Low Vitamin D Levels Associated With Higher Coronavirus Mortality Rates

Patients with severe vitamin D deficiencies have been found in research to experience more coronavirus-related complications. Exposure to 20 or 30 minutes of sunlight a day and a healthy diet are good ways to keep high vitamin D levels.

After studying global data from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers have discovered a strong correlation between severe vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates.

Led by Northwestern University, the research team conducted a statistical analysis of data from hospitals and clinics across China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States.

The researchers noted that patients from countries with high COVID-19 mortality rates, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, had lower levels of vitamin D compared to patients in countries that were not as severely affected.

This does not mean that everyone — especially those without a known deficiency — needs to start hoarding supplements, the researchers caution.

“While I think it is important for people to know that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in mortality, we don’t need to push vitamin D on everybody,” said Northwestern’s Vadim Backman, who led the research. “This needs further study, and I hope our work will stimulate interest in this area. The data also may illuminate the mechanism of mortality, which, if proven, could lead to new therapeutic targets.”

The research is available on medRxiv, a preprint server for health sciences.

Backman is the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate in Backman’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Backman and his team were inspired to examine vitamin D levels after noticing unexplained differences in COVID-19 mortality rates from country to country. Some people hypothesized that differences in healthcare quality, age distributions in population, testing rates or different strains of the coronavirus might be responsible. But Backman remained skeptical.

“None of these factors appears to play a significant role,” Backman said. “The healthcare system in northern Italy is one of the best in the world. Differences in mortality exist even if one looks across the same age group. And, while the restrictions on testing do indeed vary, the disparities in mortality still exist even when we looked at countries or populations for which similar testing rates apply.

“Instead, we saw a significant correlation with vitamin D deficiency,” he said.

By analyzing publicly available patient data from around the globe, Backman and his team discovered a strong correlation between vitamin D levels and cytokine storm — a hyperinflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system — as well as a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mortality.

“Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients,” Daneshkhah said. “This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system.”

This is exactly where Backman believes vitamin D plays a major role. Not only does vitamin D enhance our innate immune systems, it also prevents our immune systems from becoming dangerously overactive. This means that having healthy levels of vitamin D could protect patients against severe complications, including death, from COVID-19.

“Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half,” Backman said. “It will not prevent a patient from contracting the virus, but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected.”

Backman said this correlation might help explain the many mysteries surrounding COVID-19, such as why children are less likely to die. Children do not yet have a fully developed acquired immune system, which is the immune system’s second line of defense and more likely to overreact.

“Children primarily rely on their innate immune system,” Backman said. “This may explain why their mortality rate is lower.”

Backman is careful to note that people should not take excessive doses of vitamin D, which might come with negative side effects. He said the subject needs much more research to know how vitamin D could be used most effectively to protect against COVID-19 complications.

“It is hard to say which dose is most beneficial for COVID-19,” Backman said. “However, it is clear that vitamin D deficiency is harmful, and it can be easily addressed with appropriate supplementation. This might be another key to helping protect vulnerable populations, such as African-American and elderly patients, who have a prevalence of vitamin D deficiency.”

Backman is the director of Northwestern’s Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering and the associate director for Research Technology and Infrastructure at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.

Drinking Tea Regularly Linked to a Longer Life

Scientists found that there really is merit to drinking green tea.

Drinking tea at least three times a week could be linked with a longer and healthier life, scientists say.

According to new research “habitual” consumption of the hot drink is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause death.

But whether the tea being consumed is green or black may make a difference.

The analysis included 100,902 participants of the China-PAR project2 with no history of heart attack, stroke, or cancer.

Participants were categorised into two groups – habitual tea drinkers, those drinking three or more times a week, and never or non-habitual tea drinkers  – those drinking less than three times a week.

They were followed-up for a median of 7.3 years, in the study published in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology.

The research suggests a 50-year-old habitual tea drinker would develop coronary heart disease and stroke 1.41 years later, and live 1.26 years, longer than someone who never or seldom drank tea.

Compared with never or non-habitual tea drinkers, habitual tea consumers had a 20% lower risk of incident heart disease and stroke, and a 22% lower risk of fatal heart disease and stroke.

They also had a 15% decreased risk of all-cause death, the study suggests.

First author Dr Xinyan Wang, of the Chinese Academy of Medical Science in Beijing, said: “Habitual tea consumption is associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and all-cause death.

“The favourable health effects are the most robust for green tea and for long-term habitual tea drinkers.”

Researchers analysed the potential influence of changes in tea drinking behaviour in a subset of 14,081 participants with assessments at two time points.

The average duration between the two surveys was 8.2 years, and the median follow-up after the second survey was 5.3 years.

