Posts about human health

Hacking the Standard Bike Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel stores energy (from braking…) and provides it when you need it (going up hill…). It is good to see innovation that helps transportation and can encourage people to be more active. Order now for $799.

Related: Engineering a Better World: Bike Corn-ShellerSeparated Bike Lanes Reduced Injuries by 45% and Increased Retail Sales 49% (for nearby stores)Bike Folds To Footprint of 1 WheelSports Engineering at MIT

Outdoor Air Pollution Resulted in 223,000 Cancer Deaths in 2010

The specialized cancer agency of the World Health Organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced today that it has classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic to humans.

After thoroughly reviewing the latest available scientific literature, the world’s leading experts convened by the IARC Monographs Programme concluded that there is sufficient evidence that exposure to outdoor air pollution causes lung cancer. They also noted a positive association with an increased risk of bladder cancer.

Particulate matter, a major component of outdoor air pollution, was evaluated separately and was also classified as carcinogenic to humans.

The IARC evaluation showed an increasing risk of lung cancer with increasing levels of exposure to particulate matter and air pollution. Although the composition of air pollution and levels of exposure can vary dramatically between locations, the conclusions of the Working Group apply to all regions of the world.

Air pollution is already known to increase risks for a wide range of diseases, such as respiratory and heart diseases. Studies indicate that in recent years exposure levels have increased significantly in some parts of the world, particularly in rapidly industrializing countries with large populations. The most recent data indicate that in 2010, 223,000 deaths from lung cancer worldwide resulted from air pollution.

“The air we breathe has become polluted with a mixture of cancer-causing substances,” says Dr Kurt Straif.

The stories of amazingly high (and persistent) air pollution levels in China have been continuing for years. But, while China, likely represents several of the worst existing air pollution conditions hundreds of thousands have died outside China due to air pollution just in the last 5 years.

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Go Slow with Genetically Modified Food

My thoughts on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO), specifically GM foods, basically boil down to:

  • messing with genes could create problems
  • we tend to (and especially those seeking to gain an advantage tend to – even if “we” overall wouldn’t the people in the position to take aggressive measures do) ignore risks until the problems are created (often huge costs at that point)
  • I think we should reduce risk and therefore make it hard to justify using GMO techniques
  • I agree occasionally we should do so, like it seems with oranges and bananas.
  • I agree the practice can be explained in a way that makes it seem like there is no (or nearly no) risk, I don’t trust we will always refrain from stepping into an area where there is a very bad result

Basically I would suggest being very cautious with GMO. I like science and technology but I think we often implement things poorly. I think we are not being cautious enough now, and should reduce the use of GMO to critical needs to society (patents on the practices need to be carefully studied and perhaps not permitted – the whole patent system is so broken now that it should be questioned at every turn).

Antibiotic misuse and massive overuse is an obvious example. We have doctors practicing completely unjustified misuse of antibiotics and harming society and we have factory farms massively overusing antibiotics causing society harm.

The way we casually use drugs is another example of our failure to sensibly manage risks, in my opinion. This of course is greatly pushed by those making money on getting us to use more drugs – drug companies and doctors paid by those companies. The right drugs are wonderful. But powerful drugs almost always have powerful side effects (at least in a significant number of people) and those risks are multiplied the more we take (due to interactions, weakness created by one being overwhelmed by the next etc.). We should be much more cautious but again we show evidence of failing to act cautiously which adds to my concern for using GMO.

I love antibiotics, but the way we are using them is endangering millions of lives (that is a bad thing). I don’t trust us to use science wisely and safely. We need to more consciously put barriers in place to provent us creating massively problems.

Related: Research on Wheat RustThe AvocadoOverfishing, another example of us failing to effectively cope with systemic consequences

Medical Study Findings too Often Fail to Provide Us Useful Knowledge

There are big problems with medical research, as we have posted about many times in the past. A very significant part of the problem is health care research is very hard. There are all sorts of interactions that make conclusive results much more difficult than other areas.

But failures in our practices also play a big role. Just poor statistical literacy is part of the problem (especially related to things like interactions, variability, correlation that isn’t evidence of causation…). Large incentives that encourage biased research results are a huge problem.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science

He discovered that the range of errors being committed was astonishing: from what questions researchers posed, to how they set up the studies, to which patients they recruited for the studies, to which measurements they took, to how they analyzed the data, to how they presented their results, to how particular studies came to be published in medical journals. The systemic failure to do adequate long term studies once we approve drugs, practices and devices are also a big problem.

