Stories tagged health


Smoking messes up your brain's cognitive skills: Sure it's funny now, but see if you can remember to laugh about it in your 50s, pal.
Smoking messes up your brain's cognitive skills: Sure it's funny now, but see if you can remember to laugh about it in your 50s, pal.Courtesy jaduarte
I don’t know why this should surprise anyone, but a study coming from King’s College in London suggests that smoking not only adversely affects your physical health but also damages your mental health, reducing your brain’s capacity to learn, reason, and remember.

The study was published in the journal Age and Aging and involved lifestyle data gathered from 8,800 people over 50 years of age. The study was looking for links between the likelihood of stroke or heart attack, and the condition of the brain. Four years after the initial data was collected, participants were examined again, and given brain tests, such as naming as many animals as they could in a minute’s time, or learning new words. The same tests were administered again eight years later.

Not only did participants with high-risk physical conditions such as obesity or high blood pressure fair poorly in the cognitive tests, but those who smoked had a “consistent association” with lower scores as well.

"We have identified a number of risk factors which could be associated with accelerated cognitive decline, all of which, could be modifiable," said Dr. Alex Dregan, one of the researchers involved. "We need to make people aware of the need to do some lifestyle changes because of the risk of cognitive decline."

BBC story
Heavy smoking and dementia


A brisk walk in the fresh air: Sure it's cold and miserable but it's inexpensive and easy to do (once you get off the couch). It also has nothing on Ernest Shackleton.
A brisk walk in the fresh air: Sure it's cold and miserable but it's inexpensive and easy to do (once you get off the couch). It also has nothing on Ernest Shackleton.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Okay. It’s 2012! The beginning of a brand new year. A time for making resolutions, a time for change. That special new era that began with a magical tick past midnight on December 31st when you suddenly emerged from a decades-long thick-skinned cocoon of self-destructive behavior, and miraculously transformed into a brand new person of action, rebirth, and eventual six-pack abs.

Okay, maybe not suddenly, but let’s say 12 to 15 hours after midnight when you finally came out of the bacchanalian stupor you’d plunged yourself into the night before.

But the point is you can now become that perfect human being you (and mainly your mother) always suspected was hiding beneath that sweatpants ensemble. Imagine what you can do now when you replace your mantra of instant gratification with one of self-control. Nicotine’s mastery over your soul will dissipate like a smoke-ring in the breeze. Inappropriate outbursts at dinner parties will be a thing of the past as you’re transformed into the designated driver instead of driving the host’s porcelain bus. Oatmeal will substitute for Twinkies for breakfast, and broccoli will become your new BFF.

The possibilities for improvement seem limitless, don’t they? It just takes a little effort.

You know, with obesity plaguing the US, this would be a perfect time to let go of the game controller, drag your ample hinderbutt off the couch, and get some of that exercise you’ve been promising to do since 1988. It doesn’t mean you have to join a high-priced health club, or spend hours contorted into a pretzel at a local yoga class. The easiest thing to do is just head outside for a good old fashion walk, a nice long stroll in the bracing winter air. It’s not going to cost you a cent to do it (unless you live here in Minnesota and the legislature decides to tax it to help pay for a brand new stadium for the Vikings).

What’s that you say? You’d like to lose those extra 65 lbs but you just can’t seem to get motivated? What? You think it sounds like a nice idea but it’s only 25° above zero? Yes, yes, I know. Getting all bundled up in long underwear, winter coat, and boots to face the elements is a real drag.

Well, poooooooooooor you. WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH, WAH! You are unbelievable. What a sniveling crybaby! Is that all you can do is whine? You think it’s too cold? You crave motivation?! Well, here’s some motivation for you: Starting next weekend, have your mommy drive you to the Science Museum of Minnesota and buy you a ticket for the Omni Theater so you can watch the magnificent Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure, one of five large format films that are part of the museum’s annual OmniFest 2012.

Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure is an amazing - no! – an astounding story of man against nature. It details the struggles of the fearless and eternally optimistic Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men who set sail on the ship Endurance headed for Antarctica. I don’t want to give away the story but let’s just say after you see what these courageous guys endured over a period of seventeen months, I guarantee you’ll feel deeply ashamed for driving to work in your heated car and living inside four walls.

OmniFest 2012 runs from January 6 – February 17, 2012 at the Science Museum of Minnesota’s Omni Theater, and features five big-screen films: Amazing Caves, Amazon, Wolves, Search for the Great Sharks, and of course Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure. The films rotate throughout the day, so check the OmniFest 2012 website to make sure you have the correct times for the shows you want to see. Of course, if you were anything like Shackleton, you'd just show up after a 20 mile trek in the blinding snow and expect things to work out your way. Wimp!