Habitual drinkers who maintained their habit in both surveys had a 39% lower risk of incident heart disease and stroke, 56% lower risk of fatal heart disease and stroke, and 29% decreased risk of all-cause death compared to consistent never or non-habitual tea drinkers, the study suggests.

In a sub-analysis by tea type, drinking green tea was linked with around 25% lower risks for incident heart disease and stroke, fatal heart disease and stroke, and all-cause death.

However, no significant associations were observed for black tea.

Scientists found 49% of habitual tea drinkers in the study consumed green tea most frequently, while only 8% preferred black tea.

They noted a preference for green tea in East Asia, and said the small proportion of habitual black tea drinkers might make it more difficult to observe robust associations, but that the findings hint at a differential effect between tea types.

The researchers suggest a number of reasons for this.

They indicate that green tea is a rich source of polyphenols which protect against cardiovascular disease.

While black tea is fully fermented and during this process may lose antioxidant effects.

Gunter Kuhnle, professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading, said: “This study is an observational study and can therefore only establish an association – not a causal relationship.”

He added that the two cups per week as cut-off point was very little when compared to the average consumption of three to four cups per day in the UK.

Prof Kuhnle said: “It is not clear from the study whether there is any benefit from higher tea intake – and therefore there is no likely benefit from increasing tea intake by the majority of the British public.”

AI Becomes Very Good at Diagnosing Breast Cancer

Artificial intelligence is becoming more of a hot topic, and people should remember more that AI can be used both to hurt humans and (as in this case) help humans.

A computer programme can identify breast cancer from routine scans with greater accuracy than human experts, researchers said in what they hoped could prove a breakthrough in the fight against the global killer.

Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers in women, with more than 2 million new diagnoses last year alone.

Regular screening is vital in detecting the earliest signs of the disease in patients who show no obvious symptoms.

In Britain, women over 50 are advised to get a mammogram every three years, the results of which are analysed by two independent experts.

But interpreting the scans leaves room for error, and a small percentage of all mammograms either return a false positive – misdiagnosing a healthy patient as having cancer – or false negative – missing the disease as it spreads.

Now researchers at Google Health have trained an artificial intelligence model to detect cancer in breast scans from thousands of women in Britain and the United States.

The images had already been reviewed by doctors in real life but unlike in a clinical setting, the machine had no patient history to inform its diagnoses.

The team found that their AI model could predict breast cancer from the scans with a similar accuracy level to expert radiographers.

Further, the AI showed a reduction in the proportion of cases where cancer was incorrectly identified – 5.7 percent in the US and 1.2 percent in Britain, respectively.

It also reduced the percentage of missed diagnoses by 9.4 percent among US patients and by 2.7 percent in Britain.

“The earlier you identify a breast cancer the better it is for the patient,” Dominic King, UK lead at Google Health, told AFP.

“We think about this technology in a way that supports and enables an expert, or a patient ultimately, to get the best outcome from whatever diagnostics they’ve had.”

Computer ‘second opinion’

In Britain all mammograms are reviewed by two radiologists, a necessary but labour-intensive process.

The team at Google Health also conducted experiments comparing the computer’s decision with that of the first human scan reader.​

If the two diagnoses agreed, the case was marked as resolved. Only with discordant outcomes was the machine then asked to compare with the second reader’s decision.

The study by King and his team, published in Nature, showed that using AI to verify the first human expert reviewer’s diagnosis could save up to 88 percent of the workload for the second clinician.

“Find me a country where you can find a nurse or doctor that isn’t busy,” said King.

“There’s the opportunity for this technology to support the existing excellent service of the (human) reviewers.”

Ken Young, a doctor who manages mammogram collection for Cancer Research UK, contributed to the study.

He said it was unique for its use of real-life diagnosis scenarios from nearly 30,000 scans.

“We have a sample that is representative of all the women that might come through breast screening,” he said.

“It includes easy cases, difficult cases and everything in between.”

The team said further research was needed but they hoped that the technology could one day act as a “second opinion” for cancer diagnoses.

Major Benefits of Reducing Air Pollution

Air pollution has for many years been a major public health problem that doesn’t receive much attention despite its significant effects on the population. It has been estimated that the majority of people in the world are regularly breathing unclean air.

Reductions in air pollution yielded fast and dramatic impacts on health-outcomes, as well as decreases in all-cause morbidity, according to findings in “Health Benefits of Air Pollution Reduction,” new research published in the American Thoracic Society’s journal, Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

The study by the Environmental Committee of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) reviewed interventions that have reduced air pollution at its source. It looked for outcomes and time to achieve those outcomes in several settings, finding that the improvements in health were striking. Starting at week one of a ban on smoking in Ireland, for example, there was a 13 percent drop in all-cause mortality, a 26 percent reduction in ischemic heart disease, a 32 percent reduction in stroke, and a 38 percent reduction in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Interestingly, the greatest benefits in that case occurred among non-smokers.

