Tag Archives: Health

How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks

Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

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Posted by on May 20, 2019 in Uncategorized


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Here’s to naps and snoozes

A few months ago, two Americans arrived for a meeting at a sprawling, corporate campus in Sichuan Province in China. (They asked not to be named because their work is confidential.) To get to the conference room, they crossed a vast span of cubicles where hundreds of young engineers were busy at their desks, a scene replicated on every floor of the 10-storey building. The meeting was to discuss a dense, text-heavy document, and it began with the client reviewing the day’s agenda: they’d talk until 11am, break for lunch, have nap time, and then start again at 2pm.

Lunch was in a cafeteria the size of a football field where women with hair nets and soup ladles regulated the movement of a column of people. The visitors lost sight of their hosts, so they got into line, bolted down their meal, and retraced their way to the building where they’d had their meeting. When the elevator door opened, the window blinds were drawn, the computer screens were off, and the whole floor lay in grey shadow. The workday could have been over but for the fact that people lay about everywhere, as switched off as the ceiling lights.

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Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Reportages


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Why the sleep industry is keeping us awake at night

Hardly a day goes by without some new story about sleep in the papers, on TV or in our news feeds. Sleep is everywhere. We’re told relentlessly how much of it we need, what will happen if we don’t get it, and how much the economy loses through tired workers. Sleep experts broadcast their advice and opinions as if some new philosopher’s stone has been found, and sleep books now grace both bestseller lists and bedside tables.

Adverts for mattresses, once a rarity, now regularly punctuate commercial breaks and the global sleep aid industry will reach an estimated $76bn this year. Just as the media constantly tell us what food we should eat and what exercise we should take, we are now instructed on how and when we must sleep. Whereas a few decades ago there were only a handful of sleep disorders that one could suffer from, today there are more than 70. And with more disorders come more cures, more experts, more revenue.


Companies boast of their new sleep policies, with sleep hygienists eager to get into the boardroom. US insurance giant Aetna, which has almost 50,000 employees, gives them a bonus for getting more sleep, with workers receiving an extra $25 per night if they manage to sleep 20 seven-hour nights or more. If shut eye is a problem, don’t worry, we are told, as once your sleep tracker identifies you as insomniac, you could receive cognitive therapy via your smartphone that will help you sleep healthily.

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Posted by on May 9, 2019 in Reportages


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Weight Loss Is a Rock Fight

New Year’s Eve, 2014

I weigh 460 pounds.

Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write. Nobody knows that number—not my wife, not my doctor, not my closest friends. It feels like confessing a crime. The average American male weighs about 195 pounds; I’m two of those guys, with a 10-year-old left over. I’m the biggest human being most people who know me have ever met, or ever will.

The government definition of obesity is a body mass index of 30 or more. My BMI is 60.7. My shirts are size XXXXXXL, which the big-and-tall stores shorten to 6X. I’m 6 foot 1, or 73 inches tall. My waist is 60 inches around. I’m nearly a sphere.

Those are the numbers. This is how it feels.

I’m on the subway in New York City, standing in the aisle, clinging to the pole. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and don’t visit New York much, so I don’t have a feel for how subway cars move. I’m praying this one doesn’t lurch around a corner or slam to a stop, because I’m terrified of falling. Part of it is embarrassment. When a fat guy falls, it’s hard to get up. But what really scares me is the chance that I might land on somebody. I glance at the people wedged around me. None of them could take my weight. It would be an avalanche. Some of them stare at me, and I figure they’re thinking the same thing. An old woman is sitting three feet away. One slip and I’d crush her. I grip the pole harder.

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Posted by on April 19, 2019 in Reportages


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Dengue : Sanofi au cœur d’une affaire de vaccin mortel aux Philippines

Dans une salle au carrelage blanc, à l’arrière du parloir funéraire de Taytay à une vingtaine de minutes de Manille, le corps d’Elijah Rain De Guzman, 12 ans, repose sur une table en inox. Il est allongé sur le dos, ses jambes légèrement repliées.

Les cinq légistes se préparent, enfilent les tenues de plastique bleu réglementaires et s’attellent à leur longue et pénible tâche. Pendant près de quatre heures, ils vont disséquer, prélever des échantillons de tissus, mesurer les organes : cœur, foie, cerveau…Tout est photographié avec soin. A l’extérieur, la famille attend.

Des autopsies d’enfants comme celle-là, le docteur Erwin Erfe, qui travaille pour le bureau du procureur, en pratique deux à trois par semaine depuis quelques mois. Avec toujours les mêmes résultats : “Des hémorragies internes, notamment au niveau du cerveau et des poumons… et des organes enflés.”   

Pour lui, pas de doute, c’est le vaccin Dengvaxia, commercialisé par le laboratoire français Sanofi qui est responsable de ces morts. Son équipe de légistes a déjà identifié 103 cas concordants. Des enfants pauvres, qui n’ont pas un accès facile au système de soin.

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Posted by on March 12, 2019 in Asia


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Salt Could Play a Role in Allergies

Over the past 50 years, the frequency of allergies and autoimmune diseases has risen rapidly, but it’s not clear why. In a study published today (February 20) in Science Translational Medicineresearchers point to a possible culprit: salt. The authors found in lab experiments that high concentrations of sodium chloride can influence the differentiation of T helper 2 (Th2) cells, the immune cells responsible for allergies, and that high levels of salt are present in the affected skin of people with atopic dermatitis, an allergic skin condition.

