The Problem With Early School Days

The vast majority of public schools in the U.S. start earlier than 8:30 a.m. Like most American students, I took this as a given, albeit begrudgingly — we all struggled to get up and get focused for school, and it only got harder with each passing year. Naturally, many people chalk this up to the laziness and entitlement of adolescence. But mounting scientific research is finding that getting up really early, and being thrown into a cognitively-intensive bloc schedule, is bad for both the health and education of youth. Various leading public health authorities are urging an end to this practice. Continue reading

Can and Should Governments Promote Happiness?

Back in February, the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of a “minister of state for happiness” that would “align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction”, whatever that means. (The same statement announced the creation of minister for tolerance, perhaps in response to the country’s rapidly growing multicultural population.)

Needless to say, the idea of a “happiness minister” was met with a lot of confusion and amusement, both from within the country and beyond. What does it means to promote happiness on a policy level? What would this entail? And should governments even take it upon themselves to worry about this?

As The Washington Post points out, the U.A.E. is only the latest of several countries to go this route. Both Ecuador and Venezuela announced similar initiatives in 2013 — a state secretary of “good living / well-being” and a “vice ministry of supreme social happiness”, respectively — and the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan pioneering the concept back in 1972 with its “gross national happiness” (GNH) index.

In theory, these ministries work to try to improve the levels of happiness in the countries through a variety of policies. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that despite its grandiose name, Venezuela’s ministry actually has a “pretty reasonable mandate” – measuring the effectiveness of the government’s various social welfare programs. In Ecuador, Ehlers has implemented or plans to implement a variety of policies that included both labeling foods based on their health values and meditation classes for schoolchildren, the Miami Herald reported last year.

Bhutan’s GNH measure is especially interesting, as it was devised to shift public policy focus away from economic concerns — as signified by the near-universal interest in gross domestic product (GDP) and towards promoting several components of happiness, such as mental and physical health, leisure time, and standard of living.

While there is no minister directly responsible for happiness in the tiny Himalayan nation, the Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with surveying the levels of happiness in the nation. The information they gather is then used by the government to make decisions.

Butan’s big idea has since proven popular around the world and now a variety of countries all around the world – including Thailand and the United Kingdom – have begun measuring happiness with an aim to using it to devise policy. Dubai actually announced plans for its own Happiness Index in 2014, with Hussain Lootah, director general of the municipality, telling the National newspaper that it would be designed to “create an excellent city that provides the essence of success and comfort of sustainable living.”

Interestingly, despite leading the way in prioritizing social well being as government policy, Bhutan’s performance has been mixed at best: according to the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, which was inspired by the GNH idea, the country ranks only 79th out of 158, not terrible but not all that great. Bhutan has also dealt with faced issues such as pervasive poverty and discrimination against non-Buddhist minorities.

Believe it or not, the same U.N. report ranked Venezuela a respectable 44th in 2016, a significant drop since 19th in 2012, when the Orwellian-sounding “vice ministry of supreme social happiness” was created. Given the country’s plethora of social, economic, and political problems — ranging from food shortages to high crime — this decline is unsurprising, though still not as damaging as one would think.

For their part, Bhutan ranked 84th, the U.A.E. 28th, and Ecuador 51st. (Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the report’s results and methodology here.) As The Post points out, the top ten countries — all of which were northern European states and small Anglophone nations — had another thing in common besides being wealthy liberal democracies:

None of the top 10 countries rated “happiest” in the U.N. report have a government ministry devoted to happiness – although given the rarity of such ministries, it’d be very surprising if they did. There’s certainly little doubt that government policies can influence levels of happiness, but whether an entire ministry is needed is not so certain. Generally, when it comes to improving levels of happiness, “what matters is how things are done across government as a whole,” says John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And Carol Graham, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied attempts to measure well-being, says that the creation of ministries for happiness can be a “diversion” and may even “border on the government telling people how to be happy or that they should be happy.”

And while most of the top nations were indeed highly developed, broadly prosperous states, there was a smattering or poorer or middle-income countries, such as Costa Rica (14th place), Puerto Rico (15th), Mexico (21st), Chile (24th), and Panama (25th). It goes to show that, as with individuals, there is no magic bullet when it comes to well-being and life satisfaction.

Granted, it seems to be the general rule that financial wealth, stability, and freedom — both on an individual and societal level — generally correlates with happiness. But values, community life, leisure time, and culture count for a lot, too; people or places that are lacking in some factors, but excel in others, might still end up happier on the whole.

