Worse Air Pollution Found to Decrease Happiness Levels

Another reason that the world should convert to renewable, clean sources of power in the fight against climate change. Happiness is one of the most important things in life, and therefore it’d be good if the world’s political systems better prioritized the general happiness of people instead of largely prioritizing big business profits.

Now researchers at MIT have discovered that air pollution in China’s cities may be contributing to low levels of happiness amongst the country’s urban population.

In a paper published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, a research team led by Siqi Zheng, the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate, and the Faculty Director of MIT China Future City Lab, reveals that higher levels of pollution are associated with a decrease in people’s happiness levels.

The paper also includes co-first author Jianghao Wang of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Matthew Kahn of the University of Southern California, Cong Sun of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, and Xiaonan Zhang of Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Despite an annual economic growth rate of 8 percent, satisfaction levels amongst China’s urban population have not risen as much as would be expected.

Alongside inadequate public services, soaring house prices, and concerns over food safety, air pollution — caused by the country’s industrialization, coal burning, and increasing use of cars — has had a significant impact on quality of life in urban areas.

Research has previously shown that air pollution is damaging to health, cognitive performance, labor productivity, and educational outcomes. But air pollution also has a broader impact on people’s social lives and behavior, according to Zheng.

To avoid high levels of air pollution, for example, people may move to cleaner cities or green buildings, buy protective equipment such as face masks and air purifiers, and spend less time outdoors.

“Pollution also has an emotional cost,” Zheng says. “People are unhappy, and that means they may make irrational decisions.”

On polluted days, people have been shown to be more likely to engage in impulsive and risky behavior that they may later regret, possibly as a result of short-term depression and anxiety, according to Zheng.

“So we wanted to explore a broader range of effects of air pollution on people’s daily lives in highly polluted Chinese cities,” she says.

To this end, the researchers used real-time data from social media to track how changing daily pollution levels impact people’s happiness in 144 Chinese cities.

In the past, happiness levels have typically been measured using questionnaires. However, such surveys provide only a single snapshot; people’s responses tend to reflect their overall feeling of well-being, rather than their happiness on particular days.

“Social media gives a real-time measure of people’s happiness levels and also provides a huge amount of data, across a lot of different cities,” Zheng says.

The researchers used information on urban levels of ultrafine particulate matter — PM 2.5 concentration — from the daily air quality readings released by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection. Airborne particulate matter has become the primary air pollutant in Chinese cities in recent years, and PM 2.5 particles, which measure less than 2.5 microns in diameter, are particularly dangerous to people’s lungs.

To measure daily happiness levels for each city, the team applied a machine-learning algorithm to analyze the 210 million geotagged tweets from China’s largest microblogging platform, Sina Weibo.

The tweets cover a period from March to November 2014. For each tweet, the researchers applied the machine-trained sentiment analysis algorithm to measure the sentiment of the post. They then calculated the median value for that city and day, the so-called expressed happiness index, ranging from 0 to 100, with 0 indicating a very negative mood, and 100 a very positive one.

Finally, the researchers merged this index with the daily PM2.5 concentration and weather data.

They found a significantly negative correlation between pollution and happiness levels. What’s more, women were more sensitive to higher pollution levels than men, as were those on higher incomes.

When the researchers looked at the type of cities that the tweets originated from, they found that people from the very cleanest and very dirtiest cities were the most severely affected by pollution levels.

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Drug Price Gouging in Generics

General info on prescription drugs and generic drug price gouging.

Martin Shkreli managed to make himself a household name a few years back. His claim to fame stemmed from the decision by Turing Pharmaceuticals, a company he founded and controlled, to acquire the rights to produce Daraprim. He then raised the price of the drug by 5,000 percent.

This was very bad news for the people who were dependent on the drug. Daraprim is an anti-parasitic drug that is often taken by people with AIDS to keep them from getting opportunistic infections. People with AIDS who are being successfully treated with Daraprim are not going to want to experiment with alternatives.

Daraprim was already a 60-year-old drug at the time Turing acquired it and had long been available as a generic. This meant that other manufacturers could in principle come into the market and compete with Turing’s inflated price.

Shkreli made the bet that no other drug company would take advantage of this opportunity, because even for a generic drug, there are still substantial costs for entry. Since the market for Daraprim was small, a new entrant would be unlikely to recover these costs if Turing pushed the price back down somewhere near its original level. While Daraprim was his biggest “success,” Shkreli was trying this strategy with a number of other drugs before the Justice Department put him out of business with unrelated charges of securities fraud.

