Giraffes That Are More Social Live Longer

This study on giraffes might might mean something for human populations too.

*****

A research team led by Monica Bond, research associate at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies of the University of Zurich (UZH), studied giraffes in Tanzania for five years. The biologists examined the relative effects of sociability, the natural environment, and human factors on survival of the mega-herbivore. They have now shown that adult female giraffes living in larger groups have higher survival chances than more socially isolated individuals.

Gregariousness leads to better survival

Giraffe group formations are dynamic and change throughout the day, but adult females maintain many specific friendships over the long term. “Grouping with more females, called gregariousness, is correlated with better survival of female giraffes, even as group membership is frequently changing,” says Bond. “This aspect of giraffe sociability is even more important than attributes of their non-social environment such as vegetation and nearness to human settlements.”

The benefits of many friends

Aside from poaching, the main causes of adult female giraffe mortality are likely to be disease, stress or malnutrition, all of which are interconnected stressors. “Social relationships can improve foraging efficiency, and help manage intraspecific competition, predation, disease risk and psychosocial stress,” says UZH professor Barbara König, senior author of the study. Female giraffes may seek out and join together with an optimal number of other females in order to share and obtain information about the highest-quality food sources. Other benefits to living in larger groups might be lowering stress levels by reducing harassment from males, cooperating in caring for young, or simply experiencing physiological benefits by being around familiar females. The study also finds that females living closer to towns had lower survival rates, possibly due to poaching.

Social habits similar to humans and primates

The team documented the social behaviors of the wild free-ranging giraffes using network analysis algorithms similar to those used by big-data social media platforms. According to the results, the giraffes are surprisingly similar in their social habits to humans and other primates, for whom greater social connectedness offers more opportunities. Chimpanzees and gorillas, for example, live in communities where ties between many individuals facilitate the flexibility of feeding strategies. “It seems to be beneficial for female giraffes to connect with a greater number of others and develop a sense of larger community, but without a strong sense of exclusive subgroup affiliation,” adds Monica Bond.

Study of a giraffe population in Tanzania

For the past decade the research team has been conducting the largest study to date of a giraffe population. The vast scale of their study area in the Tarangire region of Tanzania spans more than a thousand square kilometers and includes multiple social communities, each with about 60 to 90 adult female members. Thus, the study was able to disentangle individual from community-level influences on survival. The study is also unique in combining social network analysis and modeling of vital rates such as survival in a sample of hundreds of individuals.

Don’t Take Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen Before Receiving a COVID-19 Vaccine

Regardless of what one thinks about the COVID-19 vaccines and the current amount of data on them, everyone reading this will probably know someone that will receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The current evidence suggests that taking drugs such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen is one of the worst things people can do before receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines. The human body needs a proper immune response to develop immunity to the virus and the drugs will plausibly interfere with that immune response, very possibly leading to a reduced level of immunity. That reduced level of immunity may lead to a susceptibility to COVID-19 later on.

*****

Taking OTC pain medications ahead of your shot to try and decrease symptoms is not recommended by the CDC, because it’s not clear how that could affect the vaccine’s effectiveness.

The concern is that pre-treating with pain medications that reduce fevers and inflammation (like acetaminophen and ibuprofen) could dampen your immune system’s response to the vaccine.

That’s because your immune system responds to vaccines through a process called “controlled inflammation,” Dr. Colleen Kelley, an associate professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, told USA Today in January.

Covid messenger RNA vaccines work by giving cells genetic material that tells them how to make a non-infectious piece of the virus. The immune system then creates antibodies against it — which is controlled inflammation — and can remember how to trigger an immune response if exposed to the virus in the future.

But OTC pain-relieving medications “reduce the production of inflammatory mediators,” Kelley said. That’s why it’s important to wait until after you’ve gotten the vaccine (and have started creating an inflammatory response already) to take pain medication.

Research on children has shown that those who take acetaminophen before getting vaccines have a lower immune response than those who didn’t. And a recent study out of Yale found that giving mice nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (aka “NSAIDS”) before being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 led to fewer protective antibodies from the virus.

The exception is for people who normally take these types of OTC pain medications as part of their routine to manage another medical condition. Those individuals should […] check with their doctor for additional guidance.

People Wrong in Elite Jobs Often Don’t Face Consequences

The issue is a general lack of accountability for financial and political elites that itself often has consequences in society due to the power that elites wield. None of the highest level banking executives were prosecuted after the housing bubble recession and financial crisis of 2008, despite those people being a significant factor in them occurring, and this clearly acted as an incentive for many of the same activities that caused the recession to continue today.

