September 2016


A roller coaster ride can shake things up for kidney stone patients. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson via Wikimedia Commons)

Got kidney stones? Head to the nearest state fair or theme park and hop on a roller coaster.

It’s a lot cheaper than going to a medical clinic for shock wave therapy and it’s also a lot more fun.

A new Michigan State University study concludes that a ride on a roller coaster helps people pass kidney stones with a close to 70 percent success rate.

“Basically, I had patients telling me that after riding a particular roller coaster at Walt Disney World, they were able to pass their kidney stone,” said David Wartinger, a professor emeritus in the Department of Osteopathic Surgical Specialties. “I even had one patient say he passed three different stones after riding multiple times.”

A one-day ticket to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando costs $105 while shock wave therapy — known as lithotripsy — runs around $4,000. And plus when you finish with the lithotripsy procedure you can’t go right over to the sidewalk vendor and order a lemon-lime snowball.

However, note this caveat from Wartinger: “In all, we used 174 kidney stones of varying shapes, sizes and weights to see if each model worked on the same ride and on two other roller coasters. Big Thunder Mountain was the only one that worked. We tried Space Mountain and Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and both failed.”

So if you think Aeorsmith is going to help you pass your kidney stone, Dream On.

Also, your position on the roller coaster makes a difference. Sitting in the first few cars only led to 16 percent stone passage, while sitting in the last car resulted in a 64 percent passage rate.

Even if you’ve already had lithotripsy, Wartinger says tiny pieces can remain in the kidney and blossom into bigger problems later. The solution is to head to the park.

“The best way to potentially eliminate this from happening is to try going on a roller coaster after a treatment when the remnants are still small,” he said.


The public option — a health insurance program that would be sponsored by the government to compete directly against private insurers — has been getting some attention in the presidential election campaign.

Hillary Clinton said in July that she would revive efforts to offer a public option nationwide.

But now California is considering implementing the concept as a state plan, a reaction to further consolidation in the private insurance marketplace.

Proposed mergers include Anthem and Cigna — and the higher profile effort to merge Aetna and Humana, which the U.S. Justice Department has blocked. It makes sense that fewer health insurers means less competition.

The public option was considered by Congress in 2010 as it debated the Affordable Care Act. But it was ditched because there was some distaste for a government-run program that would compete with private enterprise.

But with insurers like Aetna and UnitedHealth pulling out from the private marketplace, a public option makes sense.

“I think we should strongly consider a public option in California,” Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones said, according to Kaiser Health News. “It will require a lot of careful thought and work, but I think it’s something that ought to be on the table because we continue to see this consolidation in an already consolidated health insurance market.”

One factor working against the public option in California: The ACA’s healthcare exchange marketplace is working well in the state and there already is “robust consumer choice,” according to an insurance industry spokeswoman quoted by KHN.

“We don’t think we need to mess with something that isn’t broken.”

Twenty million Americans would lose health care coverage under proposals by Republican Donald Trump and his plan would increase the federal deficit by as much as $41 billion, according to a new study released by the Rand Corporation Friday.

The study compared plans offered by Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, although a Rand news release on the project said the analysis was challenging because both candidates’ proposals lacked “specific detail, especially on implementation.”

cm-2000Three out of four Clinton health care plans also increase the federal deficit — from $3.5 billion to $90.4 billion — but they increase the number of insured people and decrease out-of-pocket spending among those insured.

A Clinton proposal to offer a “public option” health insurance plan — considered but rejected by Congress in 2010 — would reduce the federal deficit by $700 million, according to the Rand analysis.

The centerpiece of Trump’s plan is to repeal the Affordable Care Act and allow tax deductions for the full cost of health care premiums.

“The combined effect of the Trump proposals is to decrease the number of insured by 20.3 million and increase the federal deficit by $5.8 billion,” said Christine Eibner, Rand senior economist. “The combined effect of the Clinton proposals is to increase the number of insured by 9.1 million and increase the federal deficit by $88.5 billion.”

She added: “One thing that may surprise readers is that repealing the ACA increases the federal deficit, which may seem counterintuitive. The ACA has several mechanisms for raising revenue and reducing federal spending, including changes to Medicare payments; an increase in the Medicare hospital insurance tax for people with high incomes; and various taxes including those on health plans, medical devices, branded prescription drugs, and tanning services.”


In a global race with other kids, those from the U.S. would probably be huffing and puffing their way to the finish line, a new study says.

A team of researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario hooked up with the University of North Dakota to study aerobic fitness levels of kids in 50 different countries.
They ran a 20-meter shuffle or “bleep test” — a standard fitness evaluation — on healthy kids age 9-17.

They found that the fittest kids overall came from Tanzania, Iceland, Estonia, Norway and Japan. The U.S. placed 47th out of 50 and Mexico was in last place.

“If all the kids in the world were to line up for a race, the average American child would finish at the foot of the field,” said Grant Tomkinson, senior author of the study and an associate professor at the University of North Dakota.

