April 2010

What would you do if you had to go without any media contact for 24 hours? No cell phone, no TV, no texting. That was the assignment given to 200 students at the University of Maryland in a study that got some press last week.

The conclusion was that many of these kids were addicted to various forms of media, and actually suffered withdrawal when they weren’t able to access their favorite Facebook, Myspace, or Twitter social network or even log onto their laptop.

The study was conducted by UM’s International Center for Media and the Public Agenda (ICMPA). The results do not bode well for a society that needs nationwide controls over cell phone, iPhone and iPad use while driving.

“I clearly am addicted and the dependency is sickening,” one student said. “I feel like most people these days are in a similar situation, for between having a Blackberry, a laptop, a television, and an iPod, people have become unable to shed their media skin.”

The addiction angle to this story is what’s drawing the attention of reporters and commentators. Within the mental health profession, there’s debate over what kinds of social behavior may or may not constitute addiction.

That issue aside, it’s easy to understand why, when you’re on the road, it seems every other person behind the wheel has a cell phone plastered to their ear. I’m sure there’s also a growing number surfing the Web for directions or catching up on gossip on Facebook.

In a blog accompanying the study, one student said: “Texting and IMing my friends gives me a constant feeling of comfort. When I did not have those two luxuries, I felt quite alone and secluded from my life. Although I go to a school with thousands of students, the fact that I was not able to communicate with anyone via technology was almost unbearable.“

Another wrote: “Honestly, this experience was probably the single worst experience I have ever had.

“I got back from class around 5, frantically craving some technology and to look through my phone so I cheated a little bit and checked my phone. From my phone, I accessed text messages, close to a dozen missed calls, glanced at some emails, and acknowledged many twitter @replies from followers wondering where I was and if I was ok.

“At that moment, I couldn’t take it anymore being in my room…alone…with nothing to occupy my mind so I gave up shortly after 5pm. I think I had a good run for about 19 hours and even that was torture.”

What are the chances this person remains off-line when he gets into the car?

This week, the Florida Senate voted 34-4 to ban texting while driving, but analysts predict the bill will die in the House. But even if it did pass, drivers could only get a ticket if they’d been stopped for something else.

Hopefully, one day soon, lawmakers will get their priorities straight.
Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kiwanja/3170279816/

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An elderly neighbor recently moved into what’s called an independent living facility. When I heard about it, I assumed it was like an assisted living facility but there are subtle differences.

The folks involved in senior independent living can function on their own – to an extent. But they do require some backup, especially in the area of meal preparation. The facility has individual apartments that look a lot like something you might rent for your college sophomore.

There is a small kitchen, stove, refrigerator and microwave. There’s a dining room table. The refrigerator, unlike in the example of your college sophomore, is not stocked with Bud Light.

Someone comes in once a week and changes the bedding. And if the resident doesn’t feel like preparing a meal, one can be delivered to the apartment for a small additional fee, in our neighbor’s case, $3.

There are other amenities. There’s an exercise room, bus service to shopping centers and medical services. There’s a small theater where they show weekly feature films.

And there is also a central dining room where many of the residents congregate for mealtime. In a purely social context, it reminded me of lunch hour at the school cafeteria, where cliques sit at “their table” with other people they’ve gotten to know.

The neighbor asked my wife and I to dinner on Sunday and we accepted the invitation.

We were advised to appear at the entrance to the dining hall promptly at 4:30 p.m. This is a bit early for me and had I known about it sooner I would have skipped lunch. But that turned out to be no problem because there was a wait and the portions were small.

Like a regular restaurant, each table had a menu – but just one menu – in a holder in the center. I sat down and opened it up. There were three choices: A.) beef; B.) chicken; and C.) fish. I chose B, my wife went with A and our hostess went with C.

For a beverage, I ordered regular coffee and the first cup was hot and strong. The refills were lukewarm so I sipped rather than drank.

The major difference between a dining experience here, or at the restaurant around the corner, was the size of the plate. I had a small piece of chicken breast, along with about two tablespoons full of rice, and the same amount of pureed spinach.