*****

I just read Nicholas Kristof’s column about his childhood friend Mike Stepp. The piece is actually very moving.

Mr. Stepp grew up next door to Kristof. As he explains in the column, he grew up with an abusive father. Their family didn’t value education, so neither Mike or his brother ever finished high school. While previous generations of workers (white male workers) could work in a factory job without a high school degree, and still enjoy a middle class standard of living, this was no longer a possibility for Mike. As a result, he struggled with periods of unemployment, low-paying jobs, drug addiction, mental health problems, and homelessness. He ended up dying last year at age 55.

Kristof tells us that Mike was a decent intelligent person who was let down by society. As he explains, we took away the opportunities that had existed for a large segment of the workforce, and did nothing to fill in the gaps:

“Witnessing the torment of people I grew up with, like Mike, has led me to conclude that I was wrong in many of my own views. Like many liberals with a university education and a reliable paycheck, I was too scornful of labor unions, too unreservedly enthusiastic about international trade, too glib about “creative destruction,” too heartless about its toll.”

I would strongly agree with the basic thrust of Kristof’s argument, but I want to ask about what happens to all the people like Kristof who now admits, “I was wrong in many of my own views.”

Just to be clear, I’m not looking for a jihad against Kristof who is both honest enough to admit his error and appears to have genuine compassion for the people who have been victimized by our policies of the last four decades. But Kristof is just one of a very long list of public intellectuals who made this same mistake. They openly, and often belligerently, pushed policies that had very serious negative effects for large segments of the population. While others have also come to recognize their mistake, many still don’t, and continue to blame the victims of their policies for the difficulties they face in life.

I am not going to rehash the arguments about the policies here (see my book Rigged [it’s free], if you want my account), rather I want to make a different point about accountability. Failing to recognize that the devastating impact of the economic policies promoted in the last four decades was a very serious mistake. But is anyone anywhere losing their job for it?

There is no shortage of economists, policy types, and columnists (e.g. Kristof’s colleague at the NYT, Thomas Friedman) who have made this mistake. However, the idea that any of them would face serious career consequences for this sort of massive failure is viewed as absurd. Even to suggest it is seen as mean-spirited vindictiveness.

So, we live in a society where the dishwasher can get fired in a minute for breaking the dishes. The same is the case for the custodian that doesn’t clean the toilet. But the highly paid workers at the top of their profession face no career risk from making huge mistakes with massive consequences for society.

Can I hear the story about meritocracy again?

New “Obesity Fighting” Drug That Claims to Cut Body Weight by Up to 20 Percent

People have been looking for weight loss in a pill for ages. The issue is whether this drug will have any major side effects on certain people, and if it does, whether those side effects are worth the benefits of weight loss. The natural way to lose weight is to simply burn more calories than you consume, thus entering what’s known as a caloric deficit. The importance of “calories in, calories out,” is not emphasized enough in our systems of education, and it is a massive detriment to the population that that’s the case. In the trial, one of the people began gaining weight after the administration of the drug stopped, and that shows how losing weight remains an issue to address outside of medically-supervised drug usage. Additionally, I have to question how much of the weight loss was from the drug when the participants of the trial were also supposedly eating less and doing more exercise.

*****

The drug – semaglutide – hijacks the body’s appetite regulating system in the brain, leading to reduced hunger and calorie intake.

Rachel Batterham, professor of obesity, diabetes and endocrinology who leads the Centre for Obesity Research at UCL and the UCLH Centre for Weight Management, said: “The findings of this study represent a major breakthrough for improving the health of people with obesity.

“Three quarters (75%) of people who received semaglutide 2.4mg lost more than 10% of their body weight and more than one-third lost more than 20%.

The professor, who is one of the principal authors on the paper, added: “No other drug has come close to producing this level of weight loss – this really is a game-changer.

“For the first time, people can achieve through drugs what was only possible through weight-loss surgery.”

The drug will soon be submitted for regulatory approval as a treatment for obesity to the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

As well as the drug, participants received individual face-to-face or phone counselling sessions from registered dietitians every four weeks to help them adhere to the reduced-calorie diet and increased physical activity.

They also received incentives such as kettle bells or food scales to mark progress and milestones.

A placebo group observed an average weight loss of 2.6kg (0.4 stone) with a reduction in BMI of minus 0.92.

Semaglutide is clinically approved to be used for patients with type 2 diabetes, but they are prescribed a lower dose.

