health

it's official: we are going crazy, and we're exporting it to the world

A recent study by San Diego State University psychology professor Jean Twenge looked at Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) test results for high school and college students from 1938 through 2007. (The results will be published in a future issue of the Clinical Psychology Review.) The MMPI is one of, if not the, most popular personality tests, which measures (or claims to measure) people's mental health along ten different axes.

Twenge found that in 2007, five times as many people surpassed the threshold to be considered to have mental health issues as did in 1938. Especially high were the increases in hypomania and depression. And this doesn't even consider the vast numbers of people taking antidepressants and other meds that alleviate the symptoms the MMPI asks about.

Now, add to the fact that as a nation we're going crazy, the fact that we're exporting our model of mental health to the rest of the world. We've been aggressively preaching that "mental illnesses" should be considered a "brain disease", in the theory that this would help remove the stigma around them.

According to the research of Professor Sheila Mehta of Auburn University, though, this in not actually the result: considering mental illness as a neurological defect actually tends to make other people treat the sufferer less kindly. Mehta has actually studied how other people treat those they believe have a "brain disease", versus those who they believe have a psychosocial problem. She says, “Viewing those with mental disorders as diseased sets them apart and may lead to our perceiving them as physically distinct. Biochemical aberrations make them almost a different species.”

This may be why schizophrenics in the United States and Europe, where the "brain disease" idea holds sway, have a significantly higher relapse rate than those in other countries. More "primitive" notions of mental illness may actually help keep the troubled individual in the social group, and religious beliefs that attribute their problem to "evil spirits" or somesuch may allow for calmness and acquiescence and a less stressful response.

hysteria -- too much vitamin A?

A week or so ago, I found myself in a conversation about the nature of mental health diagnosis. I've always found it interesting how no one is "hysterical" any more -- if you read books on psychology from a few decades ago, there's a great deal of discussion about that condition, where as it seems that now it's almost never discussed. I've always taken that as an indicator of how at least part of the concept of "mental illness" is a social construction.

However, I stumbled across this abstract of a paper in the journal Social Science & Medicine, which notes "Experimental and clinical studies of nonhumans and humans reveal somatic and behavioral effects of hypervitaminosis A which closely parallel many of the symptoms reported for Western patients diagnosed as hysterical and Inuit sufferers of pibloktoq ['arctic hysteria']. Eskimo nutrition provides abundant sources of vitamin A and lays the probable basis in some individuals for hypervitaminosis A through ingestion of livers, kidneys, and fat of arctic fish and mammals, where the vitamin often is stored in poisonous quantities." [emphasis added. -tms]

Excessive vitamin A is well known to be toxic, and can result in birth defects, liver abnormalities, and CNS disorders. There's also some evidence linking excessive intake with osteoporosis, but the picture is not clear.

were we eating grains 100,000 years ago?

Until fairly recently, it was generally thought that the use of grains for food was a Neolithic innovation, that we only started eating grain after we started farming. But around 2004, analysis of a 23,000 year old site in Israel showed that the inhabitants were eating wheat and barley, as well as small-grained grasses -- and even suggested that they were baking grain-flour dough back that far. That makes breaking bread an ancient tradition indeed.

Now comes evidence suggesting (but by no means proving) that human use of grains for food may go back as far as 105,000 years:

Two years ago, Mercader and colleagues excavated a cave in Mozambique called Ngalue. They uncovered an assortment of stone tools in a layer of sediment deposited on the cave floor 42,000 to 105,000 years ago. The tools can't be directly dated, but Mercader presumes that the ones buried deepest in the layer are at least 100,000 years old. Other researchers had identified tubers as an important food source during the Stone Age, so Mercader decided to check for starch residue on 70 stone tools from the cave, including scrapers, grinders, points, flakes, and drills.

About 80% of the tools had ample starchy residue, Mercader reports today in Science. The starches came from the African wine palm, the false banana, pigeon peas, wild oranges, and the African potato. But the vast majority--89%--came from sorghum, a grass that is still a dietary staple in many parts of Africa.

According to Mercader, the findings suggest that people living in Ngalue routinely brought starchy plants, including sorghum, to their cave. He doesn't have definitive evidence that they ate the grass but says it seems likely. "Why would you be bringing sorghum into the cave unless you are doing something with it?" he asks. "The simplest explanation is that it would be a food item."

great page on low-carb diets

You hopefully know that Atkins-style, low-carb fad diets have been widely criticized by every major scientific and health organization. The American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, the American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the American Kidney Fund, and the Mayo Clinic are among those who have condemned low-carb, high-protein diets rich in animal products as useless for long-term weight control and dangerous in their health effects.