Shkreli’s days of price gouging in the generic drug world may be over, but he established a model that other ambitious entrepreneurs are likely to follow. Close to 40 percent of generic drugs have only a single manufacturer. This is partly a result of the failure of anti-trust policy to stem a wave of mergers in the industry. It is also a result of the fact that many drugs simply have very limited markets where it is difficult to support multiple producers.

Most generic producers have not tried to follow the Shkreli model and jack up prices of drugs that people need for their health or even their lives, but some have. The soaring price of insulin is one important example, EpiPen, the asthma injector, is another. Both involve well-known treatments that have long been used, but the limited number of suppliers has allowed for huge price increases in recent years.

This is the context for the public drug-manufacturing corporation being proposed in a bill by Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Jan Schakowsky. The idea is that the federal government should create manufacturing capacity (which could be privately licensed) that would allow it to quickly enter a market to compete with the next Martin Shkreli.

If a company tries to jack up its prices by an extraordinary amount, it would find itself soon competing with a government manufacturer that is selling the same drug for the cost of production, plus a normal profit. This is a great strategy, since simply the existence of this capacity should be sufficient to discourage the next Shkreli.

There will be little money in jacking up the price of a drug by 5,000 percent if it quickly results in the disappearance of their market. This should encourage the generic industry to keep its prices in line.

It is important to note a key difference between the generic industry and brand industry. The brand pharmaceutical companies, like Pfizer and Merck, could argue that they need high prices to pay for research. These companies hugely exaggerate their research costs and downplay the extent to which high profits just mean more money for shareholders, but they actually do research.

By contrast, the generic industry is not researching new drugs. They are manufacturing drugs that have been developed by others. In this sense they can be thought of like a company that manufacturers paper plates or shovels. They need a normal profit to stay in business, nothing more.

For this reason, the Warren-Schakowsky proposal is very much the right type of remedy for excessive prices in the generic drug industry. At the same time, we have to recognize that generic drugs are the smaller part of the problem with high drug prices.

Although generics account for almost 90 percent of prescriptions, they account for only a bit more than a quarter of spending on prescription drugs. The story of drugs costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars a year is almost entirely a story of brand drugs with high prices as a result of patent monopolies or related protections.

This will require a larger fix, likely along the same lines, with the government paying for research and allowing new drugs to be sold as generics. But the Warren-Schakowsky bill is a huge first step in bringing drug costs down and ensuring that people will not find themselves suddenly at the mercy of the next Martin Shkreli.

Mental Health Diagnoses Among U.S. Children and Youth Continue to Rise at Alarming Rates

It follows the trend of mental health disorder rates rising globally. This isn’t progress — it shows that, whatever the newest low unemployment numbers in the “booming” economy are, there is an undercurrent of something gone seriously wrong in our societies.

The number of children and adolescents visiting the nation’s emergency departments due to mental health concerns continued to rise at an alarming rate from 2012 through 2016, with mental health diagnoses for non-Latino blacks outpacing such diagnoses among youth of other racial/ethnic groups, according to a retrospective cross-sectional study presented during the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference & Exhibition.

“Access to mental health services among children can be difficult, and data suggest that it can be even more challenging for minority children compared with non-minority youths,” says Monika K. Goyal, M.D., MSCE, assistant division chief and director of research in the Division of Emergency Medicine at Children’s National Health System and the study’s senior author. “Our findings underscore the importance of improving access to outpatient mental health resources as well as expanding capacity within the nation’s emergency departments to respond to this unmet need.”

An estimated 17.1 million U.S. children are affected by a psychiatric disorder, making mental health disorders among the most common pediatric illnesses. Roughly 2 to 5 percent of all emergency department visits by children are related to mental health concerns. The research team hypothesized that within that group, there might be higher numbers of minority children visiting emergency departments seeking mental health services.

To investigate this hypothesis, they examined Pediatric Health Information System data, which aggregates deidentified information from patient encounters at more than 45 children’s hospitals around the nation. Their analyses showed that in 2012, 50.4 emergency department visits per 100,000 children were for mental health-related concerns. By 2016, that figure had grown to 78.5 emergency department visits per 100,000 children.

