The Male Deficit Model and Friendships

Do men suck at friendships? Or, at least, are they worse at being friends than their female counterparts? Research suggests the answer is yes. This Men’s Journal article provides an excellent overview:

The Male Deficit Model is based on 30 years of research into friendship and relationships — from Mayta Caldwell’s and Letitia Peplau’s 1982 UCLA study, which found that male friendships are far less intimate than female friendships, to a 2007 study at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, which reported greater interpersonal competition and lower friendship satisfaction among men. A just-completed report from California State University Humboldt, meanwhile, holds that the closer men adhere to traditional male gender roles, like self-reliance and a reluctance to spill their guts, the worse their friendships fare. “Since most men don’t let themselves think or feel about friendship, this immense collective and personal disappointment is usually concealed, sloughed over, shrugged away,” writes the psychologist Stuart Miller in his opus, Men and Friendship. “The older we get, the more we accept our essential friendlessness.”

What’s the key to healthy aging? Good diet and exercise, right? Well, perhaps another factor outweighs them all:

That’s because nearly all research into healthy aging has found that the key to a long, happy life is not diet or exercise but strong social connections – that is, friendships. Loneliness accelerates age-related declines in cognition and motor function, while a single good friend has been shown to make as much as a 10-year difference in overall life expectancy. A huge meta-study performed in part at Brigham Young University, which reviewed 148 studies with a combined 308,849 subject participants, found that loneliness is just as harmful to health as not exercising, smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and alcoholism, and fully twice as bad as being obese. Still more startling is a 2010 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that looked at 2,230 cancer patients in China. Social well-being, including friendship, turned out to be the number one predictor of survival.

Some of this stems from the fact that isolated people tend to exercise less, eat poorly, and drink too much. But some researchers believe that loneliness has a negative health impact all on its own. In numerous studies over the past 30 years, John T. Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and the pioneer of the biological study of loneliness, has found that lonely people have chronically elevated levels of the stress and fear hormones cortisol and epinephrine. In a 2007 paper published in Genome Biology, Cacioppo even demonstrated a correlation between loneliness and the activity of certain genes associated with systemic inflammation, elevating risk for viral invasion and cardiovascular disease.

And yet the capacity of men to combat loneliness – and improve their health – by building strong friendships seems to be steadily eroding. Cambridge, Massachusetts, professors Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz, writing in The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century, point to a current tendency among adults to build stronger, more intimate marriages at the expense of almost all other social connections. In a study of contemporary childcare arrangements, Olds and Schwartz found a deep sense of loneliness among many parents, especially men. “Almost every father we spoke with explained that he had lost contact with most of his male friends,” they write. And lest you believe family is company enough, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging showed that family relationships have almost no impact on longevity. Friendships, by contrast, boosted life span as much as 22 percent.

Read the rest here.

Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer

A thoughtful take on comparing heart disease and cancer by George Johnson in The New York Times.

Half a century ago, the story goes, a person was far more likely to die from heart disease. Now cancer is on the verge of overtaking it as the No. 1 cause of death.

Troubling as this sounds, the comparison is unfair. Cancer is, by far, the harder problem — a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life. Given that obstacle, cancer researchers are fighting and even winning smaller battles: reducing the death toll from childhood cancers and preventing — and sometimes curing — cancers that strike people in their prime. But when it comes to diseases of the elderly, there can be no decisive victory. This is, in the end, a zero-sum game.

As people age their cells amass more potentially cancerous mutations. Given a long enough life, cancer will eventually kill you — unless you die first of something else. That would be true even in a world free from carcinogens and equipped with the most powerful medical technology.

The author is keen on pointing out that the future of medicine will be focused on prevention rather than treatment.

Do We Sleep to Clean Our Brains?

The purpose of sleep remains unknown. Using state-of-the-art in vivo two-photon imaging to directly compare two arousal states in the same mouse, Xie et al., in a paper titled “Sleep Drives Metabolite Clearance from the Adult Brain” published in Science, found that metabolic waste products of neural activity were cleared out of the sleeping brain at a faster rate than during the awake state. This finding suggests an explanation for how sleep serves a restorative function, in addition to its well-described effects on memory consolidation.

