This Week’s Big Health Scare

News outlets are reporting that the “coronavirus” that was first detected in Wuhan, China is sweeping across that country, causing the Chinese government to try to quarantine entire cities of millions of people to try to stop the spread of the virus.  Nevertheless, cases have been reported in Thailand, Japan, and even in the United States, where a man in the state of Washington who recently returned from China was found to be infected.

106349531-1579718913219gettyimages-1195315493It seems like there is always some huge health disaster for us to worry about.  This week, it’s the Wuhan coronavirus.  Should we be concerned about it?

The link above is to an L.A. Times article that provides some basic information about the Wuhan coronavirus.  Coronaviruses are common in humans and some other animals, but the Wuhan variation is a new strain that hasn’t been seen before.  After some people began showing pneumonia-like symptoms, health officials traced the origin of the conditions back to a large seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, China.  Initial research indicates that the Wuhan strain may have come from the handling of snakes at the market, with the virus jumping from snakes to humans.  (At this point, one can almost hear Indiana Jones saying:  “Snakes!  Why does it always have to be snakes?”)

The key issue for most of us is determining how the virus is transmitted, and what we can do to avoid getting it.  The virus appears to be moving from human to human via the airborne route, which is why you see pictures of people in China wearing masks that cover their noses and mouths.  Viruses that are conveyed by air can spread rapidly and are the most difficult to contain.  And, from the reports of cases outside China, that’s what has happened here.  Still, it appears that some people are more prone to becoming infected than others — exactly why that may be so is one of the things researchers are examining — and severe illness, and death, has for the most part occurred only in people who are older and otherwise dealing with significant health issues.  The man from Washington infected with the virus, for example, is being monitored and is reported to be in good condition.

I tend to be a fatalist about these kinds of things.  I’ll pay attention to the news about the coronavirus, but I’m also content to let the CDC and other public health officials and scientists do their work and figure out how to deal with the Wuhan coronavirus, just as they have dealt with SARS and Ebola and other global health issues.  I’m confident that, if I need to go out and buy a mask, they’ll let me know.

The Flu Shot Factor

This year I got my first flu shot ever.  I hadn’t really thought about doing it before this year, because in the past — admittedly, probably about 10 years ago, or maybe more — I’d read somewhere that flu shots were in short supply and really should be reserved for the very young and the elderly.  So I’d forget about it, go through the flu season without a problem, and sympathize with those folks who were suffering through the flu, which always sounded pretty bad.

qjpgvmypc7pycbp7xu9cp8This year, though, the flu shot factor was seemingly inescapable.  First Kish brought it up and said I should get one, and I always heed her counsel.  Then the Red Sox Fan, no doubt in coordination with Kish, started bombarding me with news articles and opinion pieces saying that unless everyone got a flu shot, the flu shots wouldn’t be as effective in preventing the spread of the condition.  The Red Sox Fan knew that the “civic obligation” card hadn’t been played before and was likely to have some resonance with a presumably responsible member of the community.

And finally, when I went to the doctor for a check-up recently, he said I should get a flu shot.  “Shouldn’t those be reserved for the very young and the elderly?” I asked earnestly, hoping to be relieved of the civic obligation guilt.  He looked at me doubtfully in response, no doubt wondering by what definition I was not falling into the “elderly” category, then said:  “Don’t worry, we’ve got enough.”  He also added, reassuringly, that this year’s flu shot is based on a dead virus, rather than a live one, and therefore is safer.  With the unanimous agreement of Kish, my doctor, and the Red Sox Fan, and to address the crushing sense of civic obligation, the choice was inescapable.  I told the doctor I was fine with getting one, he promptly darted out of the room and summoned his nurse, who came immediately to give me a shot in the shoulder before I could change my mind.  The whole process was over before I knew it.

So, I’ve gotten a flu shot, and I’m happy to report that so far I’ve not gotten the flu.  I’ve also been looking at the news to see whether a flu epidemic has been sweeping the nation, and while I’ve seen some indications that the flu has been nasty here and there, it looks like so far Columbus has escaped the worst of it.  I’m feeling pretty good about my decision and the help I’ve given to my fellow citizens in Ohio’s capital city.

There’s no need to thank me, really.