I expected low salt, low fat – something tasteless. It was actually pretty good. And who needs a half-pound cheeseburger?

The wait staff, comprised of young women, were attentive and friendly. The hit of the evening (late afternoon) was a 19-year-old girl who made the rounds from table to table, the tips of her shoulder-length brown hair dyed orange/ strawberry red.

The question everyone had: Why the red hair? Then on to the next table. Why is your hair red? And to the next. Why is your ….

Something she did for her birthday party, she said. Just a gag. Told the story at our table, then on to the next.

A lot of quiet chatter.

The two elderly men sitting at a nearby table, partners in business, maybe, or longtime Red Sox fans. Possibly Yankees fans. Outside chance, Indians fans.

Or conspirators in a common political goal and now sharing meal A, B, or C.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/andresrueda/3206010474/

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Americans are puzzled by the new health care reform law and most of them haven’t the foggiest notion of how it will affect them personally, according to a comprehensive report released yesterday by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

They’re too bewildered to be angry, as many cable news pundits maintain, but they aren’t jumping for joy, either. The only provisions that seem to get high levels of support are those that go into effect later this year, according to the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

People favor, by large majorities, the government’s plan to close the “doughnut hole” in the Medicare drug plan, prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, and even directly control premiums with federal oversight.

Aside from health care itself, perhaps the most startling and disturbing result is that cable news outlets are now the source where the greatest numbers of Americans get their information, with TV network news and newspapers trailing far behind.

Almost as many people get their information from family and friends (10 percent) as get their information from newspapers (12 percent).

But 36 percent turn to cable news and cable news Websites, more than double the number who watch TV network news (16 percent). Only 9 percent say they get most of their news from radio.

Since so many Americans are now getting much of their information from the vast, empty wasteland of cable TV – where fact, myth and opinion are seamlessly interwoven by partisan politicos – it’s easy to see why there’s so much confusion.

“People are struggling to understand how the law will affect them and their families and to separate fact from political spin,” said Kaiser President and CEO Drew Altman.

To be fair, even people who have taken the time to seriously analyze the new law aren’t entirely sure what will happen in 2014. Part of that is because nobody knows how the health care landscape will change from now until then, with insurers fine-tuning their products and employers reacting to those changes.

Insurance companies could spend their time looking for legal loopholes, or they might begin to view health care system changes from a public relations viewpoint. Employers probably will start offering more wellness products. In turn, deductibles could surge.

The headline from the survey is that 55 percent of Americans say they’re confused by the health care law, and 56 percent don’t know how it will impact them personally. Overall, 46 percent view the law favorably; 40 percent unfavorably.

Kaiser asked about emotions generated by the debate and final passage of the bill. Large pluralities talked about relief (40 percent); or anxiety (42 percent). There was a split (45 percent) among people who said they were pleased or displeased.

Only 30 percent said they were angry – something you may find surprising in light of all the froth stirred up on cable TV news shows.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4273168957/

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Do physicians make better lawmakers than the average Joe? Or is it just that they see an opening because health care is on everyone’s mind, and this is their chance to jump into the Washington fray?

There are 16 physicians in the U.S. House and Senate now, but that number could triple if a new batch of announced candidates are elected this fall. Physicians are running in unprecedented numbers, encouraged, I’m sure, by the explosive health care reform issue.

In reality though, I believe it comes down – mostly – to partisan politics.

Of the 14 physicians in the House and two in the Senate, five are Democrats and 11 are Republicans. And the overwhelming majority of the new crop are Republicans.

In all, 47 physicians are gearing up to run in November, according to USA Today – 41 Republicans and six Democrats. Physician involvement has been creeping up, with 30 physicians running in the 2008 general election (including Jack Kevorkian in Michigan’s 9th District) compared with 22 in 2006.

Many, following Oklahoma physician Sen. Tom Coburn, are irate about the health care reform law. And like Chris Cates, a cardiologist from Blairsville, Georgia, they are punching the right conservative buttons.

