April 2009

Thursday, April 30

Feeling lonely and dejected? Watch one TV show and call me in the morning.

Researchers at the University at Buffalo  have concluded that watching TV shows gives people a sense of belonging, even in the face of low self-esteem or rejection by friends and family members.

Viewers actually form a relationship with the characters in the show, and that can do some good things for their mental health, according to the study in the new issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Miami University, Ohio, also participated in the study.

The results are based on something called the “social surrogacy hypothesis.”

“Humans can use technologies, like television, to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced,” says Shira Gabriel, a University of Buffalo assistant professor of psychology and one of the study’s authors.

“We also argue that other commonplace technologies such as movies, music or interactive video games, as well as television, can fulfill this need.”

In one part of the study, researchers asked 701 undergraduate students to take the Loneliness Activities Scale in order to find those who turned to TV when they felt lonely. They focused on those who said watching a show made them feel better.

In another part, students wrote about their feelings during TV watching versus a control situation, such as academic achievement. They said they felt fewer feelings of exclusion when they watched their favorite show.

But the authors concede they aren’t sure whether watching TV suppresses social needs or actually fulfills them.

“Turning one’s back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive and leave a person with fewer resources over time,” adds Jaye Derrick, a postdoctoral associate and adjunct instructor of psychology at the University at Buffalo. “But for those who have difficulty experiencing social interaction because of physical or environmental constraints, technologically induced belongingness may offer comfort.”

Wednesday, April 29

When the going gets tough, the tough get going—to the gym.

During the Great Depression, people stood in unemployment lines, their scrawny hands stuffed into their pockets, a cigarette dangling from their lips. But in this downturn, a new crop of healthy job seekers are toned and even buffed-up.

That’s because even as household budgets are cut, the gym membership is the last thing to go.

Consider this story in NYC on Deadline. It says not only has there been an increase in gym membership, but people are working out longer. And according to a survey by the International Health, Racquet and Sports Club Association, gym membership since January has either held steady at facilities, or has actually edged up.

An unemployed 26-year-old featured in the story says he’s spending three times as long in the gym now as he was before getting laid off. “Even though nobody likes being unemployed and broke, I have all the time in the world now to go to the gym,” he said.

Members who were coming in once a week are now coming in several times a week, according to a staffer at one popular fitness center chain.

The Jewish Community Center in Kendall, FL, is offering 50 free gym memberships to the unemployed.

And in Salt Lake City, KSL Radio News reports that members are spending a lot more time at the Jordan Valley Athletic Club. 

“I think it sets off those endorphins so they don’t get as depressed as just sitting home worrying about the lack of work,” said the owner, Ranae Plumb.

There are additional benefits to workouts for the unemployed. Feeling fit puts you in a more positive mood for interviews. And then there’s the networking advantage—hanging around with other professionals is a good way to generate job leads.

Still, spending idle time at the gym is no bed of roses, no pleasure cruise, as the song says.

“It’s also depressing to be here,” the unemployed New Yorker told NYC on Deadline. “I mean it’s nice to sleep in and do nothing but go to the gym all day. But I’ve been unemployed for six months now, and I’m going crazy.”

Tuesday, April 28

Prescription drug prices are often sky high. So why hasn’t a national recycling program caught on?

More than 33 states allow or coordinate the collection of unused prescriptions. In some cases, the drugs are collected from private individuals, but other states only accept pharmaceuticals from institutions or doctor’s offices.

A variety of drugs are accepted, from blood thinners to antibiotics. Controlled substances aren’t accepted. The medications have to be in tamper-resistant packaging.

In 2005, The New York Times estimated that $1 billion in prescription drugs are flushed down the toilet every year.

A few successful efforts have been launched in Wyoming, Oklahoma and Louisiana  In Iowa, 300,000 pills worth $290,000 were collected and distributed in 2007.

But the program has languished. Officials in Florida, where medications are collected mostly to help uninsured cancer patients, blame lack of publicity.