The American Minimum Wage Would Be $24 an Hour Today If It Had Kept Pace With Productivity

A world where full-time minimum wage workers are earning $60,000 a year (at a $30 an hour wage) would be far different. A full-time minimum wage worker earns only $14,500 a year at a $7.25 an hour wage.

*****

President Biden has proposed raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025. This has led to the predictable cries of economic disaster from business organizations and right-wingers more generally.

The standard argument against raising the minimum wage is not supported by the evidence.

We now have considerable experience with state and local governments having substantial increases in their minimum wages. Several cities, including New York, San Francisco, and Seattle, already have a $15 an hour minimum wage. California’s statewide minimum wage is now at $14 an hour and is scheduled to hit $15 an hour for mid-size and large employers next year and all employers in 2023.

Dozens of economists have carefully analyzed these minimum wage hikes. To the surprise of many, including me, there is no evidence that these minimum wage increases have led to job loss. Instead, they have resulted in substantial improvements in living standards for millions of low-wage workers.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that no businesses have reduced employment or possibly even gone out of business due to higher minimum wages. Small businesses are always struggling, and many close every day of the week. Any additional expense can be a burden, whether it is higher rent, the electric bill, or the minimum wage, but that is how the economy works.

We want to run the economy in a manner that ensures that workers can earn a decent living. We don’t have a responsibility to ensure that businesses can survive by paying their workers very low wages.

And again, the research indicates that when one business is cutting back employment or shutting its doors because of a minimum wage hike, another is opening or expanding employment. Economists have looked hard for evidence of job loss from these minimum wage hikes and have generally been unable to find it.

The federal minimum wage currently stands at $7.25 an hour.  It hasn’t been raised for 12 years, the longest period without a hike since the national minimum wage was first established in 1938. That translates into an annual income of $14,500 for a full-time worker. That’s not far above the poverty line for a single person and well below the poverty line of $21,720 for a family of three.

Economists often point out that If the minimum wage had simply kept pace with inflation since 1968, it would be over $12 an hour today and around $13.50 by 2025. The unemployment rate that year averaged 3.6 percent when the minimum wage was at its inflation adjusted peak value, so it did not seem to be causing unemployment then.

But this is an incredibly low bar. Setting the 1968 level as a benchmark would mean that minimum wage workers would be seeing no increase in their standard of living over a nearly 60-year period.

In the 30-year period — from when the minimum wage was established in 1938 to 1968 — the minimum wage rose in step with productivity. This meant that low-wage workers shared in the gains as the economy grew more productive and people were able to enjoy higher standards of living.

If the minimum wage had continued to rise in step with productivity growth, it would have been $24 an hour last year. By 2025 it would be close to $30 an hour, roughly twice the level that President Biden targets in his proposal. In that scenario, a full-time minimum wage worker would be earning $60,000 a year.

To be clear, raising the minimum wage to $30 an hour in 2025 would almost certainly lead to serious job loss. We have made many changes to the economy that have been designed to redistribute income upward, such as rules on patents and trade policy. Unless we reversed these policies, the economy would be unable to support a minimum wage anywhere near $30 an hour.

Nonetheless, the $30 an hour minimum wage can be a useful benchmark. It is what workers at the bottom would be earning in 2025 if we had kept the policies that we had in place over the three decades from 1938-1968.

In this context, a $15 minimum wage in 2025 can be recognized as a very modest target that will nonetheless provide enormous benefits for tens of millions of workers and their families. We really need to do it.  

Teaching Young Students Empathy Improves Their Creativity, University of Cambridge Finds

Having students become more skilled at looking at things from different perspectives may be what drove the increase in their creativity. The power of enhanced creativity can obviously be leveraged in many fields to boost levels of success.

*****

Teaching children in a way that encourages them to empathise with others measurably improves their creativity, and could potentially lead to several other beneficial learning outcomes, new research suggests.

The findings are from a year-long University of Cambridge study with Design and Technology (D&T) year 9 pupils (ages 13 to 14) at two inner London schools. Pupils at one school spent the year following curriculum-prescribed lessons, while the other group’s D&T lessons used a set of engineering design thinking tools which aim to foster students’ ability to think creatively and to engender empathy, while solving real-world problems.

Both sets of pupils were assessed for creativity at both the start and end of the school year using the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking: a well-established psychometric test.

The results showed a statistically significant increase in creativity among pupils at the intervention school, where the thinking tools were used. At the start of the year, the creativity scores of pupils in the control school, which followed the standard curriculum, were 11% higher than those at the intervention school. By the end, however, the situation had completely changed: creativity scores among the intervention group were 78% higher than the control group.

