Monday, December 22, 2014

It's Perspective Season

The dimension of perspective helps us distinguish between what is important and what is trivial.  One positive side effect is the ability to separate wants from needs, which lead to the ability to prioritize conflicting desires.  Another side effect is gratitude, appreciating what we have and not always yearning for more, bigger or better.

One week ago today the news was filled with stories about how retailers and the shipping companies were adjusting their schedules and updating websites to show the absolute last date to order on line and guarantee delivery by December 24.  They were in the process of fine tuning expectations to avoid over-promising and disappointing.

“After facing an avalanche of criticism last year for failing to deliver thousands of packages by Christmas Eve,” UPS is making extra efforts to ensure everything is delivered as expected.  Both UPS and FedEx “began strategizing immediately after last year's disappointing holiday performance,” which combined bad weather with an unexpected increase in online shopping. US Postal Service will likewise be going “the extra mile to ensure packages are delivered” on time and they too don’t lose customers.

Last year some retailers overpromised regarding last-minute delivery, “leaving some online shoppers irate.”  This year they are being more careful about dates and guarantees because “when you miss that date, trouble ensues."

This is where perspective comes in.  Expressions like "an avalanche of criticism," “irate” and “trouble ensues” certainly paints a picture of out-of-whack behavior in this dimension.  Who are these people that their biggest problem is whether Christmas presents, which were obviously not important enough to plan ahead for, are delivered on time?  If they have a delivery address, they have a home, which not everyone can say.  Chances are they have food on the table and a healthy family to share it with.   Even at this time of the year it's so easy for them to forget their blessings and become irate when their last-minute behavior combined with high demand and bad weather to cause a delay in delivery.  

Is this all about a fragile ego – yes, I put it off to the last minute, but I don’t want to be caught and embarrassed?  Is it about not wanting to disappoint the children, because we, aided by society (and especially advertisers) have built their expectations to the bursting point over the excitement of tearing into presents on Christmas morning?  Did we also forget to remind them about their blessings?  Finally, are adults through their behavior teaching their children that the way to respond to disappointment is to throw a tantrum?

It’s too bad this subject even comes up.  Americans who see Christmas as a religious holiday can worship as they choose – one more thing to be grateful for.  Those who do not, need not be committed to any particular day.  What’s wrong with the following weekend?  This kind of patience and flexibility are a better example to our children than stressing out over where all the last-minute packages are.  In short, everyone has bigger problems than what’s been delivered by a particular day.  Some people just don’t seem to have sorted this fact out yet.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Danger of Social Media

Social media is capable of spreading misinformation as quickly as solid facts.  Not only that, but it spreads this misinformation at greater speeds and breadth than ever before.  It behooves everyone, therefore, to be extra alert, cautious and skeptical.  Unfortunately, Americans have not learned this lesson.  This lack of care and skepticism is shown by the very fact that misinformation spreads so widely.

A couple of examples came up this month.  This first is in a report from NBC that begins, “Hyperbaric oxygen therapy. Have you ever heard of it? The Internet sure has.”  It goes on to say that the use of this procedure that exposes patients to 100% oxygen at greater than atmospheric pressure, at $2000 per treatment, is becoming more common “for treating autism, infant brain trauma, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue, cerebral palsy and many other conditions,” which lately include PTSD and traumatic brain injury for veterans.  The trouble is that there is no solid evidence that it works.

They cite a recent JAMA Internal Medicine study on its effectiveness for treating some veterans with PTSD finding that benefits were not a result of the therapy but the placebo effect.  “Those in the tanks felt better because they really wanted to believe they would feel better even when they just breathed room air.”  Belief in remedies can be powerful even when the remedies themselves are no better than sugar pills.  Furthermore, self-reporting is also suspect due to this placebo effect along with many other psychological factors.  That is why we shouldn’t, but often do, take at face value the testimonials of friends, neighbors, social media contacts, or celebrity spokespersons – or even our own experience.

The second example was news that Pope Francis told a young boy that his pet went to heaven.  Pets going to heaven was good news, something almost everyone wants to believe.  It spread quickly, even on the mainstream media.  Unfortunately, that’s not quite what he said.  The New York Times “acknowledged its mistake, saying in a correction on Friday that it had misattributed the remark by Paul VI to the current pope.”  Pope Francis did not make any comments about animals.  It was all a misinterpretation by an Italian reporter that spread with elaboration.  (Later in the month a picture of the Pope circulated on Facebook with a quote about not having to believe in God.  According to a quick check of the Snopes website, “there is no proof for the claim that Pope Francis said it.”)