But I've not found a single page that lays it all out nearly as well as this one at atkinsexposed.org. The Atkins Corporation Legal Department sent Michael Greger, the physician behind atkinsexposed.org, an intimidating letter in an attempt to silence his criticism. Instead of folding, though, he engages in a point-by-point refutation of the Atkins Corporation's claims, demonstrating not only the scientific evidence of the diet's ineffectiveness and dangers but the fraudulent means by which it was promoted.

There is no "miracle weight-loss diet", folks. The reason this country is so damned fat is because our caloric intake increased by 24.5 percent between 1970 and 2000 (and I'm sure it's only gone up since then), while we sit on our asses more. We've got to eat less and exercise; trying to treat obesity by shifting calories between macronutrients is re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

If you, or someone you love, is among those who have been flim-flammed by the low-carb fad, you must read this page.

John Robbins on the Weston A. Price Foundation

I think my blog post that's generated the most comments here has been one regarding the Weston A. Price Foundation and it's advocacy of unhealthy animal-product centered diets and their spreading of FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) about vegetarianism.

The inimitable John Robbins offers his perspective on this group at vegsource.com:

In fact, the more I've gotten to know the Weston A. Price Foundation, the less I've felt that it is actually carrying on the spirit or the work of the man in whose name it purports to function. For one example, Price never once mentioned the words "soy," "soybean," "tofu," or "soy milk" in his 500 page opus, and spoke quite positively about lentils and other legumes, yet the foundation has taken it upon itself to be vehemently and aggressively anti-soy, calling soy foods "more insidious than hemlock." ...

For another example, Price discovered many native cultures that were extremely healthy while eating lacto-vegetarian or pisco-vegan diets. Describing one lacto-vegetarian people, for example, he called them, "The most physically perfect people in northern India... the people are very tall and are free of tooth decay." Yet the foundation that operates under his name is strikingly hostile to vegetarians. Sally Fallon, the foundation's president, denounces vegetarianism as "a kind of spiritual pride that seeks ...to shirk the earthly duties for which the physical body is created." She further insults vegetarians by saying they frequently suffer from zinc deficiency, but think it is spiritual enlightenment.

In 1934, Price wrote a moving letter to his nieces and nephews, instructing them in the diet he hoped they would eat. "The basic foods should be the entire grains such as whole wheat, rye or oats, whole wheat and rye breads, wheat and oat cereals, oat-cake, dairy products, including milk and cheese, which should be used liberally, and marine foods." Yet the Weston A. Price Foundation aggressively promotes the consumption of beef, pork and other high-fat meats, while condemning people who base their diets on whole grains.

...

Toward that end, the Foundation has widely publicized an article written by a former member of the Foundation's Board of Directors, Stephen Byrnes, titled "The Myths of Vegetarianism."

The article is harshly critical of vegetarian diets, and concludes with an "About the Author" section which states: "Stephen Byrnes... enjoys robust health on a diet that includes butter, cream, eggs, meat, whole milk, dairy products and offal." In fact, Stephen Byrnes suffered a fatal stroke in June, 2004. According to reports of his death, he had yet to reach his 40th birthday.

health information brought to you by Coca-Cola

As if Big Pharma's constant bribery of physicians wasn't distorting health care enough, it seems we have to watch out for the junk food makers too: AOL News reports on a deal between the American Academy of Family Physicians and Coca-Cola to have Coke fund "educational materials" about soft drinks for the academy's web site.

Academy CEO Dr. Douglas Henley said Wednesday that the deal won't influence the group's public health messages, and that the company will have no control over editorial content. He said the new online information will include research linking soft drinks with obesity and will focus on sugar-free alternatives.

But critics say the Coke deal will water down the advice.
"Coca-Cola, like other sodas, causes enormous suffering and premature death by increasing the risks of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, gout and cavities," Harvard University nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett said in an e-mail.

He said the academy "should be a loud critic of these products and practices, but by signing with Coke, their voice has almost surely been muzzled."

...

Dr. William Walker, public health officer for Contra Costa County near San Francisco, likened the alliance with ads decades ago in which physicians said mild cigarettes were safe.

...

The Coke deal is not the only corporate alliance for the family physicians group. In 2005, it received funding from McDonald's for a fitness program. And its consumer Web site includes advertising for a variety of products, including deli meats and air freshener.
Henley said the Coke deal is worth six figures, but he and a Coca-Cola spokeswoman declined to elaborate.

...

Coca-Cola is among several corporate contributors to the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation, a separate philanthropic group. These contributors include many drug companies, McDonald's, PepsiCo and a beef industry group.