The researchers also examined specific categories within the Torrance Test that are indicative of emotional or cognitive empathy: such as ’emotional expressiveness’ and ‘open-mindedness’. Pupils from the intervention school again scored much higher in these categories, indicating that a marked improvement in empathy was driving the overall creativity scores.

The study’s authors suggest that encouraging empathy not only improves creativity, but can deepen pupils’ general engagement with learning. Notably, they found evidence that boys and girls in the intervention school responded to the D&T course in ways that defied traditional gender stereotypes. Boys showed a marked improvement in emotional expression, scoring 64% higher in that category at the end of the year than at the start, while girls improved more in terms of cognitive empathy, showing 62% more perspective-taking.

The research is part of a long-term collaboration between the Faculty of Education and the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge called ‘Designing Our Tomorrow’ (DOT), led by Bill Nicholl and Ian Hosking. It challenges pupils to solve real-world problems by thinking about the perspectives and feelings of others.

The particular challenge used in the study asked pupils at the intervention school to design an asthma-treatment ‘pack’ for children aged six and under. Pupils were given various creative and empathetic ‘tools’ in order to do so: for example, they were shown data about the number of childhood asthma fatalities in the UK, and a video which depicts a young child having an attack. They also explored the problem and tested their design ideas by role-playing various stakeholders, for example, patients, family-members, and medical staff.

Nicholl, Senior Lecturer in Design and Technology Education, who trains teachers studying on the University’s D&T PGCE course, said: “Teaching for empathy has been problematic despite being part of the D&T National Curriculum for over two decades. This evidence suggests that it is a missing link in the creative process, and vital if we want education to encourage the designers and engineers of tomorrow.”

Dr Helen Demetriou, an affiliated lecturer in psychology and education at the Faculty of Education with a particular interest in empathy, and the other researcher involved in the study, said: “We clearly awakened something in these pupils by encouraging them to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The research shows not only that it is possible to teach empathy, but that by doing so we support the development of children’s creativity, and their wider learning.”

The gender differences charted in the study indicate that the intervention enabled students to overcome some of the barriers to learning that assumed gender roles often create. For example, boys often feel discouraged from expressing emotion at school, yet this was one of the main areas where they made significant creative gains according to the tests.

In addition to the Torrance Tests, the researchers conducted in-depth interviews with pupils at both the intervention school and a third (girls-only) school who also undertook the asthma challenge. This feedback again suggested that pupils had empathised deeply with the challenges faced by young asthma-sufferers, and that this had influenced their creative decisions in the classroom.

Many, for example, used phrases such as ‘stepping into their shoes’ or ‘seeing things from another point of view’ when discussing patients and their families. One boy told the researchers: “I think by the end of the project I could feel for the people with asthma… if I was a child taking inhalers, I would be scared too.”

Another responded: “Let’s say you had a sister or brother in that position. I would like to do something like this so we can help them.”

Overall, the authors suggest that these findings point to a need to nurture ’emotionally intelligent learners’ not only in D&T classes, but across subjects, particularly in the context of emerging, wider scientific evidence that our capacity for empathy declines as we get older.

“This is something that we must think about as curricula in general become increasingly exam-based,” Demetriou said. “Good grades matter, but for society to thrive, creative, communicative and empathic individuals matter too.”

Nicholl added: “When I taught Design and Technology, I didn’t see children as potential engineers who would one day contribute to the economy; they were people who needed to be ready to go into the world at 18. Teaching children to empathise is about building a society where we appreciate each other’s perspectives. Surely that is something we want education to do.”

The study is published in the journal, Improving Schools.

Teenagers With Better Childhoods Drink Less and Do Drugs Less

If we structured a system where there was less poverty and despair, more people would have better childhoods, and less people would end up with damaging drug addictions.

*****

Teenagers with happy childhood memories are likely to drink less, take fewer drugs and enjoy learning, according to research published in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction Research & Theory.

The findings, based on data from nearly 2,000 US high school students, show a link between how pupils feel about the past, present and future and their classroom behavior. This in turn influences their grades and risk of substance misuse, according to the study.

The authors say action is needed now because Covid-19 has left many teenagers struggling with online study, suffering mentally and turning to drink and drugs.

They are calling on teachers — and parents — to help students develop more positive mindsets and become motivated to learn so they are less likely to binge drink or use marijuana.

“School often seems a source of stress and anxiety to students,” says John Mark Froiland from Purdue University in Indiana, US.

“This puts them at greater risk of not participating in lessons, getting lower grades and of substance misuse.

