Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Out Of Africa

"Suddenly you had a primate that could obtain meat from a carcass, and it opened up a new world for them."
"That simple technology was enough to get them out of Africa and right across Asia."
"Our discovery means it is necessary now to reconsider the timing of when early humans left Africa."
"Very importantly here, there are no geological processes that could have flaked these stones. The Loess Plateau is a stone free landscape—it is basically an enormous deposit of wind-blown dust, deposited year upon year by the winter monsoonal winds for the last 2.5 million years."
"Hominin remains are incredibly scarce. Their skeletons are very fragile, preservation is very rare, and they were not very common. In contrast, a single hominin can generate thousands of stone tools in a lifetime. Additionally, fossils will never indicate the first actual appearance of an animal—the first recorded appearance is always later than the first actual appearance, no matter whether it’s a hominin or a hippopotamus."
"As an archaeologist, I have always found it strange that some refuse to accept artifacts unless found with hominin remains when the antiquity of humankind was first established in the early 19th century from stone artifacts in France and Britain, and not from skeletal evidence."
Robin Dennell, paleoanthropologist, University of Exeter, Britain
One of the tools from the discovery site in Shangchen, China
One of the tools from the discovery site in Shangchen, China ( Zhaoyu Zhu )

"The roughly 14,000-kilometre trek from eastern Africa to eastern Asia represents a range expansion of dramatic proportions."
"The dispersal of hominins was probably facilitated by population increases as they moved into new territories."
"Yet even with a dispersal rate of only 5-15km per year, a value well inside the daily foraging range of modern hunter-gatherers, the distance between Africa and Asia could have been covered in just 1,000–3,000 years."
"What this paper suggests is: Boom! You get this dispersal, all the way across what was then the known Earth. The pieces were being filled in there very early on. It’s the kind of thing where, if we saw this for some other species, it would be remarkable."
"They [ancient horses] originated in North America, then migrated into the Old World about 11 million years ago. And then, boom, it’s like gangbusters. They’re everywhere."
Professor John Kappelman, anthropologist, University of Texas
Paleoanthropologists are discovering a long and unexpected fossil record of hominins in Africa, the oldest dating over six million years back in time. The earliest of these proto humans was bipedal, yet had chimpanzee-sized brains in a very short body. Homo erectus by 1.9 million years ago was in stride across East Africa leading many paleoanthropologists to make the assumption that Homo erectus represented the first of the migrants to leave Africa.

In the 1990s older hominin bones were discovered in Asia, while in Georgia scientists came across ancient fossils as old as 1.75 million years; even older, at 1.82 million years of age were the stone tools found in Dmanisi, Georgia. A Homo erectus skull was unearthed for the first time in China, in 1964, named Lantian. It was thought to be 1.14 million years old, but in 2001 Zhaoyu Zhu, a Chinese Academy of Sciences geologist in Guangzhou and colleagues determined the skull to be 1.63 million years old.

Dr. Zhu and his colleagues found over a hundred ancient stone tools embedded 650 meters in depth in the side of a gully in the region around where the fossil was discovered. From that discovery came a new study published in the journal Nature, arguing that the stones whose indentations and scrapes they interpreted as tool-making efforts by primitive manlike creatures could not possibly have been so marked by natural means since the rock surrounding them had formed from what was originally grassland soil absent stones the size and shapes of the tools.

The assumption researchers reached was that the hominins at Lantian were spurred to make their way to mountain streams to enable them to select the stones to be made into tools, carrying the tools for use in food gathering, the sharp-edged portions used presumably to carve meat away from animal carcasses.  Dating the discovered material in the layers of rock, the team estimated the tools to be 2.12 million years in age.

Scientists who publish studies leading to various conclusions will invariably find that not all their fellow scientists in related fields of study will agree with them, and John J. Shea, a Stony Brook University in New York anthropologist is one of these. He is suspicious of the reliance on tools alone to provide irrefutable evidence that hominins appeared over two million years ago in Asia: "Bottom line -- no hominin fossils, no hominins", he argues.

Homo erectus (the predecessor to Homo sapiens) was named by Paleoanthropologists as a species discovered to have travelled across Asia, some specimens found to be as old as 1.6 million years, roughly as tall as humans today, and with fairly large brains. Homo erectus's brain was about two-thirds as large as modern humans in contrast to chimpanzees with brains roughly one-third human size.

Dr. Zhu and his colleagues believe their discovery of those stone tools in China indicate they were made by ancient members of the human lineage. The expectation is that their find may represent a new addition to the advent of hominin evolution in that some species had travelled out of Africa at a much earlier date than was once believed; the hoiminin species small, bipedal apes with chimpanzee-size brains.

It was in Africa that human lineage arose and developed, where the primal ancestors of humanity diverged from those of chimpanzees seven million years ago.

Selected artifacts, including non-hominin mammal bones, found at the new site       Zhaoyu Zhu et al / Nature

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Monday, July 30, 2018

Should Women Use Talc? Probably Not!

