August 2009

You buy it, you own it, you consume it, or you share it. Or sometimes you keep it, store it in the house along with a growing pile of other purchases. You may be a compulsive hoarder – a problem shared by about 5 percent of the American population.

The surface relationship between compulsive buying and compulsive hoarding ought to be clear – how can you have one without the other? But in fact there may be two different psychological motives at work, according to a new German study.


The research, reported in the August 21 Psychiatric News, also concluded that 1 in 20 Germans were hoarders. It cited the case of a deceased woman whose home was so cluttered, it took her family half an hour to sort through the mess and locate her body.

Along comes Astrid Mueller, director of the Psychosomatic and Psychotherapeutic Department of the University Clinic Erlangen, to check on the relationship between compulsive buying and the unhealthy buildup of in-home clutter.

And a solid link was found. Mueller said that two-thirds of compulsive hoarders were also compulsive buyers. On the other hand, 2 in 5 compulsive buyers were compulsive hoarders.

She told the journal, “Patients with compulsive hoarding should be asked about their buying habits, and patients with compulsive buying should be asked whether they also hoard items.”

Now, the task will be to find a treatment method that addresses both problems at once, according to Mueller.

Still, it’s interesting that the reasons for compulsive hoarding or compulsive buying are not necessarily the same. Compulsive hoarding may be a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), while compulsive buying may be a way to alleviate depression.

For a close-up look at hoarding (and a slightly different viewpoint on it), see the film, Possessed, by Martin Hampton. Or, click on the video link above.

The topic of the day: Should you wear a bicycle helmet for every single ride – even if it’s for just a short, leisurely jaunt along a level path with no car traffic? President Obama says no, and he’s found himself pedaling into another controversy.

Like he needed one.

AP ObamaThe president was taking a ride with his kids (who did wear helmets), a physician and a secret service agent at Martha’s Vineyard. Obama and the agent were not wearing helmets.

One commenter at the Chicago Tribune Web site wrote: “It’s just a sea level beach bike ride at low speeds. I cringe when I see kids all geared up to ride around the front of their houses. What happened to wanting to feel your hair blowing in the breeze? When did America get scared about a skinned knee? sheesh.”

Another wrote: “All those who’ve indicated that use of helmets is overkill are truly ignorant about head trauma. Blunt head trauma is a serious thing and even a fall from a bike can cause serious and perhaps permanent injury. For those who insist in riding without so as not to lose that wind through the hair feeling, help yourself…but don’t subject your children to your ignorant advice.”

According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, there’s no federal law requiring a bicycle helmet. But in 1987 some states and local jurisdictions began passing laws mandating them for riders under 18, or sometimes under 16.

In Massachusetts, state law requires helmets for riders under 17. See this page for complete local and state listings.

The Safety Institute offers the requisite statistics to back up their philosophy of promoting bicycle helmets. To wit:

– Non-helmeted riders are 14 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than helmeted riders.

– Head injuries account for more than 60 percent of bicycle-related deaths, more than two-thirds of bicycle-related hospital admissions and about one-third of hospital emergency room visits for bicycling injuries.

– A sizeable number of brain injuries can be prevented by a helmet, estimated at anywhere from 45 to 88 per cent.

Full disclosure: I have never worn a bicycle helmet in 50 years of bike riding. I have one chipped tooth from a fall but no broken bones. I’m not saying this was a good thing and that helmets are silly. Naturally, part of it involves generational attitudes.

One final comment: The Los Angeles Times covered the helmet controversy and wrote: “Obama defies safety nuts, shuns bike helmet, looks great, ignites debate.”

John Kerry wore a bike helmet when he pedaled through the presidential season in 2004; President Bush wore one as well.

But now Obama has decided to take on the establishment. Holy cow – is THIS his long-awaited line in the sand?

EDITOR’S NOTE: For another take on the bicycle helmet issue, see this piece posted in July 2008 on the Palm Beach Bike Tours Web site. It’s a cautionary tale about a leisurely ride on the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail that went awry.

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Here’s a health care reform story that’s short, but not too sweet. It sums up a debate muddled with misinformation, in my view.

A national polling company asked Americans this month: Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare? A mind-bending 54% say either yes, they should, or they’re not sure if they should.

Actual breakdown: 39% yes; 15% not sure.

This is the part where Biff grabs McFly by the neck, raps on his head with his fist and says: “H-E-L-L-O-O! ANYBODY HOME?”

I know some will say people misunderstood the question. But public policy discussion often seems to lack historical perspective.

