Eleanor Roosevelt on reproductive rights

Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala

Eleanor Roosevelt with Fala  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love channeling Eleanor Roosevelt.

Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a letter of mine about an encounter with the great and gracious lady in 1953. It was fun recalling that event, but even more fun was hearing from my friend Milt Moskowitz who shared a story of his own:

“In 1962 I was working at what was then the largest market research firm in the country, Alfred Politz Research, founded and run by an alcoholic German, Alfred Politz, who was a serial womanizer.  Knowing my politics to be on the left side of the spectrum, he frequently berated me about liberals.  And one of his prime examples was Eleanor Roosevelt, who had a syndicated column, My Day.  She was a typical liberal, he said, afraid to come out for abortion rights for fear of irritating the Catholic church. “You don’t know that,” I said.  I then wrote a letter to Eleanor, asking if she had the time for an interview.  She replied that she did and soon I found myself having tea with her in her brownstone on the East Side of Manhattan.  I told her what my boss had said, and then she said that she was a fervent supporter of abortion rights for women.  When I returned to work, I relayed this information to Alfred, who scoffed, saying she would never go public with this support.  Well, a week later, the “My Day” column carried Eleanor’s eloquent support for abortion rights. I bought a dozen copies of that edition and dumped them on Alfred’s desk.  For one of the first times in his life, he was speechless.  “I was delighted that he had brought it up since it enabled me to meet a gentle lady with a very strong spine.”

Mrs. Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns were among the first things I read in the morning papers; they were never timid. I don’t remember this one — having pushed the whole issue of abortion far down into the depths of my psyche — but I’m not surprised. Would that her calm, strong voice were here to speak today.

Your arteries know your REAL age

1.11.09: CHD, here we come!

Image by Team Dalog via Flickr

Heart attacks, strokes and a long list of other artery-related afflictions top the list of health risks for the 50-and-over population — and a rising number of those even younger. So figuring how old you really are is an increasingly big deal. If your history includes cigarettes and fast food in abundance you might not want to know. But your arteries hold important information.

Wall Street Journal writer Ron Winslow reports on the intricate business of determining your vascular age — and why that’s an important determination to make.

Several tools are available that enable doctors and patients to calculate vascular age. These suggest there can be a substantial difference between how old you are and how old your blood vessels are. For instance, the vascular age of a 35-year-old man who smokes and has diabetes, high blood pressure and abnormal cholesterol could be as high as 76 years old—more than double his chronological age, according to a recent study. The arteries of a 30-year-old woman with similar risk factors could be equivalent to those of an average woman who is more than 80 years old.

Such a calculation “gives a sense that your risk-factor burden is making you age faster than you think you are,” says Donald Lloyd-Jones, a preventive cardiologist at Northwestern University, Chicago, who co-authored the recent study, which appeared in the journal Circulation last August. “The more you can make it concrete, the better you can impart information about risk.”

The good news, doctors say, is that by taking steps to reduce risk factors and the damage they inflict on arteries, it is possible to turn back the clock on vascular age.

Some of us — long-time smokers, members of a family with genetic problems that can’t be overcome — might not be able to access the good news. But many can, and for them, a few changes in lifestyle, or manageable medications, can make a lifetime of difference.

  • A 42-year-old man who smokes and has total cholesterol of 180, good cholesterol (HDL) of 45 and systolic blood pressure of 125, has a vascular age of a 54-year-old. If he quits smoking, his vascular age could drop to 42, the same as his chronological age.
  • A 52-year-old nonsmoking woman, who has total cholesterol of 220, HDL of 44 and systolic blood pressure of 135, has a vascular age of a 68-year-old. If the woman reduces her cholesterol below 200, her vascular age could drop to 59 years old.

If you’re feeling your age today, maybe your arteries are trying to tell you something.

Arteries Can Reveal Your Risk of Heart Disease – WSJ.com.

Brain exercises oversold, study says

What? Brain exercises aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? Bah, humbug. But indeed, according to the Wall Street Journal‘s Gautam Naik in a recent article, “a large new study casts doubt on whether such programs can deliver what they promise.”

The hallmark of a good brain-training program isn’t whether it simply improves a person’s ability to do the specific mental tasks in the training, but whether it also boosts other cognitive skills. The latest study, published in the journal Nature, found no evidence for such cognitive transfers.

“Our brain-training groups got better at the tests they practiced, and the more they practiced, the better they got. But there was no translation to any improvements in general cognitive function,” said study co-author Jessica Grahn, a scientist at the Medical and Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, England. The unit has close links to the University of Cambridge.

