August 12, 2013
Not many people want to live to be 120.
That’s one of the findings of a Pew Research Center report that came out last week. In fact, almost 70 percent of those surveyed said an ideal lifespan would be somewhere between 79 and 100 years.
Yes, one reason they’re wary of that much longevity is the fear of how their bodies and minds would hold up–despite the promise of medical advances that will keep both healthy much longer. But more than half also think treatments that prolong life for at least four more decades could be a bad thing for society. More specifically, two out of three people agreed with the statement that “longer life expectancies would strain our natural resources.” And while almost 80 percent of those surveyed said they believe life-extending medicine should be available anyone who wants it, two-thirds of them thought it would be accessible only to the wealthy.
Naturally, this raises some hefty ethical issues, which Pew addresses in an accompanying report.
Would so many more healthy old people make it that much harder for young ones to get jobs? Will everyone just assume they’ll have multiple marriages since one won’t have much chance of lasting a lifetime? With mortality put off for decades, would people feel less motivated to have children? And the big one: By delaying death so long, would daily life have less meaning?
Live long and prosper
Which brings me to one more question: How realistic is the notion that science can one day make 100 the new 60?
For starters, we’re not only living longer–life expectancy in the U.S. is now close to 79–but the period of truly dismal health before death is getting shorter. That’s one of the main findings of a Harvard University study published last month–that most people no longer are very sick for six or seven years before they die. Instead, that stretch of poor health has shrunken to about a year or so. Thanks to medical science, we are becoming more like light bulbs–we work well, then go out fast. “People are living to older ages,” said lead researcher David Cutler, “and we are adding healthy years, not debilitated ones.”
As far as adding more years to our lives, there’s been some serious progress there, too. In May, scientists at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York concluded that by suppressing the release of a single protein produced in the hypothalamus region of the brain, they were able to extend the lives of mice and reduce the onset of age-related illnesses. Plus, the mice performed better on learning tests.
A little earlier in the year, researchers at the Harvard Medical School found more evidence that resveratrol, a chemical compound found in berries, grapes and particularly red wine, can help cells in the body live longer. And that could lead to the development of drugs that stifle the conditions that can make old age a slice of hell–heart disease, diabetes, and that old demon, mental decline.
And a week or so ago, scientists at the National Institute of Aging said their research found that men who take metformin, a drug often prescribed for type 2 diabetes, may be helping themselves live longer. At least that’s what happened with mice. The researchers gave middle-aged mice small doses of metformin and they not only lived 6 percent longer than the control group of mice, but they also weighed less, even though they ate more.
None of the above means we’re on the cusp of having a pill that will let us dance at our 100th birthday party. But each means we’re getting closer to finding ways to not just fight the diseases of old age, but take on age itself.
Out with the old
Here’s other recent research on the battle against aging:
- Now find out something good about marshmallows: Hot cocoa doesn’t just hit the spot on a winter morning; It also may be keeping your brain sharp. A new study from Harvard University says that two cups of cocoa a day was enough to increase the blood flow in the brains of older people. It also apparently helped their memories work faster.
- Didn’t see that coming: Living through a traumatic experience may actually help men live longer. Research just published in PLOS One says that male survivors of the Holocaust tend to live longer than men who didn’t experience it. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the researchers say it could reflect a phenomenon known as “post-traumatic growth,” where high levels of psychological stress serve as stimuli for developing personal skills and strength and a deeper meaning to life. The same longevity effect was not seen in women Holocaust survivors.
- In with the bad air: A study by M.I.T. professor Michael Greenstone has quantified the impact of the heavy air pollution from coal-burning power plants in China. By comparing statistics from a more urbanized region where power was supplied mainly by coal plants with a more rural one without any power plants, Greenstone concluded that regular exposure to coal pollution can take more than five years off a person’s life.
- Now will you get your beauty sleep?: If you don’t get enough sleep, you aren’t doing your skin any favors. That’s the conclusion of a study that found that the skin of poor sleepers ages quickly and also takes longer to recover from sunburn and dirty air.