“We knew there were benefits from pollution control, but the magnitude and relatively short time duration to accomplish them were impressive,” said lead author of the report, Dean Schraufnagel, MD, ATSF. “Our findings indicate almost immediate and substantial effects on health outcomes followed reduced exposure to air pollution. It’s critical that governments adopt and enforce WHO guidelines for air pollution immediately.”

In the United States, a 13-month closure of a steel mill in Utah resulted in reducing hospitalizations for pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis and asthma by half. School absenteeism decreased by 40 percent, and daily mortality fell by 16 percent for every 100 ?g/m3 PM10 (a pollutant) decrease. Women who were pregnant during the mill closing were less likely to have premature births.

A 17-day “transportation strategy,” in Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Olympic Games involved closing parts of the city to help athletes make it to their events on time, but also greatly decreased air pollution. In the following four weeks, children’s visits for asthma to clinics dropped by more than 40 percent and trips to emergency departments by 11 percent. Hospitalizations for asthma decreased by 19 percent. Similarly, when China imposed factory and travel restrictions for the Beijing Olympics, lung function improved within two months, with fewer asthma-related physician visits and less cardiovascular mortality.

In addition to city-wide polices, reducing air pollution within the home also led to health benefits. In Nigeria, families who had clean cook stoves that reduced indoor air pollution during a nine-month pregnancy term saw higher birthweights, greater gestational age at delivery, and less perinatal mortality.

The report also examines the impact of environmental policies economically. It highlights that 25 years after enactment of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. EPA estimated that the health benefits exceeded the cost by 32:1, saving 2 trillion dollars, and has been heralded as one of the most effective public health policies of all time in the United States. Emissions of the major pollutants (particulate matter [PM], sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and lead) were reduced by 73 percent between 1990 and 2015 while the U.S. gross domestic product grew by more than 250 percent.

Given these findings, Dr. Schraufnagel has hope. “Air pollution is largely an avoidable health risk that affects everyone. Urban growth, expanding industrialization, global warming, and new knowledge of the harm of air pollution raise the degree of urgency for pollution control and stress the consequences of inaction,” he says. “Fortunately, reducing air pollution can result in prompt and substantial health gains. Sweeping policies affecting a whole country can reduce all-cause mortality within weeks. Local programs, such as reducing traffic, have also promptly improved many health measures.”

Dangers of Vaping: It Can Cause Real Harm

Vaping comes with serious risks to one’s health — it isn’t always the harmless activity that many think it is. A significant part of today’s youth are now addicted to nicotine, and it’s in the news more and more what some of the terrible problems heavy vaping users have had. There are people now facing permanent damage to their lungs as a result of vaping. By comparison, smoking cigarettes is of course terrible for one’s health as well, and more studies need to be done on vaping, but people at least need to see much more that vaping can cause major health problems. The reason so many teens are addicted today is because they view vaping as safe when it really isn’t that safe of an activity.

Anthony Mayo, 19, fell seriously ill last week in Erie, Pennsylvania and he was unable to breathe on his own because his lungs had became severely congested with solidified vape oil.

Anthony’s father, ieth Mayo, told Metro US that doctors warned him ‘right now, at the age of 19, (Anthony’s) got the lungs of a 60-year-old, two-pack-a-day, smoker.’ The teen’s lungs are likely to be scarred for life, according to his doctor.

Keith said his son had been vaping for approximately two years and had tried flavored oils such as blue raspberry, Swedish fish, cotton candy, cinnamon toast crunch, among others. He also vaped THC on occasion, which is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

‘It’s solidified. It’s caking everything inside of his lungs,’ Keith said.

[…]

Anthony is now recovering at Millcreek Community Hospital where doctors put him on 100% oxygen to allow him to breathe and help him expel some of the oil.

‘And then they heat (the oxygen mixture) and put a little moisture in it, so it will go in there and liquefy some of that stuff (caked oil) and encourage him to cough it up…the first couple days he has been coughing and it was blood-tinged, now it’s just brown, dark dark green,’ Keith said.

‘He is going to have some scarring. Whether it’s profound, we don’t know yet. It’s a wait and see type of thing. He’s young, he’s 19, so he can recover from this.’

Keith said his son vaped two to three times a day outside their home, but said he did not realize how detrimental vaping could be to his son’s lungs.