This array suggested a bigger, underlying dysfunction, and Ioannidis thought he knew what it was. “The studies were biased,” he says. “Sometimes they were overtly biased. Sometimes it was difficult to see the bias, but it was there.” Researchers headed into their studies wanting certain results—and, lo and behold, they were getting them. We think of the scientific process as being objective, rigorous, and even ruthless in separating out what is true from what we merely wish to be true, but in fact it’s easy to manipulate results, even unintentionally or unconsciously. “At every step in the process, there is room to distort results, a way to make a stronger claim or to select what is going to be concluded,” says Ioannidis. “There is an intellectual conflict of interest that pressures researchers to find whatever it is that is most likely to get them funded.”

Another problem is that medical research often doesn’t get the normal scientific inquiry check of confirmation research by other scientists.

Most journal editors don’t even claim to protect against the problems that plague these studies. University and government research overseers rarely step in to directly enforce research quality, and when they do, the science community goes ballistic over the outside interference. The ultimate protection against research error and bias is supposed to come from the way scientists constantly retest each other’s results—except they don’t. Only the most prominent findings are likely to be put to the test, because there’s likely to be publication payoff in firming up the proof, or contradicting it.

Related: Statistical Errors in Medical StudiesMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Contradictory Medical Studies (2007)Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?

Exercise Reduces Anxiety While Also Promoting the Growth of New Neurons

Exercise reorganizes the brain to be more resilient to stress

These findings potentially resolve a discrepancy in research related to the effect of exercise on the brain — namely that exercise reduces anxiety while also promoting the growth of new neurons in the ventral hippocampus. Because these young neurons are typically more excitable than their more mature counterparts, exercise should result in more anxiety, not less. The Princeton-led researchers, however, found that exercise also strengthens the mechanisms that prevent these brain cells from firing.

From an evolutionary standpoint, the research also shows that the brain can be extremely adaptive and tailor its own processes to an organism’s lifestyle or surroundings, Gould said. A higher likelihood of anxious behavior may have an adaptive advantage for less physically fit creatures. Anxiety often manifests itself in avoidant behavior and avoiding potentially dangerous situations would increase the likelihood of survival, particularly for those less capable of responding with a “fight or flight” reaction, she said.

The anxiety-reducing effect of exercise was canceled out when the researchers blocked the GABA receptor that calms neuron activity in the ventral hippocampus.

Interesting research (with mice) that explores how exercise makes us more resilient to stress. I know for me, exercise seems to help relieve stress.

Related: Feed your Newborn NeuronsNew Neurons are Needed for New MemoriesRegular Aerobic Exercise for a Faster Brain (2007)Inactivity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a YearHow Aerobic Exercise Suppresses Appetite

Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why Placebos Are Getting More Effective

Fascinating article from Wired: Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why.

The fact that an increasing number of medications are unable to beat sugar pills has thrown the industry into crisis. The stakes could hardly be higher. In today’s economy, the fate of a long-established company can hang on the outcome of a handful of tests.

Potter discovered, however, that geographic location alone could determine whether a drug bested placebo or crossed the futility boundary. By the late ’90s, for example, the classic antianxiety drug diazepam (also known as Valium) was still beating placebo in France and Belgium. But when the drug was tested in the US, it was likely to fail. Conversely, Prozac performed better in America than it did in western Europe and South Africa. It was an unsettling prospect: FDA approval could hinge on where the company chose to conduct a trial.

In one study, Benedetti found that Alzheimer’s patients with impaired cognitive function get less pain relief from analgesic drugs than normal volunteers do. Using advanced methods of EEG analysis, he discovered that the connections between the patients’ prefrontal lobes and their opioid systems had been damaged. Healthy volunteers feel the benefit of medication plus a placebo boost. Patients who are unable to formulate ideas about the future because of cortical deficits, however, feel only the effect of the drug itself. The experiment suggests that because Alzheimer’s patients don’t get the benefits of anticipating the treatment, they require higher doses of painkillers to experience normal levels of relief.

