Recession = extreme consumer cost-cutting?

empty-prescription-bottle-2001Two new reports this week suggest that consumers are cutting back on health spending – or opting to dole out cash for less pricey methods of bettering what ails them – because of tough economic times.

Sales of vitamins and nutritional supplements have surged in recent months. According to market research group Information Resources, sales of vitamins in the last three months of 2008 grew by nearly 8% compared with the same period a year earlier. Industry analysts said they’d seen the same transition – from mainstream to alterna-medicine – in previous economic downturns. Unfortunately, vitamins are not the same as prescription medications, and a natural grocer is not the same as a doctor, making the decision to sub one for the other a real health risk.

Last week, the LA Times reported that that 43 percent of Californians ages 50 and younger, in a survey conducted last month, said they had postponed care for a chronic health condition because of cost. Dental practices in California told the Times that business is down between 15 and 30 percent. Unfortunately, putting off medical tests or procedures can be dangerous – ER doctors are seeing more people whose chronic health problems have taken a turn for the worse after they postponed care.

Of all the things to cut back on – vacations, books, college funds, nose jobs – health should probably be last on the list. After all, if you’re dead, you won’t be able to enjoy the imminent ecomonic upswing I can see at the end of the tunnel…

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Triathlons: an extreme danger?

id_856_2006itucorporateteamtriathlonworldchampionships2006110420061104_8331For many weekend warriors or casual athletes (or non-athletes, of course) the triathlon is an extreme and perhaps inconceivable feat of physical strength and stamina. The three-part events, consisting of a swim, bike ride and run (lengths vary depending on the “level” of competition, but some are full-day affairs), seem like the ultimate test of fitness.

Maybe so, but the first ever study of triathletes warns that they also pose significant risk of death. In fact, the risk is at least twice that associated with marathon races. Researchers at the Minneapolis Heart Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital used records on 922,810 triathletes competing in 2,846 USA Triathlon-sanctioned events between January 2006 and September 2008.

They found that about 15 out of a million participants died, all from heart failure. The risk sounds small, but researchers warn that it’s not inconsequential, and represents the highest rate of any sport-related death.

The problem stems from the soaring popularity of triathlons, drawing people not accustomed to such intense activity. Each year, over 1,000 triathlons are held and several hundred thousand Americans partake in the events. If you want to be one of them, doctors recommend the following precautions:

Doctors offer these tips to anyone considering a triathlon:

-Get a checkup for hidden heart problems.

-Train adequately before the event, including open-water swims – not just in pools.

-Acclimate yourself to the water temperature shortly before a race, and wear a wetsuit if it’s too cold.

-Make sure the race has medical staff and defibrillators on site.



Calling all centenarians: new longevity study
03/28/2009, 2:43 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The National Institute on Aging announced last week that they’ve begun a new study to uncover the factors – genetic and environmental – that may contribute to aging and promote longevity. Researchers hope to figure out whether certain families share genes, lifestyle habits or geographic factors that lead to their exceptional lifespans.

The Long Life Family Study (LLFS) is the first major study on the complexity of aging, because it evaluates dozens of different factors and criteria, and will collect data from families with at least two members reaching a very old age ( 85 and over). Researchers began recruiting in 2006 and are hoping to obtain data for 4,800 people, including the primary subject and their siblings and children. The LLFS is unique not only because it looks beyond genetics to assess lifestyle factors, but because it is longitudinal, with researchers planning to follow families for generations to come.

If you’ve got a 100-year-old grandma and a propensity for lab rat living, call (877) 362-2074, because the study still needs around 2,000 participants.



Guinea pigs and happy pills: new books to check out

Two new books this week for everyone who considers themselves an extreme self – or wishes they were.

Experimental Man is a book that builds on prior journalistic guinea pig efforts of David Ewing Duncan35767780, a contributing editor at Portfolio, Discover, and Wired. Duncan has been a medical test junkie for years now, and has written award-winning features on the subject of his own examinations. Now, he’s taken “guinea pig journalism” to the extreme, undergoing hundreds of medical tests: genetic, toxicity, MRIs, blood, brain scan and on and on and on. All this as a way of exploring the new age of personalized medicine and its implications.

The book has an interactive companion in the Experimental Man website, being run by the Center for Life Science Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. The site is becoming an encyclopedia of information on 21st century health, and even allows visitors to share their own personalized test results.

31nelpfbyul_sl500_aa240_Happy Pills in America is a new book by history professor David Herzberg. Dr. Herzberg documents the surge in popularity of various psychotropic “wonder drugs” like antidepressants and anxiety meds.  “After World War II, a vast and powerful system of commercial medicine anchored by pharmaceutical companies brought consumer culture to psychotropic medications,” he says. Since then, we’ve seen the commercialization of pharmacological treatments for depression, mania, anxiety and a host of other thought, mood and attention disorders.

Herzberg goes so far as to argue that happiness and normalcy have been redefined because of the ubiquity of mood altering medications. “The meaning ascribed to tranquilizers and antidepressants, and to normalcy itself, has been molded and re-molded, and the result owes as much to commerce and culture as it does to science,” he says.