Cates said in a news release: “This election is about more than health and more than patient care, this is about a growing epidemic of government intervention in our lives that must end now.”

In Tennessee’s 4th District, general practitioner Scott DesJarlais said: “Never has there been a time that Americans have felt as misrepresented by their government as they do right now. In the past few years, we have witnessed our country being swallowed by Big Government, runaway spending and increasing deficits that will plague generations to come. It’s time for true, conservative leadership for Tennessee’s Fourth District and that is why I have decided to run for Congress.”

Family physician John Flemming is running in Louisiana’s 4th District under the banner: “Conservative Values Create Positive Solutions.”

He is also fighting for: “Controlling Illegal Immigration, Cutting Spending, Lowering Taxes, Defeating Terrorism, Protecting Right to Life, and Traditional Values.”

Will this year’s crop of candidates do better at the polls than physicians have in the past?

Physicians are generally viewed as smart, savvy and wise. Add warm and caring. It’s no mistake that DesJarlais is wearing his white lab coat in the photo at the top of his Website.

Yes, they do have special insight into the health care system, but only from one side of the equation. It remains to be seen whether Americans now believe they might also have the right prescription for overall government reform.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevinwburkett/3414558363/

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Quite honestly, Froot Loops have always fascinated me. The brand is a marketing marvel, for one thing.

Take the mascot, Toucan Sam, for example. He was originally voiced by Bugs Bunny’s Mel Blanc, although the duties have been handed over to an actor with an English accent (but performed by a Canadian, as it turns out).

So I was interested when we received last Sunday, along with our local newspaper, a sample box of Froot Loops, “which now provides fiber,” you’ll be happy to know. In a separate caption below, it adds: “A great way to keep kids healthy.”

And it does indeed contain, according to the box, 3 grams of dietary fiber, or about 10 percent of your daily requirement. It also has 12 vitamins and minerals and one gram of fat per serving.

Well. Fair enough, but the ingredients list for Froot Loops starts with a familiar breakfast treat: sugar. By weight, Froot Loops is 41 percent sugar.

There is some whole grain in it, yes. But all of those luscious colors: Red # 40; Blue # 2; turmeric color; yellow # 6; zinc oxide; annatto color; blue # 1. (OK, it also contains “natural orange, lemon, cherry, raspberry, blueberry lime and other natural flavors.”)

The New York Times weighed in on some of this in an article last September on Froot Loops and the Smart Choice program, which has since been suspended. The Smart Choices program, backed by the nation’s food manufacturers, offered consumers peace of mind with a green checkmark on the packaging.

Not only did Froot Loops make the grade, but also the breakfast cornerstone, Cocoa Krispies.

Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told The Times: “These are horrible choices.”

Smart Choices eventually grabbed the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. Smart Choices voluntarily suspended the program last fall, while the FDA develops “front-of-package” nutritional standards.

“The Smart Choices Program shares that exact goal, and was designed to provide a voluntary front-of-package labeling program that could promote informed food choices and help consumers construct healthier diets,” the organization said in a news release. “We continue to believe the Smart Choices Program is an important step in the right direction.”

So, when you receive your sample box of Froot Loops which now provides fiber but has the “same great taste,” don’t expect to see the consumer friendly green checkmark up top.

I must add that Kellogg’s, the manufacturer of Froot Loops, is making additional efforts in the name of national health. Kids who take the time to check out www.frootloops.com, may be greeted with a message that says: “Turn off your computer. Jump out of your chair. Go outside and play!”

That does sound like a smart choice.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kl_paige/3637587752/

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I got into running as a casual hobby because it’s cheap and convenient. I don’t spend massive amounts on shoes or clothing. But in addition to being outdoors, I like the flexibility of it. You hit the road whenever you’re ready.

And unlike many other exercise options, running is free. Until you get to the competitive race events.

I participated in my first half-marathon over the weekend. I was surprised when I started adding up the costs.