If you ask any veterinarian or human general practitioner what is one of the most common reasons for a visit, the answer is sure to be some type of skin problem. Think about it. The skin is the largest organ in both the human and dog body, and it is designed to protect the body against all sorts of intruders, including germs or minor injuries.

Skin ailments also lead to a sense of frustration as there are hundreds of causes in both pets and humans. Something such as canine acne or human acne can be the result of an underlying disease, or something as simple as oils from the skin becoming trapped. The more visible the problem, the more likely we are to rush for medical care.

All of us, human and pet alike, have skin the is structured the same way. There is an outer layer, called the epidermis the next layer, called simply the dermis, and an under layer of fat and muscle which is called the punniculus. Together, the two top layers form the cutis, with the panniculus called for obvious reasons the subcutis.

Even thought the epidermis is charged with protecting us from disease, it is relatively thin. It is comprised of building blocks called keratinocytes. Knowing this you can now appreciate that when your skin is scraped or a wound is formed, it leaves the body open to those things that are normally blocked by the outer skin layer. These mechanisms are the same in pets and humans. This is probably why nature saw to it that this skin layer quickly repairs itself. If an area is constantly injured, the repair thickens to provide extra protection for the area.

When infection does try and take hold, a type of cell called a langerhan cell calls in reinforcements from the white blood cells to kill off any bacteria fungus or viral infection. Skin reactions often occur when these cells work too well, and begin to react to every day things in the environment such as plants, shampoo, fabric etc. This immune response results in an allergy to these items, cause some type of skin reaction.

Last, is the issue of sunburn. The mechanism for this is called the photoprotective barrier. In nature, dogs and cats developed coats to limit the amount of sun exposure, particularly since they lived outdoors in the wild. In humans we've adapted though sunscreens, hats, clothing and by staying out of the sun. Our pets can get sunburned just like humans, with the same amount of risk.

Skin tumors in humans and pets are the result of basal cells, the layer of cells between the dermis and epidermis receiving too much sun exposure. This causes these cells to rapidly divide, resulting in a neoplasm or dog skin tumor.

One major difference between humans and our dogs are the hair follicles, as you could have guessed. Interestingly, while humans have one hair per follicle per pore opening, dogs and cats have multiple hairs. These hairs also act to spread pheromones, which help to drive sexual attraction. The hair is also a window into the underlying health of the pet or person, with hair loss in dogs often indicating some type of endocrine related disease (hormonal disease).

Our skin is unique because it is so visible. It is also difficult to diagnose because of the many causes of dog skin and human skin disease. It's also a unique organ in that dog owners and humans alike demand that it be maintained in perfect condition, a high bar for any natural organ. What's wonderful, is that our understanding of skin structure in humans, and treatment approaches, directly applies to with way we address skin problems in dogs and cats.


Dog Skin Conditions, Dog Health Guide


Sir, until you put that diet soda down: You have literally nothing to smile about. Shame!
Sir, until you put that diet soda down: You have literally nothing to smile about. Shame!Courtesy tray
This is wonderful news! Not for you, obviously, but it is for me. You see, I don't drink diet soda, and I love to shame people for their diet choices, so this news is just perfect for me:

Drinking diet soda seems to be associated with weight gain.

Shame on you. Shame on you for drinking diet soda, shame on you for believing so foolishly that it would be part of a healthy diet plan, and shame on you for even trying to control your weight.


Why don't you just drink cool spring water, seasoned with a sprig of mint and a squeeze of lemon, like I do? That's nature's soda. Or are you too good for nature? No, you're not. Nature is too good for you. You know how I know? Because you drink diet soda, you shameful little shame shame.

It was good to get that out of the way. Didn't it feel nice? For me, I mean? It did.

As far as the research goes, it's one of those things where, despite the black and white, "Diet soda makes you fat" headlines (which I pretty much used here), the actual link between consuming pop with artificial sweeteners and human weight gain is pretty unclear. Researchers followed 474 subjects for ten years, and found that the people who consumed diet soda gained significantly more belly fat than those who did not drink diet soda. (The drinkers' waistlines grew about five times more than the non-drinkers' waistlines did.)

10 years seems like a decent length for the study, although I'm not sure if 474 is a very large number of participants. The main thing, however, is that this study doesn't show any actual mechanism behind the extra weight gain of diet soda drinkers. While there could be something in the artificial sweeteners themselves that encourages weight gain, it's also likely that the link is based more in behavior/psychology. Diet soda-drinkers could be substituting extra calories from other sources, because they avoided them in the soda. Or maybe they exercise less. Or perhaps they crave other sweet things, because of the sweetness of the soda.

As far as I can tell, too, the study compared diet soda drinkers to people who don't drink diet soda, not to people who drink soda sweetened with sugar or corn syrup, so it's not necessarily stating that diet sodas are a less healthy alternative to regular pop.

