Saturday, April 14, 2018

Juul Vaping Product Appeals to Minors

The latest fad among teenagers: Juul, a nicotine-containing vaping product that looks like a flash drive.  Teachers report that some students take them to school and have been caught smoking them in class.

Juul cannnot be sold legally to persons under the age of 21.  Juul is intended for adults who want curb their smoking habit, according to  But if that's so, why did they design the device to look like a flash drive?  One has to believe that there is a reason for their strange design choice.  And why sell nicotine-containing "Juulpods" in flavors that appeal to kids, such as mango and fruit medley?

Aftermarket sellers of Jull-compatible pods containing nicotine were quick to see the kids potential in Juul; they now sell pods in flavors such as strawberry, blueberry, and watermelon.  Does anyone really believe that this product was designed solely for adults?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Non-Antibiotic Drugs May Contribute to Antibiotic Resistance

We've discussed on this site a number of times the role that antibiotics play in the development of antibiotic resistance. But it turns out that that's just the half of it; new research shows that some non-antibiotic drugs, including painkillers, antipsychotics, and drugs to combat high blood pressure, can also contribute to antibiotic resistance.

These findings are going to make efforts to combat antibiotic resistance harder than previously thought. Many drugs, such as those to combat high blood pressure, are meant to be taken for the rest of the patient's life; one can't just stop taking them because they may affect the bacteria in your gut. What to do?

If there is any good news in this latest research, it is that the tests revealed that a few drugs used to treat other diseases actually turned out to have some antibiotic activity as well, according to an article in the popular press on the subject. Perhaps some of these drugs could be tested further and then used to combat the increasing number of antibiotic resistant bacteria. But it's a long shot.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

A Cancer Warning on Coffee?

Responding to a lawsuit from a non-profit toxic chemicals watchdog group, a superior court judge in California has issued a preliminary judgment that may ultimately require coffee roasters and sellers to post warnings that coffee may pose a cancer risk. How did it come to this?

Well, it turns out that during the coffee roasting process, a miniscule amount of a chemical called acrylamide is created. Acrylamide is on California's list of cancer-causing or toxic chemicals. And back in 1986, California voters passed Proposition 65, a law requiring businesses and sellers to inform consumers about any possible exposure to toxic or cancer-causing agents in their products. An exception to this requirement can be granted only if the seller can prove that the exposure (in this case, to coffee) poses "no significant risk". But how would Starbucks, for example, ever be able to prove a negative (a complete lack of risk, over a lifetime)? Do you think Starbucks is up to that task?

It's true that there's acrylamide in coffee, but the levels are orders of magnitude below levels that have ever been shown to be a risk factor for cancer. So is the judge's ruling an example of regulatory overreach? Is Proposition 65 functioning as intended? Where do we draw the line between protecting the public and scaring them needlessly? For more on this controversy, read an article by NPR here.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Fitness and Dementia

More than 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia. There is no cure or prevention for Alzheimer's disease, despite all the research into its causes.

Now a new study spanning 46 years offers some tantalizing clues. Way back in 1968, researchers in Sweden enrolled 191 women 38-60 years old into a study of cardiovascular fitness, as measured by their capacity to exercise on a bicycle until they became so fatigued that they had to stop. Based on their workload achieved, they separated the women into "low", "medium" and "high" fitness groups. Then they followed the women for the next 44 years, looking for signs of dementia, among other health issues. Surprisingly, they found that compared to the "medium" fitness group, those in the "high" fitness group were 88% less likely to develop dementia. Among those who did develop dementia, high fitness delayed the time to onset of dementia by 5 years, compared to the medium fitness group.

A word of caution; these results show a correlation only; they do not prove that high fitness per se is what is reducing the risk of dementia. Perhaps the high fitness group also has a better diet, or just better genetics to begin with. Nevertheless, the results are intriguing, and may point the way to additional research to tease out the actual cause. Anything we can do to solve this baffling and debilitating disease would be welcome.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Origin of Sickle Cell Trait

Tens of millions of people have a genetic mutation in a single allele (one of a pair of genes) that by itself has no outward effect on the person's health, called sickle cell trait. Unfortunately, persons who inherit two copies of the allele (one from each parent) suffers from sickle cell disease, a debilitating condition in which red blood cells cab change shape, or sickle, impeding blood flow and damaging organs.

Typically, a genetic mutation that leads to health problems would be selected against over time by normal evolutionary processes. However, that's not the case for sickle cell trait, because it turns out that inheriting just one copy of the abnormal gene is protective against another disease, malaria. As a result the abnormal gene is selected for, not against, by evolutionary processes, especially in places such as Africa where malaria is common.

But where and when did the mutation arise? The genetic mutation comes in five different haplotypes, or forms, leading some scientists to speculate that the mutation arose independently perhaps as many as five different times. Others have suggested that it arose just once.

In attempt to resolve the dispute, researchers recently studied the genomes of nearly 3,000 people. 156 of them had the mutated gene for sickle cell trait. On close examination of their genomes (the details are beyond the scope of this blog), the researchers concluded that all 156 people had inherited the mutated allele from a single person who lived around 7,300 years ago. That person probably lived in western or central Africa.  Case closed, it seems.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Rates of STD Infection in the U.S. Continue to Rise

The rates of infection of most STDs rose again in 2016, according to the CDC. Compared to 2015, chlamydia infections were up 4.7%, syphilis infections increased 17.6%, and gonorrhea was up by 18.5%. The increases are part of a trend that started about a decade or so ago.

The only good news is that rates of HIV infection have been trending slightly downward over the past five years. Compared to 2015, the rate of HIV infection declined by 0.1% in 2016.

The dramatic increases in syphilis and gonorrhea infections in 2016 are cause for concern, of course. Sexually active individuals should be aware of these trends and seek to protect themselves accordingly.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Exercise Can Turn Back Time on a Middle-Aged Heart

So... you didn't take care of your body when you were young, and now at middle age you're feeling out of shape and over the hill. You're motivated to make a lifestyle change if it would help, but will it actually do any good at this point?

The good news is that perhaps it will. According to a report in Circulation, just two years of high-intensity exercise improves heart health. In the study, sedentary middle-aged men (mean age 53 years) participated in either a moderate to high intensity aerobic exercise program for two years (the experimental group), or only non-aerobic exercise such as yoga or balance training (the control group). At the end of two years, those who had exercised showed signs of improved heart health, including improved oxygen uptake and a reduced stiffness of the left ventricle. It's as if the clock was turned back on the heart aging process.

Middle age may be the last time that one can improve heart function, however. According to an NPR article, the same improvement is not possible by the time one reaches seventy years of age. The time to get moving is now, not later.