Live longer, healthier: prospects ahead

More news just in on the health and longevity front. At the University of California San Francisco medical center, which I can see from my studio window but that’s about as close as I will ever come to claiming kinship, a clinical trial getting underway will investigate the telomere factor. You haven’t been worried about your telomeres? Get used to them. It hasn’t been so long since cholesterol and genomes became household words.

Bay Area women who volunteer for a clinical trial at UCSF will be among the first people in the world to learn the length of their telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that regulate cell aging and may help people live longer, healthier lives.

Research has shown that the length of people’s telomeres is related to their “cellular age” – the health and stability of certain cells in their body. Because telomere length helps determine cellular health, it’s also been identified as a possible biomarker that can reveal information about a person’s overall health. Short telomeres have been linked to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

UCSF researchers say it’s possible that identifying a person’s telomere length someday could become as common as checking cholesterol levels. A handful of private companies already have started advertising telomere testing to individuals. In fact, two of the researchers involved in the UCSF study are looking into starting their own company to test telomere length.

The study, reported by Erin Allday in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, will concern such issues as what relationship your telomeres’ length have to health and aging in general, and whether you even need to know a lot about the little cellular-ites. “The idea of telling people their telomere length is totally new and somewhat radical…,” said Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF and one of the lead researchers in the telomere study. (On a purely personal, though relative note: you just try not to worry about it all when you are overage — they want women 50 to 65 — for an aging study and the lead researcher looks like she’s about as old as your granddaughter.)

Medical ethicists say the UCSF study makes sense – as more attention is drawn to telomere length as a potential marker of overall health, doctors should understand whether it benefits their patients to get that information or not.

If people can’t change their telomere length, there may be no point in telling them. Telomere length may be similar to some types of genetic testing that tell people whether they’re at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease or certain types of cancer, said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.

Some individuals may decide they want that information – but it’s not always an easy decision to make, he said. “You might find out that you seem to be a premature or rapid ager, but whether there’s anything anybody can do to stop it or reverse it, that remains to be seen,” Caplan said.

How much our telomeres will tell us, what use we can make of it all, and whether you and I really want to know — these issues remain to be seen. Or at least, to be discovered in  the coming study. I have absolute trust in the folks at UCSF. If you do too, and you fit the parameters (female living somewhere in this lovely part of California, between 50 and 65) and want to volunteer to be a part of it all, whip off an e-mail to knowyourtelomeres@ucsf.edu.

UCSF to look at new longevity, health marker.

Is technology addiction messing with your brain?

my brains - let me show you them
Image by Liz Henry via Flickr

This is your life? Beginning at breakfast — or perhaps earlier, in the bathroom — one sizable screen with multiple streams of news, stock reports and data updates across the bottom; tweets in a box on the left; the iPhone nearby holding stacked up e-mails, IMs and calls that went into the mailbox? If so, you are not alone. As a matter of fact, it seems almost no one is alone, or disconnected from technological communications, any more. In the words of New York Times writer Matt Richtel, “This is your brain on computers.”

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people … these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

Richtel follows a family of four through their technology-addicted lives: they go on an oceanside vacation, but soon are all on their electronic devices; one day at the beach is mercifully unplugged. But on routine days, few moments are unplugged.

“And scientists are discovering,” Richtel reports, that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

We just don’t fully understand what those consequences might be. This space worries. Couldn’t we get our adrenaline the old-fashioned way?

Your Brain on Computers – Attached to Technology and Paying a Price – NYTimes.com.

Breaking news on broken-down joints

There’s old news — joint replacements for athletes are downright commonplace, seniors in their 80s and 90s are getting new hips — and now there’s good news. Researchers at the University of California San Francisco, led by sports medicine chief C. Benjamin Ma MD, are finding that damage to the cartilage connecting the foot bone to the ankle bone to the leg bone etc might not have to be permanent.

As almost anyone with a series of sports injuries may know, cartilage damage is permanent. In the words of Dr. Benjamin Ma, chief of sports medicine at UCSF, “cartilage is just lazy” — it doesn’t like to regenerate, so when it gets damaged or worn down through use or injury, it won’t come back on its own.

But Ma and his research team have discovered that given very specific circumstances, cartilage will, in fact, regenerate. The team has been taking knee cartilage from subjects and placing it on a matrix and under some very specific conditions, it is forced to regenerate.

“Cartilage cells are very lazy. They don’t like to grow if they don’t have to,” he said. “So we fool them by doing this particular maneuver and they feel they have to grow, and they form new cartilage. Then we glue it back into the knee.”

The new method has proved to be safe and it helps improve function, and now it is undergoing Phase 3 clinical trials to see whether it in fact works better than microfracture surgeries currently used to treat cartilage injuries.

Down the road, Ma and his team hope to see if there is an application of this method that could help people suffering from arthritis, which is also a cartilage disorder.

That cheer being heard across cyberspace is coming from millions of amateur athletes and the entire population over 50, almost every one of whom could use a little newly invigorated cartilage.

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner.

Cancer, Viruses & Informed Consent

A commentary about cancer screenings and surrounding questions posted yesterday brought a thoughtful reader response: “Science, including public health,” wrote davidlosangeles, “is an evolving process.”  Unquestionably so.

What we the consuming public need to understand is not the science as much as the personal responsibility. Today’s New York Times features another story on the front page of the Business section (some of us still follow old-fashioned newsprint) by Duff Wilson about “Research Uproar at a Cancer Clinic”, namely the highly regarded Carle Foundation Cancer Center in Urbana, IL. It’s another instance of respected professionals questioning each others’ respectability — or protocols, or carefulness, to use gentler terms than are actually being used. One of the issues raised is that of informed consent, and here is where we the consuming public come in. Whether we are cancer patients, CFIDS sufferers or mostly healthy people susceptible to the usual ails, it is incumbent upon the individual to know what he or she is agreeing to, and to know as much as possible about the projected outcome. We’re all in a giant clinical trial here on the planet. Nobody really knows about the outcome, but participation in mini-trials along the way can be valuable and is certainly laudable. Just know what you’re doing.

I am a continuing participant in the Women’s Health Initiative study now well into its second decade, though the primary issues are over and done with. I didn’t try any new hormone replacement therapies or drastic lifestyle changes, mainly because I’m pretty wimpish, but I read every word of the small print in the reams of documents that came along and tried hard to appreciate what the pitfalls and premises were. It was a valuable study, and hopefully will continue to turn up usable data.

Other studies are underway, and more will undoubtedly begin, regarding the current hoopla over XRMV, and H1N1. And heaven only knows how many other viruses, techonological advances, genetic possibilities and scientific wonders are out there to create great harm or great benefit.

Since the benefits are to the buyers, it’s appropriate that the buyer beware.