Longevity: beyond diet

There is a lot of research on longevity going on now, much of it with Kurzweil’s theory of singularity in view: he believes we’re on the cusp of having the technological advances for indefinite life extension, and that it’s now possible to slow and reverse physical aging long enough to survive until that time.  Some researchers have found that extreme caloric restriction radically extends the lifespan of mice; others have recently discovered that drugs that maintain a state of ketosis seem to have similar effect (in both cases, the body feeds off its own resources more efficiently). This comes at a time when the life expectancy for some groups and areas in the US is actually on the decline.

But, there is also research going on considers the social and cultural aspects of longevity, looking at pockets of long-lived people in various parts of the world. An article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine focused on the Greek island of Ikaria, “The Island Where People Forget to Die“.  Not only are Ikarians two and a half times more likely to reach 90 than Americans, but they do so with dramatically lower rates of depression and dementia.

(c) Andrea Frazzetta/LUZphoto for The New York Times

While the researchers don’t overlook a diet low in processed foods and meat, high in local vegetables, legumes, olive oil, fresh herbs, and red wine, the article also considers lifestyle elements.  Older people have active social lives in public, often playing competitive games. They work in their gardens and live in their own homes, and they rest all they need.

When research like this gets wide attention, it seems to me that the result is usually a trendy diet that mimics an aspect of the subject area’s nutrition, along with a plethora of new, highly marketed supplement pills.  Taking extra antioxidants and eating more veggies probably won’t hurt anyone, but you can’t put domino games with friends and ten hours of sleep into a pill.

About twenty years ago, I lived not far from another pocket of longevity mentioned in the article, the Nuoro region of Sardinia.  We Americans rushed around as usual, but the local pace was vastly different. It could take two years to have a new home phone line installed, a situation that was met with a shrug. Local stores carried very few groceries: you bought from the twice weekly outdoor market, you grew it yourself, you set aside hours to have a restaurant dinner, or you picked up a rotisserie chicken — the only “fast food” in town. Every evening before dinner was the passagiata, a time when locals would hang out in the town square, sauntering in circles and chatting with friends, saying hello to acquaintances, and catching up on the gossip. All ages were there, from babies to great great grandmothers, and I always wondered what the heck they talked about when their lives seemed so simple.  Nothing was ever done in a rush and most things were scheduled to be done domani, which didn’t have the literal translation of “tomorrow”, but actually meant “whenever we happen to get around to it.”

Days spent like the Sardinians or island Greeks are what I relish when I take vacations nowadays, but that pace made for brutal culture shock. It’s also incongruous with modern economics, from the experience of the ongoing EU financial crises.  Still, I’d be happier if the takeaway from research like this was a reasonable critique of our rushed, striving lifestyles and the increased social isolation of the elderly rather than just another trendy supplement.

Hope and misunderstanding in cancer treatment

So interesting – a study in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine finds that the majority of patients with advanced cancers (lung and colorectal) are fundamentally not understanding what it is that chemotherapy and other treatments do.  Something is not getting communicated effectively between doctors and patients, because most have some belief that chemotherapy, beyond extending their lives, might actually cure them.

Is this another manifestation of the ideology of hope?


As discussed in the Boston Globe, it’s unclear “whether patients receive unclear information from a physician or fail to fully comprehend what they are told, or whether there is a kind of clinical “collusion” in which the discussion moves rapidly from a dire prognosis to a focus on what can be tried, leaving patients with an inflated sense of hope.”

Here’s the kicker: the patients who rated their doctors as worse communicators were more likely to have a realistic view of the potential benefits and limitations of chemotherapy.  Are some doctors being seen as better communicators just because they’re giving good (false) news? What are the forces that pressure them to sugar-coat?

Spirit of 1848 sessions at the APHA Annual Meeting

You may remember Nancy Krieger’s work from last semester.  The wonderful Spirit of 1848 group, a collection of activist health professionals and social scientists that she chairs, has a host of great-looking sessions at the APHA conference this weekend in San Francisco (that’s the American Public Health Association).

Two panels that look particularly interesting:


2:30 PM: Introduction: “Critical perspectives on lifecourse and time trend analyses: social justice & the politics of public health data” – Catherine Cubbin, PhD 

2:35 PM: Planning for state and local public health services in a genomic era: health equity across the life course – Laura Senier, Jason Orne 

2:55 PM: Trending politics, trending health: how divergent developments in welfare states explain diverging mortality profiles in wealthy nations – Jason Beckfield, PhD and Clare Bambra, PhD 

3:15 PM: Scenes from AMERICAN BIRTHRIGHT (working title): a documentary and multimedia project linking early child development to a more equitable and prosperous America – Larry Adelman and Rachel Poulain


4:30 PM: Introduction: “Embodying history – and changing it: health inequities, social justice, and biology in context – the case of breast cancer” – Anne-Emanuelle Birn, MA, ScD 

4:35 PM: How cancer crossed the color line – Keith Wailoo, PhD 

4:55 PM: Embodying history and understanding health inequities: on emergent phenotypes and the four histories of the breast cancer estrogen receptor – evolutionary, pathological, individual, and societal – Nancy Krieger, PhD 

5:15 PM: How community-based participatory outreach education and research impacts American Indian breast cancer programs to address inequities – Linda Burhansstipanov, DrPH 

Do windmills cause illness?