"The evidence that we have is mixed and has to be taken with a little bit of skepticism."
"This is chronic irritation of the ovary, and we do know that chronic irritation is associated with some carcinomas."
"Do we have really good evidence for that? The literature goes back and forth on this."
"But should you use talc? Probably not."
Dr. James Bentley, gynecological oncologist, Dalhousie University, Halifax

"I'm persuaded by the evidence that talc used in the genital area will reach the ovaries and lymph nodes, and it creates an inflammatory environment that could contribute to the development of cancer."
I've always felt the data was sufficient to warn women about using talc in their feminine hygiene."

Dr. Daniel Cramer, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston

"That was part of my routine because you have a bath and then you put powder on."
"We trusted them and we believed in their product. I put it everywhere. I loved it. I thought it smelled pretty. It makes your skin silky and soft."
"Everybody who has suffered through this ... if they used baby powder the way I did and they got sick from it, Johnson & Johnson needs to help us." 
Rhonda Dobson, cancer patient, New Brunswick
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Johnson & Johnson, the producer of talcum powder meant for use in feminine hygiene insists that their product is not involved in causing mesothelioma or ovarian cancer. Talc is a mineral that is mined, one that can be contaminated with the presence of asbestos -- known to cause mesothelioma, a deadly cancer -- its use now outlawed in much of the world. "Johnson & Johnson remains confident that its products do not contain asbestos and do not cause ovarian cancer, and intends to pursue all available appellate remedies", it stated after a jury in St.Louis Missouri awarded 22 women in a class action suit close to $4.7 billion.

All of these women represented by the law suit claimed their use of the talcum powder over decades in the interests of feminine hygiene caused their ovarian cancer. There is another class-action lawsuit yet to be certified alleging women in Canada suffered cancers caused by their long-term use of the company's talcum powder, advertised for that purpose. A Quebec court assented to a class action suit covering women in the province who had been long-time users of Johnson & Johnson baby powder or Valeant's Shower to Shower for personal hygiene. The Merchant Law Group which is leading that action is preparing a second class-action suit in British Columbia, awaiting certification.

Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital's Dr. Cramer was responsible for a study undertaken in 1982 drawing a link between long-term talc use on female genitals and the later development of ovarian cancer. He led another study in 2016 that suggested the routine sprinkling of the vaginal area with talcum powder invested women with a one-third greater risk of contracting ovarian tumours as compared with women without a history of the product use.

The failure of Johnson & Johnson to place warning labels on the talc they produced was brought out as an issue in the lawsuits. Allegations brought forward in a string of lawsuits all cite the inherent dangers in the use of the talc product for the recommended purpose of feminine hygiene. Juries have responded by awarding huge compensatory amounts to thousands of women who trusted the product's safety.

Opinion within the medical community is mixed since some studies on the potential link of talcum powder to gynecological cancer fail to support its causal link to cancer. The very fact that so many studies appear to give talcum powder a proverbial clean bill of health, leaves women confused, uncertain whether or not they should be avoiding it altogether, or continue taking on trust that the talc remains useful for hygienic purposes and simply is being blamed for women's seemingly coincidental cancers which they link to its use.

Experts in the field, playing for safety, recommend its use be discontinued, whether or not all research fails to agree on its assumed cancer link. Dr. Bentley, for example, feels that women whose habit it became to dust themselves with the product have no need to panic n view of research results that have been inconsistent. In the interests of safety, however, he unequivocally recommends advising women to avoid its use.

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Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Irreparable Loss of Giant Baobabs

"The largest and oldest trees are more sensitive to changing climatic conditions because of their large dimensions."
Adrian Patrut, chemist, Babes-Bolyai University, Romania

"There were some fairy tales and folklore that these trees could be as old as 6,000 years."
"The fact that these trees just suddenly died in the early part of this century is to me a canary in the mine."
Karl von Reden, co-author research, African Baobabs

"The new paper nicely brings together information showing that the death of the millennial baobabs is likely due to an unprecedented combination of temperature increase and drought."
"This information is valuable to the scientific community and the public, as the baobab is an outstanding and very important species in many African countries."
Jens Gebauer, horticulturist, Rhine-Waal University of Applied Sciences, Germany
The Chapman baobab tree in Botswana, which collapsed in 2016.
The Chapman baobab tree in Botswana, which collapsed in 2016

At the very least, these baobab trees are majestic specimens of outsize vegetation, the oldest living things on Earth, and the largest. It was in 2016 that a celebrated baobab named Chapman's Baobab whose cavity within its trunk was once used as the African continent's first post office -- with its astonishing 25 meter outside circumference, and its mention by the early Scottish medical-explorer-missionary David Livingstone -- collapsed. Its age was put at 1,400 years of existence.

Baobabs, known for their astonishing girth and longevity have seen a disastrous decline, the oldest of them have been dying, puzzling scientists. Research published this past June in the journal Nature Plants has pointed to the probability that prolonged droughts and overheated atmospheres linked to global warming may likely be the cause. The parched giant trees are unable any longer to give support to the weight of their massive trunks, and thy consequently collapse.

Dr. Patrut, lead author of the published study, found that the Chapman's Baobab's water content registered 40 percent, when the average water content of healthy baobabs should come in at 79 percent. The trees are called "wooden elephants" by Africans. Researchers, beginning in 2005, collected samples from over sixty of the largest baobabs, with trunk circumferences of 20 meters at the minimum. The oldest among them were dated back to roughly 2,500 years.