Benedetti often uses the phrase “placebo response” instead of placebo effect. By definition, inert pills have no effect, but under the right conditions they can act as a catalyst for what he calls the body’s “endogenous health care system.” Like any other internal network, the placebo response has limits. It can ease the discomfort of chemotherapy, but it won’t stop the growth of tumors. It also works in reverse to produce the placebo’s evil twin, the nocebo effect. For example, men taking a commonly prescribed prostate drug who were informed that the medication may cause sexual dysfunction were twice as likely to become impotent.

Moreover, a pill’s shape, size, branding, and price all influence its effects on the body. Soothing blue capsules make more effective tranquilizers than angry red ones, except among Italian men, for whom the color blue is associated with their national soccer team—Forza Azzurri!

Medical research presents significant difficulties. The funding of the health care system also distorts behavior and pushes companies to focus on being able to justify selling drugs instead of focusing on finding effective solutions. Even without incentives distorting behavior, the challenges are difficult enough. Adding the distortions just makes it worse.

It is wonderful we have so many scientists accepting these challenges and spending their careers fighting the odds to help find us wonderful health breakthroughs.

Related: The Majority of Clinical Trials Don’t Provide Meaningful EvidenceSystem for Approving New Medical Options Needs ImprovementMedical Study Integrity (or Lack Thereof)Discussing Medical Study Results

Appropriate Technology Health Care Solution Could Save 72,000 Lives a Year

We need more medical solutions that serve the majority of humanity instead of just the rich. Some medical research is innately costly and therefore require large costs to pay back the investment. But too little concern is shown for solutions that help people (with so much focus only on solutions that will make organizations rich).

Cheap vinegar test cut cervical cancer deaths in India; could help many poor countries

This low-tech visual exam cut the cervical cancer death rate by 31 percent, the study found. It could prevent 22,000 deaths in India and 72,600 worldwide each year, researchers estimate.

More progress against cervical cancer may come from last month’s announcement that two companies will drastically lower prices on HPV vaccines for poor countries. Pilot projects will begin in Asia and Africa; the campaign aims to vaccinate more than 30 million girls in more than 40 countries by 2020.

India continues to invest in medical research for solutions that are affordable to a majority of the world. The rich health care companies largely neglect the majority to focus on the most wealthy.

Related: Using Available Technology (Cellphone) as a MicroscopeDangerous Drug-Resistant Strains of TB are a Growing Threat‘Refrigerator’ Without Electricity

Webcast: Examining the Scientific Basis Around Exercise and Diet Claims

Tim Noakes is the Director of UCT/MRC Research Unit for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine, Department of Human Biology, Faculty of Health Science, University of Cape Town and Professor, Discovery Health Chair of Exercise and Sports Science, University of Cape Town.

Tim examines some questions on science and exercise and health in the webcast. He shows the problem with drinking too much during exercise and the correlation of hospital admissions correlated to the sport drinks marketing and changing of the official drinking guidelines. He also discusses the outdated ideas related to lactic acid and muscles.

He is currently studying the science of food and human health and is skeptical of low fat health claims: “No evidence that dietary fat is related to heath disease.” He is certainly more knowledgable than I but I would still be cautious of completely accepting that premise. It does seem to me there is lots of evidence that claims of causation between eating a high fat diet and heart disease were too strong (many other factors were critical – such as weight, exercise, genetics, unsaturated fat v. saturated fat…).

Tim Noaks: “50% of what we teach is wrong; the problem is we don’t know which 50% it is. Our job as educated people is to spend our lifetime trying to figure out which 50% is which. Until it is disproven accept that for which the evidence appears solid and logical and is free of covert or overt conflicts of interest, because unfortunately industry is driving what you believe in many many things. But don’t ever dismis lightly that for which there is credible evidence… and there is such clear evidence the diets we are eating are horrendous.”

As I have said before, scientific literacy is critical to allow us to make those judgements about what is credible evidence and what are outright lies, foolish claims or highly suspicious claims tainted by conflicts of interest.

Related: Can You Effectively Burn Calories by Drinking Cold Water?Static Stretching Decreases Muscle StrengthLack of Physical Activity Leads to 5.3 Million Early Deaths a YearScience Continues to Explore Causes of Weight GainStudy Finds Obesity as Teen as Deadly as Smoking

Clay Water Filters for Ghana

Pure Home Water, Ghana manufactures and distributes AfriClay Filters in an effort to bring clean water to 1 million people. So far they have delivered filters to provide 100,000 people clean water.

