Life expectancy declines in the U.S. but is increasing in most other developed nations

The Washington Post reports:

Life expectancy in the United States declined again in 2017, the government said Thursday in a bleak series of reports that showed a nation still in the grip of escalating drug and suicide crises.

The data continued the longest sustained decline in expected life span at birth in a century, an appalling performance not seen in the United States since 1915 through 1918. That four-year period included World War I and a flu pandemic that killed 675,000 people in the United States and perhaps 50 million worldwide.

Public health and demographic experts reacted with alarm to the release of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s annual statistics, which are considered a reliable barometer of a society’s health. In most developed nations, life expectancy has marched steadily upward for decades.

“I think this is a very dismal picture of health in the United States,” said Joshua M. Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Life expectancy is improving in many places in the world. It shouldn’t be declining in the United States.” [Continue reading…]

Wildfire smoke is becoming a nationwide health threat

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An image from the International Space Station captures plumes of smoke from California wildfires on August 4, 2018.
NASA

Richard E. Peltier, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The impacts of recent forest fires in California reach well beyond the burned areas. Smoke from the Camp Fire created hazardous air quality conditions in San Francisco, more than 170 miles to the southwest – but it didn’t stop there. Cross-country winds carried it across the United States, creating hazy conditions in locations as far east as Philadelphia.

As an air pollution exposure scientist, I worry about the extreme levels of air pollution that rise from these fires and affect many people across great distances. They can create unhealthy conditions in far-flung locations where residents probably never think about wildfires. But since major wildfires are becoming increasingly common, I believe it is important for all Americans to know some basics about smoke hazards.

Smoke and haze from wildfires obscure the San Francisco skyline on Nov. 15, 2018.
AP Photo/Eric Risberg

A complex and unpredictable threat

Forest fires do not discriminate about what they burn. Along with woody materials from forests and homes, they consume homes’ contents, which may contain plastics, petroleum products, chemicals and metals. This produces thick plumes of smoke that contains very large quantities of particles and gases. Many of these airborne chemicals are known to be quite toxic to humans.

Smoke plumes travel great distances, affecting communities hundreds of miles away. Winds tend to move from west to east across North America and carry these pollutants with them. Sometimes, depending on local weather conditions, the pollutants can be lifted up to high altitudes where wind speeds are faster and transported very quickly across the country. The pollutants can then descend back to the ground in locations far away from the fires, affecting everyone in their path.

[Read more…]

The health of an ecosystem (including your home) depends on its biodiversity

William Foster writes:

Rob Dunn invites us on a safari in pursuit of the wildlife teeming on our bodies and in every corner of our homes. For him, the creatures that sprawl in the human navel and under the bathroom shower head elicit the kind of wonder most of us would feel only on seeing the denizens of Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Crater or the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Dunn is more than an informed and entertaining commentator, a David Attenborough of domestic biodiversity. He is a scientist whose research group at North Carolina State University in Raleigh made many of the discoveries described in his fascinating and illuminating book, Never Home Alone.

Dunn and his colleagues have used the concepts and techniques of community ecology to tease apart the functioning of a mostly ignored ecosystem: the human home. Their research enriches our understanding of ecosystem function, and — more grippingly — gives us insight into how our interactions with living things in the domestic habitat affect our health and well-being. The book is structured around sub-habitats in our homes — our bodies, rooms, water supply, pets and food. It considers an awesome range of organisms, from the rich fungal flora on bakers’ hands to the diversity of fly larvae in our drains.

We discover that warm, moist shower heads are ideal for the growth of biofilms containing trillions of bacteria, including Mycobacterium species that are harmful to human health. Dunn and his colleagues invited thousands of volunteers globally to send in samples from their bathrooms. The researchers are finding, for instance, that the more a water supply is treated with chemicals designed to kill microbes, the greater the abundance of pathogenic strains of mycobacteria. We also learn that the numbers of plant and butterfly species in our gardens are correlated with the robustness of the community of microbes on our skin; that some German cockroaches have evolved to perceive glucose as bitter, thus avoiding poisoned bait; and that dogs can give us both heartworm and a top-up of beneficial bacteria from their microbiomes.

The message of Never Home Alone is clear. The health of an ecosystem depends on its biodiversity: this is as true of our homes as of a mangrove swamp. Two factors, notes Dunn, are important. Simply by chance, a home containing more species is more likely to include organisms (especially microbes) that are vital in sparking our immune systems into life. And an ecosystem with niches fully occupied by diverse species is likely to be resilient and resistant to invasion by pests and pathogens. [Continue reading…]

Doctors have become the tools of their tools

Atul Gawande writes:

A 2016 study found that physicians spent about two hours doing computer work for every hour spent face to face with a patient—whatever the brand of medical software. In the examination room, physicians devoted half of their patient time facing the screen to do electronic tasks. And these tasks were spilling over after hours. The University of Wisconsin found that the average workday for its family physicians had grown to eleven and a half hours. The result has been epidemic levels of burnout among clinicians. Forty per cent screen positive for depression, and seven per cent report suicidal thinking—almost double the rate of the general working population.

Something’s gone terribly wrong. Doctors are among the most technology-avid people in society; computerization has simplified tasks in many industries. Yet somehow we’ve reached a point where people in the medical profession actively, viscerally, volubly hate their computers. [Continue reading…]

Most American soldiers are overweight and underslept

Military Times reports:

A 2018 RAND report on health promotion and disease prevention has painted a grim picture of the military’s physical fitness and sleep standards.