Medicare and Medicaid were the government’s first big health care programs back in 1964, when President Johnson rammed them through. And rammed is the right word – “Blue Dog” senators were opposed, just like now. And, just like now, the Democrats had huge congressional majorities along with the White House.

The only difference is that Johnson knew bipartisanship’s limits. He also had a few liberal and moderate Republicans in the House and Senate, which helped. But he twisted many an arm.

And even though Ronald Reagan was running around calling it socialized medicine, Johnson found his biggest opposition was the American Medical Association, which finally came around and reaped huge profits from the program.

Now, Medicare is so woven into the fiber of American society that people covered by it – and that includes some disabled as well as seniors – don’t even see it as a government program anymore. They believe the government should “keep their hands off.”

No wonder that according to this poll, by Public Policy Polling, 40 percent support reform while 47 percent do not.

It’s tough to argue for change when people don’t seem to have a clear understanding of the health care system we already have.

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Technology gurus have long warned Web surfers that Internet browsing is a public activity. Not much can be accomplished anonymously, which is fine with some people who believe they have nothing to hide.

But a new study reveals that profiles developed based on your browsing habits can be shockingly detailed – and tied directly to very personal information about you and your life.

The problem is people post personal information on social networking sites such as Facebook, and that data is now getting tied to where you go on the Web. And it’s not just where YOU go – it’s where the operator of the computer you normally use goes. In other words, if someone else uses your computer, all his or her Web history will likely be tied to your profile.

Cookies are nothing new. But social networking sites assign users a unique identifier that contains lots of personal information, including date of birth, employment, likes and dislikes, physical address, email addresses, education and more.

So what? Let’s say your 18-year-old son comes home from college one weekend and visits a few hard-core pornography Web sites. That gets tagged to your profile.

“Tracking sites don’t have the ability to know if, for example, a site about cancer was visited out of curiosity, or because the user actually has cancer,” notes Craig Wills, professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), who conducted a study of the issue with colleagues.

“Profiling is worrisome on its own, but inaccurate profiling could potentially lead to issues with employment, health care coverage, or other areas of our personal lives.”

How long before human resource departments pass on packets of information to hiring managers containing information they may find valuable when making a final decision about a potential employee?

Wills explains that the networking site’s identifier is “a string of numbers or characters that points to your profile. We found that when social networking sites pass information to tracking sites about your activities, they often include this unique identifier.

“So now a tracking site not only has a profile of your Web browsing activities, it can link that profile to the personal information you post on the social networking site. Now your browsing profile is not just of somebody, it is of you.”

The footprint you leave on the Web is large. At least make sure it’s your shoe creating the tracks.

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guide dogNobody would argue about the necessity of allowing the blind to have a service dog. The animal is a lifeline that helps an individual, child or adult, function normally in society.

Now the question inevitably arises: Can service dogs assist people with other disabilities as well? And should their work be protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, allowing them free access to wherever they need to go?

The issue comes into sharp focus today as 6-year-old Kaleb Drew, who is autistic, arrives at his first grade class with his service dog, Chewey in Villa Grove, Illinois. School officials had objected to it.

The matter was tossed around by the courts for the past six months, until a judge ruled in July that Kaleb could continue to attend school with the dog until a November 10 trial.

The school district argued that Chewey doesn’t provide the same level of assistance as service dogs to the blind. Superintendent Steven Poznic asked for and received a temporary restraining order in early July barring the dog from attending a summer program.

The district’s position, according to Poznic, is that school officials are “not convinced that the dog is considered a service animal.” It could be a distraction, he said. “We can’t just focus on one student and let that be the entire focus of our attention.”

But that was reversed pending the trial, which promises to impact similar cases around the country. In fact, it could have even broader implications since the ability to use a service dog could apply to anyone covered by the ADA.

The dog has done wonders for Kaleb, his family says. It’s helped keep him from running away and Chewey even facilitates communication – a major problem with autistic children – by providing a calming influence around others.

Kaleb’s mother, Nichelle Drew, says: “It’s done so much more than we thought it could. We want Kaleb to be able to experience more of life.”

From my perspective, the issue is whether the school district is fighting change for the sake of change. Clearly, this is not an ordinary student asking to bring an ordinary pet to class.

Autism is a real, medically diagnosed condition and every tool that tries to bring normalcy to an affected individual and his family should be accommodated.

This isn’t an ordinary dog, either. Service dogs are highly trained, skilled in what they do and noted for the comfort they can provide.

If bringing this kind of dog to school turns out to be disruptive, the situation could be used as an opportunity to educate the class about the function of service dogs and disabilities in general. What’s wrong with teaching tolerance?