- This explains many things: And finally, researchers in Japan found that aging animals like sweets less and are more willing to put up with bitter tastes.
Video bonus: As chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation, Aubrey de Grey has plenty to say about longevity. Here’s an interview he did for Big Think, broken up into snippets.
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July 19, 2013
Two remarkable things happened in the food business this month.
The first you probably know about–the return of the Hostess Twinkie. Earlier this week, it was back on the supermarket shelves of America, eight months after its seeming demise.
The second, which is probably news to you, is the rise of kale on a stick. That’s right, a popsicle made out of kale, known as a Kalelicious Smoothie Pop. It was one of the big hits of the Summer Fancy Food Show in New York earlier this month. In fact, a UPI report went so far as to say it was one of the trends “giving bacon a run for its money” at this year’s event.
What? Now how is that not remarkable.
Matters of taste
Taste still matters, of course, but increasingly in the food industry, so does science. So much of the focus now is on what’s in what we eat–Out damn gluten! More antioxidants! Bring on the flavanols!–and on finding ways to make healthy food more palatable. Which is why some of the other hot items at the recent Fancy Food event included such comestibles as Tomatina juice–a blend of tomatoes, beets, red peppers, cucumbers, carrots and celery that’s the equivalent of three servings of vegetables–herbal tea pops for kids, quinoa chocolate bars and something called Chia Pods, a mix of chia seeds, coconut milk and fruit packaged in little snack cups like way-healthy pudding.
Researchers are also paying closer attention to the emotional attachments we make with food, how we can associate it with different events in our lives or more broadly, with different feelings. The AZTI-Tecnalia’s Foodstuff Research Unit in Spain, of instance, has already done a study on how people feel about coffee. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, every person surveyed had only positive things to say about drinking a cup, whether it was first thing in the morning or while hanging out with friends in the afternoon or downing a leisurely mug alone.
Those who were surveyed linked that first morning cup of coffee to words such as “activity,” “energy” and “pleasure,” and they used terms such as “calm,” “sweetness” “happiness,” and “tranquility” to describe how they felt about a cup taken leisurely. “When it comes to linking coffee consumption with the emotions,” said lead researcher Maruxa Garcia-Quiroga,”we have not found any link with negative sensations.”
Which brings me back to the Twinkie. Science was involved in its revival, too. People in the lab tinkered with its ingredients and were able to double its shelf life to 45 days. The old version ran past its expiration date after 26 days. (So much for the urban legend that Twinkies will live with cockroaches in perpetuity.)
And, based on less than a week back in business, it’s safe to say that the pudgy bar of cake and creme still has a powerful hold on a lot of people. So far, Twinkie sales are seven times higher than they used to be.
The bite stuff
Here are other recent examples of scientific studies on food and our relationship with it:
- Unless, of course, your habit is a vat of Ben and Jerry’s: Conventional wisdom has it that in times of stress, we take the plunge into high-calorie comfort food. Not so, says a study presented to the Institute of Food Technologists annual meeting. Based on an analysis of UCLA students during exams, the researchers found that in such stressful times, people turn to foods that have become personal habits, which could be fruit and non-fat yogurt just as well as it could be flavored popcorn and sugar cookies.
- I knew there was a catch: A big reason that it can be so hard to lose weight is the diabolical inverse relationship between sugars and fats. Writing in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, researchers determined that there’s a clear “seesaw effect”–people with diets low in sugars were likely to be higher in fats and vice versa.
- Break out the plastic spoons: A study from the University of Oxford in the U.K. found that the type of cutlery people use can affect how it tastes to them. Specifically, they determined that people felt that cheese tasted saltier when they ate it with a knife and that yogurt tastes denser and more expensive when eaten with a plastic spoon.
- But will they eat hot peppers while running with scissors?: People who like to take risks are more likely to prefer their food spicy, according to research at Penn State University. The scientists observed that people who scored high as risk takers on personality tests also continued to eat hot peppers during a meal, even as the intensity of the burn increased.