The process is simple. Water is placed in a clay filter and gravity pulls the water through the pores left in the clay during firing.

Sediment and bacteria are filtered out in several ways:

  • Physical straining: the particles are too large to fit through the pores in the clay
  • Sedimentation or adsorption: particles come to rest on or stick to the clay
  • Inertia: friction in the pores keeps the particles from passing through

Bacteria are also killed by a coating of colloidal silver (a disinfectant), which we apply to all filters that pass our quality control tests. While sediment and bacteria are filtered out, the molecules of water are small enough to pass through the pores in the clay.

The filters are sold to those who will use them. The effort has shown a willingness to pay by villagers in remote Northern Ghana (those earning < US$1/day). I imagine (I am just guessing) the prices are subsidized; in the last decade more (most?) appropriate technology solutions will have those benefiting pay something for the benefits they receive.

My nephews are working on a similar effort in India, using bio sand filters, I plan to post more on that later. There is current a campaign to help fund the delivery of water filters to Indian villages.

Related: Solar Powered Water Jug to Purify Drinking WaterElectric WindStudent Invents Solar-Powered FridgeReducing Poverty

Engineers Save a Life

photo of car resting in river

This photo was taken by the driver’s parents when they arrived. It doesn’t show much of what it went through to get there, but it gets most of the point across. The picture was taken 200 feet away and looking down from the road.

I got into a major accident today that I was able to somehow walk away from. I lost control of my car and went off of a cliff into boulders, and after flipping a few times, settled in the river. I walked away with cuts on my hands from the broken glass and a bruise that runs from my chest over my left shoulder where my seat belt held me in place.

I shouldn’t be alive discussion on Reddit.

swapsrox: Time to send a letter to the manufacturer thanking them for their safety design! I guarantee your letter will be put on an engineer’s wall, and they’ll know there is a reason they go to work every day.

cmdshftn: Great engineering saved your life. The vehicle’s safety systems from the seatbelt to the crumple zones to the design of the seat kept you safe and alive despite all hell going on around you. Please write a letter to the manufacturer thanking their design team, but above all, follow up with whoever you need to in that jurisdiction to find out why there isn’t a guard rail on that road! Vehicle safety helps, but great road design to prevent an accident like yours helps more!

Related: Electronic Stability Control Could Prevent 33% of Crash DeathsDriver Thanks Engineer Who Hit Him on PurposeSmokeless Stove Saves LivesToyota Scion iQ: 37 MPGEngineer Tried to Save His Sister and Invented a Breakthrough Medical Device

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Can You Effectively Burn Calories by Drinking Cold Water?

Neil deGrasse Tyson stated on Twitter:

Wanna lose 1200 Calories a month? Drink a liter of ice water a day. You burn the energy just raising the water to body temp.

What if your body is trying to cool down? I would imagine we have to use energy to cool off (though I am no expert on this)? So if you drink cold water and your body has less need to cool off, couldn’t this actually end up “saving” your body needing to burn calories – and thus cause yourself to gain weight?

This model would be similar to a server room that was cooled with air conditioning and cold winter air to cool off the servers. If there was less cold air used then more electricity would be used running the air conditioner to cool down the servers. I don’t know if it is a decent analogy though – maybe that isn’t an usable model for how we cool off.

I know we cool off partially by pushing water out onto the exterior of our skin to have it evaporate and cool us off. I would think that takes energy to do.

I do get that it takes energy to raise the temperature of the water you consume. It does make sense to me that if you were cold (like say I was during the winter living in the house I grew up in) you would use energy raising the temperature of the water.

What the overall energy situation is if your body needs to cool down seems questionable to me. Please let me know your thoughts. In any event his statement is accurate. It is just that the implication may lead people astray; that you can consume 1,200 Calories extra to balance the 1,200 Calories drinking cold water uses (or loss weight by having reduced your excess Calories by 1,200 if you eat exactly the same things you would without the cold water).

Related: Why is it Colder at Higher Elevations?Does Diet Soda Result in Weight Gain?Why Does Hair Turn Grey as We Age?How Corn Syrup Might Be Making Us FatWhy Wasn’t the Earth Covered in Ice 4 Billion Years Ago (When the Sun was Dimmer)

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