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You do everything right. You don’t drink, stick to a low-fat diet, and work out four times a week. Red meat does not touch your lips.

Your diet is rich in fresh, organic vegetables.

And yet, you may be sick. You may in fact be suffering from “a serious psychological condition” caused by an obsession with eating healthy. So say experts quoted in a recent article in the UK Guardian. It even has a name: Orthorexia nervosa.

The typical candidate for this illness is over 30, well educated, and can be male or female.

“Those most susceptible are middle-class, well-educated people who read about food scares in the papers, research them on the internet, and have the time and money to source what they believe to be purer alternatives,” Ursula Philpot, chair of the British Dietetic Association’s mental health group, told the Guardian.

“I am definitely seeing significantly more orthorexics than just a few years ago. Other eating disorders focus on quantity of food but orthorexics can be overweight or look normal.

“They are solely concerned with the quality of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’.”

The danger is that people suffering from this condition limit their diets to such an extent that they become malnourished. So yes, I think this can cause real problems.

But Philpot puts her finger on a major contributing cause to the trend when she talks about food scares. The papers are overflowing with cautionary tales about unhealthy food and drink choices. See my post below about ham sandwiches.

Media’s role, particularly over the past two decades, is to scare the daylights out of people in just about every facet of life: terrorist attacks, crime, accidents and yes, health risks. Naturally, people see these stories and begin to react. Companies offer new products to protect consumers from a growing list of life risks.

A saw a guy on a golf course the other day, riding in a golf cart, wearing a crash helmet.

Studies should be aired. Risks should be weighed and discussed. But where’s the common sense?

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pressstandbaconAny decent prosecutor can persuade a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, a New York judge once famously said.

And now it’s finally happened. The fabled ham sandwich stands accused of causing colon cancer by the World Cancer Research Fund, which issued a press release explaining their position on Monday.

The UK-based organization urged parents not to pack ham sandwiches in their children’s lunch boxes. It also took a swipe at bacon and other processed meats. It’s been on a campaign against these foods in Britain, with public announcements and even street signs.

“If children have processed meat in their lunch every day then over the course of a school year they will be eating quite a lot of it,” said Marni Craze, Children’s Education Manager for WCRF. “It is better if children learn to view processed meat as an occasional treat if it is eaten at all.

“We also need to do more to raise awareness of the issue, as a recent survey has shown that two thirds of people in Britain do not know that eating processed meat increases risk of cancer. This is despite the scientific evidence about a link being convincing.”

Last month, WCRF issued a warning against iced coffee, arguing that it is high calorie and causes obesity, which puts you at greater risk of cancer.

Looking around the Web, I couldn’t find much U.S. coverage of the ham sandwich news flash.

That may be because American school lunches have deteriorated to the point where a decent ham sandwich, let’s say on whole wheat with a slice of tomato, would qualify as health food in some schools.

See my June 12 post, School lunch snapshot: say cheese, which reveals that the favorite lunch in Chicago Public Schools is now nachos, served daily. In other cities, kids just hit the vending machines for a box of Gummi Bears.

This fare is tolerated by school boards because they actually produce badly-needed income in these days of budget austerity.

They’d probably be doing their students a favor by adding an old-fashioned ham sandwich to the menu once in a while – a yeah, maybe even an iced coffee.

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Pssst. Hey, buddy. You wanna buy some … berries?

It’s called Synsepalum dulcificum — Miracle Fruit to its devotees, who host and attend parties where guests engage in “flavor tripping.” The West African berry has a small, cult-like following because its kicks involve one thing and one thing only: altering the perception of your taste buds.

So, don’t look for a new film genre based on Miracle Fruit – say, Cheech & Chong Up In Seeds, for example. Flavor tripping is something that Harold and Kumar might do 10 years down the road, when they both have houses and families in the burbs and a bunch of young professional friends who want to do something edgy with no mind-altering repercussions.

Here’s what happens when you ingest the fruit: Everything sour tastes sweet. You could take a swig of vinegar and it would taste just like maple syrup. A radish would taste like a bon-bon.

News coverage of this phenomenon is very often wrapped in drug references. That gives the party circuit an eccentric twist in a culture that frowns upon such social atrocities as smoking, drinking, and consuming fatty/ salty snacks.

Chill, man – this is just a berry. And it comes from the earth. And it’s expensive, which adds to the allure.