CBS: most "swine flu" cases not even flu

The H1N1 insanity continues: CBS News reports that the CDC advised states to stop testing for H1N1 flu and stopped counting individual cases back in July.

While we waited for CDC to provide the data, which it eventually did, we asked all 50 states for their statistics on state lab-confirmed H1N1 prior to the halt of individual testing and counting in July. The results reveal a pattern that surprised a number of health care professionals we consulted. The vast majority of cases were negative for H1N1 as well as seasonal flu, despite the fact that many states were specifically testing patients deemed to be most likely to have H1N1 flu, based on symptoms and risk factors, such as travel to Mexico.

...

With most cases diagnosed solely on symptoms and risk factors, the H1N1 flu epidemic may seem worse than it is. For example, on Sept. 22, this alarming headline came from Georgetown University in Washington D.C.: "H1N1 Flu Infects Over 250 Georgetown Students."

H1N1 flu can be deadly and an outbreak of 250 students would be an especially troubling cluster. However, the number of sick students came not from lab-confirmed tests but from "estimates" made by counting "students who went to the Student Health Center with flu symptoms, students who called the H1N1 hotline or the Health Center's doctor-on-call, and students who went to the hospital's emergency room."

California, for example, looked at 13,704 specimens from "swine flu" patients -- and found that 86% did not have influenza, 12% had non-H1N1 flu, and only 2% had H1N1.

We've previously mentioned how only a small percentage of "flu" cases are actually influenza, and how the CDC's figure of 36,000 flu deaths a year is fantasy.

36,000 people die from flu annually in the U.S? Probably not.

There's a statistic I've been hearing a lot lately: according to the CDC, 36,000 Americas die from the flu every year. Mostly I've been hearing this from (well-intentioned) people pushing flu vaccination.

(Please note that this figure is about the regular seasonal flu, not the H1N1 strain, and -- except for one note below -- I'm not commenting on H1N1 here.)

Now that's a heck of a figure. 36,000 a year? If that's right, then every two years more Americans die from flu than were killed in Vietnam -- there are 58,195 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall.

2,993 people were killed in the 9/11 attacks: if the 36,000 figure is right, every year the flu is a dozen 9/11s.

Now, that seems odd. I'm too young to know anyone who died in Vietnam, but I knew two people who died in the 9/11 attacks. Of course, that's a non-random distribution -- I live on the East Coast -- but I don't think I know anyone who's died from the flu. If in my adult life I've lived through 240 9/11's worth of flu deaths, it seems like I ought to know somebody affected. These numbers don't seem to make sense, and my skeptic bone is starting to itch.

So where does this 36,000 figure come from? Do they actually test people who die from flu-like symptoms for the influenza virus and count them? Well, no. According to their own website, "CDC does not know exactly how many people die from seasonal flu each year."

And they also admit that the 36,000 figure is not deaths caused by flu, but "flu-related" deaths:

Seasonal flu-related deaths are deaths that occur in people for whom seasonal influenza infection was likely a contributor to the cause of death, but not necessarily the primary cause of death.

Keep this in mind as you hear about deaths supposedly from the H1N1 pandemic: most of these will never be verified by any hard evidence that H1N1 infection was the primary cause of death. Instead, the more people think the H1N1 is a killer, the more they will attribute ambiguous deaths to H1N1. It's the same principle that makes the Law of Fives work.

So the CDC's 36,000 figure is not based on actually counting deaths caused by flu, but based on the use of a statistical model to guess at the number of "flu-related" deaths, because otherwise they'd get (in their opinion) too low of a count:

The Atlantic: "Does the Vaccine Matter?"

Outstanding article from The Atlantic on the controversy about whether the vaccine (and anti-viral drugs) are the most effective way to combat the flu:

When Lisa Jackson, a physician and senior investigator with the Group Health Research Center, in Seattle, began wondering aloud to colleagues if maybe something was amiss with the estimate of 50 percent mortality reduction for people who get flu vaccine, the response she got sounded more like doctrine than science. “People told me, ‘No good can come of [asking] this,’” she says. “‘Potentially a lot of bad could happen’ for me professionally by raising any criticism that might dissuade people from getting vaccinated, because of course, ‘We know that vaccine works.’ This was the prevailing wisdom.”

Nonetheless, in 2004, Jackson and three colleagues set out to determine whether the mortality difference between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated might be caused by a phenomenon known as the “healthy user effect.” They hypothesized that on average, people who get vaccinated are simply healthier than those who don’t, and thus less liable to die over the short term. People who don’t get vaccinated may be bedridden or otherwise too sick to go get a shot. They may also be more likely to succumb to flu or any other illness, because they are generally older and sicker. To test their thesis, Jackson and her colleagues combed through eight years of medical data on more than 72,000 people 65 and older. They looked at who got flu shots and who didn’t. Then they examined which group’s members were more likely to die of any cause when it was not flu season.

