A novel suicide prevention plan

Every now and then an innovative idea comes along, and should be applauded. This one, for those who worry about suicide rates, might merit a standing ovation — if it works. Time and Japanese commuters will tell.

As of November, East Japan Railway Co. has put blue light-emitting diode, or LED, lights in all 29 stations on Tokyo’s central train loop, the Yamanote Line, used by 8 million passengers each day.There’s no scientific proof that the lights actually reduce suicides, and some experts are skeptical they will have any effect. But others say blue does have a calming effect on people.

“We associate the color with the sky and the sea,” Mizuki Takahashi, a therapist at the Japan Institute of Color Psychology, a private research center. “It has a calming effect on agitated people, or people obsessed with one particular thing, which in this case is committing suicide.”

What a lovely thought: a moment of calm could save a life. Since long before Anna Karenina flung her life away in Tolstoy’s memorable tale, trains have served as lethal weapons for the desperate and the depressed. Obviously, the blue-light theory wouldn’t work where tracks are in the open  — as with a recent spate of young people in Northern California who tragically ended their lives this way. But passengers on the New York Metro and other subway systems could surely use a moment of calm, whether feeling suicidal or not. In Japan, economic woes added to the usual stress factors have brought rising suicide rates, and the need for response has taken on a special urgency.  Nearly 2,000 Japanese committed suicide by jumping in front of trains last year alone. Conductors, reports Shino Yuasa of the Associated Press, “describe them over the public address system as ‘human accidents’.”

East Japan Railway has spent about $165,000 for the special lights at all the Yamanote stations. The lights, which are brighter than standard fluorescent bulbs, bathe the platform below in an eerie blue light. They hang at the end of each platform, a spot where people are most likely to throw themselves in front of a speeding train. Shinji Hira, a psychology professor specializing in criminal psychology at Fukuyama University in Hiroshima, speculated that blue lights could make people pause and reflect.But he said that if railways want to go further to ensure safety, they should set up fences on platforms, as several Tokyo subway stations have. The barriers have sliding doors that allow passengers access to the trains.

For those of us who grew up in American small towns with Railroad Avenue as the traditional main street, trains hold a special place in the heart. May the blue light plan help get them out of the lethal weapon category soon.

Japan tries to limit suicides on train tracks.

Cold Weather Won't Make You Sick

If trying to follow the progress of healthcare reform is giving you a migraine, and perhaps results of recent balloting have upset your stomach, here’s a little good news from Lindsey Hollenbaugh, writing in the November/December AARP Magazine. Not all of those sometimes-scary bits of advice you grew up with turn out to be true. New studies, Hollenbaugh reports, are busting a few  of those myths.

Myth
Most of your body heat is lost through your head.

Fact
Untrue. This myth likely originated from a 50-year-old military study; subjects enduring extreme cold lost the most heat from their heads. But the head was the only exposed body part, says Rachel Vreeman, M.D., coauthor of Don’t Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health. The real deal? “You lose heat from whatever is uncovered,” Vreeman says. “There is nothing special about the head.”


Myth
Taking vitamin C and zinc will help prevent or shorten a cold.

Fact
Taking vitamin C daily won’t prevent illness, and if you consume it after feeling sick, it won’t ease symptoms, studies show. As for zinc, three of four well-designed studies found it ineffective, while a fourth found that zinc nasal gel helped relieve symptoms. But in June the FDA recalled some zinc nasal products, since they’re linked to a loss of sense of smell. Bottom line: There’s no need for extra C, and zinc may actually harm you.


Drug-Free Pain Relief
Here’s one more reason to enjoy your cup of morning joe. In a University of Illinois study, 25 cyclists who consumed the equivalent of about three 8-ounce cups of coffee before working out had significantly less pain while training.

Myth
You should drink at least eight cups of water per day.