Heeding The Call Of The Water

Here’s something to remember the next time you are planning a vacation or an extended holiday:  being near the water is good for you.  In fact, it’s really good for you.  Whether it’s ocean, lake, pond, river, or stream, proximity to water has measurable benefits for people — physically, mentally, and emotionally.

img_8827An increasing body of scientific and medical evidence confirms the therapeutic effects of “blue spaces” and the state of “outdoor wellbeing.”  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s taken a beach vacation or gone on a fishing trip.  The presence of the water tends to draw people outside, where they get more sunshine and enjoy the benefits of vitamin D.  They get more exercise because they are in attractive physical locations that motivate them to walk the beach or hike along the lakefront.  The sounds of ocean surf or running streams are calming.  The combination of exercise, fresh air, and pleasant sounds help visitors to get a good night’s sleep.

But there’s more to it.  Water tends to have a curious effect on the human psyche — a kind of positive vibe that is mentally refreshing and restoring.  Studies have consistently shown that people who are near water regularly maintain a better mood, feel less stress, and describe themselves as happier than inlanders.  Maybe it’s the sights, maybe it’s the sounds, maybe it’s the smells . . . or maybe it’s that it all works in combination to make people near water a bit dreamier, a bit more contemplative, and a bit more reflective.  Perhaps when you’re looking out over a vast ocean your problems just seem a lot smaller and therefore more manageable.

None of this is new — we’ve just forgotten it.  In the first chapter of Moby Dick, published in 1851, Herman Melville’s character Ishmael writes:  “If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.”  But, as Melville notes, it’s not just the ocean that humans find attractive — it’s water, period.  He writes:

“Once more. Say you are in the country; in some high land of lakes. Take almost any path you please, and ten to one it carries you down in a dale, and leaves you there by a pool in the stream. There is magic in it. Let the most absent-minded of men be plunged in his deepest reveries—stand that man on his legs, set his feet a-going, and he will infallibly lead you to water, if water there be in all that region. Should you ever be athirst in the great American desert, try this experiment, if your caravan happen to be supplied with a metaphysical professor. Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.”

So, you want to feel better?  Get out your calendar and plan a trip that allows you to answer the call of the water.

Shaving Strokes

Here’s some good health news:  stroke rates among older Americans are falling.  The decline started in the 1980s, has continued since then, and shows no signs of stopping.

The decline was noted in a long-term study of heart health that began in 1987 in which thousands of adults in the U.S. have participated.  Data accumulated during the study showed that the rates of strokes of participants aged 65 and older has dropped by one-third for each decade the study has continued.

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Interestingly, the researchers don’t know exactly why the stroke rates among seniors are falling.  It could be due to reduced smoking rates, better attention to addressing some of the other key risk factors for stroke, which include diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, or advances in medication for those conditions.  And because the decline was detected in a study that was actually focused on heart health, rather than strokes, the decline also might be due to other factors that weren’t measured during the study, such as diet, exercise, or salt intake.

If you’ve ever had a family member felled by a stroke, you know how devastating they can be — and how important it is to be ever watchful for the signs of stroke, such as slurred speech and drooping facial features.  Whatever the cause of the falling stroke rates among older Americans might be, the fact that it is happening an incredibly positive development.  Now, it would be helpful to find out why.

What A Difference A Night Makes

Recently I’ve been having some irregular sleep patterns.  I’ll go to bed and fall asleep promptly, but then wake up only a few hours later, with heart pumping and mind racing. When that happens, it’s hard to fall back into the REM cycle quickly, and I’ll inevitably toss and turn for as much as an hour, fretting all the while that I’m losing out on sleep that I need and will never make up.

But last night I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, slept through the night without any nocturnal wakefulness, and arose feeling refreshed.  When I went down to make the morning coffee the birds were chirping, I unloaded the dishwasher with a happy feeling, and the coffee tasted richer and better than ever.

Wake up of an asleep girl stopping alarm clockThere’s no doubt that sleep is therapeutic on multiple fronts.  The National Institutes of Health reports that, physically, the changes in breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure that occur during a good night’s sleep help to promote cardiovascular health, and while you sleep hormones are released that repair cells and control your body’s use of energy.  And although the physical aspects of sleep are significant, the mental aspects are even more important.  Getting your 7 or 8 hours of sound sleep enhances mood, alertness, intellectual functioning, and reflexes, while chronic sleep deprivation can lead to depression and anxiety disorders.