“Many teenagers also aren’t engaging with online learning during Covid or have lower engagement levels.

“But they’re more likely to be enthusiastic learners and not use drink and drugs if teachers take time to build more positive relationships with them. They can help students see that everything they’re learning is truly valuable. Parents have a role to play too.”

Teenagers with a balanced attitude towards their childhoods and other time periods have already been shown by studies to be more likely to abstain from drink and drugs and achieve academically. This is compared to those with a pessimistic outlook.

The aim of this study was to establish how substance misuse and behaviors towards learning are affected by students’ feelings about the past, present and future.

The data was based on assessments and questionnaires completed by 1,961 students at a high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. More than half (53%) of the pupils included in the study were female.

The study authors looked at responses from pupils where they rated how nostalgic they were towards their childhood, current happiness levels in life and how much they look forward to future happiness.

They also analysed marijuana and alcohol habits over the past 30 days including binge drinking, and average academic grades. They analysed motivation levels, and behavior in lessons such as how much teenagers paid attention and listened.

Statistical techniques were used by the researchers to assess the associations between all these different factors and establish the key predictors for alcohol and marijuana misuse.

In general, the study found that positive attitudes towards the past, present and future put adolescents at lower risk for alcohol use, binge drinking, and marijuana.

The opposite was true for those displaying pessimistic or negative ways of thinking or feeling about their life in the past, now or ahead of them.

The reason for this was that a content and optimistic outlook increased the likelihood they would be motivated and behave in a focused way on the chance to learn.

Other findings include girls having stronger levels of behavioral engagement than boys, and students who drank being most likely to use cannabis.

Fraudulent Research on Minimum Wage Increases

A decent increase in the minimum wage would obviously decrease rates of poverty.

*****

President Biden’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 is prompting a backlash from the usual suspects. As we hear the cries about how this will be the end of the world for small businesses and lead to massive unemployment, especially for young workers, minorities, and the less-educated, there are a few points worth keeping in mind.

While $15 an hour is a large increase from the current $7.25 an hour, this is because we’ve allowed so much time to pass since the last minimum wage hike. The 12 years since the last increase in the minimum wage is the longest period without a hike since the federal minimum wage was first established in 1938. Few workers are now earning the national minimum wage, both because of market conditions and because many states and cities now have considerably higher minimum wages.

If the minimum wage had just kept pace with prices since its peak value in 1968 it would be over $12 an hour today and around $13.50 by 2025. Keeping the minimum wage rising in step with prices is actually a very modest target. It means that low-wage workers are not sharing in the benefits of economic growth.
From 1938 to 1968 the minimum wage rose in step with productivity growth. This means that as the economy grew and the country became richer, workers at the bottom of the ladder shared in this growth. If the minimum wage had continued to keep pace with productivity growth it would have been over $24 an hour last year and would be close to $30 an hour in 2025.

There has been considerable research on the extent to which the minimum wage leads to job loss. Much recent research finds that even substantial increases in the minimum, such as the $15 an hour minimum wage that is already in place in Seattle, have no effect on employment.[1]

It is worth noting that even the research that finds the minimum wage reduces employment generally finds a relatively modest effect. A recent review article by prominent opponents of the minimum wage found that the median estimate of elasticity was -0.12 for affected workers. This estimate means, for example, that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage would lead to a reduction in employment among affected workers (e.g. workers with less education or young workers) of 1.2 percent.

It is important to realize that even in this case we are not talking about 1.2 percent of affected workers going unemployed. Low-wage jobs turn over rapidly. For example, in a typical month before the pandemic hit, more than 6.0 percent of the workers in the hotel and restaurant industries lost or left their jobs. If we take the elasticity estimate of -0.12, it would mean that at a point in time we have 1.2 percent fewer people working in the sector as a result of a ten percent increase in the minimum wage.[2]

[…]

A higher minimum wage also has positive societal effects. A recent review of the literature found that a 10 percent increase in the minimum wage would reduce the poverty rate by 5.3 percent. Another study found that a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage reduced the likelihood that formerly incarcerated people would return to prison within a year by 2.8 percent. The long-term effects of these and other benefits are likely to be quite large.

Finally, it is worth remembering that there is a lot of money on the side of those looking to stop minimum wage hikes. This can affect the research on the topic. While few researchers may deliberately cook their results to favor the fast-food industry, they know they can get funding for research that finds a higher minimum wage leads to job loss. There is much less money available for supporting research that finds no effect.