‘His whole spin on it was it was cool and not that bad for you. I was just as guilty. I went along with it. I never got into it, but I didn’t also prevent it either,’ he said, adding that he believes vape companies are targeting young people like his son.

‘The flavors that they’re coming out with…It’s not for your construction worker who can’t afford to light up at a building that they’re working, or the executive who is walking to a meeting smoking a cigarette. No, these flavors are all targeting kids or young adults.’

Anthony’s condition is the first recorded instance of its kind in Pennsylvania, Keith said, however it appears similar to a Texas woman who was just officially diagnosed with acute respiratory distress syndrome, a rapidly progressive disease in which fluid leaks into the lungs making it difficult or impossible to breathe.

The Mayos’ situation come as both state and federal governments have begun to crack down on flavored e-cigarettes and vape oil.

New York became the first state to ban flavored e-cigarettes on Tuesday. Last week, President Donald Trump revealed plans to enact a similar ban on a federal level, as the CDC announced there are now 530 confirmed cases of lung injury associated with vaping on Thursday.

Vaping shot to popularity after being marketed as a healthier way of getting a nicotine hit than traditional cigarettes.

Secondhand vaping exposure also presents a danger, and here’s another article:

Adam Hergenreder started vaping about two years ago at age 16. The mint and mango flavors were his favorites.

Now Hergenreder, of Gurnee, is hospitalized and unable to breathe without a steady flow of oxygen through tubes affixed to his nostrils. Doctors have told the 18-year-old that images of his lungs from a chest X-ray look like those of a man in his 70s. His lungs may never be the same again, and vaping is likely to blame.

Hergenreder said he started off using nicotine vapes and bought them in convenience stores, even though he was underage. But last year he also began buying THC-filled devices, called dab sticks, off the street. These products are often altered by those who sell them illegally. Those in the vaping industry have blamed homemade, illegal devices for the recent rash of hospitalizations, though public health experts have said they can’t confirm that.
[…]
Even before the hospitalizations, physicians and addiction experts warned of the danger of vapes, or e-cigarettes, popular among young people. Besides the addictive properties of nicotine, they also contain chemicals used for flavoring that can cause harm to the lungs.

Hergenreder said he and his peers heard the warnings from teachers and parents, but didn’t believe “how dangerous it is.” He continued to vape — up to one and a half pods a day.

 

“People just see that little (vape) pod and think, how could that do anything to my body?” Hergenreder said Tuesday from his hospital bed at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, where his mother took him late Saturday after he spent days throwing up violently. “I’m glad I could be an example and show people that (vaping products) aren’t good at all. They will mess up your lungs.”

[…]

The family said they want to share their story in hopes that others will stay away from e-cigarettes, which experts say are appealing to teens because the slim, rectangular devices are easy to hide and don’t have the smell of traditional tobacco cigarettes. The devices heat up a pod filled with a flavored liquid that can contain nicotine or THC, which creates an aerosol to inhale.

“I feel stupid,” Adam Hergenreder said. “I want other people to stop (vaping). It’s going to attack your lungs.”

People Can Taste Flavor With Smell Receptors, Not Just Taste Ones

According to the latest research, the flavor of food is also a result of cell receptors associated with smelling things.

Scientists from the Monell Center report that functional olfactory receptors, the sensors that detect odors in the nose, are also present in human taste cells found on the tongue. The findings suggest that interactions between the senses of smell and taste, the primary components of food flavor, may begin on the tongue and not in the brain, as previously thought.

“Our research may help explain how odor molecules modulate taste perception,” said study senior author Mehmet Hakan Ozdener, MD, PhD, MPH, a cell biologist at Monell. “This may lead to the development of odor-based taste modifiers that can help combat the excess salt, sugar, and fat intake associated with diet-related diseases such as obesity and diabetes.”

While many people equate flavor with taste, the distinctive flavor of most foods and drinks comes more from smell than it does from taste. Taste, which detects sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) molecules on the tongue, evolved as a gatekeeper to evaluate the nutrient value and potential toxicity of what we put in our mouths. Smell provides detailed information about the quality of food flavor, for example, is that banana, licorice, or cherry? The brain combines input from taste, smell, and other senses to create the multi-modal sensation of flavor.

Until now, taste and smell were considered to be independent sensory systems that did not interact until their respective information reached the brain. Ozdener was prompted to challenge this belief when his 12-year-old son asked him if snakes extend their tongues so they can smell.

In the study, published online ahead of print in Chemical Senses, Ozdener and colleagues used methods developed at Monell to maintain living human taste cells in culture. Using genetic and biochemical methods to probe the taste cell cultures, the researchers found that the human taste cells contain many key molecules known to be present in olfactory receptors.