For my $70 entry fee (including tax), I got a t-shirt, a few ounces of Gatorade or water along the route, a whole bottle of generic supermarket water at the finish line, and a steel bottle opener with the marathon’s logo painted on it.

About a thousand people competed in the Gulf Coast Half Marathon in Pensacola Beach, Florida. I understand that not everyone pays the same entry fee. But do the math and you’ll see why marathons have become big business – not to mention the impact on neighboring restaurants and bars.

The runners came from 28 states. So for many of them, you’d have to include gas, lodging and food to the cost of the competition. If you just take the cost of one night in a hotel at $100, you’re looking at $172 for a 13.1 mile event (you have to pay $1 to get on and off the barrier island.) That comes out to $13.13 per mile.

Other more major events are piling on the fees, according to March 23 article in The Biz Runner. The basic entry fee for the Chicago Marathon, for example, is $135. But that’s just for starters.

With the added extra options, like hospitality arrangements for both participants and spectators, a flash drive loaded with your race photos, and a post-race pasta dinner, the price maxes out at $711 – or $27 per mile.

The March 21 Los Angeles Marathon, which drew the most participants in its 25-year history, also offered a menu of options. The entrance fee itself was $125, but add a training program and your total was $210, and you could have dinner with former USC coach Pete Carroll for $35.

There were 26,054 registrants and 22,361 finishers.

More of these events seem to be popping up, by the way. It was the first time for the Gulf Coast Half Marathon. Further north, there was the inaugural Oak Barrel Half Marathon in Lynchburg, Tennessee.

Everyone who finished received an award made out of genuine Jack Daniels oak barrel wood. The entry fee, like the one in Florida, was $65, t-shirt included.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazyneighborlady/415534472/

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If your menu contains daily servings of fruits, salads, fish, beans, yogurt and tofu, you may consider yourself on the straight track to good health. And in fact, these foods have been shown to be heart-healthy.

But a new study contends that this so-called “modern diet” may actually put consumers at greater risk for depression.

On the other hand, traditional fare like beef, lamb, fruits, vegetables and whole grains might keep you looking at the sunnier side of life.

The study, which appears in the March issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, focused on three basic categories of diets in Australian women. The first was called the “traditional diet,” which consisted of not only lamb and beef, but also fish, as well as the fruits and vegetables.

This diet has no processed foods, however.

A second “western diet” revolves around things like processed meats, potato chips, white bread, sugar and pizza. And finally the “modern diet” was rich in salads, tofu, and the other foods described above.

Researchers then compared people in these basic diet categories – taking into consideration other factors like smoking and alcohol use – and assessed their levels of depression. And some interesting trends emerged.

They were not surprised that people on the western diet had increased levels of depression. But they did not expect to find that consumers of the modern diet also had increased levels. Women who ate the traditional diets, meanwhile, fared the best.

The results puzzled researchers at the University of Melbourne in Australia. One possibility is that vegetables in the traditional diet, rather than salads, for example, are superior depression fighters, Felice Jacka, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, told Psychiatric News on April 2.

Or, it’s also possible that some people already suffering from depression switched to the modern diet in an attempt to feel better.

A thousand women were surveyed for the study.

Photo: Traditionally served leg of lamb (Flickr.com)

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I’m a movie fanatic and usually see one new flick every week. And, I have to admit, I’ve often steered clear of AMC theaters unless there’s something unique on the schedule.

My experience locally (South Florida market) is that AMC has more pre-film ads – they seem to go on and on. True, more and more theaters are spending additional time on advertising and previews. Still, it always seemed to me that AMC went a bit overboard.

But I have to give the company a thumbs-up for a new program they’ve put together for families with autistic kids. It’s called Sensory Friendly Films.

If you’re like me, when you go to a movie you don’t want to hear anyone talking, or chatting on a cell phone, or see someone texting a buddy. In a SFF showing, though, the lights get turned up, the sound gets turned down, and people can talk, shout and dance – anything that strikes their fancy.

(Also, people can bring in their own food, and there are no ads or previews.)