Probably the clearest case of such bias affecting research findings was a paper by David Neumark and William Wascher, two of the most prominent opponents of higher minimum wages. Neumark and Wascher analyzed data given to them by the Employment Policies Institute (a.k.a. “the evil EPI”), a lobbying group for the restaurant industry. They used this data to replicate a pathbreaking study by economists David Card and Alan Krueger, which found no job loss associated with a minimum wage hike in New Jersey.
Neumark and Wascher’s study found that there was in fact a significant loss of jobs in fast-food restaurants in New Jersey following the minimum wage hike. However, an analysis of the Neumark and Wascher data by John Schmitt found patterns that were not plausible. It was subsequently revealed that an owner of a number of fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania (the control state) had submitted fake payroll data to the Employment Policy Institute to be used in the study. (There is no reason to believe that Neumark and Wascher realized they were working with fraudulent data.) If the faked data was removed from the analysis, the finding of minimum-wage induced job loss disappeared.

This story should be seen as a warning. Most researchers are honest and will accurately report what they find in their analysis. However, we should realize that there are some pretty big thumbs on the scale in the minimum wage battle, and those thumbs want to show that minimum wage hikes will cause job loss.

[1] A paper by John Schmitt explains why it could be the case that, contrary to the textbook story, a higher minimum wage may have no effect on employment.
[2] The actual story is a bit more complicated since typically these studies look at a specific type of worker, such as young people or workers with less education. It could be the case that employment in an industry has not changed, but we have seen older or more educated workers replacing younger and less-educated workers.

News Delivered With Humor Makes It More Memorable

A recent study has been done on how to make news content more memorable. The study’s findings may apply to some other types of content too.

In the early decades of televised news, Americans turned to the stern faces of newsmen like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather as trusted sources for news of the important events in America and around the world, delivered with gravitas and measured voices. The rise of comedy-news programs, helmed by the likes of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee, raised concerns over the blending of entertainment and news. But could the merging of humor and news actually help inform the public?

In fact, new research suggests that humor may help keep people informed about politics. A study from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the School of Communication at Ohio State University found that, when compared to non-humorous news clips, viewers are not only more likely to share humorously presented news but are also more likely to remember the content from these segments.

“For democracy to work, it is really important for people to engage with news and politics and to be informed about public affairs,” says senior author Emily Falk, Professor of Communication, Psychology, and Marketing at Annenberg. “We wanted to test whether humor might make news more socially relevant, and therefore motivate people to remember it and share it.”

The researchers recruited young adults (18-34 years old) to watch a variety of news clips, which they designed to vary, so that some ended with jokes and others did not. In addition to collecting data on participants’ brain activity using fMRI technology, the researchers administered a memory test to determine how much information participants retained from watching the clips. The researchers also asked participants to answer questions about how likely they would be to share the news clips with others.

Participants were more likely to remember information about politics and government policy when it was conveyed in a humorous rather than non-humorous manner and were more willing to share the information online. The findings also show that humorous news clips elicited greater activity in brain regions associated with thinking about what other people think and feel, which highlights the social nature of comedy.

“Our findings show that humor stimulates activity in brain regions associated with social engagement, improves memory for political facts, and increases the tendency to share political information with others,” says lead author Jason Coronel, Assistant Professor of Communication at OSU. “This is significant because entertainment-based media has become an important source of political news, especially for young adults. Our results suggest that humor can increase knowledge about politics.”

A New Tool In Improving Mental Health — Building Design

Buildings can be designed in ways that allow for more of the interior to be exposed to sunlight and nature. In the time of the pandemic, more sunlight in rooms can act as a natural disinfectant, and one study found that people had better mental health after taking walks through nature.

For decades, psychiatric hospitals were grim settings where patients were crowded into common rooms by day and dorms at night. But new research into the health effects of our surroundings is spurring the development of facilities that feel more residential, with welcoming entrances, smaller living units within larger buildings and a variety of gathering spaces. Nature plays a big role: Windows provide views of greenery, landscapes decorate walls, and outdoor areas give patients and staff access to fresh air and sunlight.

The new approach, promoted as healing and therapeutic, has produced environments that are more calming and supportive. And it feels particularly timely, given the surge in mental health issues created by the pandemic.

“We’ve been talking about this for a really long time,” said Mardelle McCuskey Shepley, chair of the department of design and environmental analysis in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology in New York. “It’s only now that it’s gaining momentum.”

Even before the pandemic, the number of Americans affected by mental illness was at a new high. One in five adults was experiencing depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress or some other malady, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. The rates were significantly higher for adolescents (about 50%) and young adults (about 30%).