They next used a method known as calcium imaging to show that the cultured taste cells respond to odor molecules in a manner similar to olfactory receptor cells.

Together, the findings provide the first demonstration of functional olfactory receptors in human taste cells, suggesting that olfactory receptors may play a role in the taste system by interacting with taste receptor cells on the tongue. Supporting this possibility, other experiments by the Monell scientists demonstrated that a single taste cell can contain both taste and olfactory receptors.

“The presence of olfactory receptors and taste receptors in the same cell will provide us with exciting opportunities to study interactions between odor and taste stimuli on the tongue,” said Ozdener.

In addition to providing insight into the nature and mechanisms of smell and taste interactions, the findings also may provide a tool to increase understanding of how the olfactory system detects odors. Scientists still do not know what molecules activate the vast majority of the 400 different types of functional human olfactory receptors.

Using Chronoprinting to Cheaply Detect Food and Drug Impurities

The world has long needed this valuable sort of development to safeguard people’s health.

If we could tell authentic from counterfeit or adulterated drugs and foods just by looking at them, we could save money and lives every year, especially in the developing world, where the problem is worst. Unfortunately, the technologies that can detect what a sample is made of are expensive, energy-intensive, and largely unavailable in regions where they are needed most.

This may change with a simple new technique developed by engineers from the University of California, Riverside that can detect fake drugs from a video taken as the sample undergoes a disturbance.

If you’ve ever used online photo tools, you’ve probably seen how these tools use image analysis algorithms to categorize your photos. By distinguishing the different people in your photos, these algorithms make it easy to find all the photos of your daughter or your dad. Now, in the journal ACS Central Science, researchers report they have used these algorithms to solve a very different problem: identifying fake medicines and other potentially dangerous products.

Called “chronoprinting,” the technology requires only a few relatively inexpensive pieces of equipment and free software to accurately distinguish pure from inferior food and medicines.

The World Health Organization says that about 10 percent of all medicines in low- and middle-income countries are counterfeit, and food fraud is a global problem that costs consumers and industry billions of dollars per year. Fraudulent food and drugs waste money and jeopardize the health and lives of their consumers. But detecting fakes and frauds requires expensive equipment and highly trained experts.

William Grover, an assistant professor of bioengineering in UC Riverside’s Marlan and Rosemary Bourns College of Engineering, and Brittney McKenzie, a doctoral student in Grover’s lab, wondered if it would be possible to distinguish authentic from adulterated drugs and food by observing how they behave when disturbed by temperature changes or other causes. Two substances with identical compositions should respond the same way to a disturbance, and if two substances appear identical but respond differently, their composition must be different, they reasoned.

McKenzie designed a set of experiments to test this idea. She loaded samples of pure olive oil, one of the world’s most commonly adulterated foods, and cough syrup, which is often diluted or counterfeited in the developing world, into tiny channels on a microfluidic chip, and chilled it quickly in liquid nitrogen. A USB microscope camera filmed the samples reacting to the temperature change.

McKenzie and Grover wrote software that converts the video to a bitmap image. Because the image showed how the sample changed over time, the researchers called it a “chronoprint.”

The team then used image analysis algorithms to compare different chronoprints from the same substance. They found that each pure substance had a reliable chronoprint over multiple tests.

Next, they repeated the experiment with samples of olive oil that had been diluted with other oils and cough syrup diluted with water. The adulterated samples produced chronoprints that were different from the pure samples. The difference was so big, so obvious, and so consistent the researchers concluded that chronoprints and image analysis algorithms can reliably detect some types of food and drug fraud.

“The significant visual differences between the samples were both unexpected and exciting, and with them being consistent we knew this could be a useful way to identify a wide range of samples,” McKenzie said.

Grover said their technique creates a powerful new connection between chemistry and computer science.

“By basically converting a chemical sample to an image, we can take advantage of all the different image analysis algorithms that computer scientists have developed,” he said. “And as those algorithms get better, our ability to chemically identify a sample should get better, too.”

The researchers used liquids in their experiments but note the method could also be used on solid materials dissolved in water, and other types of disturbance, such as heat or a centrifuge, could be used for substances that don’t react well to freezing. The technique is easy to learn, making highly trained experts unnecessary. Chronoprinting requires hobbyist-grade equipment and software downloadable for free from Grover’s lab website, putting it well within reach of government agencies and labs with limited resources.

Video on how this chronoprinting works: https://youtu.be/qbyE68qD2Zo

Fracking Usage Linked to Increased Hospitalizations in Relevant Areas

There are numerous clean ways to generate electricity — continuing to rely on fossil fuels is again shown to have harmful effects.