- Must have cupcakes: Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, concludes that refined carbs, such as corn syrup, can spark food cravings not unlike what drug addicts experience. The scientists say that the quick spike and subsequent crash in blood sugar after eating highly processed carbs actually activates reward and addiction centers in the brain.
- So it’s not a good idea to graze on fries all day?: Eating throughout the day doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll gain weight; it’s what you eat that matters. Researchers have found evidence to support the notion that eating a number of small meals can help you manage your weight as long as you’re smart about what they include. The scientists also found that women tend to be smarter about this; their little snacks often are fruit, while men chow on candy.
- And this is news? In another study, researchers concluded that a school cafeteria may be the worst place to have a meal. Although they ate the same food, participants gave their lowest ratings to meals they consumed in a cafeteria, even lower than those they ate in a research laboratory.
- No, must have doughnuts: And finally, the most “craveable” food in the U.S. are Krispy Kreme doughnuts. A study by the Chicago research firm Technomic found that Krispy Kremes topped the list of food obsessions that people can get at only one place. Next were Coldstone Creamery ice cream and Auntie Anne’s Pretzels.
Video bonus: Get a little taste of the Fancy Foods Show with Fox’s Heather Childers.
Video bonus bonus: Not only are these foods good for your mood, but they dance, too.
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July 17, 2013
Yes, he’s the founder of Space X, the first commercial venture to send a cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station.
And yes, he’s the co-founder of PayPal and chairman of SolarCity, the largest provider of solar power systems in the U.S.
And yes, he’s head of Tesla Motors, which produced the world’s first all-electric sports car, its first electric luxury car and actually turned a profit in the first quarter of 2013.
But earlier this week Elon Musk did something that made even some of his fans wonder if he’s about to fly a little too close to the sun. Or maybe that he’s spent a little too much time out in the sun.
What Musk did was tweet about an invention he calls the “Hyperloop,” promising that in less than a month, he’ll be revealing more details, including its design.
In case you missed it, Musk first started talking about the Hyperloop last summer, describing it as a “cross between a Concorde, a rail gun and an air hockey table,” and suggesting that a sun-powered tube could whisk vehicles between San Francisco and Los Angeles in half an hour.
He referred to it as the “fifth mode” of transporation,” but one that, as he sees it, could leave the other four–planes, trains, boats and cars–in the dust. Here’s what else he told Pando Daily in that interview:
“How would you like something that never crashed, was immune to weather, that goes three or four times as fast as the bullet trains we have now or about twice the speed of an aircraft, that would get you from downtown L.A. to downtown San Francisco in under 30 minutes and it would cost you much less than any other type of transportation.”
A few months later, he would tell Bloomberg News that the Hyperloop would also allow you to leave as soon as you arrive “so there is no waiting for a specific departure time.”
Sounds great. And I assume that you’ll also be able to get giant donuts that turn fat into muscle.
Okay, that’s probably not fair. In truth, Musk’s idea is not all that far-fetched. As Business Insider pointed out recently, it sounds a bit like a 21st century version of a concept pitched by a Rand Corporation physicist named R.M. Salter way back in 1972. He proposed something he called Very High Speed Transit, or VHST, which was essentially an underground tube that could shoot pods from New York to Los Angeles in a little more than 20 minutes.
As Salter saw it, the vehicles would have been driven by electromagnetic waves much as a surfboard rides the ocean’s wave. The VHST would have used all its kinetic energy to accelerate, and that power would be returned when it decelerated, through energy regeneration.
It’s not clear how the Hyperloop would work–that’s what Musk will share next month. What is known is that a Colorado company named ET3 is working on a system using vacuum-sealed tubes that it says could propel capsules as fast as 4,000 miles per hour, while exposing passengers to the G-forces of an ordinary car ride. It’s been reported that ET3 hopes to have a three-mile test track functioning by the end of the year. But Musk is not known to have any connection to the company.
He promises that he won’t patent the Hyperloop concept, that he wants to keep it open source. Musk says he’s looking for “critical feedback” and that he’d welcome partners–so long as they’re like-minded.