Jackson’s findings showed that outside of flu season, the baseline risk of death among people who did not get vaccinated was approximately 60 percent higher than among those who did, lending support to the hypothesis that on average, healthy people chose to get the vaccine, while the “frail elderly” didn’t or couldn’t. In fact, the healthy-user effect explained the entire benefit that other researchers were attributing to flu vaccine, suggesting that the vaccine itself might not reduce mortality at all. Jackson’s papers “are beautiful,” says Lone Simonsen, who is a professor of global health at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C., and an internationally recognized expert in influenza and vaccine epidemiology. “They are classic studies in epidemiology, they are so carefully done.”

The results were also so unexpected that many experts simply refused to believe them. Jackson’s papers were turned down for publication in the top-ranked medical journals. One flu expert who reviewed her studies for the Journal of the American Medical Association wrote, “To accept these results would be to say that the earth is flat!” When the papers were finally published in 2006, in the less prominent International Journal of Epidemiology, they were largely ignored by doctors and public-health officials. “The answer I got,” says Jackson, “was not the right answer.”

The history of flu vaccination suggests other reasons to doubt claims that it dramatically reduces mortality. In 2004, for example, vaccine production fell behind, causing a 40 percent drop in immunization rates. Yet mortality did not rise. In addition, vaccine “mismatches” occurred in 1968 and 1997: in both years, the vaccine that had been produced in the summer protected against one set of viruses, but come winter, a different set was circulating. In effect, nobody was vaccinated. Yet death rates from all causes, including flu and the various illnesses it can exacerbate, did not budge. Sumit Majumdar, a physician and researcher at the University of Alberta, in Canada, offers another historical observation: rising rates of vaccination of the elderly over the past two decades have not coincided with a lower overall mortality rate. In 1989, only 15 percent of people over age 65 in the U.S. and Canada were vaccinated against flu. Today, more than 65 percent are immunized. Yet death rates among the elderly during flu season have increased rather than decreased.

H1N1 vaccine package insert

From the FDA website, here's a link to the package insert information for the H1N1 vaccine.

This is information from the manufacturer, Novartis, not from an anti-vaccine group. If you're thinking of getting the vaccine, I think you ought to read it, and discuss it with your doctor, rather than just lining up at the Target or the Minute Clinic for your shot.

Some highlights:

  • Multidose vial, 5-mL. Contains thimerosal, a mercury derivative (25 mcg mercury per 0.5-mL dose).

  • CONTRAINDICATIONS
    • History of systemic hypersensitivity reactions to egg proteins, or any other component of Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine, or life-threatening reactions to previous influenza vaccinations. (4, 11)

  • USE IN SPECIFIC POPULATIONS

    • Safety and effectiveness of Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine have not been established in pregnant women, nursing mothers or children less than 4 years of age. (8.1, 8.3, 8.4)

    • Antibody responses to the trivalent seasonal Influenza Virus Vaccine manufactured by Novartis (FLUVIRIN) were lower in the geriatric population than in younger subjects. (8.5)

  • 4 CONTRAINDICATIONS

    4.1 Hypersensitivity

    Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine should not be administered to anyone with known systemic hypersensitivity reactions to egg proteins (eggs or egg products), or to any component of Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine, or
    who has had a life-threatening reaction to previous influenza vaccinations [see DESCRIPTION (11)].

    5 WARNINGS AND PRECAUTIONS

    5.1 Guillain-Barré Syndrome
    If Guillain-Barré syndrome has occurred within 6 weeks of receipt of prior influenza vaccine, the decision to give Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine should be based on careful consideration of the potential benefits and risks.

    5.2 Altered Immunocompetence
    If Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine is administered to immunocompromised persons, including individuals receiving immunosuppressive therapy, the expected immune response may not be obtained.

    5.3 Preventing and Managing Allergic Reactions

    Prior to administration of any dose of Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine, the healthcare provider should review the patient’s prior immunization history for possible adverse events, to determine the existence of any contraindication to immunization with Influenza A (H1N1) 2009 Monovalent Vaccine and to allow an assessment of benefits and risks. Appropriate medical treatment and supervision must be available to manage possible anaphylactic reactions following administration of the
    vaccine.

  • I especially suggest a look at Table 3, "Adverse Events Reported by at least 5% of Subjects in Clinical Trials since 1998", not copied here.

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