It could be a coincidence, but I doubt it, that when you look at 2016 estimates of how much each country spends on Internet gaming the U.S. ranks second behind China, even with their 1.5 billion population compared to 324 million in the U.S.

But you can’t blame it all on gaming time, since Japan ranks third in gaming expenditures and still has the fifth fittest kids.

Experts say a lot of it also has a lot to do with time spent watching TV and gobbling down fast food.

In 2014, the federal Centers for Disease Control estimated that more than half of kids ages 12-15 are out of shape.

(Image credit: By Caremate – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Did you hear the one about the elderly couple who walked into an exercise room and busted out laughing?

Yeah, the whole event turned out to be a real knee-slapper — and that was the point.

These days exercise trends turn over faster than a pair of dice on a Vegas craps table. And now seniors have gotten into the trendy fitness craze with LaughActive, during which they engage in “playful simulated laughter” during flexibility workouts.

The program was the subject of a study by Georgia State University. It focused on older adults in four Atlanta-area assisted living facilities.

happy_smiley_faceResearchers found that giggling, chuckling, and other forms of mirth improved participants’ mental health, endurance and confidence in their ability to complete the workout. The findings were published in the journal, The Gerontologist.

At first, the participants just “go through the motions of laughing,” Georgia State said in a press release published Thursday. But seeing other folks forcing a laugh becomes sort of funny in itself, according to the researchers, and pretty soon everybody’s enjoying uproarious, genuine laughter.

In any case, a forced laugh is just as good for the body as the real thing, researchers said. And the health benefits are no joke.

“The combination of laughter and exercise may influence older adults to begin exercising and to stick with the program,” said Celeste Greene, lead author of the study and a graduate of Georgia State’s Gerontology Institute. “We want to help older adults have a positive experience with exercise, so we developed a physical activity program that specifically targets exercise enjoyment through laughter.”

Professionals who work at senior facilities can get trained in LaughActive, a course that comes with “pre-formatted LaughActive exercise program workouts.”

Of course, all Americans want to be ship-shape these days. Everybody age 9 to 90 is getting into the act with newfangled fitness programs fresh off the design board.

For example, popular programs for younger folks include, according to Shape Magazine, something called Animal Flow, which “taps into your primal instincts to get you moving your body in ways you’ve never imagined before.”

That one is aimed at men, but for women there are Pole Workouts, which the magazine describes as “sweat inducing, super-effective workouts with the added benefits of learning how to flaunt your curves and celebrate your body.”

Then there’s Katami 4X4 which is co-ed. It’s “based on the science of one-minute burst intervals,” Shape says.

Luckily, you can now get exercise without doing much of anything. For example, while you’re watching TV you can fidget, which will burn up to 350 calories per day, according to

I Googled “how to exercise without doing anything” and found a program called Life Hacking. Most of the suggestions involve some sort of movement, but one is just improving your posture at your desk. Keep your back straight for one-minute intervals.

You’ll feel like a million bucks.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Swaggering down the sidewalk may soon get you extra attention from the folks watching you on closed circuit TV cameras.

Researchers from the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth in England found that “exaggerated movement” of the upper and lower body as one walks is a signal that the person may be up to no good.

“When walking, the body naturally rotates a little; as an individual steps forward with their left foot, the left side of the pelvis will move forward with the leg, the left shoulder will move back and the right shoulder forward to maintain balance,” said Liam Satchell, lead researcher for the study released Tuesday. “An aggressive walk is one where this rotation is exaggerated.”


Smile (but don’t swagger) as you pass this surveillance camera in Memphis. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers used 3D motion capture technology to analyze thorax and pelvis movements as well as the speed of the subject’s gait.

They correlated the analysis with personality tests intended to guage traits like extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

“People are generally aware that there is a relationship between swagger and psychology. Our research provides empirical evidence to confirm that personality is indeed manifest in the way we walk,” Satchell said.

Linking the way a person walks and his propensity for aggression is more than just an academic exercise. It could be used to spot potential criminals.

He suggested that if closed circuit TV cameras could be used by observers “to recognize the aggressive walk demonstrated in this research, their ability to recognize impending crimes could be improved further.”

Film buffs might recall The Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg movie with Tom Cruise and Colin Farrell, in which a “PreCrime” force collars crooks before they have a chance to do the deed.

Life immitating art?



Preparation of the flu vaccine involves injecting the virus into an egg. Many people are getting the vaccine earlier these days. (Credit: U.S. Food and Drug Administration)

Drug stores, supermarkets and other retail outlets are using early flu shots as a marketing tool “to get people into the store to buy other things,” Tom Charland, CEO of Merchant Medicine, said in a Kaiser Health News story published today.

The stores’ approach of delivering medical services “in an on-demand way” appeals to millennials, said Charland, whose Merchant Medicine group tracks the walk-in clinic industry.

This year’s flu vaccine was already available in August. But some experts say it may be too soon to cover the entire upcoming flu season. Getting a shot anytime is better than not at all, experts said, but the ideal time is between Halloween and Thanksgiving.