Nearly a year into the pandemic, more people are suffering. Young adults and Black and Latino people of all ages are reporting increased levels of anxiety, depression and substance abuse, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A recent Gallup poll showed that Americans felt their mental health was “worse than it has been at any point in the last two decades.”

Demand for treatment has soared, and the construction of mental health facilities has been outpacing that of other specialty hospitals. Last year, 40% of the specialty hospitals under construction were psychiatric hospitals and behavioural health centres, according to the American Society for Health Care Engineering.

Architecture and interior design firms with expertise in health care buildings have reported an increase in activity. At design firm Architecture+ in Troy, New York, one or two major mental health facilities are typically in the pipeline, with total construction costs for those projects at about $250 million a year, said Francis Murdock Pitts, a principal and founding partner. Last year, the firm was working on 16 large mental health projects totalling about $1.9 billion.

His firm and others like it have medical planners on staff who help translate research into “evidence-based” designs. “This isn’t just about being warm and fuzzy,” Pitts said.

For instance, exposure to nature has been shown to lower cortisol levels, a measure of stress. Adding healing gardens and other greenery can help soothe agitated patients and give staff a place to decompress.

Research specific to mental health care settings is also coming into play. Studies have shown that reducing crowding by providing private rooms and multiple communal spaces may lessen patient and employee stress and aggression. Lowering noise — eliminating unnecessary beeping of medical equipment, for example — can also help. If patients are less stressed, they may make faster and more lasting progress during treatment, experts say.

But because mental health issues vary widely, there is no one-size-fits-all design solution. And safety — for both patients and staff — remains paramount.

Codes and guidelines fine-tuned over many years have sought to eliminate room features that patients have used to harm themselves and others. Window glazing is made of polycarbonate compounds to reduce breaking. Doors are hung on quick-release hinges to allow staff to enter a room if a patient is barricaded in. Plumbing and other fixtures have been designed to prevent the possibility of hanging or strangulation.

Such safety measures are crucial, but “you don’t want it to get to the point where it looks prisonlike,” said Shary Adams, a principal at HGA, a national design firm. At the same time that the built environment must be engineered to ensure safety, there is also a move to give patients some control over their surroundings. Manual thermostats allow patients to adjust the temperature in their rooms, for example, and dimmer switches let them modulate the lights.

The location of mental health facilities is changing, too. Psychiatric institutions used to be tucked away, but today they are likely to be part of hospital campuses or otherwise conveniently situated. They often combine inpatient rooms for those who need round-the-clock monitoring and areas for outpatient services, allowing patients to shift to less intensive care in the same building.

Lifelong Exercise Shown to Slow Aging

The benefits of exercise are underrated much too often.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London have found that staying active keeps the body young and healthy.

The researchers set out to assess the health of older adults who had exercised most of their adult lives to see if this could slow down ageing.

The study recruited 125 amateur cyclists aged 55 to 79, 84 of which were male and 41 were female. The men had to be able to cycle 100 km in under 6.5 hours, while the women had to be able to cycle 60 km in 5.5 hours. Smokers, heavy drinkers and those with high blood pressure or other health conditions were excluded from the study.

The participants underwent a series of tests in the laboratory and were compared to a group of adults who do not partake in regular physical activity. This group consisted of 75 healthy people aged 57 to 80 and 55 healthy young adults aged 20 to 36.

The study showed that loss of muscle mass and strength did not occur in those who exercise regularly. The cyclists also did not increase their body fat or cholesterol levels with age and the men’s testosterone levels also remained high, suggesting that they may have avoided most of the male menopause.

More surprisingly, the study also revealed that the benefits of exercise extend beyond muscle as the cyclists also had an immune system that did not seem to have aged either.

An organ called the thymus, which makes immune cells called T cells, starts to shrink from the age of 20 and makes less T cells. In this study, however, the cyclists’ thymuses were making as many T cells as those of a young person.

The findings come as figures show that less than half of over 65s do enough exercise to stay healthy and more than half of those aged over 65 suffer from at least two diseases.* Professor Janet Lord, Director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, said: “Hippocrates in 400 BC said that exercise is man’s best medicine, but his message has been lost over time and we are an increasingly sedentary society.

“However, importantly, our findings debunk the assumption that ageing automatically makes us more frail.

“Our research means we now have strong evidence that encouraging people to commit to regular exercise throughout their lives is a viable solution to the problem that we are living longer but not healthier.”

Dr Niharika Arora Duggal, also of the University of Birmingham, said: “We hope these findings prevent the danger that, as a society, we accept that old age and disease are normal bedfellows and that the third age of man is something to be endured and not enjoyed.”