The idea stems from a request from a parent with an autistic child in Columbia, MD. AMC agreed to a special screening and 300 people, parents and kids, turned out.

So, they expanded the thing nationwide in partnership with the Autism Society of America. The screenings are once a month, always at 10 a.m. and take place 93 theaters in 47 cities in 30 states.

How to Train Your Dragon is the next one coming up on Saturday. The Autism Society link has the complete schedule and a list of cities and theaters.

What’s the big deal? Well, kids with autism experience sights and sounds differently than others do. So treating them to a movie can be tough.

In San Diego, Silvia Townsend told Time Magazine that a trip to a regular screening turned out to be a “horrible” experience for her son, Bailey, 12. “He was terrified when the lights turned off. And when the loud music started, he was covering his ears and started screaming in obvious pain.”

Other parents had similar experiences. A mother broached the idea of a special screening to AMC, and a theater manager in Maryland took her up on it. He sold the idea to AMC brass in Kansas City and the company launched the concept a couple of years ago. More cities are being added.

This is a classic win-win. Parents are happy, the kids get to see a stress-free movie – and the company gets some great publicity. Might even make you feel better about sitting through seemingly endless stream of ads and previews.

Photo: DreamWorks via Flikr http://www.flickr.com/photos/21214822@N02/4454658624/

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Republicans are talking about a drive to “repeal and replace” the health care legislation that has now become the law of the land. But that’s a virtually impossible task, even if their party wins majorities in the House and Senate this fall.

President Obama would surely veto any measure to repeal, and there’s no way – short of unemployment rising to 15 percent amid total economic collapse – that the opposition party would put together a large enough majority to overcome a veto.

So, we’re looking at an intact health care law into at least 2013. Unless….

Irate Republicans and their supporters (let’s include the Tea Partiers) do have another tool at their disposal. It’s called the United States Supreme Court.

Already, 11 states are challenging the federal health care law on constitutional grounds. Florida’s Attorney General, Bill McCollum, contends the law will be an unfair burden on the state’s taxpayers.

“The lawsuit is going to seek a declaration that the bill is unconstitutional on the basis that it manipulates the states into doing things that the state can’t afford,” he told Channel 2 News in Orlando.

Well, maybe, but since when does the Supreme Court care a rip about unfair tax burdens or unfunded mandates?

Another potential suit by Virginia’s Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II would be based on the 10th and 11th Amendments to the Constitution. These deal, basically, with states rights issues.

The 10th Amendment says: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

A more intriguing possibility is a challenge under the Commerce Clause. In essence, says Cuccinelli, the government cannot force citizens to engage in commerce.

As he explained: “Simply put, not buying insurance is not engaging in commerce. If you are not engaged in commerce, the federal government cannot regulate this inaction. Just being alive is not interstate commerce. If it were, Congress could regulate every aspect of our lives.”

I won’t pretend to weigh constitutional issues. But to me, this argument makes a certain amount of sense.

Pundits have compared this to state laws requiring car owners to purchase auto insurance. But the key difference is that no one is required to own a car.

(As its next piece of business, I’d like Congress to mandate that every citizen read Headline Health. There will be a brief quiz at the end of each post which will have to be filed with federal authorities.)

Mandating the purchase of a product from a private company – with the only exceptions being certain low-income people who would essentially need a waiver from the federal government – does seem to represent a new power ceded to Washington.

But whether it is or isn’t doesn’t actually matter. The Constitution is what the nine Supreme Court justices say it is. And it’s no secret that the conservatives hold a 5-4 majority that has, again and again, upheld portions of the Republican agenda.

Why would this time be any different?

A caveat: I’ve heard it pointed out that the Supreme Court won’t have a case to hear until the law goes into full effect in 2014. But what’s to stop reform opponents from using a Massachusetts test case, and fast-tracking it right up to the feds? The principle is the same – a government requirement to purchase health insurance.

Everyone’s attention has been focused on the 535 members of the House and Senate. But it may be that only five people really matter, and we all know who they are.

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clearlyambiguous/2149104300/

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