As another site correctly points out:  “Your Organic Food Is Treated With Pesticides, Too.” Not only that but the USDA organic program allows some pesticides not classified as synthetic, and tests for only those pesticides disallowed by the organic program.  “So the EWG is reporting the stuff on conventional crops without considering what’s present on organic crops.”  That makes a difference, because according to What Gardeners Should Know About Pesticides(Purdue Extension PPP109), organic pesticides “are not necessarily safer” and “all products – organic or synthetic – have the potential to be toxic.  In some cases, buying organic might expose you to more pesticide residues, just a different pesticide.

Forbes calls the list “an egregious, science-free misinterpretation," and adds "What that [USDA] data actually demonstrates is the outstanding safety profile of the U.S. food supply, but EWG twists it into an argument for consumers to pony up the extra dollars to buy organic.”

In contrast, there is a frequently disregarded real danger, not within the food supply itself but in the realm of food preparation.  The USDA stresses on their website the absolute necessity of following proper procedures in handling, cooking, and storage of food.  This includes washing of all fresh fruit and vegetables, but it goes beyond that.  The experts also stress the need to cook beef, pork, veal, lamb, steaks, chops, roasts to a minimum internal temperature of 145 °F and allow a rest time of at least 3 minutes. (It keeps cooking when it rests.)  The reason for these precautions is that it is impossible to “see, smell, or taste harmful bacteria that may cause illness.”

But it has been the trend for quite some time to order steaks medium-rare. Those of us who prefer our steaks cooked longer are considered gauche and uncivilized.  “At Porter House New York in Midtown, executive chef and co-owner Michael Lomonaco says more than 60 percent of his customers order medium-rare.”  How does this compare to the recommendations?  “Most chefs regard beef cooked to medium-rare – with an internal temperature of 130 degrees off the grill and 135 degrees after resting – as the best way to bring out flavor and retain moisture in tender cuts such as rib-eye and top loin.”  That’s about 15 degrees out of the safe zone.

But a second problem compounds the first.  If a steak is overcooked and sent back to the kitchen, the only recourse is to cook another one.  But if a steak is undercooked and sent back, it can be cooked a little more, avoiding waste and financial loss.  It makes better business sense to give a customer a slightly undercooked steak, pushing up the possibility of illness a bit more.

So once again we find an example of Americans getting upset, changing behavior and spending more money based on faulty information, while they ignore valid advice about a real potential problem.  All we need to do is wash our fresh produce and cook our meat a little more, and there is nothing to worry about.

Monday, April 30, 2018

More People Choose A Pill Over Exercise

I was not surprised by this news from Yale School of Medicine.  A survey of 1,384 US adults, most of whom had high blood pressure, found that more people preferred a pill to exercise for controlling their blood pressure.

Researchers asked participants “how willing they would be to undergo any of four ‘treatments’ to gain an extra month, year or five years of life.”  The choices were to drink a daily cup of tea, exercise, take a pill, or have a periodic (monthly or semi-annual) injection.  Most preferred the pill with 79 percent of respondents saying they would be willing to take a pill for an extra month of life, 90 percent would for an extra year of life and 96 percent would for an extra five years of life.  The tea came in a very close second – they could vote for as many as they wanted.  The exercise option dropped to 63 percent for the extra month of life, and the injection was slightly lower than that.

“Despite not being a popular choice for many in the study, exercise is one of the key prevention methods recommended by the American Heart Association to prevent high blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor for cardiovascular disease.”  They recommend 30 minutes of exercise five days a week and define exercise as “anything that makes you move your body and burn calories.”  They go on to say:  “The simplest, positive change you can make to effectively improve your heart health is to start walking.”

WebMD explains that further studies have shown that if time is a problem, the 30 minutes can be split up into smaller bits for the same benefits.  The conclusion of another study states, “Exercise is a cornerstone therapy for the prevention, treatment and control of hypertension.”

The preference for a pill should not come as a surprise to anyone.  It just reinforces the reality of other failures in the dimension of discipline. Why do the hard work when there is an easier way out?  Notice that the researchers did not say that the pill or the tea or the injection would be equally effective.  They were merely looking for personal preferences.

Advertisers and the much-maligned big drug companies understand this attitude and take advantage of it.  It explains the multitude of “ask your doctor” ads on TV.  We gripe about the greed of “Big-Pharma,” then play right into their hands by running to the doctor for pills where lifestyle changes would be cheaper, more convenient and safer.  After our behavior puts them in the driver’s seat, we are shocked by announcements of high profitability and resent their success. 

This is just one of many little bits of evidence pointing to a serious discipline problems in America that results in problems like various addictions, the obesity epidemic and retirement insecurity.