It could be that there's a causal link (that is to say, that artificial sweeteners are directly responsible for weight gain, as opposed to simply being associated with other behavior that causes weight gain). Artificial sweeteners do seem to have physiological effects on us, altering insulin secretion, gut pH, and appetite, and mice exposed to the artificial sweetener aspartame for three months were found to have higher blood sugar levels. But that doesn't mean that the diet sodas are for sure responsible for the weight gain in this study's participants. So, for now, take the research seriously to the extent that helps you be more conscious about the things you eat and drink I guess.

That's not the important thing, though. The important thing, of course, is that the study provides you with something to worry and feel bad about, and me with something to dangle over your head as I encourage those feelings in you.

Working class blues: In some cases, not working may be better for your mental health
Working class blues: In some cases, not working may be better for your mental healthCourtesy Mark Ryan
During these tough economic times people are often overworked, or underemployed, or forced to accept menial jobs for which they’re vastly overqualified and underpaid. Those who toil under such less-than-ideal conditions will often hear statements like “Well, at least you still have a job.” On the surface that may seem like a silver lining in an otherwise gloomy situation, but according to a new study published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine being stuck in a lousy, demeaning job could be much worse for your mental health than not working at all.

That’s it, I’m out of here! (Just kidding, Liza - I like my job)

CNN story


Back in 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield did a study on twelve children, and wrote a paper claiming that a link existed between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Naturally, this freaked out a lot of parents, and lots of folks stopped having their kids vaccinated. Consequently, infection rates of diseases that are totally preventable with vaccines—like measles and whooping cough—went up.

Then, other scientists were unable to reproduce Wakefield's experiment, which kind of made it seem like it was wasn't accurate to begin with. Wakefield couldn't even reproduce his experiment. Nonetheless, lots of people stuck to the idea that autism is caused by vaccines, or by ingredients in vaccines. When these ingredients were removed because of the concern, people picked other ingredients to blame. Still scientists could find no link between any of the components of vaccines and autism.

Meanwhile, most of the other scientists involved with Wakefield's research removed their names from the published results. And then The Lancet, the respected medical journal that originally published Wakefield's research, actually retracted the study, because it was so inaccurate. And then Wakefield had his medical license, because his poor research was so irresponsible. Still Wakefield and his supporters insisted that the link existed, and that he was the target of a global conspiracy.

Now, there's another nail in a coffin that just won't stay shut: a journalist (who has signed a statement saying that he has no financial interest in the debate) has found that Wakefield's original research on the twelve children was fraudulent. Wakefield misrepresented the medical histories of his subjects to make it appear that they had developed autism after receiving the vaccine for mumps, measles and rubella, when, in fact, some of the subjects had shown signs of autism before receiving the vaccine, and some had not developed autism at all.

During all this, Wakefield accepted $674,000 from lawyers preparing a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. Eh... whoops.

The new information suggests that not only was Wakefield's research inaccurate, he deliberately falsified it.

It's an interesting story, but as Dr. Max Wiznitzer points out in the article linked to above, the medical and scientific communities already knew Wakefield was a fraud, and Wakefield's followers aren't likely to change their positions now, so it's a little bit of a moot point.

Wakefield himself says that the truth is in his book, which he wants you to buy.


Podcast Crew members Annie, Mai, and Alonzo at the Walker Art Center
Podcast Crew members Annie, Mai, and Alonzo at the Walker Art CenterCourtesy KAYSC

A few months ago, I shared a video created by the Podcast Crew in the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center ( at the Science Museum of Minnesota. The Podcast Crew were a group of high school staff who worked to create a series of web-based videos about infectious diseases for the Disease Detectives exhibit ( We worked from January through August learning video production skills, learning about different infectious disease topics, talking to experts and folks on the museum floor.

Well, earlier this month, one of our videos, Malaria Worldwide, screened at the Walker Art Center as part of the All City Youth Film Festival, and I wanted to share that here as well. You can watch the video here, which features interviews with folks at the MN Department of Health and Metro Mosquito Control District as well as some cows from the U of M Ag School.


Should we be eating the eggs of parasites?: You be the judge!
Should we be eating the eggs of parasites?: You be the judge!Courtesy Meng Weng Wong
Oh, look: Here's an article about how eating parasitic worm eggs might alleviate the symptoms of chronic bowel disease. (In addition to that, however, it will also give you parasitic worms, so the whole worm egg treatment is kind of a double-edged sword at this point.)

I don't feel like summing up the article for y'all right now, so I'm just going to paste some excerpts for you to suss out:

"A man who swallowed worm eggs... restores mucus production in the colon... abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea... (parasitic worm)... self-treatment with the worm eggs... increase mucous production in the entire colon... the worms trigger a big sneeze of the gut... lucky... may exacerbate bowel inflammation.... a worm that infects pigs."

Pretty rich stuff, eh? You could just eat that with a spoon.