The study, featuring roughly 18,000 randomly selected participants across each of the service branches, showed that almost 66 percent of service members are considered to be either overweight or obese, based on the military’s use of body mass index as a measuring standard.

While the number of overweight service members is a cause for concern, it correlates with the obesity epidemic plaguing the United States, where, as of 2015, one in three young adults are considered too fat to enlist, creating a difficult environment for recruiters to find suitable candidates for military service.

Broken down by service, the 2018 report lists the Army as the branch accounting for the highest percentage of overweight troops, with 69.4 percent of soldiers falling under this category. [Continue reading…]

Trump administration tries to boost corporate profits by exposing Americans to radiation and toxins

The Associated Press reports:

The Trump administration is quietly moving to weaken U.S. radiation regulations, turning to scientific outliers who argue that a bit of radiation damage is actually good for you — like a little bit of sunlight.

The government’s current, decades-old guidance says that any exposure to harmful radiation is a cancer risk. And critics say the proposed change could lead to higher levels of exposure for workers at nuclear installations and oil and gas drilling sites, medical workers doing X-rays and CT scans, people living next to Superfund sites and any members of the public who one day might find themselves exposed to a radiation release.

The Trump administration already has targeted a range of other regulations on toxins and pollutants, including coal power plant emissions and car exhaust, that it sees as costly and burdensome for businesses. Supporters of the EPA’s new proposal argue the government’s current no-tolerance rule for radiation damage forces unnecessary spending for handling exposure in accidents, at nuclear plants, in medical centers and at other sites.

“This would have a positive effect on human health as well as save billions and billions and billions of dollars,” said Edward Calabrese, a toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts who is to be the lead witness at a congressional hearing Wednesday on EPA’s proposal. [Continue reading…]

Time-restricted eating can overcome the bad effects of faulty genes and unhealthy diet

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sukrit3d/Shutterstock.com

By Satchin Panda, University of California San Diego

Timing our meals can fend off diseases caused by bad genes or bad diet. Everything in our body is programmed to run on a 24-hour or circadian time table that repeats every day. Nearly a dozen different genes work together to produce this 24-hour circadian cycle. These clocks are present in all of our organs, tissues and even in every cell. These internal clocks tell us when to sleep, eat, be physically active and fight diseases. As long as this internal timing system work well and we obey them, we stay healthy.

But what happens when our clocks are broken or begin to malfunction?

Mice that lack critical clock genes are clueless about when to do their daily tasks; they eat randomly during day and night and succumb to obesity, metabolic disease, chronic inflammation and many more diseases.

Even in humans, genetic studies point to several gene mutations that compromise our circadian clocks and make us prone to an array of diseases from obesity to cancer. When these faulty clock genes are combined with an unhealthy diet, the risks and severity of these diseases skyrocket.

My lab studies how circadian clocks work and how they readjust when we fly from one time zone to another or when we switch between day and night shift. We knew that the first meal of the day synchronizes our circadian clock to our daily routine. So, we wanted to learn more about timing of meals and the implications for health.

[Read more…]

As wildfires rage, smoke chokes out farmworkers and delays some crops

NPR reports:

On Mike Pink’s potato farm at dawn, the sun is an angry red ball low in the sky.

This summer, wildfire smoke has blanketed much of the West for days and weeks. And that smoke has come between the sun and ripening crops.

Pink watches as his year’s work tumbles onto a fast-moving belt and into a waiting semi truck. He’s got most of his 1,600-acre potato fields yet to harvest on his 3,000-acre farm, spread over about 40 miles between Burbank and Basin City, Wash. And this thick smoke makes him nervous.

“When we’re not getting the sunlight like that, the plants aren’t growing. They are just kind of sitting there and doing nothing,” Pink says. “And every day that goes by, we lose a day of potential growth.” [Continue reading…]

Climate change will make hundreds of millions more people suffer from nutritional deficiencies

The Guardian reports:

Rising levels of carbon dioxide could make crops less nutritious and damage the health of hundreds of millions of people, research has revealed, with those living in some of the world’s poorest regions likely to be hardest hit.

Previous research has shown that many food crops become less nutritious when grown under the CO2 levels expected by 2050, with reductions of protein, iron and zinc estimated at 3–17%.

Now experts say such changes could mean that by the middle of the century about 175 million more people develop a zinc deficiency, while 122 million people who are not currently protein deficient could become so.

In addition, about 1.4 billion women of childbearing age and infants under five years old will be living in regions where there will be the highest risk of iron deficiency. [Continue reading…]

Air pollution causes ‘huge’ reduction in intelligence, study reveals

The Guardian reports:

Air pollution causes a “huge” reduction in intelligence, according to new research, indicating that the damage to society of toxic air is far deeper than the well-known impacts on physical health.

The research was conducted in China but is relevant across the world, with 95% of the global population breathing unsafe air. It found that high pollution levels led to significant drops in test scores in language and arithmetic, with the average impact equivalent to having lost a year of the person’s education.

“Polluted air can cause everyone to reduce their level of education by one year, which is huge,” said Xi Chen at Yale School of Public Health in the US, a member of the research team. “But we know the effect is worse for the elderly, especially those over 64, and for men, and for those with low education. If we calculate [the loss] for those, it may be a few years of education.”

Previous research has found that air pollution harms cognitive performance in students, but this is the first to examine people of all ages and the difference between men and women. [Continue reading…]