Fact
There’s no medical reason to follow this advice. In 1945 the Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council recommended that adults take in 2.5 liters of water per day (about 84.5 ounces), noting that most water comes from food. Many adherents, however, ignored the last part of that statement. Drink up if you’d like, but studies suggest that most people already get enough H2O from what they eat and drink: the average person takes in about 75 ounces of water daily, according to Department of Agriculture surveys.


Myth
Illnesses come from cold or wet weather.

Fact
Colds and flus come from viruses, not the climate, explains Aaron Carroll, M.D., Vreeman’s co-author. But because some viruses are more common in winter, more people may get sick then. Plus, chilly or rainy weather often results in more people staying inside—and then sharing their icky infections.

From San Francisco, in the balmy sunshine (November? That’s mid-summer) Boomers & Beyond wishes you well.

Cold Weather Won’t Make You Sick.

Kerouac & friends on the road again

Friends and fans of Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Tom Waits, Michael McClure — plus all the rest of you Beat Generation buffs — will be glad to know they are alive and well again (still) thanks to a new documentary now out on DVD, after a round of screenings across the country. One Fast Move or I’m Gone is a fascinating road trip back into Kerouac’s Big Sur.

Co-producers Curt Worden, Gloria Bailen and Jim Sampas (Kerouac’s nephew) have put together an intriguing mix of old and new footage tracing the gifted 60s icon along his journey through San Francisco and retreat to Ferlinghetti’s Big Sur cabin. Everybody’s talking about the choice of new music by Jay Farrar and Ben Gibbard, rather than the jazz with which Kerouac is automatically identified, for the film.

I caught the show in New York a couple of weeks ago at the Clearview-Chelsea Theaters on W. 23rd, one of those 10 PM events at which, if you’re old enough to remember the 60s you are forgiven for falling asleep. Didn’t happen. The oldies — Carolyn Cassady still quite beautiful, Ferlinghetti still his charming and articulate self — are vibrant enough to explain their fascination to earlier generations, and the newbies who are still drawn to the scene acquitted themselves OK for this oldie.

It didn’t help that the E line wasn’t running and no one had told HopStop, which led to my getting back to the Upper East Side around 3 AM. One Fast Move will convince you that Kerouac isn’t gone at all, and explain why it was even worth staying up late to check him out a half-century later.

Calling all ghouls & goblins

A Halloween exclusive for readers of this page!

You don’t really like to dress up funny? You have to go to a costume party? Or a significant event that calls for acknowledgment? This solution, requiring a minimum of supplies and bother, is offered:

Get three friends to accompany you. One needs a clergy collar. The second needs a black hat, preferably a giant black hat such as cowboys or German carpenters wear. Number three needs a name badge designating support for the fine end-of-life nonprofit Compassion and Choices. And number four needs identification with an insurance agency. You thereupon represent the Obama theme song “Signed, Sealed, Delivered; I’m Yours.” The originating group (my friend Deborah, #1; my husband, #2; myself, #3 and friend Diane, #4) is happy to offer this suggestion as a seasonal public servce.

We are going as a Death Panel.

Cancer Gurus, CDC – Whom can you trust?

In the news of the past several days are reports that the American Cancer Society is about to concede that screenings for breast and prostate cancer — long touted as the holy grail of preventive medicine — have instead led to a great deal of over-treatment, and worse. Plus admission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that their pooh-poohing of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has left a lot of folks suffering, perhpas needlessly, for decades.

Who in the world is there left to trust?

I do trust my physicians at Kaiser, and continue to hope the crafters of our elusive health reform bills are looking in Kaiser’s direction. My breast cancer was detected through a regular mammogram. How frequent these screenings should be is still a matter of debate, but in my case early detection led to a quick mastectomy, a small price to pay for living happily a few more years after. (The ever-after business is not a principal to which I subscribe.) On the other hand, small as my tumor was, who’s to say it might have sat there harmlessly a few more years untreated? Please don’t get me wrong; I would not have opted for waiting to see. Just wondering.