Terrible — U.S. Asbestos Imports are Doubling in 2018

Asbestos is incredibly harmful to human health, and it’s extremely regressive that the U.S. not only hasn’t banned it, but is now increasing imports of it.

As President Donald Trump’s industry-friendly Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) takes steps to loosen restrictions on the commercial use of asbestos—which is known to cause cancer and lung disease—an analysis of federal data published Tuesday found that asbestos imports to the U.S. surged by nearly 2,000 percent between July and August of this year.

Conducted by the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) and Environmental Working Group (EWG), the analysis found that “the U.S. imported more than 341 metric tons of asbestos” last year, with imports expected to double in 2018 thanks to the Trump administration’s aggressive and deeply harmful deregulatory agenda.

“It is appalling that unlike more than 60 nations around the world, the U.S. not only fails to ban asbestos, but allows imports to increase,” Linda Reinstein, president and co-founder of ADAO, said in a statement. “Americans cannot identify or manage the risks of asbestos. The time is now for the EPA to say no to the asbestos industry and finally ban asbestos without exemptions.”

“When most people learn that asbestos remains legal even after it’s claimed the lives of countless Americans, they’re shocked,” added EWG president Ken Cook. “And when the public finds out the Trump administration is actively working to keep it legal, they are furious.”

Mental Health Disorder Rates Rising Globally

This is a sign of regression or stagnation, not progress, and it suggests that there needs to be a shift in the general direction human societies are on. Outside of the economic impacts of lost productivity, there are many collateral effects (e.g., worsened interpersonal relationships) that are associated with widespread mental health problems continuing as well.

The “Lancet Commission” report by 28 global specialists in psychiatry, public health and neuroscience, as well as mental health patients and advocacy groups, said the growing crisis could cause lasting harm to people, communities and economies worldwide.

While some of the costs will be the direct costs of healthcare and medicines or other therapies, most are indirect – in the form of loss of productivity, and spending on social welfare, education and law and order, the report’s co-lead author Vikram Patel said.

The wide-ranging report did not give the breakdown of the potential $16 trillion economic impact it estimated by 2030.

“The situation is extremely bleak,” Patel, a professor at Harvard Medical School in the United States, told reporters.

He said the burden of mental illness had risen “dramatically” worldwide in the past 25 years, partly due to societies ageing and more children surviving into adolescence, yet “no country is investing enough” to tackle the problem.

“No other health condition in humankind has been neglected as much as mental health has,” Patel said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 300 million people worldwide have depression and 50 million have dementia. Schizophrenia is estimated to affect 23 million people, and bipolar disorder around 60 million.

The Lancet report found that in many countries, people with common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and schizophrenia routinely suffer gross human rights violations – including shackling, torture and imprisonment.

Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of the medical journal the Lancet, which commissioned the report, said it highlighted the “shameful and shocking treatment of people with mental ill health around the world”.

It called for a human rights-based approach to ensure that people with mental health conditions are not denied fundamental human rights, including access to employment, education and other core life experiences.

Statistics on the Undercurrent Societal Problem of Loneliness

Now there is evidence that loneliness itself is directly harmful to human health, and that’s not to mention the indirect damage it causes. How UK doctors are prescribing people social activities also seems like a refreshingly progressive way at combating the problem.

Everyone feels isolated sometimes, but with one in five Americans chronically lonely, has loneliness reached epidemic proportions? In 1988, the journal Science published a landmark study suggesting isolation was as strong a risk factor for morbidity and mortality as sedentary lifestyle, high blood pressure and smoking or obesity. Since then, loneliness has become an increasing public health concern and health officials are now taking the idea of an epidemic seriously. As the population ages, the burden of social isolation on public health will only increase.

Loneliness is one aspect of interrelated conditions such as isolation due to illness, disability or age; the social and language-based isolation of being an immigrant; depression; poverty; discrimination, etc.

This past summer, two surveys made news, marking the extent of loneliness in the U.S. and other economically developed countries. Since these and other studies are new, we can anticipate learning more about the interrelationships of factors that contribute to loneliness over time. That shouldn’t stop us from addressing the problem now, but may help provide better perspective.

