Every winter brings cautionary tales that the flu—just the regular old flu—can kill. And the cautionary tales this year are hard to beat. Twenty-one-year-old Kyler Baughman, for example, a fitness buff who liked to show off his six-pack, recently died a few days after getting a runny nose.
According to the numbers, this year’s flu season is in fact worse than usual. It got started early, and it’s been more severe. Twenty kids have died of the flu since October. And in the week ending January 6, 22.7 out of every 100,000 hospitalizations in the U.S. were for flu—twice the number of the previous week.
"Flu is everywhere in the U.S. right now," Dan Jernigan, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s influenza branch, said during a Friday press briefing. “This is the first year we've had the entire continental U.S. be the same same color”—referring to a map of state-by-state estimate of flu activity. That color is brown, meaning the flu is “widespread” everywhere in the U.S. except for Hawaii and the District of Columbia.
Several factors have come together make this year’s flu worse for patients who get sick and for hospitals trying to treat them.
First, the virus. Fears of a bad flu season first began in the early fall, after public health officials noticed a worse-than-average flu season in the southern hemisphere. The dominant circulating strain this year is H3N2, which hits humans harder than other strains. Scientists don’t really know why, but flu...
Astrology is a meme, and it’s spreading in that blooming, unfurling way that memes do. On social media, astrologers and astrology meme machines amass tens or hundreds of thousands of followers, people joke about Mercury retrograde, and categorize “the signs as ...” literally anything: cat breeds, Oscar Wilde quotes, Stranger Things characters, types of french fries. In online publications, daily, weekly, and monthly horoscopes, and zodiac-themed listicles flourish.
This isn’t the first moment astrology’s had and it won’t be the last. The practice has been around in various forms for thousands of years. More recently, the New Age movement of the 1960s and ’70s came with a heaping helping of the zodiac. (Some also refer to the New Age as the “Age of Aquarius”—the 2,000-year period after the Earth is said to move into the Aquarius sign.)
In the decades between the New Age boom and now, while astrology certainly didn’t go away—you could still regularly find horoscopes in the back pages of magazines—it “went back to being a little bit more in the background,” says Chani Nicholas, an astrologer based in Los Angeles. “Then there’s something that’s happened in the last five years that’s given it an edginess, a relevance for this time and place, that it hasn’t had for a good 35 years. Millennials have taken it and run with it.”
Many people I spoke to for this piece said they had a sense that the stigma attached to astrology,...
Last September, a farm near Schulenburg, Texas, a quiet, conservative town of fewer than 3,000 people, became a medical-marijuana dispensary. Knox Medical, based in Florida, owns the farm and is one of the three newly licensed cannabis outfits in Texas to start selling cannabidiol, or CBD, a substance derived from low-THC marijuana. When deliveries start going out to patients this month, Schulenburg, home to distinctively painted churches and the Texas Polka Music Museum, will become one of the first legal outposts for medical marijuana in Texas.
It’s not an identity residents of the area are rushing to embrace. Town officials are quick to point out that the site of the greenhouses and the future dispensary is technically outside of city limits. And Kristopher Emola, the cultivation manager for Knox Medical, has already learned not to volunteer that he grows pot when talking to people in Schulenburg. “It’s one of those things that has been so stigmatized for so long,” Emola says, “that it’s natural to question it initially.” But if small towns like Schulenburg can get past the stigma, they may just be the perfect entry points for a booming marijuana business in a largely conservative state. “If it helps people and it doesn’t hurt anything,” asks Fayette County Judge Ed Janecka, “why not do it?”
It is unclear whether marijuana will ever become a significant part of the state’s economy. Despite a push across the country to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana (30 states and the District...
Each year, cities, regions, and other organizers around the world host around 3,000 marathons. In large races like the Los Angeles Marathon and the London Marathon, more than half the participants are running a marathon for the very first time.
For Red Hong Yi, an artist based in Malaysia, “a marathon was always one of those impossible things to do,” she told me in an interview, so she decided to “give up my weekends and just go for it.” She ran the 2015 Melbourne Marathon in Australia, her first, after training for six months. Jeremy Medding, who works in the diamond business in Tel Aviv and for whom the 2005 New York City Marathon was his first, said that “there’s always a goal we promise ourselves” and that a marathon was one box he hadn’t ticked. Cindy Bishop, a lawyer in Central Florida, said she ran her first marathon in 2009 “to change my life and reinvent myself.” Andy Morozovsky, a zoologist turned biotech executive, ran the 2015 San Francisco Marathon even though he’d previously never run anywhere close to that distance. “I didn’t plan to win it. I just planned to finish it,” he told me. “I wanted to see what I could do.”