Carbon-14 levels from the tree samples were compared with samples from other tree species whose growth rings had been counted to determine their age, such as the bristlecone pine found in the Rocky Mountains of the southwestern United States, some of which have been found to be 3,000 years of age and one of which was determined to be 5,000 years old.

bristlecone pine

The baobab's gigantic trunks are formed with the generation of new stems that arise around the original in a ring-shaped pattern. Those stems, as the tree matures, tend to fuse together, and an opening is created in its centre, which makes them 'hollow'. When some of the subject trees began collapsing the researchers were in disbelief, since the general view was that the trees were indestructible, old age didn't affect them.

Of the 13 oldest, eight collapsed, and five of the six largest died or partially collapsed during a 13-year study period. Disease did not appear to be involved.

The loss of the baobab trees strikes the entire ecosystem adversely, since they are home to large animal communities such as bats and bees. Local populations venerate the trees and often include them in ceremonies. During famines the trees' seeds which are edible provide food for humans and wildlife. The bark of the trees is a nutrition and hydration source for elephants; stripping the bark doesn't harm the tree.
Sunset at Baobab Alley with a pond in foreground near Morondava, Western Madagascar.
Sunset at Baobab Alley with a pond in foreground near Morondava, Western Madagascar.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

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Friday, July 27, 2018

Mosquito Awareness: Wet Nile Virus

"A procession of specialists came to see me [in hospital], a neurologist and an infectious-disease specialist. I think I was their first specimen with the virus."
"I slept for long periods of time. I only became conscious when the pain from the needles in the IVs became too much to tolerate [in the treatment of the viral meningitis she was afflicted by resulting from a West Nile infection]."
"A mosquito bite can change your life."
Mary Sharina, 67, Ottawa resident

There has been an entry to countries that had never known the existence of some diseases thought of as being of exotic origin, common to warmer geographies than those of the northern portion of North America with the advent of climate change. A changing atmosphere where warmer temperatures reflect a warming world, means that creatures once unknown to any but tropical or subtropical zones now find themselves comfortable even where winter is cold and killing -- but no longer cold enough in a sustained way to dispatch mosquitoes, those of the Culex genus that carry West Nile virus.

West Nile doesn't yet rage through Ontario, but it has a presence, and has had for decades. Originally a bird virus, mosquitoes are now the vector for the virus, picking it up after stinging birds carrying the virus. Humans don't have much contact at close quarters with birds, but they certainly do, however involuntarily, with mosquitoes, pests that flourish during the summer months, as long as there is enough moisture to enable them to lay their eggs. Once public health agencies in Canada were alerted to the presence of West Nile, courtesy of mosquitoes, a public program commenced to spray sewer systems with a chemical agent meant to kill mosquito larvae.

Still, infections can occur, and do, albeit at a low level. Concerns about West Nile virus are not misplaced. An infection has the potential to cause encephalitis, meningitis, and other long-term health conditions that can even lead to death. On the hopeful side for many, most people who are infected may realize no symptoms whatever. When Ottawa, Ontario resident Mary Sharina in 2012 shared a glass of wine with a friend in her backyard, she recalls a mosquito bite. Days later she felt the occasional headache, and within weeks she had contracted viral meningitis, thanks to the virus she was diagnosed with.

Although the viral meningitis, once diagnosed, was treated allowing her to return home and resume her normal life, additional consequences over the years developed, the most serious of which was a heart condition, such that she required surgery. Two ablation procedures to treat abnormal heart rhythms were performed for her, to remove or destroy abnormal heart tissue to enable her heart to return to a normal heart rhythm. She was fortunate to have contracted viral meningitis, and not the bacterial variety, much more dangerous and potentially fatal without antibiotic treatment.

In 2013 four cases of West Nile were discovered in Ottawa, increasing to twenty cases by 2017. Symptoms are similar to those of the flu, and typically but not always include fever, frontal cranial headache, muscle aches -- occasionally accompanied by a skin rash. Symptoms can also include neck stiffness, muscle weakness and stupor. A public information campaign accompanies the spraying program every summer, alerting residents to the need to be aware that standing water on their property invites mosquitoes to breed and lay their eggs, making the residents vulnerable as a result.

Toronto Public Health confirmed the first human West Nile virus case in the city for 2018. But the conservation authority says the odds of residents contracting the disease is 'still fairly rare.' (James Gathany/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Associated Press)

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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Take Your Pick

"Despite the historical notion that physical activity needs to be performed for a minimum duration to elicit meaningful health benefits, we provide novel evidence that sporadic and bouted -- moderate to vigorous physical activity -- are similarly associated with substantially reduced mortality."
"[Researchers concluded through their studies that mortality rate reductions associated with moderate to vigorous exercise] are independent of how activity is accumulated."
"[Shorter, more intense, sweat-inducing physical activity] conferred little additional benefit."
Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, National Cancer Institute, Bethesda, Maryland

"So eat the same from 30 to [age] 60 and you may well be 30 pounds heavier."
"I'm not aware of any robust evidence to suggest decreasing activity with age leads to gain, nor that increasing activity with age will provide any remarkable benefits in preventing weight gain."
Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, obesity expert, assistant professor, University of Ottawa

It certainly would seem that scientific rigour could be guaranteed with a scientific review of thousands of adult Americans whose exercise regimens and lifestyle outcomes were tracked over a period exceeding six years, the outcome of which suggests that what is considered the gold standard treatment in weight management -- namely exercise -- turns out to be equally of benefit whether undertaken in intense bursts or in small thrusts throughout a day. A vigorous run or a fitness class in the former instance, walking and taking the stairs in the latter.