From the abstract:

The conservation of sleep across all animal species suggests that sleep serves a vital function. We here report that sleep has a critical function in ensuring metabolic homeostasis. Using real-time assessments of tetramethylammonium diffusion and two-photon imaging in live mice, we show that natural sleep or anesthesia are associated with a 60% increase in the interstitial space, resulting in a striking increase in convective exchange of cerebrospinal fluid with interstitial fluid. In turn, convective fluxes of interstitial fluid increased the rate of β-amyloid clearance during sleep. Thus, the restorative function of sleep may be a consequence of the enhanced removal of potentially neurotoxic waste products that accumulate in the awake central nervous system.

So: we sleep to clean our brains (as the authors of the paper want us to believe).

This research is tentative, as it’s only been found to be the case in mice. The Guardian provides more commentary:

Maiken Nedergaard, who led the study at the University of Rochester, said the discovery might explain why sleep is crucial for all living organisms. “I think we have discovered why we sleep,” Nedergaard said. “We sleep to clean our brains.”

Writing in the journal Science, Nedergaard describes how brain cells in mice shrank when they slept, making the space between them on average 60% greater. This made the cerebral spinal fluid in the animals’ brains flow ten times faster than when the mice were awake.

The scientists then checked how well mice cleared toxins from their brains by injecting traces of proteins that are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. These amyloid beta proteins were removed faster from the brains of sleeping mice, they found.

Nedergaard believes the clean-up process is more active during sleep because it takes too much energy to pump fluid around the brain when awake. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time,” she said in a statement.

According to the scientist, the cerebral spinal fluid flushes the brain’s waste products into what she calls the “glymphatic system” which carries it down through the body and ultimately to the liver where it is broken down.

The importance of replicating this work is obvious, lest it be considered cargo cult science.

Calico: Larry Page’s Venture to Extend Human Life

TIME has a big feature titled “Google vs. Death” on Google’s CEO Larry Page and his quest to extend the human life with a new company he’s launching called Calico.

At the moment Google is preparing an especially uncertain and distant shot. It is planning to launch Calico, a new company that will focus on health and aging in particular. The independent firm will be run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of biotech pioneer Genentech, who will also be an investor. Levinson, who began his career as a scientist and has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, plans to remain in his current roles as the chairman of the board of directors for both Genentech and Apple, a position he took over after its co-founder Steve Jobs died in 2011. In other words, the company behind YouTube and Google+ is gearing up to seriously attempt to extend human lifespan.

Google isn’t exactly bursting with credibility in this arena. Its personal-medical-record service, Google Health, failed to catch on. But Calico, the company says, is different. It will be making longer-term bets than most health care companies do. “In some industries,” says Page, who spoke exclusively with TIME about the new venture, “it takes 10 or 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

It’s worth pointing out that there is no other company in Silicon Valley that could plausibly make such an announcement. Smaller outfits don’t have the money; larger ones don’t have the bones. Apple may have set the standard for surprise unveilings but, excepting a major new product every few years, these mostly qualify as short-term. Google’s modus operandi, in comparison, is gonzo airdrops into deep “Wait, really?” territory. Last week Apple announced a gold iPhone; what did you do this week, Google? Oh, we founded a company that might one day defeat death itself.

The unavoidable question this raises is why a company built on finding information and serving ads next to it is spending untold amounts on a project that flies in the face of the basic fact of the human condition, the existential certainty of aging and death? To which the unavoidable answer is another question: Who the hell else is going to do it?

Here’s Larry himself in a G+ post about Calico:

That’s a lot different from what Google does today.  And you’re right.  But as we explained in our first letter to shareholders, there’s tremendous potential for technology more generally to improve people’s lives.  So don’t be surprised if we invest in projects that seem strange or speculative compared with our existing Internet businesses.  And please remember that new investments like this are very small by comparison to our core business.