Four people in four different professions living in four different parts of...
President Donald Trump’s decision to brag in a tweet about the size of his “nuclear button” compared with North Korea’s was widely condemned as bellicose and reckless. The comments are also part of a larger pattern of odd and often alarming behavior for a person in the nation’s highest office.
Trump’s grandiosity and impulsivity has made him a constant subject of speculation among those concerned with his mental health. But after more than a year of talking to doctors and researchers about whether and how the cognitive sciences could offer a lens to explain Trump’s behavior, I’ve come to believe there should be a role for professional evaluation beyond speculating from afar.
I’m not alone. Viewers of Trump’s recent speeches have begun noticing minor abnormalities in his movements. In November, he used his free hand to steady a small Fiji bottle as he brought it to his mouth. Onlookers described the movement as “awkward” and made jokes about hand size. Some called out Trump for doing the exact thing he had mocked Senator Marco Rubio for during the presidential primary—conspicuously drinking water during a speech.
By comparison, Rubio’s movement was smooth, effortless. The Senator noticed that Trump had stared at the Fiji bottle as he slowly brought it to his lips, jokingly chiding that Trump “needs work on his form. Has to be done in one single motion, and eyes should never leave the camera.”
In the spirit of Drynuary, I’d like to propose another health-oriented month of the year. Perhaps called Crunch-uary or Poop-tober, it would be 30 days in which Americans, for once, eat enough dietary fiber.
There are so many reasons why, from fast-food marketing to agriculture subsidies, but one contributing factor is the slow death of cooking, and the rise of the restaurant meal. Americans now spend more on food at restaurants than they do at grocery stores, but restaurant food tends to have even less fiber than the food we would otherwise eat at home.
One problem seems to be that restaurant meals aren't typically loaded with two of the best sources of fiber, unprocessed fruits and vegetables. A revealing study from 2007, in which researchers interviewed 41 restaurant executives, showed that restaurants think fruits and vegetables are too expensive to feature prominently on the menu, and “61 percent said profits drive menu selections.” They also opposed labeling certain menu items as healthier choices, saying that would be “the kiss of death.”
So people like to eat out, and when they do, they prefer mushy, fiber-free comfort foods. But that’s a pretty dangerous road to go down.
As my colleague Ed Yong has written, low-fiber diets make gut bacteria more homogenous, possibly for generations.
2018 is supposed to be the year of CRISPR in humans. The first U.S. and European clinical trials that test the gene-editing tool's ability to treat diseases—such as sickle-cell anemia, beta thalassemia, and a type of inherited blindness—are slated to begin this year.
But the year has begun on a cautionary note. On Friday, Stanford researchers posted a preprint (which has not been peer reviewed) to the website biorXiv highlighting a potential obstacle to using CRISPR in humans: Many of us may already be immune to it. That’s because CRISPR actually comes from bacteria that often live on or infect humans, and we have built up immunity to the proteins from these bacteria over our lives.
It’s the first time this concern has been aired so publicly, and the preprint kicked off something of a firestorm. “We had no anticipation it would be picked up so broadly on social media. I don’t even have a Twitter account. I just heard this from others,” says Matthew Porteus, a pediatrician and stem-cell researcher at Stanford who led the study and is working on a clinical trial for sickle-cell anemia.
Not all CRISPR therapies in humans will be doomed. “We don’t think this is the end of the story. This is the start of the story,” says Porteus. There are likely ways around the problem of immunity to CRISPR proteins, and many of the early clinical trials appear to be designed around this problem.
This is the story of a small-town, publicly-owned hospital that, after thriving for decades, is struggling and now in all likelihood about to be appended to a large regional health-care system. The tale of Berger Municipal Hospital is, like that of many sectors of the American economy, one defined by industrial consolidation and the costs that come with it. The story begins in 1929. That year, the city fathers of Circleville, Ohio, in the south-central part of the state, dedicated the town’s new hospital, funded partly with money willed by a local patron named Franklin Berger.