Metabolism is most definitely known to be affected by exercise. That exercise affects metabolism irrespective of how that exercise is distributed throughout the day represents a novel discovery from a research team whose research paper was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study, led by Dr. Pedro F. Saint-Maurice, saw the researchers tracking close to five thousand Americans in excess of age 40 for about six years.

Of that total number of research subjects 700 died, leading the researchers to conclude that reductions in mortality associated with moderate to vigorous exercise make no distinction between how that exercise is approached, its intensity and time devoted to pursuing the exercise. Their informed insight should, they feel, lead clinical practise, steering physicians from recommending only shorter, intense physical activity for effectiveness in controlling weight and fine-tuning the body's musculature.

The goal, simply put, should be the accumulation of 150 minutes of exercise weekly; distribution time and level of effort is immaterial. The researchers recognize that greater flexibility in exercise protocols prescribed by the medical community to their patients might be of great value to those people who tend to be less active, and as a result more susceptible to the development of chronic diseases such as diabetes, leading to heart and stroke and neurological complications.

That the researchers appeared to give short shrift to age-related metabolism slow-down fails to impress Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, medical director of the Bariatic Medical Institute in Canada. Age has the effect of slowing metabolism by approximately ten pounds each decade beyond the age of 30, compounded by menopause in the case of women. Nor is Dr. Freedhoff a fan of the accepted wisdom that less exercise leads to weight gain, and the reverse; more exercise leading to weight loss.

Dr. Freedhoff's point of objection is that the effect of exercise on the human body and the role it plays in weight loss cannot be studied on its own, without giving due consideration and equal weight of importance to linking exercise in weight loss with the critical issue of food intake. The effect of exercise on weight loss cannot be viewed in isolation from food uptake, quantity and nutritional quality. Dr. Freedhoff has substantial company in his point of view, as can be deduced from reading these brief statements from other experts in the field:
"I think the role of exercise in weight loss is highly overrated."
"I think it's really great for being healthy, but I'm a strong believer that overeating is what causes obesity. To exercise your way out of overeating is impossible."
Marc Reitman, chief of the diabetes, endocrinology and obesity branch of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, (NIDDK)

"The key for weight loss is to generate and maintain a calorie deficit."
"It's pretty easy to get people to eat 1,000 calories less per day, but to get them to do 1,000 calories per day of exercise - walking 10 miles - is daunting at many levels, including time and motivation."
"Theoretically, people can exercise enough to lose without changing what they eat, but they have to exercise a whole lot."
"Exercise, if hard enough and long enough, certainly can do this [increase metabolism."
"But again, it depends on how much, what type and how hard. A two-mile stroll, while a good thing, will not do too much to resting metabolism."
"For older people, exercise facilitates the capacity for them to stay engaged in life. Exercise in almost any dose does so many good things for people."
Michael Joyner, Mayo Clinic researcher 

So curb that appetite, watch what you eat, while enjoying what you eat, and take the time to exercise. The simple fact is, to maintain good health, being sedentary at any age won't cut it. Exercise, on the other hand, helps to stay healthier, longer, strengthening heart and lungs, reducing risk of Type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome inclusive of hypertension, high blood sugar, excess waist level body fat and abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels. Risk of certain cancers is reduced as well, with an exercise regimen.

Exercise lightens the psychological load, elevating your mood, helping to keep your brain active and involved, and sharpening judgement skills. Above all, it elongates longevity...

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018

The Power of Positivity and Lifestyle Choices

No matter what your age, you have the power to change many of the variables that influence how long you live, and how active and vital you feel in your later years. Actions you can take to increase your odds of a longer and more satisfying life span are really quite simple:
  1. Don't smoke.
  2. Enjoy physical and mental activities every day.
  3. Eat a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits, and substitute healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats for unhealthy saturated fats and trans fats.
  4. Take a daily multivitamin, and be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D.
  5. Maintain a healthy weight and body shape.
  6. Challenge your mind. Keep learning and trying new activities.
  7. Build a strong social network.
  8. Follow preventive care and screening guidelines.
  9. Floss, brush, and see a dentist regularly.
  10. Ask your doctor if medication can help you control the potential long-term side effects of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or high cholesterol.                                                                                                                                       Harvard Medical School
Can apple cider vinegar help with weight loss?
Good advice from the medical experts. Changing lifestyle that fails to reflect due regard to one's current and future health requires commitment. We become habituated to many things in life, and to contemplate making these commitments is to acknowledge that we have the potential to vastly improve the state of our health, our satisfaction with life and end up with a longer, more active and healthy lifespan. For people who become accustomed as they age to a sedentary lifespan to determine that in the interests of becoming healthier and living longer they must become more active, that realization may seem burdensome.