As he tweeted on Monday “Happy to work with the right partners. Must truly share philosophical goal of breakthrough tech done fast w/o wasting money on BS.”
There’s been news in the other modes of transportation recently, too. Here’s some of the latest.
- You are here: Researchers at the Toyota Technological Institute in Chicago have devised a system that allows cars to know where they are without relying on GPS. By using two cameras and software that determines when and how the road curves, it can nail down a location by comparing the layout of the route and its intersections to a map of the area from OpenStreetMap. The designers claim that in 20 seconds, the system can figure out where you are, even if you’re in a tunnel.
- Siri, I’ve met something new: GM announced recently that some of its new models rolling out later this year will come with their own apps store. Instead of living in a smartphone, these apps would be directly accessible from your car. It’s part of the accelerating trend 0f turning cars into moving smartphones, with the goal of not just creating another source of revenue for car makers, but also allowing dealers to stay connected to their customers. Among the possibilities: Diagnostic apps that can monitor your car’s condition and send e-mail or text alerts if it needs servicing, Internet radio apps for a more customized selection of music, or news, traffic, and weather apps for real-time information on what’s happening on the road ahead.
- Talk fast, this is my stop: Coming soon to the Prague subway: A car on each train that’s set aside for singles. The idea is to give time-crunched singles a chance to meet up while riding to work or elsewhere. What’s not clear is how they’ll keep married lurkers out.
- Pump it up: A team of Canadian engineers recently conquered one of aviation’s greatest challenges by designing a helicopter of sorts that is powered by a human pumping pedals. For their effort, they won the Sikorsky Prize, a $250,000 challenge that had gone unclaimed since it was first offered by the American Helicopter Society 33 years ago.
- Is it me or did the window just try to sell me a car?: The British online broadcaster Sky Go, along with the German ad agency BBDO Düsseldorf, are planning to use a new technology that would allow windows on buses or trains to send ad messages directly into your brain. It works like this: When a commuter rests his or her head against a window, oscillations beamed into the glass are converted into sound through a process called bone conduction, and he or she will hear the ad message while other passengers remain oblivious.
Video bonus: No one’s quite sure what Elon Musk’s Hyperloop will be, but the closest thing to it may be the “evacuated tube transport” concept being developed by ET3. Now this is 21st century travel.
Video bonus bonus: It doesn’t look like any helicopter you’ve ever seen, but the Atlas gets airborne through one guy pedaling.
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June 25, 2013
The Summer of 2013 officially began only last Friday, but already it has a good shot at achieving a dubious distinction in the annals of parental indulgence. This could be the summer that ice cream trucks for dogs go mainstream.
Ever since the K99 ice cream truck set up shop in the parks of London during the summer of 2010–to the tune of the Scooby Doo theme song, no less–the trend of cruising trucks full of specially-made canine ice cream treats and cookies has been spreading and appears to be hitting its jaunty stride. Last summer, they started dropping by dog parks in more and more American cities, confident in the knowledge that all it takes is one person ponying up $3 for a doggie cone and in no time, every other dog owner in the vicinity will feel compelled to do the same for their own little precious. And now, according to a story on NBC’s website this weekend, some of the more successful dog food trucks are talking about franchising their brands.
This was inevitable, I suppose, given all the singles whose significant other has paws, and all the aging Baby Boomers whose own kids have moved out, or at least down to the basement. These days, dog love swings easily into sweet, excessive indulgence.
Among recent examples of ideas whose time apparently has come are a device developed by a San Francisco firm that allows pet owners to track how active their dog is during the day while they’re at work, and a high-end dog food whose main ingredient is ground-up chicken feathers. It’s designed for dogs with food allergies.
Products like those get much of the media attention, yet some of the more interesting developments in the deepening entanglement of dogs and owners have not been in the marketplace, but in scientific laboratories. Researchers have been focusing on the potent bond between dogs and owners, particularly how it affects a pet’s behavior.
For instance, a study done at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, found that connections between dogs and their owners can have striking similarities to parent-child relationships. Okay, no surprise there, but what they learned about how it influences a dog’s confidence was pretty revealing.