The most recent survey, from The Economist and the Kaiser Family Foundation, finds that 9 percent of adults in Japan, 22 percent in America and 23 percent in Britain “always” or “often” feel lonely or lack companionship. Another study of 20,000 U.S. adults, 18 and older, published in May by Cigna and market research firm Ipsos, reveals nearly half of American adults reported “sometimes” or “always” feeling alone (46 percent) or left out (47 percent); more than one in four Americans (27 percent) “rarely” or “never” feel that people understand them; and 43 percent of Americans “sometimes” or “always” feel their relationships lack meaning and they are isolated. One finding stands out: Generation Z (22 years and younger) scored the lowest of every age-group and appears to be more prone to experiencing significant loneliness. Gen Z may be the loneliest generation.

Regarding health impacts, several recent studies have found that loneliness is a risk factor for decreased resistance to infection, cognitive decline and conditions such as depression and dementia.

A UC San Francisco 2010 study found loneliness to be a predictor of functional decline and death among adults 60 and older. Over six years, lonely subjects were more likely to experience decline in activities of daily living (24.8 percent vs. 12.5 percent); develop difficulties with upper extremity tasks (41.5 percent vs. 28.3 percent); experience decline in mobility (38.1 percent vs. 29.4 percent) or climbing (40.8 percent vs. 27.9 percent); and face increased risk of death (22.8 percent vs. 14.2 percent). It appears that without social interaction, we languish and decline, though it’s possible that greater longevity, coupled with functional decline, leads to social isolation.

At the other end of the spectrum are challenges faced by young adults. Two 2017 national surveys of adolescents, in grades eight to 12, found among lonely individuals, especially females, depressive symptoms and suicide rates increased between 2010 and 2015. The studies found adolescents who spent more time on social media and devices such as smartphones more likely to report mental health issues, though it’s not clear if the self-directed isolation of screen time leads to or results from loneliness.

While we need to know more about causes to stanch this epidemic, many studies identify ways to minimize the effect of loneliness. Socializing with friends and family and increasing meaningful face-to-face interactions decreases loneliness. Those with active social lives report better health. Strong social affiliations — such as being part of a religious group, hobbyist circle or exercise group — have positive effects. Doctors in the United Kingdom make “social prescriptions,” specifying patients take part in structured social activity.

New Blood Test Offers Better or Equal Skin Cancer Detection Rate than a Biopsy

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world, and it’s the one that’s most easily treated when caught early. Since the blood test is less invasive than a biopsy, this new advance should be helpful in convincing more people to receive treatment early on.

It’s a world first. A newly developed blood test is capable of the early detection of melanoma, with over 80 percent accuracy.

It could help save thousands of lives, according to the Australian Edith Cowan University Melanoma Research Group scientists who developed the test.

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, claiming 59,782 lives around the world in 2015. Australasia, North America and Europe are the regions most susceptible to the disease.

There’s good news. If caught early, the survival rate for melanoma climbs to 95 percent. But if you miss that early window, your chances will plummet to below 50 percent. This is what the blood test is designed to help prevent.

[…]

The blood test, called MelDX, works by detecting the antibodies the body produces as soon as melanoma develops. The team analysed 1,627 different types of antibodies, and narrowed them down to a combination of 10 that indicate the presence of melanoma in the body.

They then took blood from 104 people with melanoma and 105 healthy controls, and found that MelDX was capable of detecting melanoma with 81.5 percent accuracy.

More specifically, it was able to detect the cancer in 79 percent of the patients with melanoma; and has a false positive rate in only 16 percent in healthy patients.

The detection rate may actually be a little higher than the accuracy of skin biopsies, which, according to a 2012 study, was 76 percent in an Australian public hospital.

That’s not a perfect result, but it does provide a starting point before other, more invasive tests are embarked on; in conjunction with current diagnostic techniques, it could improve early diagnosis – and therefore people’s chance of survival.

The next step, the researchers said, will be to take MelDX to clinical trial, which is currently being organised, and which could help refine the test.

“We envision this taking about three years. If this is successful we would hope to be able to have a test ready for use in pathology clinics shortly afterwards,” said Melanoma Research Group head Mel Ziman.

“The ultimate goal is for this blood test to be used to provide greater diagnostic certainty prior to biopsy and for routine screening of people who are at a higher risk of melanoma, such as those with a large number of moles or those with pale skin or a family history of the disease.”

Meanwhile, there are easy ways you can help protect yourself from melanoma and other skin cancers, including wearing sunscreen, staying in the shade during the hottest hours of the day, and avoiding UV tanning beds.