For people who have become reliant to eating on the run, and consuming commercial products in favour of whole foods, it becomes a wholesale change in perspective to set aside dependence on processed foods in favour of eating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, poultry, fish; choosing fresh and unprocessed over nutrition-deficient and calorie-dense foods. And then there is also the issue of being involved in life, using our brains to pursue new avenues of interest to keep our minds malleable and involved.
15 Heart-healthy Foods to Work into Your Diet
It can be done, and often the living proof is those in society who are now in their 70s and 80s who live fulfilling lives not only because their DNA has endowed them with good genes, but because their lifestyles have always been practical in outlook and dedicated to pursuing an ongoing status of robust health. They engage in brain exercises, reading and informing themselves, they expend energy in the physical exercises of their choice be it swimming, sports, hiking, bicycling, dancing; whatever.

And they make certain they have adequate daily rest, because sleep and sound sleep patterns resulting in adequate hours of sleep -- an average of at least 7 hours nightly -- is a basic requirement to achieving and maintaining good mental and physical health. Maintaining balanced blood sugar and good muscle mass result from balanced energy levels, all aids in preserving gut and immune health for an enjoyable and long life.
Mediterranean diet may be more helpful than statins
The brain requires Omega-3 fatty acids to function optimally, to reduce inflammation and build and repair cell membranes, all of which help in managing stress, protecting against diabetes onset and cardiovascular conditions. Good sources of Omega-3 are salmon, sardines, mackerel, flaxseed, chia seeds, canola oil, walnuts and soybeans, among others, readily incorporated into a healthy, diverse diet. We also need to hydrate our brain to prevent brain cells from dehydrating resulting in headaches, constipation, muddled thoughts.

With age, the absorption of nutrients in the gut becomes more difficult; drinking ample water helps the gut to remain healthier. Cognitive function is improved with B vitamins. B vitamins also help in the absorption of nutrients with an age-related decrease in stomach acidity. Medications can also block the ability of the body to absorb B vitamins, just as stress can. B vitamins are found in eggs, beans, nuts, seeds, green vegetables, fish and whole grains. As well as red meat, broccoli, spinach, oranges, avocados, bananas, and more.
Image result for what foods are b vitamin strong?

As we age, lean body mass is lost, continuing with advanced age. Fat mass increases as muscle mass decreases, which can lead to chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Lose enough muscle mass and chances of falling increase; with age bone mass decreases as well with the potential to lead to osteoporosis. Ensuring sufficient protein is consumed from beans, nuts, seeds, fish, chicken is vital as the body ages. This is where moderate weight-bearing exercise and yoga can help with muscle strength and body flexibility.

Nuts and seeds provide Vitamin E, a beneficial antioxidant supporting immune function, along with Vitamin C, when we consume citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens and tomatoes. Coloured fruits and vegetables provide boosts to the immune system as well. The daily addition of Vitamin D is advised since as we age, deficiency in that critical vitamin occurs. We absorb Vitamin D through exposure to the sun, and levels decrease markedly through the winter months. This is a vitamin that supports the immune system, prevents cancer and adds to bone and heart health.

Last, but certainly not least, is the attitude we bring to life. Appreciating the life we  have and the way we lead it; feeling positive thoughts gives a boost to good health. Many scientific studies have pointed to a healthy emotional state being instrumental in aiding people to overcome serious health problems. A research team at the Israel Institute of Technology several weeks back published a paper in the science journal Nature Communications when they discovered a connection between emotional state and the body's capacity to combat cancer.
Image result for elder exercises
How Seniors Can Benefit from Adopting an Exercise Regimen -

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Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Caveat Emptor!

"[I] knew at least cursorily, that false positives were common with these [genealogical] tests. [But] that didn't change the frightened feelings or concern, because I certainly couldn't blow it off."
"My wife and I were talking about having children. What do you do? Do you make that decision to pass this [genetic disposition] on to them?"
"I don't think that applies [his medical training leading him to find answers] to a lot of people."
Dr. Joshua Clayton, 29, radiology resident, Baylor University Medical Center, Texas

"People think they are getting the same kind of genetic testing as they would get from a certified clinical laboratory."
"Nothing could be further from the truth."
Stephany Tandy-Connor, genetic counselor, Ambry Genetics , medical testing certified lab
A reporter examines a 23andMe DNA genetic testing kit in Oakland, California.
Cayce Clifford | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A reporter examines a 23andMe DNA genetic testing kit in Oakland, California.

So, the story is that there are, as in most consumer-oriented services, those that have certification and follow strict rules imposed either by an industry-specific governing body or the government to ensure that the information they release to applicants falls within the permissible guidelines, and these specialized laboratories must, by law, ensure that the information they provide to those seeking their services, is accurate.

And then there are the uncertified laboratories offering their services to an uninformed, unwary public, services that the purveyors of such information as genealogy and medical data focusing on disease-causing genetic mutations whose findings can be inaccurate. They cover their tracks by appending a notice with the disclaimer that their data are "not intended for medical or health purposes", which can be very confusing to the recipient.

Joshua Clayton was one of those recipients. As a medical practitioner himself he nonetheless became involved with a non-certified laboratory in his search for personal genetic information. He began his innocent-enough odyssey when he sent a saliva sample to 23andMe, the well-known genetic testing company. Their report revealed nothing spectacularly new, when it was sent to Dr. Clayton. Who decided that he'd gone that far, might as well continue....