In my view, the best thing governments can do is create the proper conditions within which happiness can thrive — effective rule of law that safeguards personal safety and stability, less intrusion into civil liberties, more public spaces for leisure and community engagement, and so on. In other words, cultivate a physical and social environment that maximizes the individual’s ability to improve their own well being. More proactive measures, such as making healthcare and education more accessible, would certainly help, too, but this could be politically unpalatable in places wary of government intrusion, like the U.S. (which, by the way, ranked a good 13th place in the U.N. happiness report.)

What are your thoughts?

 

The Healthiest Countries in the World

According to the latest Bloomberg Best (and Worst), which ranks countries in all sorts of metrics and areas, the following the healthiest (and least healthiest) nations in the world.

Healthiest Countries

Source: Italian Tribune

This health index takes into account several factors, including rates of mortality, smoking, immunization, healthcare access, satisfaction with the medical system, and life expectancy, among others. A country’s score reflects both the political factors at work — public health policies, the healthcare system, insurance regulations, etc. — as well as sociocultural influences, such as diet, lifestyle, and attitudes towards risky activities like smoking or heavy drinking.

Thus, the countries that performed the best tended to share similar characteristics: first and foremost, social, political, and economic stability (e.g., no war, mass unemployment, famine conditions, etc.); an efficient, cost-effective, and well managed universal healthcare system; good public infrastructure that promotes daily activity (parks, bicycle paths, walkable city plans, etc.); and a health-conscious culture values things like small food portions, outdoor recreation, or free time from work.

As per Jared Diamond’s work, geography and environment might play some role as well; most of the top performers were located in areas with generally stable and temperate climates, and thus far fewer diseases, erratic weather patterns, natural disasters, infectious diseases, and other detriments to individual and public health. (Singapore, which is located in a tropical region, is somewhat of an exception, but as an extremely well governed city-state, it has had an easier time minimizing or addressing the challenges poised by its climate.)

The Unknown Chinese Woman Who Helped Find a Treatment for Malaria

Among the three scientists awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for work against parasites was Tu Youyou, an octogenarian pharmacologist whose work led to the development of the most effective treatment against malaria. But despite her invaluable role in saving millions of lives from this public health scourge, her contributions remained largely unknown, even in her own homeland.

Vox.com recounts the amazing story that led up to her breakthrough discovery.

In 1967, Chairman Mao Zedong set up a secret mission (“Project 523”) to find a cure for malaria. Hundreds of communist soldiers, fighting in the mosquito-infested jungles of Vietnam, were falling ill from malaria, and the disease was also killing thousands in southern China.

After Chinese scientists were initially unable to use synthetic chemicals to treat the mosquito-borne disease, Chairman Mao’s government turned to traditional medicine. Tu, a researcher at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Beijing, had studied both Chinese and Western medicine, according to a New Scientist profile, and was hand-plucked to search for an herbal cure.

By the time I started my search [in 1969] over 240,000 compounds had been screened in the US and China without any positive results,” she told the magazine. But, she added: “The work was the top priority, so I was certainly willing to sacrifice my personal life.”

Tu’s dedication included first testing the promising treatment on herself, to ensure that it was safe. Once it was proven to have no side effects, she organized clinical trials for people with malaria, all of whom were incredibly cured of the disease within no more than a day. Continue reading

How Income Relates to Life Expectancy

It is no surprise that wealthier countries, like wealthier people, tend to live longer. But how strong is this correlation? In a video released by The Gapminder Foundation, Swedish academic and professor Hans Rosling uses detailed but digestible visual data to explore the link between a nation’s wealth –namely its gross domestic product, or GDP — and the average longevity of its people.

To check out the two minute video, click here. (Sorry, I cannot embed it.)

Ultimately, the findings do indeed confirm that rich societies live longer. But what the data also show is that those countries in the middle range of GDP — e.g. the developing world — display a broad range in life expectancy, from low to surprisingly high. This illustrates the discrepancy in how states invest their growing wealth, and whether the fruits of their development are going to their people.

Video courtesy of Aeon. 

Young People Have a Harder Time Losing Weight

As if the Millennial generation didn’t have enough going against — from poorer job prospects to more expensive education — a recent study reported in The Atlantic has found that young people in the 21st century are less likely to lose or maintain weight than previous generations — even when they eat and exercise the same.