I’m not so sure about prostate cancer screening. But since what seems nearly every man I know over 65 has been diagnosed with prostate cancer after a routine screening, it’s possible to wonder about this too. An October 21 New York Times article cites a new analysis by Dr. Laura Esserman, a professor of surgery and radiology at the University of California, San Francisco and director of the Carol Frank Buck Breast Cancer Center and Dr. Ian Thompson, professor and chairman of the department of urology at the University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio that “runs counter to everything people have been told about cancer: They are finding cancers that do not need to be found because they would never spread and kill or even be noticed if left alone.” We the healthcare consumers aren’t getting any breaks. Here’s a whole new dilemma to mull over and decide upon: to screen or not to screen, to treat or not to treat. In one group of gentlemen friends I know, others newly diagnosed with prostate cancer are invited to hang out for an hour or so and listen to the pros and cons of the various treatment options — because within the group are men who have gone down at least 4 or 5 different paths.

Another re-evaluation, this one a little more sinister, centers around the dismissive attitude long held by the venerable Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guardian of our national health and welfare where things like viruses and other causes of infectious disease are concerned. In a Times op ed piece titled ‘A Case of Chronic Denial‘, Hillary Johnson reports on a recent study in the journal Science about a virus found in prostate cancers which will be referred to here by its shorter name, XRMV. It now turns out that there may be a link between XRMV and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, more commonly referred to these days as CFIDS, and the work now going on in this area of research could be significant in treatment of the latter. Having had a number of friends and family members suffering from CFIDS, I admit to being among those who occasionally thought it might be partly in one’s head, but also aware of the degree of misery and disability CFIDS can bring.

This space is not a health authority. It is, rather aimed at those of us 50-somethings and over, many of whom have trusted many of the above. Trust is good. Open-mindedness is better. Questioning might be best of all.

Obama shifts justice department resources away from medical marijuana

A little ray of sanity from President Obama: the feds won’t be going after legitimate users of medical marijuana. This will be welcome news in San Francisco, where federal raids on legal suppliers during the Bush administration met with widespread protests; possibly unwelcome news in Los Angeles, which is cracking down on its over-supply of dispensaries; and interesting news in the U.K., where guardian.uk.com reported on it Monday.

The US justice department today told federal law enforcement officials to shift resources away from investigation and prosecution of medical marijuana users and suppliers.

In a memo sent this morning to federal prosecutors, officials at president Barack Obama’s justice department said that prosecutions of individuals who are clearly using or supplying marijuana for medical purposes are “unlikely to be an efficient use of limited federal resources” if the targets otherwise comply with state and federal laws.

Fourteen states allow some use of marijuana for medical purposes, though it remains banned under federal law. The Bush and Clinton administrations – the first to grapple with the conflict – essentially ignored the state laws, treating medical marijuana as illegal.

“The federal government is no longer at war with the 13 states that have chosen to allow patients to use marijuana for medical purposes,” said Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, which favours decriminalisation of the drug.

“It’s going to provide relief to a lot of people who have been anxious about whether or not they’re going to be arrested for helping patients get their doctor-recommended medicine,” said Tom Angell, a spokesman for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, which claims 1,500 former police, prosecutors, border patrol agents and other one-time fighters in the war on drugs among its membership.

This would’ve been good news for my sister, whose brief search for relief a few decades ago was mentioned in the post below. It would’ve made life a little easier for a lot of people with AIDS in recent decades.  Set aside the arguments pro or con recreational use; when a drug is known to help suffering people, and is legal in a particular city or state, wasting federal tax dollars to interfere seems to make very little sense.

The memo doesn’t legalize marijuana or end prosecution of illegal, for-profit sales etc. It does, though, leave these to local federal officials. And clarifies the federal government’s position.

It puts into writing remarks by attorney general Eric Holder, who in March said the federal government would end raids on legitimate medical marijuana dispensaries. Obama has indicated he is sympathetic to medical marijuana use, noting during the presidential campaign that his mother had died of cancer and that he saw no difference between morphine prescribed by doctors and marijuana used to relieve pain.