He turned around and forwarded the profile he had received, a product of 23andMe, to another company, Promethease, whose literature promised a more in-depth analysis specifically in search of any genetic disorders that could eventuate for those in possession of genetic mutations. Dr. Clayton ricocheted from a mundane initial report to a shocking follow-up, revealing a mutation linked to Lynch syndrome, a genetic disorder leading to the possibility of deadly cancers at an early age.

For two weeks, he sat on that report, mulling it over, fearful and depressed, and somewhat panicked. But then he asked around within the medical community for advice. The result of which was yet another genetic test, but this one conducted by a company with medical diagnostic expertise which informed him that his genetic makeup was entirely absent the mutation in question. He was, needless to say, much relieved.

But his experience mirrors that of many other people curious about their medical genetics. People lacking the resources available to those in the medical community. Many of whom -- after receiving their initial reports from legitimate, responsible companies like 23andMe and whom law limits what they are able to reveal about a client's health status -- have no idea how to proceed. Raw data received often ends up with second companies for people opting for more in-depth analysis.

And they turn to companies lacking certification to provide medical diagnoses; companies that are the very opposite in their capabilities and approach to sophisticated academic centers. True, they take care as Promethease does, to alert their customers that their results are not to be regarded as medical diagnoses. They focus on comparing raw data given them by a client to gene variants known to be linked to disease. Their results can be uncertain, but consumers fail to understand this basic reality.

Genetic counselors, aware of the situation, feel concerned not only because people run the risk of receiving a response that falsely alerts them to claims they are susceptible through their genetic inheritance of falling prey to morbid disease at an early age, but the opposite occurring as well. That false-negative responses may lull them into a questionable sense of security; reassuring, but potentially dangerous.

These consumer companies seek to identify alterations in minute gene segments instead of examining the entire gene for changes; inexpensive, lacking comprehensiveness. The companies, however, because they are not making medical diagnoses, are not subject to quality controls imposed on certified laboratories required to produce confirmation that their results are accurate. The secondary, uncertified labs tend to place their reliance on databases which may be compromised, leading to incorrect analysis.

In their defence, when queried respecting the ethics involved, the companies simply repeat the disclaimer that the data are not meant to be used for medical or health purposes. This, despite the clear reality that they are quite aware that this is the very purpose their services are designed to provide and why it is that people wanting that information approach them to begin with. Validated diagnoses.
23 pairs of chromosomes
You are made of cells. And the cells in your body have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Your chromosomes are made of DNA, which can tell you a lot about you. Explore your 23 pairs today.
Find out what your 23 pairs of chromosomes can tell you.  23andMe home

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Monday, July 23, 2018

Trivializing Inconstancy

"I think a lot of times people are quite floored when they see a 75-year-old who wants a divorce. In my personal experience, I would say that grey divorces are becoming a lot more prevalent."
"I appears that people are living longer, and there is a shift from the age groups for divorces."
"Maybe initially they believed that this was the right person. And as you grow older, you may grow apart. And so the way they see it is ... I have less in front than there is behind so I need to focus on what's left of my life and really maximizing my happiness."
Diane Isaac, family lawyer, Shulman Law Firm, Toronto

"If we have a 30-year marriage, it's not that we have ten years left, but we may be only halfway through that marriage."
"People are looking at that and saying 'I have a long way to go and do I necessarily want to continue in an unhappy relationship?"
Eva Sachs, Mutual Solutions mediation service

"They weren't in the same position that my mother would have been, who didn't have any financial security outside the family [pre-two-earner families]."
"Millennials are less likely to divorce and there is a trend among millennials now to be more focused around planning their relationships, so writing co-habitation agreements, pre-nuptial agreements."
"And it could be because they are the children of divorce, they've seen a lot."
Marion Korn, co-founder, Mutual Solutions

Once the legal liberalization of divorce laws -- now ancient history -- occurred, divorce rates ratcheted up to the point where at the present time almost fifty percent of marriages over time, with or without children, end in divorce.Those who consider themselves experts in the field have their theories which, for the most part sound trite and superficial. Perhaps the most obvious and realistic explanation is expectations and failures relating to those expectations which are likely fixed within social constructs of everlasting love bypassing that human emotions and intimate relations are complex beyond expectations.

Aided and abetted by emotional immaturity and love that fails to go deep enough to exemplify what love truly is, that one cares about another human being not with the passion of a sexual relationship without context, but a sexual relationship complementing a deep and abiding concern for the well-being of that other and yes, placing that other person's well-being, satisfaction with life and happiness above one's own in that their emotional state is critical to the satisfaction of one's own. Health and happiness flow from a generous, not a selfish love.

That being been said, people will be people. And as such it is beyond the capacity of most people not to place their self-interest first, failing to recognize that their self-interest lies in the fulfillment of sharing a love with someone you plan to live with for the foreseeable future in a mutual engagement of trust, respect, friendship and shared aspirations. Free and open communication and due appreciation of the attributes that the other brings to the relationship is critical to its success. Self-absorption rings the death knell of any marriage.

The 1980s seems to have been the apex of divorce which some researchers believe is now descending in numbers. At the same time a new trend appears to be developing among older married couples who have decided for reasons, obviously, of their own to sunder a marriage of long standing. This may go beyond the old canard of couples hanging in until their children are old enough to manage on their own, then splitting. These are marriages of thirty years' duration and longer. They've been dubbed 'silver splitters' and 'diamond divorcees'.