Full disclosure: Posit Science CEO Steven Aldrich (quoted below) provided this geezer-driver writer with his company’s DriveSharp program at no charge. Whenever I can snatch some time (unfortunately that is seldom in 30-minute segments) I work on brain-training computer exercises designed to make me a safer driver.  This is anecdotal and unscientific, but I believe it has made a small improvement.

But back to the study.

The brain-training field has been boosted by studies suggesting that even adult brains are “plastic,” and cognitive ability can be improved with the right mental training. Another spur is an aging population, and the hope that cognitive exercises and lifestyle changes may help to forestall brain maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The authors of the Nature study point out that some modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players who outperform nonplayers on some tests of visual attention. But wider empirical support has been lacking, they said.

The six-week online study involved 11,430 healthy participants, all viewers of a BBC television science program. They were first tested for their existing “benchmark” cognitive abilities, and then randomly assigned to one of three groups, each with a different set of tasks.

One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.

The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.

This study may be in, but the jury is still out. Proponents cite other sources and other studies in this still-new field, most aimed at helping the aging population keep up memory function and stave off general decline. And sites maintaining that it’s possible to build new brain cells continue to proliferate. Critics of the new study weighed in:

Some critics said the study’s design was flawed. For example, the participants were asked to do brain workouts for at least 10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks. But that may not have been long enough.

“It’s not brain training,” said Alvaro Fernandez, chief executive officer of SharpBrains. Past studies, he said, indicate that proper cognition transfer “only happens after more than 15 hours of training and where each session lasts at least 30 minutes.”

Steven Aldrich, chief executive of Posit Science of San Francisco, which sells brain-training programs, said the “study overreaches in generalizing that since their methods did not work, all methods would not work.” Mr. Aldrich added that other randomized, peer-reviewed studies have shown that brain training improves some aspects of brain performance.

Given the growing aging population and its accompanying mental struggles, from Where did I leave the keys? to fears of Alzheimer’s, this space endorses all efforts to better the brain cells. I’m still working on my driving and in favor of giving a game a try.

Study Finds Mental Exercise Offers Brain Limited Benefits – WSJ.com.

OMG: Texting drivers crash, maim, kill — to the tune of 1.6 million annual accidents

Nearly 28% of crashes, some 1.6 million per year according to the National Safety Council, can be attributed to drivers who are talking on cell phones or texting. Crossing the intersection of Clement Street and Arguello Blvd in San Francisco an hour or so ago I almost made it 1.6 million plus one: driver on phone, self on foot, alert driver blasted horn at talking driver with whom I thought I’d made eye contact (apparently not) or this space would’ve been toast. Are we a nation of nuts, or what?

The issue has gotten the attention of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the Orthopaedic Trauma Association, folks who see the reality of these abstract statistics every day. The two groups have joined forces to launch a print and PSA campaign designed to staunch the wound.

The campaign features a bloody, shattered windshield accompanied by the words:  OMG! Get the message. Texting while driving is a deadly distraction.

It’s definitely time. According to the AAOS release, “general statistics on distracted driving are startling:

  • 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near crashes involve some type of distraction. (Source: Virginia Tech 100-car study for NHTSA)
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. (NHTSA)
  • The worst offenders are the youngest and least-experienced drivers: men and women under 20 years of age. (NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)

Wall Street Journal “Driver’s Seat” blogger Jonathan Welsh posted a commentary somewhat courageously including himself in the Bad Guy category in discussing the billboard camapaign:

So, when did you stop texting behind the wheel? It’s a loaded question, but appropriate for many if not most of us. I don’t think I know anyone with a mobile phone and a driver’s license who doesn’t tap out the occasional message while driving.

In the era of multitasking and rapid communication, driving and texting are a tempting combination. Too bad it’s so dangerous.

“To say this habit can be deadly is the truth. It is an outcome we unfortunately see every day,” said AAOS president John J. Callaghan. “The problem with the use of 24/7 communications devices is that every driver believes he or she is immune to slip ups, but isn’t.”

Of course many people are so immersed in typing or reading their handheld screens that they might miss the billboards as they drive past. We have all seen — or even performed — outrageous driving maneuvers after distractions caused us to stray from our lane, miss an exit or nearly run a red light. I find that once I get over the initial anger I always feel at least a touch of empathy.

This space feels no empathy at all. It’s easy to be righteous when you never got into the phoning/texting/driving habit, and easy not to have done so if you were grew up in the dark ages before cell phones were invented.

Still, staying alive is good. I hope the lady driving the beige SUV through the intersection of Clement and Arguello gets the message before it’s too late.