New research has tied high rates of hospitalizations for genital, skin, and urinary conditions to fracking in Pennsylvania, underscoring mounting concerns about the public health implications of the controversial process of extracting natural gas.

Alina Denham, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester, led a research team that analyzed county-level hospital data for the state from 2003 to 2014. Their findings indicated that “long-term exposure to unconventional drilling may be harmful to population health.”

The conclusion bolstered previous findings about the dangers of fracking—a process also called hydraulic fracturing that involves injecting a mix of water and chemicals into the ground to access gas.

[…]

Although the team observed spikes in hospital stays for skin, genital, and urinary conditions as regional fracking rose, they did not examine what specifically led to those ailments. While calling for further research, they offered some potential explanations, which included documented dermatological effects of the chemicals used in fracking as well as studies that have linked drilling activity to risky sexual behaviors, which could help explain the genitourinary hospitalizations.

The research and subsequent warning from Denham’s team are especially alarming considering the Trump administration’s fossil fuel-friendly agenda.

However, even before President Donald Trump took office, Pennsylvania was a hotbed for fracking. In 2017, the state was  second only to Texas in terms of natural gas production, with much of the drilling focused on Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania’s southwestern region.

And, as Denham emphasized, “it’s [an] important point to keep in mind that hospitalizations are for acute illness or serious exacerbations of chronic illness… So if we see strong associations with hospitalizations, it’s likely that additional cases of mild symptoms for the same illnesses have been addressed at home or in an outpatient setting, or not addressed at all.”

Two-Thirds of U.S. Bankruptcies Related to Medical Expenses

The dysfunctional U.S. healthcare system continues to impose serious costs on American families. One poll states that about half of U.S. doctors have considered quitting due to the ridiculous amount of paperwork that the profit-driven American healthcare system requires — they want to practice medicine, not paperwork. In the background, a strong majority of the U.S. public now supports Medicare for All.

For many Americans, putting one’s health first can mean putting one’s financial status at risk. A study of bankruptcy filings in the United States showed that 66.5% were due, at least in part, to medical expenses.

The study, led by Dr. David Himmelstein, Distinguished Professor at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Hunter College and Lecturer at Harvard Medical School, indicates that about 530,000 families each year are financially ruined by medical bills and sicknesses. It’s the first research of its kind to link medical expenses and bankruptcy since the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in 2010.

“Unless you’re Bill Gates, you’re just one serious illness away from bankruptcy,” Himmelstein says in a release by the Physicians for a National Health Program. “For middle-class Americans, health insurance offers little protection. Most of us have policies with so many loopholes, copayments and deductibles that illness can put you in the poorhouse.”

Brain-Training App Has Research-Backed Claims to Improve User Concentration

The app could potentially be quite useful, but it should be noted that research has been finding what a good brain workout exercise is.

A new ‘brain training’ game designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge improves users’ concentration, according to new research published today. The scientists behind the venture say this could provide a welcome antidote to the daily distractions that we face in a busy world.

In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen point out that with the emergence of new technologies requiring rapid responses to emails and texts and working on multiple projects simultaneously, young people, including students, are having more problems with sustaining attention and frequently become distracted. This difficulty in focussing attention and concentrating is made worse by stress from a global environment that never sleeps and also frequent travel leading to jetlag and poor quality sleep.

“We’ve all experienced coming home from work feeling that we’ve been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry. “Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at text messages, searching social media, trying to multitask. But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day. Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to ‘switch off’ and read a book or watch TV without picking up our smartphones. For complex tasks we need to get in the ‘flow’ and stay focused.”

In recent years, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, there has been a growth in the number of so-called ‘brain training’ apps that claim to improve cognitive skills such as memory, numerical skills and concentration.

Now, a team from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, has developed and tested ‘Decoder’, a new game that is aimed at helping users improve their attention and concentration. The game is based on the team’s own research and has been evaluated scientifically.

In a study published today in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience Professor Sahakian and colleague Dr George Savulich have demonstrated that playing Decoder on an iPad for eight hours over one month improves attention and concentration. This form of attention activates a frontal-parietal network in the brain.

In their study, the researchers divided 75 healthy young adults into three groups: one group received Decoder, one control group played Bingo for the same amount of time and a second control group received no game. Participants in the first two groups were invited to attend eight one-hour sessions over the course of a month during which they played either Decoder or Bingo under supervision.

All 75 participants were tested at the start of the trial and then after four weeks using the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test (RVP). CANTAB RVP has been demonstrated in previously published studies to be a highly sensitive test of attention/concentration.