Boomers in the United States, Australia, India and the United Kingdom are now, it would appear, distinguishing themselves by seeking in greater numbers, to end long-term marriages. In Canada, the median age for divorce rose between 1991 and 2008 for men from 38.3 to 44 years; women from 35.7 to 41 years. According to the Shulman Law firm, its own experience with numbers for the past decade led them to believe that grey divorce is steadily rising. In 2010 clients of 50 and over represented 10% of their business. Now however, that same demographic "constitutes approximately 40 percent".

Although the age group of 60 and over remains the minority of cases they see, that demographic has nearly doubled over the past decade. Divorce experts are linking the rise of elderly divorces to the fact that people are living longer, realizing a gain of about 20 years between 1921 and 2005, where life expectancy rose from 58.8 to 79 years for men and from 50.5 to 82.7 years for women. Older people examining their marriages now discard 'Can I manage on my own?' to adapt to an 'Am I happy?' self query.

The Love of Divorce: Divorce Rates Around The Globe

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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Species at Risk -- White-Nose Syndrome

"It's tough to guess if it's [the fungal morbidity of bat colonies] going to have a long-term effect on pest control in agricultural systems."
"Enough species are around that we may see them pick up the slack [in the absence of the affected species]."
Justin Boyles, professor of zoology, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale

"I have literally seen this species decline before my very eyes."
"We have to put the bats in the context of the landscape. We have to conserve or build that environment."
Mark Ford, professor of zoology, Virginia Tech
White nose syndrome is fatal to most of the bats exposed to it. (Ryan von Linden/New York Department of Environmental Conservation/AP)

Pseudogymnoascus destructans is the scientific name of a deadly fungus causing bats throughout North America to die in alarming numbers. It is also called White-Nose Syndrome, and is responsible for the deaths of over 90 percent of the bats susceptible to the disease, northern long-eared bats. These tiny, nocturnal creatures eat flying insects and they also fertilize crops. Researchers are focused on a desperate search to find and examine the bat species that the disease has not harmed to discover what it is that allows them immunity from the deadly effects of the fungus, allowing them to survive.

Some 2,000 bats winter in Pearson Cave in Tennessee.  Stephen Alvarez, National Geographic Photographic Collection

"We have to understand what we need to protect", explained doctoral student Sam Freeze who hunts at night in search of bats escaping the ravages of this mysterious disease, in the woods located behind  Virginia University. With the use of "mist nets", the team working alongside Freeze set the nets about twelve feet in height, like large volleyball nets. Once a bat is captured having flown into the trap it is put in a brown paper bag and taken nearby to an outdoor laboratory for examination.

Weight and gender recorded, fecal samples are taken to determine diet and then small transmitters are affixed to the bats with surgical glue. Resistant to the unwanted handling, the bats try to bite the offending fingers. Tagged, details duly noted, the bats -- focus on eastern red where the fungus causing white-nose has been found yet the species seems unaffected -- are released, the device with its antenna tracking their movements and position.

For the past decade, millions of bats in the 32 states and seven provinces -- east of Saskatchewan -- have been killed from the deadly effect of white-nose syndrome, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. In the absence of bats consuming insects, the fallout could result in farmers having to deal themselves with an increasing insect population, no longer falling prey to a diminishing number of bats. The alternative is a greater use of pesticides rather than risk losing crops to insect predation.

Since white-nose syndrome was first identified it has spread to thirty-one states. The consequences—for bats, humans, and the U.S. economy—could be disastrous.
Photograph by Michael Durham / Minden Pictures / Getty
Hope lies in the fact that other species may increase in numbers to deal with burgeoning insect populations. Primarily fewer northern bats are now in flight, since they specifically have been targeted by the fungus. Originating in Europe and Asia, white-nose syndrome made its way to North America. It destroys the membranes in the bats' wings. The telltale white dots covering dead bats speaks of the presence of the disease in caves where bats are known to hibernate.

The disease awakens bats prematurely -- when they should remain in hibernation until winter is past -- depleting critical fat reserves, with dehydration then setting in. As the bats leave the protection of the cave, they may die from starvation or exposure to the inclement weather conditions. The disease was described as "the most devastating epizootic wildlife disease of mammals in history", in a scientific paper published in the journal PLOS Pathogens.

Once infected, bats behave in an erratic fashion during their winter hibernation, emerging from their caves -- where crowded conditions of thousands of bats are present, aiding the fungus to spread -- during the day and failing to return to the caves. Theories do exist, that bats may survive or attempt to by avoiding caves, instead spending the winter months in trees where the threat of white-nose is reduced, or some may simply be resistant to the disease.