Texting While Driving: Medical Groups Speak Out – Driver’s Seat – WSJ.

Girl drivers more aggressive than boys – and texting, loud music now the norm

My 19-year-old granddaughter, who totaled her car a few months ago, swears she wasn’t texting at the time. Well… maybe the music was playing a little loud. She was unhurt, didn’t hit anyone else or damage anything other than her late lamented car, so there are a lot of blessings to count. But does she text occasionally? “Everybody does.” And in general, besides the decibel level, and the phone which is an extension of her left hand, a shrinking violet she is not. I hasten to say this is a young woman I greatly love and admire; she may also be typical of today’s teenage girl drivers.

Some big auto insurers are raising the rates they charge to cover teenage girls, reflecting the crumbling of conventional wisdom that young women are more responsible behind the wheel.

In a survey of teenage drivers, Allstate Insurance Co. found that 48% of girls said they are likely to drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit. By comparison, 36% of the boys admitted to speeding. Of the girls, 16% characterized their own driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005. And just over half of the girls said they are likely to drive while talking on a phone or texting, compared to 38% of the boys.

The results were “a surprise to many people,” says Meghann Dowd of the Allstate Foundation, an independent charitable organization funded by Allstate which sponsored the survey.

While teens fessed up about their own bad behavior, they also said their friends drive even worse. The study found that 65% of the respondents, male and female, said they are confident in their own driving skills, but 77% said they had felt unsafe when another teen was driving. Only 23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers. This suggests teens recognize in their friends the dubious and dangerous behavior they won’t admit to indulging in themselves.

A few interesting findings of the new survey:

16% of girls describe their driving as aggressive, up from 9% in 2005.

84% of girls are likely to adjust music selection or volume while driving, versus only 69% of boys.

82% of teens report using cell phones while driving.

23%of teens admit they have felt unsafe with another teen’s driving.

23% of teens agree that most teens are good drivers.

More teens (22%) consider parents in the car more distracting than having their friends in the car (14%).

OK, geezer drivers (this one is still working on the DriveSharp program we all hope is building neurons in my brain and helping me expand my useful field of view) are an admitted hazard on the road. But this new data about our grandchildren isn’t terribly encouraging either. It’s a scary road out there.

Girls Say They Speed, Drive Aggressively More than Boys – WSJ.com.

ADHD: A sometimes welcome diagnosis

“It’s ADHD, that’s what I have,” my friend Ann told me some years ago. She made the announcement with a combination of enthusiasm and relief, as if getting diagnosed with ADHD were the beginning of the end of years of anxiety and frustration — which, in fact, it was.

I had never heard of such a thing. I did know Ann was remarkably creative, that she often jumped from one idea to another, lost her house keys with regularity, frequently left things undone,  pushed herself to achieve and was famous for juggling three or four projects at once. By now, almost everyone in the country knows someone (or is someone) with a similar combination of traits, and almost everyone has heard of ADHD.

The symptoms of adult attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder seem to describe half the people in New York City (and elsewhere): restlessness, impatience, impulsivity, procrastination, chronic lateness, and difficulty getting organized, focusing and finishing tasks.

How do you know you have ADHD, which experts compare to having a mind like a pinball, with thoughts flitting in multiple directions. Maybe you’re just overcaffeinated and overworked? And if you do have it, will there be a stigma? Should you try medication? Will it work?

Parents of children with suspected ADHD face a myriad of similar questions. But the concerns can be just as troubling for adults, whose ADHD often goes unrecognized.

An estimated 8% of U.S. children have ADHD, which is also known as ADD, for attention-deficit disorder, and some 50% of them outgrow it, according to government data. About 4.4% of U.S. adults—some 10 million people—also have ADHD and less than one-quarter of them are aware of it.

That’s because while ADHD always starts in childhood, according to official diagnostic criteria, many adults with the disorder went unnoticed when they were young. And it’s only been since the 1980s that therapists even recognized the disorder could persist in adults.

Even now, getting an accurate diagnosis is tricky. Some experts think that too many adults—and children—are being put on medications for ADHD, often by doctors with little experience with the disorder. Others think that many more people could benefit from ADHD drugs and behavioral therapy.

Ann considers herself one of the lucky ones. She was diagnosed relatively early (although the disorder undoubtedly caused a long list of problems that might well have been avoided) and settled into a drug regimen that has made life greatly more livable for decades. It does not appear she had other problems that often accompany ADHD, as Wall Street Journal health writer Melinda Beck explains in an informative ‘Personal Journal’ article this week.