The hospital opened at a time when other small towns had been building them, too. Turn-of-the-century medical breakthroughs such as disinfectants, sanitary surgery, and new technology like X-ray machines (invented in 1895) helped transform hospitals from last-resort warehouses for the sick poor (the rich were usually treated at home by private doctors) into places where all members of a community would go to receive care. Mothers began to deliver babies in hospitals instead of at home, and birthing (and, in more recent years, prenatal care) became big business for community hospitals. Not only would Berger help improve the health of Circleville residents, but it was expected to be a sign of modern welfare that would attract business executives and workers. As was typical, Berger was owned and operated by the city, and then, a generation later, jointly by both the city and surrounding Pickaway County.
Last November, however, Circleville’s voters chose another direction,...
The term “food desert” conjures the image of a forlorn citizen, wandering through a barren landscape for miles and miles (or, by definition, for more than a mile) to reach the nearest fresh-food market. Populating food deserts with grocery stores is a favored cause among nutrition advocates, but the concept became controversial after some recent studies found the distance to the nearest grocery store doesn’t correlate with a region’s obesity rate.
(Because it’s nutrition, other studies have shown the opposite. Either way, most people would agree it’s nice to be able to buy produce with relative ease, even if doing so doesn’t make you fit into your high-school jeans again.)
Now, new research suggests food deserts might not be the culprit—or at least not the only one—for the high prevalence of obesity in certain areas. Instead, food swamps might be to blame.
In addition to being low on grocery stores, food swamps are also crammed with unhealthy food options like corner stores and fast-food places.
For a study published in November in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers from the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity compared the obesity rate of U.S. counties to their ratio of fast-food restaurants and convenience stores to grocery stores and supermarkets—their level of food-swampiness, in other words.
The food swamps had about four unhealthy options for each healthy one. Food swamps were a strong predictor of obesity rates—even stronger than food deserts...
This won’t surprise anyone: The food served in correctional institutions is generally not very good. Even though most Americans have never tasted a meal dished up in a correctional kitchen, occasional secondhand glimpses tend to reinforce a common belief that “prison food” is scant, joyless, and unsavory—if not even worse. In August, the Detroit Free Press reported that a prison kitchen worker was fired for refusing to serve rotten potatoes. You can find nightmarish stories about maggots in national outlets like U.S.A. Today. Meanwhile, The Marshall Project’s more thorough, pictorial anatomy of daily correctional fare across the country found that most offerings barely fill a cafeteria tray—let alone a hungry belly. Reports like these reinforce the sense that criminal justice has a gastronomic dimension, that unrelentingly horrid food is a standard feature of the punishment prisoners receive behind bars.
But new evidence suggests that the situation is worse than previously thought, and not just because prison food isn’t winning any James Beard awards. It’s also making inmates sick.
According to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), correctional inmates are 6.4 times more likely to suffer from a food-related illness than the general population. The report—which looked at confirmed outbreaks across the country between 1998 and 2014, and is the first update to the data in 20 years—underscores the fact that prison food is more than just a punch line, a flash point, or a gross-out gag on Orange Is the New Black....
On Thursday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, an Obama-era policy that took a hands-off approach to marijuana in states where it was legal. Instead, federal prosecutors, Sessions wrote, should decide for themselves whether to crack down on marijuana businesses.
This likely spells trouble for recreational marijuana, which is now legal in eight states and Washington, D.C. The move prompted an outcry from legalization advocates. “Enforcement is up to individual U.S. Attorneys, but this is a clear directive from their boss to start going after legitimate, taxpaying businesses,” said Morgan Fox, the communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, via email.
What’s not as clear is how this might affect medical marijuana, long considered the more acceptable cousin to recreational weed.
A provision called the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment protects medical-marijuana programs in states from federal interference. But that provision expires January 19, unless the new federal spending bill renews it. It’s not clear whether it will be included in however Congress decides to fund the government next. Justice officials told the Associated Press they “would follow the law, but would not preclude the possibility of medical-marijuana-related prosecutions.”
Sessions’s memo opens up an interesting rift between antidrug Republicans and states’-rights Republicans. “Jeff Sessions has forgotten about the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment,” said Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican from California and sponsor of the amendment, on a call with reporters.