During the test, participants are asked to detect sequences of digits (e.g. 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8). A white box appears in the middle of screen, of which digits from 2 to 9 appear in a pseudo-random order, at a rate of 100 digits per minute. Participants are instructed to press a button every time they detect a sequence. The duration of the test is approximately five minutes.

Results from the study showed a significant difference in attention as measured by the RVP. Those who played Decoder were better than those who played Bingo and those who played no game. The difference in performance was significant and meaningful as it was comparable to those effects seen using stimulants, such as methylphenidate, or nicotine. The former, also known as Ritalin, is a common treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

To ensure that Decoder improved focussed attention and concentration without impairing the ability to shift attention, the researchers also tested participants’ ability on the Trail Making Test. Decoder performance also improved on this commonly used neuropsychological test of attentional shifting. During this test, participants have to first attend to numbers and then shift their attention to letters and then shift back to numbers. Additionally, participants enjoyed playing the game, and motivation remained high throughout the 8 hours of gameplay.

Professor Sahakian commented: “Many people tell me that they have trouble focussing their attention. Decoder should help them improve their ability to do this. In addition to healthy people, we hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year.”

Dr Savulich added: “Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. Our evidence-based game is developed interactively and the games developer, Tom Piercy, ensures that it is engaging and fun to play. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training.”

The game has now been licensed through Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer arm of the University of Cambridge, to app developer Peak, who specialise in evidence-based ‘brain training’ apps. This will allow Decoder to become accessible to the public. Peak has developed a version for Apple devices and is releasing the game today as part of the Peak Brain Training app. Peak Brain Training is available from the App Store for free and Decoder will be available to both free and pro users as part of their daily workout. The company plans to make a version available for Android devices later this year.

“Peak’s version of Decoder is even more challenging than our original test game, so it will allow players to continue to gain even larger benefits in performance over time,” says Professor Sahakian. “By licensing our game, we hope it can reach a wide audience who are able to benefit by improving their attention.”

Fitness Misconceptions, According to Scientific Research

Suggestions for 2019 — exercise more and more is found to have major health benefits.

Whether you want to tone up, slim down, or boost your mood, you’ve likely taken a stab at tweaking your fitness routine. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of fitness advice out there that won’t help you meet your goals and could actually do more harm than good.

Here’s an overview of some of the most enduring workout myths and misconceptions, as well as the real science that can help you meet your fitness goals in a healthy way.

Myth #1: To stay in shape, you only need to work out once or twice a week.

Truth: Once or twice a week won’t cut it for sustained health benefits.

“A minimum of three days per week for a structured exercise program” is best, Shawn Arent, an exercise scientist at Rutgers University, recently told Business Insider.

“Technically, you should do something every day, and by something I mean physical activity – just move. Because we’re finding more and more that the act of sitting counteracts any of the activity you do.”

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Myth #3: Weight lifting turns fat into muscle.

Truth: You can’t turn fat into muscle. Physiologically speaking, they’re two different tissues. Adipose (fatty) tissue is found under the skin, sandwiched between muscles, and around internal organs like the heart.

Muscle tissue – which can be further broken down into three main types – is found throughout the body.

What weight training really does is help build up the muscle tissue in and around any fat tissue. The best way to reduce fat tissue is to eat a healthy diet that incorporates vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and – somewhat paradoxically – healthy fats like olive oil and fish.

Myth #4: Puzzles and games are the best ‘brain workout’ around.

Truth: Plain old physical exercise seems to beat out any type of mental puzzle available, according to a wealth of recent research.

Two new studies published this spring suggest that aerobic exercise – any activity that raises your heart rate and gets you moving and sweating for a sustained period of time – has a significant, overwhelmingly beneficial impact on the brain.

“Aerobic exercise is the key for your head, just as it is for your heart,” wrote the authors of a recent Harvard Medical School blog post.

Myth #5: Exercise is the best way to lose weight.

Truth: If you’re looking to lose weight, you shouldn’t assume that you can simply ‘work off’ whatever you eat. Experts say slimming down almost always starts with significant changes to your eating habits.

“In terms of weight loss, diet plays a much bigger role than exercise,” University of Texas exercise scientist Philip Stanforth tells Business Insider.

That said, being active regularly is an important part of any healthy lifestyle.

And when it comes to boosting your mood, improving your memory, and protecting your brain against age-related cognitive decline, research suggests exercise may be as close to a wonder drug as we’ll get.

Myth #6: Sit-ups are the best way to get six-pack abs.

Truth: As opposed to sit-ups, which target only your abdominal muscles, planks recruit several groups of muscles along your sides, front, and back. If you want a strong core – especially the kind that would give you six-pack-like definition – you need to challenge all of these muscles.

“Sit-ups or crunches strengthen just a few muscle groups,” write the authors of the Harvard Healthbeat newsletter.