The authors examined the dietary data of 36,400 Americans between 1971 and 2008 and the physical activity data of 14,419 people between 1988 and 2006. They grouped the data sets together by the amount of food and activity, age, and BMI.

They found a very surprising correlation: A given person, in 2006, eating the same amount of calories, taking in the same quantities of macronutrients like protein and fat, and exercising the same amount as a person of the same age did in 1988 would have a BMI that was about 2.3 points higher. In other words, people today are about 10 percent heavier than people were in the 1980s, even if they follow the exact same diet and exercise plans.

“Our study results suggest that if you are 25, you’d have to eat even less and exercise more than those older, to prevent gaining weight,” Jennifer Kuk, a professor of kinesiology and health science at Toronto’s York University, said in a statement. “However, it also indicates there may be other specific changes contributing to the rise in obesity beyond just diet and exercise.”

Note that the study utilized Body Mass Index (BMI), the accuracy of which is questionable. But if the findings are true, it has some pretty big implications about how much our social, dietary, and physical environments have changed, and what impact that is having on human health.

While the researchers are pretty cautious about what exactly accounts for this generational disparity, they mention three likely culprits.

First, people are exposed to more chemicals that might be weight-gain inducing. Pesticides, flame retardants, and the substances in food packaging might all be altering our hormonal processes and tweaking the way our bodies put on and maintain weight.

Second, the use of prescription drugs has risen dramatically since the ’70s and ’80s. Prozac, the first blockbuster SSRI, came out in 1988. Antidepressants are now one of the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., and many of them have been linked to weight gain.

Finally, Kuk and the other study authors think that the microbiomes of Americans might have somehow changed between the 1980s and now. It’s well known that some types of gut bacteria make a person more prone to weight gain and obesity. Americans are eating more meat than they were a few decades ago, and many animal products are treated with hormones and antibiotics in order to promote growth. All that meat might be changing gut bacteria in ways that are subtle, at first, but add up over time. Kuk believes the proliferation of artificial sweeteners could also be playing a role.

I would also add that the high rates of anxiety and depression resulting from tougher economic times probably play a role, too; stress and sleeplessness are well documented contributors to weight gain, and a large proportion of young people report chronically experiencing these problems.

As in so many other studies about the causes of weight gain, it appears that the contributing factors are complex and poorly understood, involving a confluence of hormonal, dietary, and environmental influences we are just starting to understand. Hence why the study cautions about the prevailing negative attitude towards the physically unfit.

The fact that the body weights of Americans today are influenced by factors beyond their control is a sign, Kuk says, that society should be kinder to people of all body types.

“There’s a huge weight bias against people with obesity”, she said. “They’re judged as lazy and self-indulgent. That’s really not the case. If our research is correct, you need to eat even less and exercise even more” just to be same weight as your parents were at your age.

As someone who has endured a lifelong struggle to maintain a healthy weight, I never really considered whether or not my difficulties were part of a larger generational milleui. Being fit and healthy was always supposed to be a difficult endeavor, not least because it runs somewhat contrary to our biology (humans evolved to store fat at all costs, for example). But what happens when humans struggle to adapt to totally new diets and conditions? Our species is already taller and larger in overall mass than it was just a couple of centuries ago; how different will physically be another century or two from now?

What are your thoughts?

The Benefits of Coffee

Well, besides the obvious caffeine-induced boost to energy, mood, and concentration. In honor of National Coffee Day here in the U.S., I present a multitude of scientific research (courtesy of the New York Times) that finds coffee to not only be safer to drink than once widely assumed, but even downright beneficial.

First, an important caveat: these studies are referring to black coffee, e.g. not the high-calorie, sugar-infused beverages that have comparatively little coffee in them; a coffee drink loaded with sweets is not going to be as healthy as the purer stuff, for obvious reasons. So by no means come away believing that a latte or caramel mocha is beneficial to your health (not that most people think that anyway).

With all that said, here is some encouraging news for fellow coffee lovers concerned about their habit. Continue reading

Insects, Food of the Future

As many of you know from previous posts, I am a big advocate of cultivating insects as a major sustainable food source for the world. Already enjoyed as a staple food by around 2 billion people worldwide, bugs of all kinds offer a cheap, accessible, and nutritional form of sustenance in a world of stress resources. Hence why the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) concluded in its report on the idea that “the consumption of insects … contributes positively to the environment and to health and livelihoods.”