Professor Stephen Harridge, Director of the Centre of Human & Aerospace Physiological Sciences at King’s College London, said: “The findings emphasise the fact that the cyclists do not exercise because they are healthy, but that they are healthy because they have been exercising for such a large proportion of their lives.

“Their bodies have been allowed to age optimally, free from the problems usually caused by inactivity. Remove the activity and their health would likely deteriorate.”

Norman Lazarus, Emeritus Professor at King’s College London and also a master cyclist and Dr Ross Pollock, who undertook the muscle study, both agreed that: “Most of us who exercise have nowhere near the physiological capacities of elite athletes.

“We exercise mainly to enjoy ourselves. Nearly everybody can partake in an exercise that is in keeping with their own physiological capabilities.

“Find an exercise that you enjoy in whatever environment that suits you and make a habit of physical activity. You will reap the rewards in later life by enjoying an independent and productive old age.”

Important COVID-19 Antibody Drugs Aren’t Being Used Enough

“Antibody drugs from Regeneron and Eli Lilly could reduce hospitalizations from Covid-19 by 50-70%,” as the article says.

When President Donald Trump got sick with Covid-19 in October, he credited an antibody drug from Regeneron with making him feel better “immediately.”

“I felt as good three days ago as I do now,” he said in a video shot in front of the White House after he left Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, promising medicines from Regeneron and Eli Lilly would soon be available to the American public to help stop the terrible effects of Covid-19.

The concern, as these drugs were cleared through the FDA and made it to market last month, was that there wouldn’t be enough supply. They’re complicated to manufacture, and Regeneron said there were only enough doses for 80,000 Americans by the end of November. Lilly has 250,000 doses available.

An average of more than 200,000 Americans are currently getting diagnosed with Covid-19 every day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Policymakers expected to need to ration the antibody drugs.

But a month into their distribution, the opposite problem has emerged: the drugs are not getting used.

“We have a surplus of these monoclonal antibodies right now,” Health Secretary Alex Azar told CNBC’s Shepard Smith Tuesday night. “What’s happening is people are waiting too long to seek out the treatments.”

Moncef Slaoui, chief scientific adviser to the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, told CNBC Tuesday that the federal government is distributing about 65,000 doses of the antibody drugs every week to states.

But, he said, only 5% to 20% of the doses are getting administered to patients.

“It should be used much more,” Slaoui said in a telephone interview, noting the drugs — which are indicated for patients at high risk for severe Covid-19 — could cut down on hospitalizations by 50% to 70%.

The drugs are not simple to administer. For one thing, they’re given by intravenous infusion, so patients must go to health centers where this can be done. But since they’re likely contagious, existing IV facilities, like where patients receive chemotherapy, can’t be used.

Another issue is that the drugs need to be given early in the course of the disease. The FDA’s guidance for health-care providers says they should be administered as soon as possible after diagnosis, and within 10 days of symptom onset. It recommends against use of the drugs once patients are so sick they’re hospitalized.

But many patients don’t feel sick right away, so the idea of an IV-infused drug doesn’t occur to them immediately after diagnosis, Slaoui and Azar suggested.

“If you are over 65 or at risk of serious complications or hospitalization due to co-morbidities, what have you, and you test positive, you need to seek out and get the Lilly or Regeneron monoclonal antibody,” Azar said on the “News With Shepard Smith.” “It can dramatically reduce the risk for us of hospitalizations at a time when hospitals are getting very crowded with people with Covid.”

But it’s a challenge for some health systems to set up the infrastructure to deliver these drugs. Some states are using 100% of their allocation, Slaoui said. Others, like in Georgia and Illinois, may not be using any, according to former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb.

Georgia’s public health department didn’t immediately respond to questions about their antibody usage. A spokeswoman for Illinois’ Department of Public Health said providers aren’t yet required to report use of monoclonal antibodies, but that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will require hospitals to report the information starting Jan. 8.

[…]

He noted the data behind the medicines suggest “the number needed to treat in terms of keeping one patient out of the hospital … is 10.” Lilly has said it will have 950,000 doses available by the end of January, Gottlieb cited the effects if 900,000 doses were used: “That means if all of the drugs got distributed, we could avoid 90,000 hospitalizations or emergency room visits. That would be substantial.”

Lilly noted the IV administration of the antibody drugs “presents unique challenges to the healthcare system,” and said it’s working to address the challenges to ensure patients who need the drug can get it. The company is running a number of pilot programs through Operation Warp Speed, including one with CVS for in-home infusions, a company spokeswoman said.