Little brown bat with WNS symptoms | Courtesy of University of Illinois/Steve Taylor

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Saturday, July 21, 2018

Gluten-Free Damnation

"The promotion of gluten-free diets among people without celiac disease should not be encouraged."
"Despite the rising trend in gluten restriction, no long term, prospective studies have assessed the relation of dietary gluten with the risk of chronic conditions."
"[Gluten can] act as a prebiotic, feeding the 'good' bacteria in our bodies."
"Changes in their amount or activity have been associated with gastrointestinal diseases including inflammatory bowel disease, colorectal cancer, and irritable bowel syndrome."
Harvard Medical School study

"Studies are needed to determine the long term effects of accumulation of these elements [toxic heavy metals resulting from consuming gluten-free foods] in persons on a GFD [gluten-free diet]."
"Persons on a GFD had significantly higher urine levels of total arsenic and blood levels of mercury, lead, and cadmium than persons not avoiding gluten."
The Mayo Clinic
Getty Images

Wheat is a complex grain grown all over the world and used for thousands of years by primitive as well as modern societies as a food staple, high in protein. Modern science has determined that wheat has six sets of chromosomes and 95,000 genes. It is a crop known for its adaptability to all kinds of environments, accounting for its ubiquity. There have been 35,000 developed varieties throughout the course of history. Five thousands of those varieties are currently agricultural staples.

Most people who have been convinced to avoid gluten believe that in so doing they will be healthier and in the process also become slender, shedding unwanted weight. Gluten-free foods, however, have higher caloric counts than their counterparts with gluten. Researchers warn they could promote obesity in fact, while gluten-rich whole grains are by their very complexity healthy == containing fibre and nutrients like B vitamins, magnesium and iron to increase life-spans.

With the removal of gluten from the diet these nutrients are absent and must be replaced to remain healthy. And isn't that the point of the exercise to begin with?

About one percent of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, a condition that can cause extreme fatigue, severe disorders such as intestinal damage and for these people, the avoidance of gluten is prescribed. Another one percent or slightly greater are not celiacs but sensitive to gluten; they too might be advised to minimize their gluten intake. And then there is the 98 percent of the population for whom avoiding gluten becomes a health risk they are unaware of.

High-gluten diets are known to make the risk of Type 2 diabetes less likely as far as the American Heart Association is concerned, based on their study of 200,000 subjects. Those who consume bread, pizzas and other gluten-rich foods had a 13 percent lower risk of acquiring Type 2 diabetes than those whose diets had the least amount of gluten. According to a 26-year-long Harvard Medical School study of 110,000 Americans, a 15 percent lower incidence was discovered among those eating the most gluten.

And then there is the not-inconsequential issue of the consequences of gluten-free diets, since this fad is so recent and has grown so enormously that long-term effects are unknown other than that its adherents have, without their knowledge, become subjects in a potentially dangerous experiment. In a study of 11,000 people published earlier in this year, the Mayo Clinic raised alarms respecting the trend in gluten-free diets, focusing over the concentrated levels of toxic heavy metals linked to those diets.

Now that is food for thought.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

A Post-Mortem For The Ages

"It [minute examination of 'Iceman's' stomach contents] was very impressive. We could see chunks and pieces of food with [the] naked eye."
"The stomach content is yellowish to brownish colored and mushy, with some bigger pieces of meat and grain."
"It wasn't the most hygienic of meals [given that fly remnants and long strands of goat hair were present]." 
"It's a harsh environment [landscape of the frozen Alps]. They [ancient Europeans] had to be prepared. They had to have food that gave them the necessary energy [to survive a hostile environment and a long trek through a demanding geology]."
Frank Maixner, microbiologist, Institute for Mummy Studies, Bolzano, Italy

"They're [investigative scientists] trying to use all the methods in the toolbox to answer this really important question of what people [five thousand years ago in Europe] were eating [to sustain themselves in frozen atmospheres at  high mountainous altitudes]."
Albina Hulda Palsdottir, archeozoologist, University of Oslo
Here's What Ötzi the Iceman Ate before He Was Murdered
This photograph was taken during the stomach content sampling campaign in November 2010 in Bolzano, Italy. Credit: South Tyrol Archaeology Museum, Eurac and M.Samadelli
It created an international news sensation when the frozen, mummified body of an ancient human who lived 5,300 years ago, was discovered almost thirty years ago -- 1991 -- in the Alps between Italy and Austria. With him was discovered his weapons. a copper-headed axe and a number of tools. His clothing was meant to insulate him from the cold, and was fairly sophisticated, some woven, some animal skins.

Initial examination revealed wounds thought to be have been inflicted in a violent confrontation with an adversary. He was judged to be about forty-five years of age when he died, likely from loss of blood linked to the mortal wounds he had sustained. From evidence discovered on his own weapons Oetzi did his utmost to defend himself; the blood of others also found.

He was named Oetzi, for the region where his body, encased in ice, was discovered by tourists. Italy succeeded in claiming him and he is kept in Bolzano, Italy. In 2009 the puzzle of his 'missing stomach' was solved when researchers discovered to their amazement, that after his death his stomach had shifted upward to remain undetected behind his rib cage.

Giving scientific enquiry the opportunity to examine that organ's contents answering the query, what was his, and others of his period, diet comprised of? A lot of fat, for energy, it would seem.

After the scientists had concluded their examination of Oetzi's stomach contents they published a paper describing their findings in the journal Current Biology to list the meat of a wild goat, its fat, meat of a red deer and whole wheat seeds, indicating that this was the last meal this human ate before his death.

Fern leaves and spores were discovered as well, items that the examining scientists feel may have been eaten without intention, or alternately as a medicinal for the parasites found on previous examination in his intestines.
The 5,000-year-old mummy known as the Iceman was found in the Italian Alps in 1991.
Photograph from Vienna Report Agency/Sygma/Corbis

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