As the L.A. Times reports, the message is even getting across to the United States, albeit ever so slowly. The article covers several businesses that are attempting to make bug food mainstream in a culture not accustomed to the idea. For the sake of brevity, I will highlight the general findings and benefits regarding insects as a food source.  Continue reading

Poor People and Fast Food

Among the many ways that poor people are shamed and ostracized in American society is the pervasive myth that they are recklessly indulgent consumers of fast food. But as The Atlantic reports, bad eating habits, and subsequently high rates of obesity, are hardly the purview of low income people.

Back in 2011, a national study by a team at UC Davis concluded that as American salaries grow into the upper echelons of middle income, so does fast-food intake. “Low prices, convenience and free toys target the middle class— especially budget-conscious, hurried parents— very well,” wrote professor J. Paul Leigh, the senior author of the study. He adds that fast food is most popular among the people who are less likely to be obese.

But could that possibly be true? According to a 2013 Gallup study, the fries don’t lie:

“[F]ast food is hardly the province solely of those with lower incomes; in fact, wealthier Americans—those earning $75,000 a year or more—are more likely to eat it at least weekly (51%) than are lower-income groups. Those earning the least actually are the least likely to eat fast food weekly—39% of Americans earning less than $20,000 a year do so.”

Now a new study, this time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, weighs in on the matter. While the national survey did show that on a given day, roughly one-third of American children will eat fast food, the breakdown among income levels is pretty even.

Another article in The Washington Post by Roberto Ferdman points out that it is “the poorest kids that tend to get the smallest share of their daily energy intake from Big Macs, Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and french fries”. Indeed, well-meaning yet flawed attempts to ban fast-food venues in areas with high rates of obesity and poverty alike have done little to curb the issue — indeed, in the case of South Los Angeles, it sped up the problem.  Continue reading

The Leading Cause of Death in Each Country

Everyday, an average of 150,000 people die worldwide. What kills them varies wildly from country to country.

Citing the collaborative research of hundreds of researchers from around the world, the following short video from Vox.com shows the number one cause of early death by country. The results clearly demonstrate the influence of geography, culture, and economics on human mortality.

Here is a map of the data pulled from the video.

No.1 Cause of Death Around the World

The video also introduces the idea of measuring “years of life lost”, which compares the age of death to the potential maximum lifespan (presently an average of around 86 years). This method captures the true scope and tragedy of early death. After all, a country can have a high death rate because its aging population is reaching the limit of human longevity; hence why the leading causes of death in richer country are those that tend to strike the old, like stroke and heart disease. This shows that most people in those nations are managing to live long lives at or near (if not beyond) the potential human average.

But if most people in a given country are dying from things that occur well before old age, than it denotes serious socioeconomic and political problems: issues like war, lack of public health infrastructure, rampant poverty, and so on. Hence why poorer countries have more people dying from causes that are otherwise easily cured, treated, or even preempted in richer nations.

As the video points out, as many as 40 percent of the deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa occur to people less than five years old. This is a stunning figure, especially when one looks at the specifics: something as mundane in the developed world as diarrhea can be a death sentence in other parts of the world. And for all our concerns about violent crime, most people in the U.S., Europe, and other developed nations can rest assured that they are unlikely to die at the hands of another person (though for certain communities within these countries, that is a different story).

A country’s leading cause of death can also reveal certain peculiarities in their culture, history, or society. Persian Gulf countries have a strong subculture geared around drag racing and risky driving, leading to their unusually high rate of death by car accidents. This could be linked to high youth unemployment and a repressive social environment, which leads to boredom, angst, and the pursuit of these sorts of thrills. Meanwhile, China’s high rate of stroke deaths portends its rapid development and industrialization, but also spells trouble as it deals with rich-world problems without yet establishing a rich-world public health system.

This data is at once fascinating and disconcerting. It shows the huge level of disparity between certain parts of the world, and reaffirms how our success in life — including our capacity to live full, healthy lives — is largely a product of random chance. We are at the mercy of geography. Had I been born in Bolivia, the Congo, or Pakistan, I could have long died from the banal childhood afflictions I suffered without worry. Then again, if had I been born in North America, Europe, or Australia a century or two earlier, there would be a similar likelihood of dying from infectious disease.

Source: IFLS