“Through dynamic patterns of movement, a good core workout helps strengthen the entire set of core muscles you use every day.”

Myth #7: Weight training is for men.

Truth: Weight training is a great way to strengthen muscles, and has nothing to do with gender. That said, women produce less testosterone on average than men do, and studies suggest that hormone plays a role in determining how we build muscle.

Myth #8: It takes at least two weeks to get ‘out of shape’.

Truth: In most people, muscle tissue can start to break down within a week without regular exercise.

“If you stop training, you actually do get noticeable de-conditioning, or the beginnings of de-conditioning, with as little as seven days of complete rest,” Arent said. “It very much is an issue of use it or lose it.”

Myth #9: Running a marathon is the ideal way to get fit.

Truth: Not ready to conquer a marathon? No problem. You can get many of the benefits of long-distance running without ever passing the five-mile mark.

Running fast and hard for just 5 to 10 minutes a day can provide some of the same health outcomes as running for hours can.

In fact, people who run for less than an hour a week – as long as they get in those few minutes each day – see similar benefits in terms of heart health compared to those who run more than three hours per week.

Plus, years of recent research suggest that short bursts of intense exercise can provide some of the same health benefits as long, endurance-style workouts – and they also tend to be more fun.

New Materials for Wound and Skin Healing

Good research into healing — it leverages the body’s own natural resources.

Materials are widely used to help heal wounds: Collagen sponges help treat burns and pressure sores, and scaffold-like implants are used to repair bones. However, the process of tissue repair changes over time, so scientists are developing biomaterials that interact with tissues as healing takes place.

Now, Dr Ben Almquist and his team at Imperial College London have created a new molecule that could change the way traditional materials work with the body. Known as traction force-activated payloads (TrAPs), their method lets materials talk to the body’s natural repair systems to drive healing.

The researchers say incorporating TrAPs into existing medical materials could revolutionise the way injuries are treated. Dr Almquist, from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering, said: “Our technology could help launch a new generation of materials that actively work with tissues to drive healing.”

The findings are published today in Advanced Materials.

Cellular call to action

After an injury, cells ‘crawl’ through the collagen ‘scaffolds’ found in wounds, like spiders navigating webs. As they move, they pull on the scaffold, which activates hidden healing proteins that begin to repair injured tissue.

The researchers designed TrAPs as a way to recreate this natural healing method. They folded the DNA segments into three-dimensional shapes known as aptamers that cling tightly to proteins. Then, they attached a customisable ‘handle’ that cells can grab onto on one end, before attaching the opposite end to a scaffold such as collagen.

During laboratory testing of their technique, they found that cells pulled on the TrAPs as they crawled through the collagen scaffolds. The pulling made the TrAPs unravel like shoelaces to reveal and activate the healing proteins. These proteins instruct the healing cells to grow and multiply.

The researchers also found that by changing the cellular ‘handle’, they can change which type of cell can grab hold and pull, letting them tailor TrAPs to release specific therapeutic proteins based on which cells are present at a given point in time. In doing so, the TrAPs produce materials that can smartly interact with the correct type of cell at the correct time during wound repair.

This is the first time scientists have activated healing proteins using different types of cells in human-made materials. The technique mimics healing methods found in nature. Dr Almquist said: “Using cell movement to activate healing is found in creatures ranging from sea sponges to humans. Our approach mimics them and actively works with the different varieties of cells that arrive in our damaged tissue over time to promote healing.”

From lab to humans

This approach is adaptable to different cell types, so could be used in a variety of injuries such as fractured bones, scar tissue after heart attacks, and damaged nerves. New techniques are also desperately needed for patients whose wounds won’t heal despite current interventions, like diabetic foot ulcers, which are the leading cause of non-traumatic lower leg amputations.

TrAPs are relatively straightforward to create and are fully human-made, meaning they are easily recreated in different labs and can be scaled up to industrial quantities. Their adaptability also means they could help scientists create new methods for laboratory studies of diseases, stem cells, and tissue development.

Aptamers are currently used as drugs, meaning they are already proven safe and optimised for clinical use. Because TrAPs take advantage of aptamers that are currently optimised for use in humans, they may be able to take a shorter path to the clinic than methods that start from ground zero.

Dr Almquist said: “The TrAP technology provides a flexible method to create materials that actively communicate with the wound and provide key instructions when and where they are needed. This sort of intelligent, dynamic healing is useful during every phase of the healing process, has the potential to increase the body’s chance to recover, and has far-reaching uses on many different types of wounds. This technology has the potential to serve as a conductor of wound repair, orchestrating different cells over time to work together to heal damaged tissues.”