Another problem is that many physicians don’t trust pharmaceuticals when they can’t pinpoint the source. Roger Lyons, an oncologist in San Antonio, Texas, told Scientific American in February: “We don’t give any drug to anybody without knowing exactly where it’s been at all times.”

Other physicians worry that certain drugs may be available one month, but not the next.

Changing the way drugs are dispensed could make them more recyclable. Putting them in blister packs, for example, could reassure skeptics about safety. To smooth out availability problems, the federal government could set up a national framework.

Prescription drug recycling is a good idea that should be given a boost as the Obama health plan is being developed. People talk about wasted government money. Here’s a way to cut down on wasted medical expenses. Check other ideas for donating your unused drugs at http://tinyurl.com/cpedm5.

Monday, April 27

Coverage of the flu outbreak, for now at least, says more about the media than it does about the bug.

Every kind of media weighed in on this story over the weekend, from traditional news organizations quoting expert researchers to a few bloggers and some YouTubers who line their baseball caps with aluminum foil.

It is an easy story to sensationalize. It makes a good headline when the government declares a health care emergency. But responsible outlets explain that such a declaration simply frees up funding. Florida sometimes declares a state of emergency when there’s a hurricane in the Atlantic, but most areas end up with barely enough rain to water their lawn.

Our local paper ran a lead headline this morning that read: Swine flu: The big one? Below the fold the editors added: Officials say not to panic.

I thought that Saturday and Sunday’s coverage on the cable news networks was surprisingly reserved, considering that they have 24 hours to fill up amid tough competition. Our local Fox news station on Sunday night knocked the story down to third place, with a just-the-facts approach and a few obligatory surgical-mask shots from Mexico.

The New York Times this morning went low key with: U.S. Declares Health Emergency as Cases of Swine Flu Emerge. It was not the paper’s top story. The Washington Post did a five-column top-of-the-page strip: U.S. Steps Up Alert as More Swine Flu is Found. But the subhead in the print edition took the edge off: Precaution Taken Despite the Mildness of Cases Detected Domestically.

The Times of London reported on an EU summit meeting on the issue, and a confirmed case in Spain. The Sydney Morning Herald echoed: Crisis meeting over swine flu outbreak.

Online, things get interesting. Inevitably, there are some people who blame the government for everything and have declared this to be a False Flag Operation. The Drudge Report said, No Evidence of Bio-Terror.

Two sites worth watching, in my view, are the CDC daily update page and a site called FluTackers. The latter gets technical, but you can glean some interesting tidbits of information if you read carefully.

My take is that we should be optimistic, at least short-term. There has been unprecedented global cooperation on influenza threats for at least the last five years. Governments have taken this issue seriously. Stockpiles of Tamiflu and other medications have been building up. Plus, we’re at the traditional end of the flu season.

Here’s hoping this story goes out with a whimper.

PD*28334035Friday, April 24, 2009

Attention, arachnophobes: Mother Nature is smiling at you.

Many people are repulsed by spiders, and some are so disturbed by the sight and thought of them that there’s a name for the condition—arachnophobia. Ironic, then, that nature would challenge them with the Happy Face Spider.

This is a spider found only in the Hawaiian Islands. According to a story in the UK Telegraph, its distinctive markings throw predators off guard, leaving it time to escape. It has worked well for the spider, until now. As the Telegraph reports, it is in danger of becoming extinct.

Development? Global warming? Stay tuned.

In The Who song, which I recalled for the headline of this particular post, a spider scares the wits out of the singer, crawling up the wall and then scurrying across the floor. A contest pitting man against arachnid, and you know how it ends.

But you have to wonder if the subject of the song, picking the book up off the floor, would have hesitated for a second or two, allowing the spider time to make it under a bookcase or chair. And then it would have lived to produce a bunch of other Happy Face Spiders. And so on.