Eisenhower and Kennedy meet after the election in December 1960. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In this health- and youth-obsessed culture, Americans devour everything they can get their hands on about diet, weight loss and longevity. So I guess it should be no surprise that this preoccupation has finally found its way into presidential elections.

Modern candidates have always owed the electorate a medical report, but this year personal medical issues have become a topic of daily debate and speculation. It threatens to brush aside discussion of more pressing topics like the the student loan crisis, the shaky job market, and the country’s deteriorating infrastructure.

Donald Trump was criticized after his doctor issued a report that said his health was “astonishingly excellent.” Hillary Clinton has increasingly come under the media microscope for a bout with pneumonia and for leaving a 9/11 event after becoming “overheated” on Sunday.

President Barack Obama’s former physician, David Scheiner, has said Americans “need much more medical information from these candidates” due to their ages — Clinton is 68 and Trump is 70.

There’s a new edge to this issue, though, that I think reflects the country’s growing obsession with subjects such as weight reduction, miracle foods (which is it this month — blueberries or quinoa?), exercise and youthful appearance.

If health and fitness had been such a critical issue in past presidential elections, some of our most revered leaders might never have had the chance to make their marks on history.

Dwight Eisenhower was nearing the end of his first term in 1955 when he had a heart attack and ended up hospitalized in an oxygen tent. He announced a few months later he was running for re-election.

A year after he walloped Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower suffered a stroke and had trouble completing sentences.

He recovered and went on to complete one of the most successful presidencies of the 20th century, finishing up with a brilliant coup de grace farewell address about the dangers of the military industrial complex.

Lyndon Johnson had a severe heart attack in 1955, and although it was no secret, Johnson’s health was hardly a matter of daily debate when he ran for president in 1960 and 1964.

John F. Kennedy was more secretive about his health problems, which he had been grappling with since childhood. He was hospitalized in college for intestinal diseases, and suffered from ulcers and colitis as well as Addison’s disease.

In a 2002 article, The Atlantic said: “Kennedy’s charismatic appeal rested heavily on the image of youthful energy and good health he projected. This image was a myth. The real story, disconcerting though it would have been to contemplate at the time, is actually more heroic. It is a story of iron-willed fortitude in mastering the difficulties of chronic illness.”

Ronald Reagan had his own health problems, including a battle with pneumonia in 1945. As president, he underwent surgery for colon cancer in 1986.

Many American presidents and high-ranking officials have been treated for skin cancer and other serious illnesses.

The one thing all candidates and elected officials have in common is that they’re human and have to cope with illness, and sometimes chronic disease. Health problems need to be reported but not obsessed over to the exclusion of other issues that have a direct impact on the future of the country.

Reagan was 73 when he ran for re-election in 1984 against Walter Mondale. He skillfully diffused the age issue.

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said during a debate. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

Even Mondale laughed.


Humans have dreamed of chatting with robots for decades, as this photo of Electro, a 1938 robot built by Westinghouse, and his dog, Sparko, shows. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Google research arm DeepMind announced a breakthrough last week that allows speech generated by artificial intelligence to sound just like you’re talking to your neighbor over the backyard fence.

The technology is still a few years away from practical application, but in the not-too-distant future you will probably be unable to tell if a phone call you’ve picked up is from a real person waiting to go on a coffee break or a computer that only takes a break during a software update.

The program that produced the audio breakthrough is called WaveNet, which is described by the company as “a deep generative model of raw audio waveforms.

“We show that WaveNets are able to generate speech which mimics any human voice and which sounds more natural than the best existing Text-to-Speech systems, reducing the gap with human performance by over 50 percent.”

Google maintains that “Allowing people to converse with machines is a long-standing dream of human-computer interaction.” Actually, computers understand human speech pretty well, as anyone who has been assisted by Siri can attest.

But it’s the machine’s response that comes up a little short. Current technology involves using a database of short speech fragments that are pieced together to form the appropriate comment.

You can spot this system a mile away when you’re talking to a robot service operator for your local utility provider, your bank, or online store.

But with WaveNet, it’ll be just like having a conversation with your Uncle Frank. How does it work? DeepMind researchers describe it best:

“It is a fully convolutional neural network, where the convolutional layers have various dilation factors that allow its receptive field to grow exponentially with depth and cover thousands of timesteps.”

Anything that complicated has got to be some sort of … well, breakthrough.

See how far we’ve come from the Robot in Lost in Space? All he could say was: “Danger, Will Robinson!”

These days he could say: “Will, I don’t want to alarm you but you probably should head back to the ship. There’s a giant carrot sneaking up behind you.”


FOREST PHARMACEUTICALS: BaYaka Pygmies living in the Republic of Congo don’t have easy access to a CVS, Walgreen’s or Walmart. But they have an incredible knowledge of local medicinal plants to help them treat illness and keep them well.

Researchers from University College London studied the use of 33 different plants by 219 people living in four different camps. Their results were published in the Sept. 8 issue of Current Biology.

They found that knowledge about the plants and treatments were passed between couples and extended families and even families living in other camps.

Plants were most often used for treating digestive problems and respiratory disorders.

By the way, the annual inflation rate on these natural treatments: Zero percent.