weekly blog--one for the ages
This seemed to be the week where Artificial Intelligence came to the forefront in the health Care industry’s quest to help better diagnose and treat patients. The Wall Street Journal reported that a Duke University doctor working with Microsoft researchers sifted through data on the physical movements of computer users that came from millions of internet searches. Their study found links between some behaviors—such as tremors when using a mouse, repeat queries and average scrolling velocity—and Parkinson’s disease. Doctors say what they call digital biomarkers could also be especially useful diagnosing other brain disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Researchers have also shown for the first time that a form of artificial intelligence or machine learning known as a deep learning convolutional neural network (CNN) is better than experienced dermatologists at detecting skin cancer. In a study published in the leading cancer journal Annals of Oncology researchers in Germany, the US and France trained a CNN to identify skin cancer by showing it more than 100,000 images of malignant melanomas (the most lethal form of skin cancer), as well as benign moles (or nevi). They compared its performance with that of 58 international dermatologists and found that the CNN missed fewer melanomas and misdiagnosed benign moles less often as malignant than the group of dermatologists.
This week the Boston Globe had an interesting article on the emerging field known as geroscience whose advocates believe that the best way to treat cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's, macular degeneration and other chronic diseases is to attack the aging process.
Researchers are warming to the idea that serious science can be deployed to increase human longevity. Ambitious efforts are underway to develop the first government-approved drugs to stretch healthy life spans. Some researchers are trying to repurpose a diabetes medicine to target age-related diseases. Others are working to boost levels of a key protein to increase blood flow and endurance, or to find a way to kill “zombie (senescent) cells” that can send out toxins that cause age-related maladies.
Some in the field are studying the habits of supercentenarians, people who live to 110 or older, and Seventh-day Adventists, whose average life spans surpass by almost a decade the American life expectancy of about 79 years. Most eat in moderation, don’t smoke, exercise regularly, and reduce stress through ties to family and faith. About 70 percent of aging is dictated by environmental and health-related behavior, and about 30 percent by genes, said one geriatrician.
He added that there are between 60 and 70 supercentenarians in the United States and about 350 worldwide. Many don’t encounter age-related diseases until after hitting the century mark. He said understanding the mechanisms of how they age supports a primary goal of researchers: “to compress morbidity till the very end of life” so people can be healthier and independent longer.
A few weeks ago I became a tour guide with Boston By Foot and will begin giving tours of some of the historic downtown sites beginning in June. That left room to look into what being old in early New England (1600s) might have been like. The research on the subject is sparse since little attention has been given to issues of chronological development and change in that era.
But I did find a book that delves into the topic by John Demos, Past, Present and Personal--The Family and The Life Course in American History. And so we begin with a 10-year old girl named Anne Pollard, who arrived in Boston (Massachusetts Bay Colony) with John Winthrop and his Puritan followers in June 1630, and lived to the ripe old age of 105. For the rest of the story, click here.
Yoga up everybody or maybe the direction should be down. There is a new book making the rounds, Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich which details the extreme lengths we go to keep from dying. Ehrenreich compares doctors' examinations to rituals that serve as much to cement the social order and the authority of physicians as they do to advance healing.
Beyond the doctor's office, Ehrenreich takes us into the world of wellness, where, from Yoga to CrossFit to gluten-free diets, we obsessively follow the latest trends that promise eternal youth. She traces this surge of interest in physical fitness to the 1980s, when disillusionment with the failure of the 1960s counterculture movement led to a type of self-involvement where if you could not change the world, you could still control your own body. Yes, she really wrote that!
Cynically, Ehrenreich observes that the $6 billion industry of employee wellness programs, which aim to reduce employer health insurance expenditures, has no measurable impact on corporations' health-care spending. The bottom line: Ehrenreich advocates spending more time enjoying life rather than finding ways to prolong it because no matter what you do, aging, both physically and mentally, is a process you can’t avoid.
From the Washington Post...Han Zicheng was desperate for company. He said his wife had died. His sons were out of touch. His neighbors had kids to raise and elderly parents of their own. He had survived the Japanese invasion, the Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution, but he knew he could not endure the sorrow of living alone.
On a chilly day in December, the 85-year-old Chinese grandfather gathered some scraps of white paper and wrote out a pitch in blue ink: “Looking for someone to adopt me,” taped a copy to a bus shelter in his busy neighborhood, and then went home to wait. He also knew he was but one of tens of millions of Chinese growing old without enough support.
Improved living standards and the one-child policy have turned China’s population pyramid upside down. Already, 15 percent of Chinese are older than 60. By 2040, it will be nearly one in four, according to current projections. In 2013, the Chinese government made a law mandating parental visits. In practice, millions of “empty nest” elderly — seniors who don’t live with their spouses or children — have little protection. Children leave. The social safety net is full of holes. Han had tried to find caregivers. This time, a woman saw him taping a note to a store window, snapped a picture and posted it on social media with a plea: “I hope warmhearted people can help.”
At first, Han was hopeful. A local restaurant offered food. A journalist from Hebei province promised to visit. He struck up a telephone friendship with a 20-year-old law student in the south. But his mood soured when he realized the family he imagined would be tough to find. The last weeks of Han’s life were shrouded by stubborn silence and missed calls. After his death, his neighbors and his son were unable or unwilling to shed light on the circumstances of his final days. What is clear is that the system failed him — and that it probably will fail others.
Two weeks after he died, the neighborhood committee that is supposed to keep an eye on residents was surprised by news of his death. Five neighbors said they had noticed his absence in the hallway, but did not check on him.