Complicating the picture further, ADHD frequently goes hand in hand with depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder, and it can be difficult to untangle which came first. “It’s very common for someone to be treated for depression or anxiety for years, and have the therapist not notice the ADHD,” says Mary Solanto, director of the AD/HD Center at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. But adults whose ADHD is left untreated face a high incidence of substance abuse, automobile accidents, difficultly staying employed and maintaining relationships.

That said, some adults with ADHD are highly intelligent, energetic, charismatic and creative, and are able to focus intently on a narrow range of topics that interest them. David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue Airways, and Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko’s, have spoken out about how the disorder helped them come up with innovative ideas for their corporations, despite their having done poorly in school.

“It’s amazing how successful some people are able to be despite these symptoms, and some people are totally paralyzed—there’s a whole spectrum of outcomes,” says Ivan K. Goldberg, a psychiatrist in New York City who co-developed a commonly used screening test.

Generally, ADHD can make life very difficult. It’s thought to be an imbalance in neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that relay signals in the brain, particularly in the frontal cortex that governs planning and impulse control. Children with the disorder, particularly boys, are likely to be hyperactive, with an intense need to move constantly, which can interfere with learning. (Girls tend to be talkative and dreamy, but they are often overlooked because they aren’t as disruptive.)

Adults more typically have trouble with paying attention, focusing and prioritizing. Managing time and money are particularly difficult.

“What it really is is a disturbance of the executive functions of the brain — it’s the inability to plan things, to initiate them at the appropriate time, not to skip any of the steps and to terminate them at the appropriate time,” says Dr. Goldberg. “An awful lot of these people are very bright but they can’t keep it together. They keep screwing things up.”

It’s that last line that gets the attention of us all. Some of us screw things up more often than others — and wonder if we could blame it on ADHD. Identifying, and treating, those who can is a bright-spot possibility of the future.

ADHD: Why More Adults Are Being Diagnosed – WSJ.com.

How not to get Alzheimer's

Of all the Big Fears, for aging parents or our aging selves, Alzheimer’s probably ranks #1. So what if we could stave it off?

A new project, the Cognitive Fitness and Innovative Therapies, or CFIT, is trying to keep people at risk for Alzheimer’s intellectually and physically fit with quizzes and other cognitive challenges to see if onset of the disease can be delayed, perhaps indefinitely. The program, which is being advised by many famous names in Alzheimer’s research and treatment, also promotes diet changes and maintaining a social life to try to slow cognitive decline and lower the risk for Alzheimer’s.

Try some problems some people practice to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The Wall Street Journal’s invitation to try a few of these Alzheimer’s-prevention exercises seemed tempting for this reporter, so I clicked on over. It should be noted here that although I hold undergraduate and graduate degrees from reputable institutions, they are in Art and Short Fiction. These exercises are not for the faint-hearted, or the right-brained. (Actually, after following a few more links and trying another quiz it was determined that my right brain/left brain dominance is split 16 to 16; this may be the problem.) Maybe they are for the MIT alumni.

Kenneth S. Kosik, co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara, launched CFIT with a center in Santa Barbara last year. Dr. Kosik recommends that individuals start efforts to prevent the disease in their 50s.

“By the time someone walks in my door with symptoms of the disease, it’s too late” to stop it, says Dr. Kosik, who plans to open four CFIT centers in New York and California. The idea behind the new research is that lifestyle interventions may delay or prevent the disease before symptoms appear—or slow the progression of Alzheimer’s once they do manifest.

The CFIT exercises seem to go a step — or perhaps a leap — farther than the SharpBrain exercises, which are also recommended by all sorts of people who understand brain function. (And seem, I have to say, a lot more like fun and less like Alzheimer’s prevention.) Any of them will keep you awake, and quite possibly stave off dementia.

The shift in thinking has been bolstered by public health efforts to prevent cognitive decline and delay or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which affects some 5.3 million Americans. A 2007 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit group that funds research and supports advocacy and education, called for implementing findings on exercise and diet into actions people can do to maintain cognitive health. A CDC review of the scientific literature is expected to be released this year. The groups have been working together to gather data from individual states on the extent of cognitive impairment and meeting with state health officials to develop public campaigns to promote brain health.

Scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disorder that accounts for the majority of dementia cases, although genetics and age likely play a role. There are only four drugs approved for the disease, but these just treat individual symptoms and don’t stop the relentless course of the illness. New medicines are in testing but are likely to take years before they reach medical clinics.

This space highly recommends that you get started right away. We all want to believe it’s not too late.

Ways You Can Stave Off Alzheimer’s – WSJ.com.