Here in the US, a lot of the complaints about wind farms that make news focus on aesthetics: wealthy shorefront property owners don’t want the huge turbines interrupting their view, as in the Cape Wind controversy.  Even the 2012 documentary Windfall (trailer here and available on Netflix), about turbine installations in the rural New York town of Meredith, focused mainly on the issues of neighbor vs. neighbor fighting, corporate interests, and home values.  Though issues of environmental impact get casual mention, US coverage is usually about the money.

In other parts of the English-speaking world, the main controversy seems to be about illness.  This article from the UK’s MailOnline cites US researchers when establishing a scientific grounds for the the illnesses which, the author admits, “you might be tempted to dismiss it as a hypochondriac’s charter or an urban myth.”  To our east, Health Canada is responding to increased pressure by conducting a $1.8 million dollar study of wind farm noise in Ontario, where this news report was filmed:

There’s also this longer news piece about claims of wind farm illness in an Australian town called Waubra:

On the other hand, there are plenty of voices saying that wind farms are not correlated with illness: governments, energy companies, and this public health professor from Sydney, Australia who has made a list of seventeen studies of wind turbines that point to little or no impact on health. In a second article, he equates the phenomenon to mass hysteria, mentioning that no complaints of illness were made until after hundreds of turbines were already deployed.

There are examples in the urban myths recorded by Dr. Jan Brunvand that might resonate with this situation: the teenager who fried herself in a (newly popular) tanning bed, the old lady who didn’t understand how her (brand new) microwave worked when she popped in her wet poodle to dry it off, etc.  Television will hurt your eyes and cell phones will give you brain cancer.  New technology — and I think the gigantic turbines are different enough from previous generations of windmill to qualify — can confuse and frighten us.   Perhaps there are other factors that are leading to the discovery or exacerbation of the illnesses people near wind farms are mentioning.

Personally, I find the turbines lovely to watch at a distance, but I certainly wouldn’t want to live in the throbbing shadow of one, with that low pulse of sound all day and all night.  Is this a case where we’ve rushed ahead too quickly because of financial and social (environmental) pressures, without considering human factors, or is it a case of “modern technology illness”?

Liveblogging the 2012 Envision Conference

I’m sitting in a ballroom in the gorgeous Royal Park Hotel in Rochester, MI, surrounded (mostly) by nursing professionals at this conference hosted by the Oakland University School of Nursing.

The first speaker is Sharon M. Freeman Clevenger, talking about cognitive behavior therapy.  Essentially, this involves testing a patient’s beliefs and behaviors, exploring their cognitive processes through Socratic questioning, and then teaching the patient how to adjust and correct that thinking. It can also involve looking at one’s behaviors over time and considering nutritional/sleep/environmental issues, as well.  Is there an anthropological angle? Perhaps, in that anthropologists are good at sussing out the worldview, the cognition, of those we work with, and that we take a holistic view.   CBT is therapeutic and seeks to correct that worldview if it’s seen as dysfunctional, and it seems (to me) that this level of “fixing people” is outside our bailiwick..  However, this is an excellent and informative talk by a dynamic, well-educated professional.

Update: The second talk is by the Venerable Bup Chon Sunim (Brent Eastman) who is a member of the clergy staff at Muddy Water Zen temple in Royal Oak and also creative and brand director at identity, a PR firm.  His workshop is full of humor and anecdotes, as well as helpful tips about Buddhist monks (no, he does not know the Dalai Lama or Richard Gere, and rubbing his belly will not bring you luck).  His talk is about finding compassion in the workplace through mindfulness training. He guided us through a couple of different exercises and described a stress-reduction experiment with 25 nursing students where they were asked to participate in 10 minutes of meditation per day, journal twice a week, and use an online community forum. What was the result? People guessed that stress levels went down, happiness went up, and the students worked together better.   nope.  There was a 100% dropout rate from the program, even from students who said they were seeing benefits. Mindfulness takes a commitment.

Again, is there an anthropological component? Being mindful and compassionate is important in our practice, helping us acknowledge our filters and think past them (as much as we can) to see those around us. I can definitely see the value there. Continue reading

Education for all, and the nature of Violence

I haven’t posted in quite some time because I have been rather busy with my studies and because I do not want to post simply to do it, but rather because I believe in what I am posting.