Whether pets are admitted to heaven or hyperbaric treatment cures PTSD is not an immediate problem in most cases.  These are just current examples, but other misinformation can seriously affect your wallet and your health.  The latest trends catch on based on celebrity endorsements and Internet chatter with no science required.  Think about how foods that would not naturally contain gluten are now labeled gluten-free based on a fad of self-diagnosis.  Think how many foods carry the meaningless label of “all natural” just to attract uniformed buyers.  These may make a dent in the wallet, but far more serious is the bad health advice, such as avoiding vaccinations, taking supplements for serious conditions, turning down proven cures for home remedies or ancient natural alternatives with no track record except the misperception that “ancient” or “Chinese” always means good, safe and effective.  Companies and individuals can get their reputations savaged as the unchallenged stories of misdeeds or dangerous products spreads like wildfire.  As I mentioned last time, a check of original sources is often all it takes to find that a posting about dangers or magical cures is based on incomplete evidence.  Taking the better-safe-than-sorry approach on everything leaves us unwilling to even cross the street.

There have always been dangers associated with not being skeptical, being too credulous or accepting.  Years ago the locals would give money to the traveling medicine man only to find out too late that they had been cheated.  Today we encounter the same interaction many times a day on the Internet, social media, magazines, and the news.  Critical thinking, a skeptical attitude, is more important than ever to protect ourselves against not only cheats and conmen, but also against sneaky advertisers and our na├»ve neighbors who “like” and repost unproven and unprovable “facts” without doing any investigation. 

Update December 21:  Two days after publication, I became aware of a move by the American Dental Association (ADA) to spend $500,000 to counter the increase of inaccurate information on the Internet posted by groups that try to influence communities to ban drinking water fluoridation.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Eggs and Eye Health

A brief health spot on television showed a nutritionist recommending eggs in the diet of seniors to prevent age-related macular degeneration (AMD).  This was news to me, so I started to do some research and found interesting results.

AMD is the primary cause of blindness among older people.  The macula of the eye depends on certain anti-oxidants to remain healthy.

The first reference was from 2006 from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.  They designed a study to see if eating eggs would increase lutein and zeaxanthin in the blood.  These substances are found in egg yolks (and in several other foods) and are thought to lead to healthier eyes.  The study concluded that eating an egg a day both increased levels of these important nutrients in the blood and did not adversely affect cholesterol levels.  The headline read:  “According to research from the University of Massachusetts Lowell and the University of New Hampshire, regular consumption of eggs … may help stave off macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among seniors.”  [Emphasis added]

Near the bottom of the story was this disclaimer.  “But even the researchers say it's still too early to make a sound prediction about eggs' impact on eye health. And those familiar with the link between carotenoids and ophthalmology remain skeptical about the study until a larger sample size is documented and the report is officially published.”

That comment about the need for more research led me to other, more recent sources.  The National Institutes of Health (NIH) had reports of several additional studies.  In 2013 they presented a review of the current literature on the subject.  This centered on lutein and zeaxanthin, pointing out that they are carotenoid pigments that impart yellow or orange color to various common foods such as cantaloupe, pasta, corn, carrots, orange/yellow peppers, fish, salmon and eggs.  So it’s not just eggs.  The primary study cited in this review showed a link between them and eye health, but no firm connection.  It was old, however, from 1994 – “CONCLUSION--Increasing the consumption of foods rich in certain carotenoids, in particular dark green, leafy vegetables, may decrease the risk of developing advanced or exudative AMD, the most visually disabling form of macular degeneration among older people. These findings support the need for further studies of this relationship.”  Again they are not sure until further studies are done.

A 2014 review by the NIH showed, without further detailed information, only this headline:  “Consuming a buttermilk drink containing lutein-enriched egg yolk daily for 1 year increased plasma lutein but did not affect serum lipid or lipoprotein concentrations in adults with early signs of age-related macular degeneration.”  As of this year, it sounds like the jury is still out on any scientific confirmation of the eggs-good-for-the-eyes hypothesis.

From this I conclude that eggs are good for you.  They contain some important nutrients and the cholesterol scare about eggs from several years ago should not be a concern.  It is probably still too early to say definitely that eggs help prevent AMD, and important to note that several other dietary sources of the same nutrients are also available.

This is pretty good evidence that information from these short television pieces (and other sources of news), even from apparent experts, should not be relied upon as being either complete or totally accurate.

This is further reinforced by my favorite source for jumping to the conclusion they want to believe in, Natural News, who in 2006 right after the initial U-Mass egg study with the clear disclaimer about more research needed, concluded their web write-up with this quote from one of their experts:  " ‘This study once again shows the power of natural medicine found in wholesome foods,’ says Mike Adams, author of The Honest Food Guide.”  Though there is nothing wrong with good food, this appears to be more about wishful thinking than an accurate report on the science.  (I have found other instances in these types of websites where the source information contains disclaimers not mentioned in the article.)

It’s very easy to see, though, how these health beliefs get started and how they continue to persist even when not confirmed or after contrary evidence comes to light.