Specifically, they saw that, as in parent-child bonding, dogs use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which to interact with the world around them. In this case, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating toys. But they showed much less interest in working for a treat when their owners weren’t around. If they were there, it didn’t seem to make much difference if the owner was silent or encouraging. What mattered was their presence. And it couldn’t be just any human–the dogs weren’t very motivated when a stranger was in the room with them. Only when their owners were nearby did they go after the food with gusto.
Said researcher Lisa Horn, “One of the things that really surprised us is, that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”
Then there was the study published earlier this year in the journal Animal Cognition, which concluded that dogs are much more likely to steal food if they think nobody can see them. Again, big surprise, right? Anyone with a dog knows that even the most guileless mutt becomes a creature of cunning when food is involved.
But there’s a larger lesson here. What the research actually determined was that dogs were four times more likely to sneak food in a dark room than a lighted room. Which suggests that they can understand when a human can or cannot see them. And that could mean that dogs are capable of understanding a human’s point of view.
Explained lead researcher Juliane Kaminski:
“”Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that’s us thinking, not them.The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”
In dogs we trust
Here are other recent studies on the dog-human connection:
- Beware of southpaws: According to researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia, dogs that show a preference for using their left paws are more aggressive toward strangers than dogs that are right-pawed or show no preference. But they also found that left-pawed dogs were no more excitable or attention-seeking than other dogs. Only about 10 percent of humans are left-handed, but there’s an even split between left-pawed, right-pawed, and ambilateral canines.
- Fortunately, humans have refrained from chasing their butts: It turns out that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have similar abnormalities in their brain structure as humans with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That makes scientists more hopeful that further research in CCD–exhibited in dogs by blanket-sucking, tail-chasing, and chewing–could help lead to new therapies for OCD in humans.
- Thanks for sharing: If you have a dog, you no doubt realize that it brings a lot of bacteria into your home. What you may not realize is that’s not a bad thing. For instance, skin microbes, note scientists at North Carolina State University, can help you fight off diseases. Particularly high levels of microbes related to dogs were found on pillowcases and, strangely enough, TV screens.
- Except when they pee on the rug: No source less than the American Heart Association says that owning a dog can be good for your heart. The organization issued a statement to that effect last month following a scientific review of research showing that dog owners not only get more exercise, but also can have their stress levels and heart rates lowered by the presence of their pets.
- If dogs were on Facebook, they’d like everything: And finally, a survey by the research firm Mintel found that almost half of those who participated said that their pets are better for their social lives than being on Facebook or Twitter. Also, according to the survey, almost one out of five Millenials who own a dog or cat have a pet-related app on their smartphones.
Video bonus: You think dogs couldn’t really appreciate the approach of an ice cream truck? Think again.
Video bonus bonus: When you see a salsa-dancing dog, you feel compelled to share.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And while we’re at it, here’s why you should let sleeping dogs–and cats–lie.
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June 21, 2013
For a long time, memories were thought of as the biochemical equivalent of 3 x 5 cards kept in a file cabinet. And the words on the cards were written in ink, scientists thought, because, once created and stored in the brain, a memory didn’t change. It might be vivid, but it was static, as fixed as a photograph of a remembered moment.
But in recent years, that theory has been flipped on its head. Now, leaders in memory research don’t think that’s the way the mind works at all. Instead, they’ve come to believe that memories actually are fluid things, subject to alteration every time they’re retrieved. When a long-term memory is recalled, it becomes temporarily fungible and goes through a rebuilding process known as reconsolidation. Which suggests that memories, even terrible ones, can be changed during that period when they’re once again unstable.
Several studies published last fall reinforced this notion. One, from researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden, found that a fear memory could be neutralized if the reconsolidation process is disrupted before the memory can solidify. Another, carried out by scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, concluded that even if a memory isn’t truly erased, it can be made to feel less personal or painful.