On the one hand, we’ve got a man setting himself up to be bombarding with diagnoses and diseases – on the other, a historian who claims that many of these diagnoses (those pertaining to mental health, at least) may have more to do with commerce than science.



Pick your detox diet

300_826792I’ve been investigating popular detox diets and cleanses recently, with the possibility of testing one (or a few) out for myself. These come in an array of varieties from which to choose, whatever your goal – to lose weight, flush out your colon or improve your energy levels. Apparently.

Although you can design your own detox, or find websites with “homemade” cleanses and detox diets, there are dozens of regimens and products for sale that purport to clear out the system. In fact, cleansing and organic supplements (mostly herbal-based cleanse and detox kits) are the fastest growing segment of herbal supplement sales, according to SPINS, a market research company. Here is a survey of the most popular, their claims, and advice from professionals who are quick to point out the downsides:

1. The Master Cleanse: a diet popularized by Peter Glickman in his book Lose Weight, Have More Energy and Be Happier in 10 Days. The cleanse involves drinking only lemonade made from lemon, maple syrup, water and Cayenne – for 10 to 45 days. Dietary deficiencies are an obvious downside, along with constipation and fatigue. According to Dr. Ed Zimney, the medical director of HealthTalk,”Your gastrointestinal tract does not need to be cleaned out because it is constantly in motion. This whole idea is a complete myth.”

693232. Wild Rose Herbal D-Tox: a 12-day plan that includes pills and elixirs made of a “Wild Rose Biliherb formula” to support the elimination of wastes from the digestive system. Participants  eat foods from a small list of “okayed items” like tofu and brown rice. At least you get to eat on this plan, but Afsoun Khalili, a clinic faculty member at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine, warns about ingredients in the formula. Cascara sagrada bark may cause explosive diarrhea, red clover functions like estrogen in the body and licorice root should not be taken by anyone with high blood pressure.

3. Colonix: a fiber supplement that supposedly cleanses the colon of toxic build-up and prevents the digestive tract from becoming “clogged” with mucus and metabolic waste. By swelling and absorbing fluids, it breaks down and moves toxic matter stuck in the folds of the colon. Because the product is so high in fiber, participants who don’t stay well hydrated will suffer from extreme constipation and stomach cramps, and health forums are rife with complaints of severe headaches, stomach pain and bloating.

aqua_detox_after4. Aqua Detox: a program that requires buying an Aqua Detox footbath contraption, which is then filled with saltwater that a user soaks their feet in. As you soak, the water turns brown – according to the manufacturer, these are the “toxins” being excreted because of the contraption’s electrode waves interacting with the salt water. Mmhm. Several studies have shown that the water discoloration is due to rust produced from the metal electrodes, and Stephen Barrett, the founder of Quackwatch, calls Aqua Detox “medically worthless”

5. Inches Away: this one is only for those who want to go all-out with their detox.  Clients eat no solid food for three days and drinks only water with lemon juice and honey. The Inches Away folks say this cleanses the digestive tract of  waste and bacteria, cleans out major organs and blood, and provides mental clarity by stopping the mind’s bombardment by food additives. After three days, clients take four kinds of diet pills, up to 30 a day, and visit an Inches Away Diet Center for weekly body wraps. I don’t need to consult an expert on this one. I think it speaks for itself.



Believing in god is good for your brain
03/04/2009, 10:05 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

prayerNo wonder I’m so easily frazzled! Non-believers may want to congregate over chamomile tea and an aromatherapy candle this week, with news that faith in God blocks anxiety and minimizes stress.

In two studies at the University of Toronto, participants performed a Stroop task – a known evaluation of cognitive control – and were hooked up to electrodes measuring brain activity. The stronger the religious zeal, the calmer their brain waves were in responding to stressful situations or anxiety-producing events.

“We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors,” says lead author Michael Inzlicht, from the University of Toronto Scarborough. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.”

The findings may show that religious belief has a calming effect on devotees, which makes them less likely to feel anxious about making errors or facing the unknown. But should that really be a surprise? It would be a lot easier to avoid anxiety if you blamed unfortunate events and your own mistakes on God’s master-plan, wouldn’t it? Still – an interesting example of the overlap between health and faith, and another stress relief technique to consider…



Transcendental meditation a cure for college stress

medThe practice of transcendental meditation (TA) seem to be an effective means for college students to combat academic and social stress.

That’s according to the American University Department of Psychology in Washington, D.C., and the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield, Iowa. Together, the researchers studied the effects of meditation practice on brain and physiological functioning in college students.

Fifty students were assigned to a TM or control group and tracked for 10 weeks. The end result? Those in the TM groups had higher Brain Integration Scale scores (BIS), less sleepiness and were less jumpy and irritable. A low BIS score indicates fragmented brain functioning, which leads to scattered and disorganized thinking.

If TM can help alleviate stress in college students, it seems likely that the practice could also help others with high-stress lifestyles. Like NYU grad students, perhaps. That said, I’ve tried meditation before, but gave up when I realized it necessitated good posture. I don’t have time for good posture.

TM is a technique developed in 1958 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and involves two 20-minute meditation sessions each day, sitting with eyes closed and reciting a mantra. For more details on TM, visit the official website.

See the full story here.