Its hunting habits, by the way, are almost as interesting as its physical makeup. According to the Hawaiian Encyclopedia, it “feeds by hiding beneath leaves until it sees its prey’s silhouette on the leaf’s upper surface. The spider then reaches around and snatches its victim.”

It does not hunt human beings, to my knowledge.

British researchers have been studying these creatures and have found them amusing as well as endangered. “I must admit when I turned over the first leaf and saw one it certainly brought a smile to my face,” Geoff Oxford, of the University of York, told a reporter.

And what better time than Friday to visit the creature with the naturally cheerful disposition. TGIF, one of them might say.

Thursday, April 23

The Web has remained virtually untapped for mental health services delivery. Here’s one effort to change that.

On Saturday, psychologists, other mental health professionals and interested parties will meet in Vancouver, Canada for a Mental Health Camp. Their main topic will be to explore how social media—meaning networks such as Twitter and Facebook—can be used to help people with mental health problems.

It’s a daylong conference and it’s free, although donations are accepted. The schedule can be found here. Not many people can hop on a plane at the last minute and fly to Vancouver.

Not to worry, at least some of the material will be presented live on Twitter, using this link.

People have been weighing the value of online social networks for years. Granted, there’s a lot of frivolous material floating around on these things. Some of the comments posted would probably have been better left unsaid.

However, the health care profession is waking up to the fact that online networks can be used to advance the profession. Live surgery was recently featured on Twitter.

Many psychotherapists are using the networks to promote products and services they’re trying to market. One of the concerns is the potential to create dual relationships, if former or current clients happen to find your profile. But these problems can be ironed out using some of the privacy tools the networks give you.

The Mental Health Camp is looking at more direct benefits. Blogging, for example, is similar to journaling, a practice therapists often recommend to help patients work through problems. Posting information on mental health can help eliminate stigma. The anonymity factor can actually work to people’s benefit.

There’s rich potential. It’s certainly worth tuning into Twitter on Saturday to see what’s brewing.

Wednesday, April 22

Narcissists will love reading this new book by a California psychologist. It’s about narcissists.

Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University, compared changes in self-esteem among college students from 1975 to 2006 for her new book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. It was co-written by W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia.

Twenge argues that because Baby Boomers heaped praise on their children, they produced a generation overly-confident that they would excel in love, work, and life in general.

“We’ve been on this self-admiration kick for a long time,” Twenge told USA Today in an interview published this week.

You can take the Narcissistic Personality Inventory here. I didn’t take the test but scanned through it. It looks pretty obvious that you could steer the results any way you want.

My view is that a generational boost of confidence is not necessarily a bad thing. The question is whether external factors still get consideration, i.e. other people’s lives, the condition of the planet, helping to generate a happy family. Good self-esteem is an important quality, particularly for young people starting out careers.

What I find more interesting is that there seems to be an abundance of generational conflict these days. Consider the stereotypes: Boomers ruined the economy by mortgaging the country’s future. Gen-Xers fled their hometowns in great amoral pursuit of cash. Generation Y became self-absorbed. The teens I see today on the street are completely cut off from society, lost in their iPod or BlackBerry.

The only generation we dare not criticize is the WWII generation because, well, they won the Big One at great sacrifice.

There are generational differences, but my contention is if you peel back the layers you find the same mix of good and bad that make up the human condition. By looking for the things that separate age groups, we drive a further wedge between us all.

We already have conflict in our culture based on race, religion, and now more than ever, politics. Do we really need more?

Tuesday, April 21

An epidemic of mass hysteria has hit Nicaragua, and it’s not the first time. Physicians remain puzzled.

But the disease, called grisi siknis by the locals, is quite real—at least to them. It strikes mainly adolescent boys and girls and triggers a frightening menu of symptoms, from irrational anger and fear to short bursts of frenzied behavior and then unconsciousness.

It appears to be contagious. In the past year, there were 65 cases of it in Nicaragua, 45 in 2009 alone. They are focused in a rural area near the Caribbean Coast, according to an April 20 BBC report.