I don’t do pain very well. Given its prevalence in long, drawn-out illnesses today, I’m in favor of whatever palliative care and pain-relieving medicines there are. It is nice to have a president who understands.

via Obama justice department to shift from investigating medical marijuana cases | World news | guardian.co.uk.

The aches & pains of medical marijuana

An article in Sunday’s New York Times details the struggle in Los Angeles to regulate the cannabis dispensaries which have proliferated around the  city over the past six or eight years, raising the old medical marijuana questions about how to control, whether to tax and how useful it is in the first place. Reporter Solomon Moore cites Oakland, California’s Harborside Health Center as the place to which many are looking for a model.

‘Our No. 1 task is to show that we are worthy of the public’s trust in asking to distribute medical cannabis in a safe and secure manner,’ said Steve DeAngelo, the pig-tailed proprietor of Harborside, which has been in business for three years.

Harborside is one of four licensed dispensaries in Oakland run as nonprofit organizations. It is the largest, with 74 employees and revenues of about $20 million. Last summer, the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance to collect taxes from the sale of marijuana, a measure that Mr. DeAngelo supported.

Mr. DeAngelo designed Harborside to exude legitimacy, security and comfort. Visitors to the low-slung building are greeted by security guards who check the required physicians’ recommendations. Inside, the dispensary looks like a bank, except that the floor is covered with hemp carpeting and the eight tellers stand behind identical displays of marijuana and hashish.

There is a laboratory where technicians determine the potency of the marijuana and label it accordingly. (Harborside says it rejects 80 percent of the marijuana that arrives at its door for insufficient quality.) There is even a bank vault where the day’s cash is stored along with reserves of premium cannabis. An armored truck picks up deposits every evening.

City officials routinely audit the dispensary’s books. Surplus cash is rolled back into the center to pay for free counseling sessions and yoga for patients. “Oakland issued licenses and regulations, and Los Angeles did nothing and they are still unregulated,” Mr. DeAngelo said. “Cannabis is being distributed by inappropriate people.”

I don’t know where Los Angeles will go with all this, or how well Harborside will continue to operate for how long. What I do know is that marijuana serves a real medical purpose. Probably serves a real recreational purpose too, and there’s the rub; but since I missed the pot party — thank heavens, as I am addicted to anything that comes down the pike, and please don’t try to tell me one cannot get addicted to marijuana — I can’t address that issue. Everything I know is anecdotal, but convincing.

Decades ago my beloved sister was suffering acute gastro intestinal distress, much later identified as a symptom of celiac disease but this was before anybody really knew anything about celiac sprue. One day she said, “You know, everybody at X High School either smokes pot or knows where to get it. Could you get me some so I could at least try it?” Well, even though the statute of limitations would probably protect the surviving players I think I won’t go into details of this adventure. But what I learned was: buying and selling illegal pot is a little scary for the novice, but the deal was easy and nobody went to jail. It did indeed give relief to my suffering sister. Though both of us wished she could have that relief on an ongoing basis, we reached a mutual conclusion that the risk was not worth the reward, and that was the end of that.

Fast forward to the 1990s, when everyone I knew with AIDS knew how marijuana could relieve some symptoms of the disease, and most had a supply. I was in San Francisco by then, and celiac disease pales in comparison to AIDS. I don’t even recall how legal it was for this relief; too many other issues were more important. But again, I saw its usefulness.

The Times article quotes Christine Gasparac, a spokeswoman for California Attorney General Jerry Brown, as saying his office is getting calls from law officials and advocates around the state asking for clarity on medical marijuana laws. I know that’s tough, and that the answer will in many cases be left to the courts. I also know that legalizing marijuana, whether here in woo-hoo California or elsewhere, raises a multiplicity of sticky issues.

But still. It’s a useful drug. If Big Pharma were producing and marketing it, it would probably come in a little pill that costs a fortune and would be covered by expensive insurance policies. Every governmental body in the U.S. needs money. Taxes raise money. Are there not some dots that could be connected here?

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