Each Miracle Fruit berry costs about $5 a hit each. Here’s a description of a recent Miracle Fruit party in one of the Canadian papers:

“Mr. Stewart, 30, brings out the small dish of 20 berries that were flown in on dry ice from Miami that morning at the relatively reasonable rate of $5 apiece. They’re only semi-thawed, and we’re told to bite lightly, remove the skins with our tongues and slowly suck the flesh off the large pit.

“ ‘Do not eat the pit,’ Mr. Stewart says in the tone one imagines having come over the speakers at Woodstock warning the kids off the brown acid. We all swish and suck. Someone accidentally bites his pit and looks over, concerned. Mr. Stewart reiterates. ‘Do not swallow the pits.’ He never says what will happen if we do.”

Miracle Fruit got a push toward the underground by the federal Food and Drug Administration, which decided that it couldn’t be marketed for health-related purposes. Advocates proposed that diabetics could use the active ingredient to make foods taste sweet when they’re really as sour as a gym locker.

Still, it seems to be available on the Web. So here’s your chance to experience altered taste, not an altered state. Party on.

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Finally, here’s a national health care plan all Americans can rally around: The government sends a coupon packet to each household for up to 25 percent off Advil Gel Caps, Band-Aids and tongue depressors at Wal-Mart and other participating stores.

This program has several advantages. First, it would have a very low impact on the federal budget since the Federal Reserve already has the printing presses humming at full bore. So, no big deal to slide some new plates in and run off 10, 20, 50 million coupons.

Plus, imagine all the photo ops between White House officials and Blue Dog Democrats. Shaking hands, grinning the sweet smile of victory as they clutch one of the beautiful four-color coupons with raised lettering from the packet.

And I think that the new National Coupon Disbursement Program (NCDP) would even earn the grudging support of America’s top health care experts, including Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly.

But they were right, of course. The public option has proven to be just too controversial, since it might interfere with profits rightfully owed to American insurance companies and pharmaceutical producers.

This has outraged ma and pa America, who have been piling into health care hearings around the country, nearly hysterical over potential corporate income losses.

White House officials appeared to finally back off over the weekend. “All I’m saying is, though, that the public option, whether we have it or we don’t have it, is not the entirety of health care reform,” President Obama said at a town hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colorado. “This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it.”

Of course, the NCDP bill will have to be scrutinized carefully by Congress for possible taxpayer savings. For example, do we actually need the raised lettering? Does it have to be four-color printing?

Why couldn’t we just have Joe Biden run them off on a black and white copy machine?

All good, solid talking points and I am sure that each one will be thoroughly vented by Mr. Beck and other health care watchdogs.

Because as he and so many other critics have pointed out time after time, what’s the rush?

Do we really want some government death panel to pull the plug on health care reform when it’s struggling on life support?

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You know something’s become an integral part of the culture when psychology journals start doing research projects on it. So it is with Facebook, which attracted the attention of Canadian academics for its ability to shake up relationships among college students.

The innocuous “What’s on your mind?” window sometimes draws users into revealing things better left unsaid, according to graduate students at the University of Guelph near Toronto. Their work, recently published in the journal, CyberPsychology & Behaviour, claims Facebook chatter triggers new forms of jealousy.

“Part of the issue with information on Facebook is that it lacks certain context,” lead author Amy Muise told Reuters. “So there could be things posted on your partner’s wall that you really don’t know what it means.”

Muise and colleagues conducted an anonymous online survey of 308 undergraduate Facebook users – 75 percent of whom were women. They found that many Facebook posters get caught up in “a feedback loop.”

They see a wall comment, get suspicious and start combing through their partner’s pages, looking for – and often finding – other suspicious postings.

Samantha Siciliano, an incoming freshman at Quinnipiac University from North Adams, Mass, explained: “If your boyfriend is calling or texting another girl, you can’t really see it. But on Facebook, you can see it and so can everyone else.

“So in a way, you do get jealous because he might be hanging his dirty laundry, and not only are you seeing it, but other people are, too.”

Of course, Facebook isn’t the first cyber phenomenon to influence real-life relationships. There has been an impact from the earliest introduction of chat rooms and cyber porn. But online social networks have added a new, stronger psychological element over the last five years.

Facebook, Twitter, and other networks have affected people’s professional lives as well. For example, a woman in the UK recently lost her job over a Facebook posting – forgetting that her boss had access to her material as well.

She wrote: “OMG, I hate my job!! My boss is a total pervvy wanker and is always making me do shit just to piss me off!!”

He wrote back and said (I’ve edited the post): “I guess you forgot about adding me on here… don’t bother coming in tomorrow … and yes, I’m serious.”

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