Other victims have reportedly exhibited superhuman strength, and it takes “five or six people” to hold them down, the BBC says.

But Western doctors view grisi siknis, and a long list of similar conditions unique to other cultures worldwide, as psychological in origin. The cause, they say, is stress and despair. Symptoms may vary by culture, as do the names the condition is given. Examples are Amok, which affects males in Indonesia; and Wild Man Behavior in New Guinea. Blood tests have shown no abnormalities in those affected.

“We have taken samples of blood from patients while suffering an attack and, in a lab, we can’t detect anything,” a Nicaraguan physician told the BBC. “Drugs or injections tend to only increase a patient’s aggressiveness. Clinically we can’t detect anything.

“It is like an outbreak. If an attack is not contained quickly, it can spread throughout an entire community.”

There’s an argument to be that the condition is linked to Dissociative Fugue, which has a place in the DSM-IV.

But in Nicaragua the locals turn to traditional healers, who use a combination of potions, herbs, candles and a cleansing ceremony. Sufferers can drink the potions, or bathe in them.

These days, there is no shortage of referrals.

Monday, April 20

A year ago, Americans were raising red flags over food prices. Is the crisis over? Maybe not.

I’ve noticed gradual improvement at my local supermarket for the past eight months. Milk prices have come down about 15 percent at my store. And there are deals we didn’t see a year ago, on meat products, and some fruits and vegetables.

In December, as economic misery was hitting new highs, I saw a display for discounted Spam. While that’s no longer there, potatoes are being peddled for as low as $1.99 for a 10-pound bag. But some economists, particularly in Europe, are worried that the respite won’t last.

The statistics still look good. Although some stores reported running out of bulk bags of rice last year, the grain is 59 percent off its peak price in May 2008. Soybeans are down 77 percent from July. Confirmation, some say, that there was a commodities bubble in play last year and that has now popped.

The world’s poor are still suffering, though. And a new price surge may be around the corner, according to a report by VoxEU, an information arm of the European Centre for Economic Policy Research.

Why? Because although the U.S., and other developed countries, responded to last year’s food crisis in a supply-and-demand way, by expanding crop production, much of the world has not followed suit. One reason is that fertilizers, often petroleum-based, have remained expensive. So farmers are planting crops that use less of it, such as sweet potatoes and cassava.

The credit crunch has hit agriculture as well, as some farmers can’t get the money needed to invest in expanded production.

So, what are we looking at? That’s unknown, but don’t expect low food prices, even at your local market, to be a given.

The Asian Development Bank, a financial institution that helps developing nations fight poverty, warns that Asia “may be one supply shock away from yet another round of food price spirals.”

We’ve already learned that the U.S. is not isolated from global shocks. Keep your eyes open as you stroll down your supermarket aisle.

Friday, April 17

Enforcing youth cigarette laws have a big impact on lowering smoking rates, a new survey shows.

Joseph DiFranza, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, said, “Efforts to prevent the sale of tobacco to children pay off. It’s very effective at reducing the number of kids who smoke.”

Revisiting the issue I talked about in my column on Tuesday: Yes, price hikes have also discouraged adolescents from smoking.

The sale of cigarettes to minors has been prohibited since 1992, and the law was beefed up in 1996. But some states have taken a scattershot approach to enforcement, and the impact at first was minimal.

But DiFranza’s 2003 study of 16,244 teens, 15 to 17, analyzed more recent state collected data on anti-tobacco law compliance. It looked at the impact of prices, publicity campaigns, parents’ education levels, restaurant smoking policies, and other factors.

It showed that the more merchants stuck to the sales ban, the more teen smoking dropped. From 1997 to 2003, there was a 21 percent drop in the likelihood of teen smoking. Higher prices reduced the odds by 47 percent.

What I think the study proves is that a combination of efforts to stop smoking really pays off. We shouldn’t be easing up on using any of the tools, although I still insist that price increases will eventually lead to diminishing returns.

For the complete study in the April 17 journal BMC Public Health, click here.

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