Art and I are excited about tackling aging and illness.  These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families.  And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.

I think this is a huge venture and I wish Larry Page and the team success. I’ll be following closely on the development of Calico.

Is It Possible to Get Too Much Exercise?

Is it possible that there is an upper limit to how much exercise the body can take? The answer seems to be yes:

For some time, exercise scientists, as well as a few highly committed exercisers and their spouses, have wondered if there might be an upper limit to the amount of exertion that is healthy, especially for the human heart. While the evidence is overwhelming that exercise improves heart health in most people and reduces the risk of developing or dying of heart disease, there have been intimations that people can do too much. A 2011 study of male, lifelong, competitive endurance athletes aged 50 or older, for instance, found that they had more fibrosis — meaning scarring — in their heart muscle than men of the same age who were active but not competitive athletes.

Now the latest Vasaloppet study and a separate study of rats running the equivalent of several rodent marathons that was published this month in The Journal of the American College of Cardiology are likely to further the debate about possible upper limits to safe exercise. Providing some counterbalance, though, is another animal study, published this month in PLoS One, that suggests that even if strenuous prolonged exercise increases the chances of some arrhythmias, it may lessen the chance of suffering fatal heart problems.

I’m not training for an ultra-endurance event anytime soon…

The Girl Who Turned to Bone

Carl Zimmer, writing for The Atlantic, reports on a very rare disease called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) and a girl named Jeannie Peeper who’s lived with it and decided to bring people with the disease together:

In 1998, this magazine ran a story recounting the early attempts by scientists to understand fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. Since then, their progress has shot forward. The advances have come thanks in part to new ways of studying cells and DNA, and in part to Jeannie Peeper.

Starting in the 1980s, Peeper built a network of people with FOP. She is now connected to more than 500 people with her condition—a sizable fraction of all the people on Earth who suffer from it. Together, members of this community did what the medical establishment could not: they bankrolled a laboratory dedicated solely to FOP and have kept its doors open for more than two decades. They have donated their blood, their DNA, and even their teeth for study.

Four times a year, Peeper sent out a newsletter she called “FOP Connection.” She included questions people sent her—What to do about surgery? How do you eat when your jaw locks?—and printed answers from other readers. But her ambitions were much grander: she wanted to raise money for research that might lead to a cure. With a grand total of 12 founding members, she created the International Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva Association (IFOPA).

Peeper didn’t realize just how quixotic this goal was. FOP had never been Zasloff’s main area of research. As the director of the Human Genetics branch of the NIH, he had discovered an entirely new class of antibiotics, and in the late 1980s, he left the NIH to develop them at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. His departure meant that no one—not a single scientist on Earth—was looking for the cause of FOP.

As a trivia side note, I had no idea there was a definition for a “rare disease”:

 A rare disease is defined as any condition affecting fewer than 200,000 patients in the United States. More than 7,000 such diseases exist, afflicting a total of 25 million to 30 million Americans.

Read the entire story here.

Your Heart Attack Bill: $3,300 in Arkansas, $92,000 in California

Well, this is a shocking story from CNN: hospitals across the nation — even those located just miles apart — charge wildly different rates for the same medical procedure:

Encompassing more than 163,000 separate records, the data set will be a gold mine for researchers analyzing the often inscrutable field of health care pricing. Through standardized diagnostic codes, it allows comparisons for similar services provided by different hospitals.

For example, the average bill for treatment for a heart attack without major complications at a hospital in Danville, Ark., was $3,334. Across the country in Modesto, Calif., the same diagnosis incurred an average bill of $92,057.

The New York Times has an excellent interactive where you can compare how much your hospital charges for various procedures versus the national average.

Closer to where I live, Gwinnett Medical Center and DeKalb Medical Center have average costs for all procedures lower than the national average; on the other hand, the Atlanta Medical Center has costs higher than national average for virtually all procedures.