“These are the sorts of studies that I love because it’s so completely different, and that’s what we need because really there hasn’t been much progress in understanding this epidemic of allergic disease,” says Charles Mackay, an immunologist at Monash University in Australia who did not participate in the work. In looking “at why we get an allergy or atopic dermatitis, I try to think of the environmental factors,” he adds. This study “is an interesting new angle to Th2 immunity.”

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Posted by on March 11, 2019 in Uncategorized


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Our inner narrator gives us continuity and a sense of self

‘I think, therefore I am,’ the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes proclaimed as a first truth. That truth was rediscovered in 1887 by Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, then seven years of age: ‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no world … When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something,’ she later explained, ‘I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.’ As both these pioneers knew, a fundamental part of conscious experience is ‘inner speech’ – the experience of verbal thought, expressed in one’s ‘inner voice’. Your inner voice is you. 

That voice isn’t the sound of anything. It’s not even physical – we can’t observe it or measure it in any direct way. If it’s not physical, then we can arguably only attempt to study it by contemplation or introspection; students of the inner voice are ‘thinking about thinking’, an act that feels vague. William James, the 19th-century philosopher who is often touted as the originator of American psychology, compared the act to ‘trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’.

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Posted by on March 5, 2019 in Reportages



The bright side of vulnerability

Not long ago in rural Maryland, a mere fifty miles from the bustle of downtown DC, there was a lab in which a scientist and a few hundred rhesus macaque monkeys, over five decades, turned out gobs and gobs of data to decode what, ultimately, makes us who we are. The monkeys are gone now but their legacy lives on in some of the most remarkable science behind genes and mothering, evolution and mental health.

Two things make rhesus macaques particularly suited for the job of studying humans: they share some 95% of our DNA and exhibit personalities just like we do. Steve Suomi was the lab’s last chief scientist until it closed down in 2008. During his time, he saw generation after generation of monkeys whizz through life buffeted by biology and circumstance. Suomi had a special interest in a type of macaques he called up-tight: shy and fearful as infants, they’d grow into something rather similar to depressed human adults. Suomi wanted to know why. Was it nature or nurture? And what did that mean for us humans? Are some of us wired for suffering? Or is it life that twists us one way or another?

Over the past century, our mental deviances have been blamed on rogue genes or unfeeling parents (also known as refrigerator moms), or some combination of the two. The prevailing view in psychiatry — called the diathesis-stress model — holds that some people have an underlying, usually genetic, predisposition to mental illnesses. On its own, though, being prone isn’t enough. Vulnerability tips into disorder once a certain stress threshold has been passed. For illness to ensue, you need a sufficiently harsh environment — a difficult childhood, say, or adversity later in life — to trigger your vulnerability genes.

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Posted by on February 28, 2019 in Reportages


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A scuola con ragazze e ragazzi che dormono poco

Qualche anno fa ho avuto uno studente che dormiva in classe. Aveva vent’anni – era stato bocciato due volte – si faceva almeno due, tre ore di sonno pieno con la faccia sul banco. Non dormiva per noia – o insomma, credo, non solo. Era il sonno di chi arrivava a scuola distrutto, dopo una nottata in bianco. Non era l’unico.

Ogni volta che chiedo ai miei studenti – tra i 15 e i 19 anni – quanto dormono, ricevo una risposta abbastanza preoccupante: più della metà meno di sette ore; ma c’è chi mi dice che dorme anche cinque o tre ore. Le mie classi non sono un osservatorio privilegiato, né in positivo né in negativo. È l’impressione che hanno anche quei professori e quei genitori che osservano con attenzione ragazze e ragazzi, anche se questo interesse spesso manca.

Nelle molte interviste che ho fatto in varie scuole superiori, ho capito che della questione non si parla quasi mai.

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Posted by on February 16, 2019 in European Union


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A new theory of cancer

When President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, he set a goal for conquering the disease by 1976. The US National Cancer Institute (NCI) was empowered and expanded by the stroke of the president’s pen, and some serious public money injected into a mammoth research effort. In the intervening 47 years, in excess of US$100 billion of taxpayer money has been spent by the NCI alone on the search for an elusive “cure for cancer”. Its 2018 fiscal year budget is just shy of US$6 billion. Cancer research also attracts billions from drug companies and through charitable donations. Proportionately similar amounts have been spent in other developed nations, Australia included.

So what have we got for all the money spent? Not what was promised, clearly. Survival rates for many major cancers are little changed in several decades. Treatment regimes – a combination of surgery, radiation and toxic chemicals – remain much as they were in Nixon’s day. Life extension is often measured in weeks or months rather than years, and interventions are frequently a rearguard action against the inevitable. Optimistically touted “breakthrough drugs” are typically efficacious on only a few per cent of patients and often have dreadful side effects. Meanwhile, cancer incidence has grown remorselessly as overall life expectancy has risen, making cancer now the world’s number two killer, with about 14 million new cases per year. It’s fair to say that cancer touches every family on the planet.

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Posted by on February 16, 2019 in Reportages


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