Knowing all of this, why doesn’t the human brain always do what is necessary to allow everyone to get their share of shuteye?  Unfortunately, things don’t don’t work that way, stresses and concerns at work and at home can interfere with the sleep cycle, and then the lack of sleep and the irritability it produces can have a compounding effect on those stresses and concerns.

That’s one of the reasons why getting a solid night of slumber time after a few night’s of anxious restlessness feels so good.  You may not be making up for lost sleep, but it’s comforting to know that your mind and body are back to their normal cycles — at least, until the next round of stresses and concerns hit.

Intuitive Eating

Tired of having to follow some strict dietary regimen?  Tired of having to weigh your food, or buy weird special foods because your dietary plan says you must do so?  Tired of weighing yourself constantly and feeling disappointed because you’re not meeting your weight-loss goals?

10-principles-ofMeet “intuitive eating.”

It seems to be the latest “new” approach to eating.  As a recent article about the concept in The Atlantic puts it, the idea is to “encourage followers to work on their relationship with food without worrying about their weight, and to reject the notions of virtue and sin that have underpinned cultural ideas about eating since time immemorial.”  Intuitive eating teaches that weight loss isn’t the top priority, and the cycle of losing weight and gaining it back is harmful.  And here’s the key point:  “Eat what you want, with no rules about what to eat, how much of it, or when. Intuitive eating has 10 tenets, but the most well-known one is that no foods are off limits, and that there is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” food.”

So how is that supposed to work, exactly?  One underlying theory of intuitive eating is that there is a strong psychological component to eating.  The notion is that people are attracted to the forbidden fruit — or in this case, perhaps, the forbidden ice cream — so saying that something is off limits just makes it seem all that more irresistible.  People who switch to intuitive eating sometimes binge on their favorite guilty pleasure that had been strictly outlawed, but advocates of the approach say they ultimately strike a balance with food that is healthy and sustainable.  With all of the mystique and the calorie-counting and guilt stripped away, the intuitive eaters do what people traditionally used to do:  they eat when they’re hungry, and don’t eat when they aren’t.  And they spend a lot less on diet books, and scales, and special foods that strict diets require.

Does intuitive eating make sense?  I don’t know, honestly — but I do think that our notions of food seem to have gotten out of whack.  There are so many health issues associated with obesity that avoiding obesity obviously should be a lifelong goal, and if you are looking to lose a few pounds — or more than a few — a diet can help to kick start the cycle of loss that gets you to your desired range.  In my case, going low-carb for a few months a few years ago was an important step toward feeling healthier.  But you can’t stay on diets forever, and at some point cycling over to a more sustainable approach to food and eating has to happen.

Who’d have thought that, with all of the diets and food advice out there, human beings might get back to the simple concept of eating when you’re hungry?

Measles — And Vaccinations

There’s been a serious measles outbreak in Europe this year.  In the first half of 2018, there have been more than 41,000 reported cases of measles in Europe, and at least 37 deaths.  The 41,000 cases during the first half of 2018 is almost double the number of measles cases reported during the entire year of 2017 and is almost eight times higher than the reported measles figures for Europe in 2016.

pri_65784434There is a simple apparent cause for the European measles outbreak:  a drop in immunization rates.  Routine vaccinations of young children with the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine — which is shown to be 97% effective in preventing measles — are falling in countries like Italy, Romania, and the Ukraine.  It’s not clear whether parents are simply not as attentive as they once were, or whether they think measles has been wiped out and vaccination isn’t necessary in the modern world, or they’ve fallen prey to scientifically dubious arguments that MMR vaccination leads to conditions like autism.

The decline in vaccinations in the general public is the key to measles outbreaks, because measles is one of the most virulent, communicable diseases around.  It’s spread by droplets in the coughs and sneezes of an infected person, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that a person with measles can infect 90 percent of the non-immune people who come within close contact.  And even though measles seems like a simple childhood disease, it can have serious complications, like pneumonia and encephalitis, in some cases.

According to the CDC, there are no measles outbreaks in the U.S.; as of August, there had been only 124 cases of measles in 22 states in 2018, and none in Ohio.   It’s a marked contrast to the figures reported in Europe.  The outbreak in Europe, however, shows that parents and doctors need to keep their guards up and ensure that kids get vaccinated.  And it shows something more:  in this interconnected world, we’ve got to be able to depend on each other to follow the health care basics.  If people stop getting the routine, proven vaccinations, measles may end up being the least of our concerns.