Changing the story
The latest evidence that memories can be manipulated came in a study published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Without using drugs, electroshock or any other invasive procedure, two researchers at Iowa State University, Jason Chan and Jessica LaPaglia were able to tamper with the memories of their study subjects.
Here’s how they did it. They asked those participating in the study to watch an episode of the old TV drama “24.” One of its more evocative scenes showed a terrorist on an airplane jabbing a flight attendant with a hypodermic needle to knock her out. A bit later, some of those in the study were given a quiz about what they had watched, the goal of which was to make them retrieve their memories of the show.
As their reconsolidation process began, however, they were asked to listen to an eight-minute audio recap of the program–except that several of the facts were inaccurate. For instance, they were told that the terrorist had used a stun gun, not a hypodermic needle to disable the flight attendant. When they were retested later, only 17 percent of the people in that group correctly identified the needle as the weapon of choice.
Meanwhile, 42 percent of another group got the weapon question right when they took the same test. They, too, had listened to the recap with the bogus information. But they hadn’t taken the first test the other group had; instead they played a computer game.
So why did people in the first group have such serious recall problems when they retook the test?
Chan and LaPaglia believe that by taking a test after watching the show, those subjects were forced to retrieve their memories of it, and it was during the rebuilding process that they heard the audio recap. And, the thinking goes, that’s what caused their temporarily vulnerable memories to muddle the story.
Chan noted that there are several key factors in reshaping memories. First, the disruption needs to happen soon after the memory is called up–for now, scientists seem to have settled on a six-hour window. Wait much longer and the changes don’t take. Also, any alterations need to fit into the context of the original memory. If they don’t make sense in the story that structures the memory, they’re not likely to have much effect in changing it.
This is a pretty dramatic shift from the old file cabinet notion. To appreciate how far thinking on the subject has evolved, consider the perspective of Daniela Schiller, one of the world’s leading memory researchers. “My conclusion,” she says, “is that memory is what you are now. Not in pictures, not in recordings.
“Your memory is who you are now.”
You must remember this
Here are more conclusions scientists have made about memories in the past few months:
- Side effects may include memories of bad breakups: According to a study published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, people who take the sleep drug Ambien are more likely to remember bad memories. The human brain is built to remember negative memories more clearly than pleasant ones, says University of California Riverside researcher Sara Mednick, and her study found that Ambien seemed to ratchet up this tendency.
- My memory told me about people like you: Scientists at Harvard have found more evidence that memories of the past play a big part in how we predict how other people will behave in the future. The study reinforces the belief that memory is closely linked with imagination and is a tool used by the brain to weave past experience into thoughts about the future. Which could explain why people with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.
- Unfortunately, they also started leaving the toilet seat up: While one recent study supported the belief that women suffer some memory loss during menopause, another one, presented earlier this week at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting in San Francisco, determined that postmenopausal women had sharper memories after they had a testosterone gel rubbed into their skin. This is potentially big news since there currently is no effective treatment to prevent memory loss in women, who are at higher risk of dementia than men.
- They even remember the blank look on men’s faces: Two more studies found that women overall have better memories than men. The first study, from McMaster University in Canada, found that women tend to focus on the eyes, nose and mouth of someone they just met and, as a result, are better at remembering faces than men. The second study, done at Cornell, concluded that women are also better at remembering past events than men. The key, according to the researchers, is that women focus more on relationships and social interactions when recording an event in their mind and that enables them to retrieve more details about it later.
- Don’t forget to brush your teeth: It turns out that the fewer teeth you have, the greater your chances of losing memory. So says a new study published in the European Journal of Oral Sciences, which offered a few possible explanations for the tooth loss/brain decline connection. One is that reduced sensory input from our teeth results in fewer signals to our brain. Another is that chewing increases blood flow to the brain, and if you can’t chew, you can’t get the flow going.
Video bonus: Daniela Schiller talks about her memory research and what her father’s refusal to talk about the Holocaust had to do with it.
Video bonus bonus: And a little slice of how Hollywood views memory-erasing: Jim Carrey turns to “science” to literally get Kate Winslett out of his mind in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
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