I have been following the story on the young Pakistani teenager who was brutally shot in the head by extremists for standing up for education rights for women in her country. I am keeping Malala Yousufzai in my thoughts as I write this, and hope for her recovery. You may be reading this and thinking to yourself, how an act of violence in a country very far from ours has anything to do with the study of medical anthropology but I feel strongly that it has a significant impact on it as well as other disciplines.

My last post focused on violence and how it can be understood, why it happens and so forth, but this post shall be a tad different in nature.

In a world that is fraught with such violent acts, how can we as human beings combat it, without of course being another casualty or victim. I believe that when a person, and in this case, a very brave girl who lives in a culture that is vastly different than the “western” one in which we are accustomed to, stands up to violence, then it is worth talking about, worth mentioning.

Violence to me, is a disease, and one that according to journalist Sarah Clark in Peace Power, “…not inherent to the human condition, and both its causes and its effects are highly contagious” (Clark, 2005).

I believe that violent acts such as the shooting of an innocent girl for choosing to change the status quo needs to be addressed both within the medical community and without in mainstream society.

While I may not be much of a philosopher or social activist, I believe that by continuing the discussion of violence and how it is both detrimental but more importantly, alien to what makes us human beings, it will help not only us and our situations in life but the world in which we inhabit.

I have posted the link to the article from Sarah Clark as well as the newest update on Yousufzai’s condition.

I hope to incite a discussion on people’s thoughts on violence and the human condition.

I hope that you have a wonderful day and I hope to continue posting more frequently as the semester rages on.



Photo: Ajit Solanki / AP


2012 Wired Health Conference, simulcast tomorrow & Tuesday

This year, the Wired Health Conference will be exploring personalized medicine, which includes the fascinating growing area of the quantified self:

The theme of the event is “Living By Numbers” — the notion that new data and analytics are enabling better healthcare delivery and research. The idea is straightforward on its face: By paying heed to our health, and taking advantage of new tools for self-monitoring, feedback, and community, we can empower our own actions and skirt the disease risks that life throws at us. But this potential is only just upon us, with the combination of new computing power, ample data storage, and having the right questions at hand. This technology is just beginning to enable the new frontier of personalized medicine: combining the insights of epidemiology with our own personal metrics to customize medical science to individuals.

You can watch the simulcast live, free.  Talks begin at 4:00pm Eastern on Monday, and run from 9:00am-5:00pm Tuesday, with an exciting roster of speakers.

The forgotten victims of Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Health on Today: ‘Pinktober’ ignores breast cancer patients who can’t be cured, some say  From the article:

“I can’t celebrate because I’m not a survivor,” said Clark, who was diagnosed in 2010 with an aggressive Stage III cancer that quickly advanced. “There’s not a cure.”

“The message has really been skewed,” says Knackmuhs, 61, of Wyckoff, N.J., who was diagnosed with Stage IV disease in 2009. “It’s so associated with selling products and shopping and dubious product endorsement.”

I’m always skeptical of something that is treated like a universal good — “I was going to spend the money/go to the event anyway and now some of that money goes to breast cancer awareness!” — especially when large corporations enthusiastically jump on board. After doing some research into this for a presentation I did for class last semester, I’m collecting examples of pink co-branding this October with hopes of doing a full study on the topic in the future.

For now, I’m going to skip my rant and let others speak. Read the article linked above, and from my presentation, these quotes:

  • “My disease has become a marketable commodity and nothing more.  The sad irony in all of this is that I believe Komen’s approach to cause-marketing has only served to undermine the seriousness of this disease in the public’s perception.” – Rachel, who shared her story of metastatic breast cancer at cancerculturenow.blogspot.com, until she died this February  (If you can stand the heartbreak, read her husband’s post about enduring a “Paint The Town Pink” campaign less than 3 months after Rachel’s death.  It’s agonizing.)
  • “Telling an authentic story about an illness that is heavily laden with cultural expectations about femininity, normalcy, and triumphant survivorship requires a new way of thinking and speaking. Falling on the margins of the cultural framework, these kinds of stories can be threatening and hard to hear.“ – Gayle Sulik in Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health
  • “Fashion statements aside, once I became a person with breast cancer, it didn’t take long at all for me to develop a very low tolerance for all things pink. The sheer ubiquity of pink as the symbol of the fight against breast cancer is overwhelming. And one of the things that you discover… is that everyone … seems to assume that you are now the local poster chick…everyone assumes that you have the interest, time, energy, inclination and funds to contribute to or participate in every bleeping event, cause, or group that is even remotely associated with helping everyone else not end up like you.“ – A breast cancer patient named Kathi