“People see the impact of this stupid mindset from the 1950s and early ’60s,” he later added. “That’s what Jeff is representing,...
In the final decades of the 19th century, scientists showed in rapid succession that many of the worst diseases to afflict humanity were the work of bacteria—germs. Leprosy, gonorrhea, diphtheria, tuberculosis, plague, cholera, dysentery: Barely a year went by without assigning an infamous illness to a newly identified microbe. This concept, where one germ causes one disease, has influenced the way we think about infections ever since, and it implies an obvious solution: Remove the bug, and cure the sickness.
But the links between microbes and poor health can be more complicated. Our bodies are naturally home to tens of trillions of bacteria. Most are benign, or even beneficial. But often, these so-called microbiomes can shift into a negative state. For example, inflamed guts tend to house an unusually large number of bacteria from the Enterobacteriaceae family (pronounced En-ter-oh-back-tee-ree-ay-see-ay, and hereafter just “enteros”). There’s no villain in this scenario, no single antagonist as there would be in the case of tuberculosis or cholera. The enteros are part of a normal gut; it’s the same old community, just altered.
These kinds of shifts are harder to rectify. For a start, it’s often unclear if the enteros cause the inflammation, if the inflammation changes the microbes, or both. Even if the microbes are responsible, how do you fix that? Dietary changes are typically too imprecise. Antibiotics are too crude, killing off beneficial microbes while suppressing the problematic ones.
But Sebastian Winter, from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has an alternative. His...
For the six weeks leading up to December 15, the work calendar of Laura Holdrege, a health-care navigator in Salt Lake City, Utah, was booked solid. She and her colleagues at the Utah Health Policy Project worked overtime helping people sign up for insurance on Healthcare.gov.
Because of cuts imposed by the Trump administration, other navigator organizations in the state had reduced their ranks and were sending their clients to Holdrege and her team. She warned some that she could squeeze them in, but they would have to share their appointment with someone else. Toward the end, she ran out of appointment slots and began simply referring people to Healthcare.gov.
When they did sit down for their appointments, some people would ask, “Obamacare is gone, right?”
So went the first full Obamacare open enrollment under President Trump. It was surprisingly strong, with 8.8 million people signing up during the six-week period that ended last week. That’s 96 percent of the total during last year’s open enrollment, which was twice as long.
“These numbers debunk that theory that people don’t want it, that it’s not a good product,” said Emily Barson, a senior adviser with the national group Get America Covered, which assisted the cash-strapped navigators in spreading the word about open enrollment.
It’s also somewhat surprising, given the Trump administration’s many efforts to undermine and besmirch the law that’s named after the president’s predecessor. It slashed funding for advertising about the open-enrollment period and cut grants to navigators. It also halved the enrollment...
Addiction to prescription pain medication has taken a staggering toll on America: According to one accounting, overdoses killed more people in one year than guns and car accidents combined.
Tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year from overdoses. It’s a grim trend that has touched just about every aspect of life—even, as the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate, work. While traffic accidents, homicides, and suicides are still the top culprits of on-the-job fatalities, deaths related to addiction are increasing at a rapid clip. Last year alone, the number of workers who died at work because of drug- or alcohol-abuse-related incidents increased by more than 30 percent, to more than 200. While that number may seem small, it’s evidence of how rapidly the problem is growing—less than five years ago, fewer than 70 people died from overdoses at work. Since 2012, the number of people dying from drug or alcohol related causes while on the job has been growing by at least 25 percent each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These deaths represent unspeakable individual tragedies. They also, in the larger picture, serve as a striking illustration of how America’s addiction epidemic is changing the landscape of work.
Over the past few years, economists have struggled to explain why so many people appear to be dropping out of the workforce. The most telling measure of that is the labor-force participation rate—which measures the percentage of the population that is...
This past year, reporters on The Atlantic’s science, technology, and health desks worked tirelessly, writing hundreds of stories. Each of those stories is packed with facts that surprised us, delighted us, and in some cases, unsettled us. Instead of picking our favorite stories, we decided to round up a small selection of the most astonishing things we learned in 2017. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did, and we hope you’ll be back for more in 2018:
For the first time since the early 1960s, life expectancy in the United States has declined for the second year in a row, according to a CDC report released Thursday. American men can now expect to live 76.1 years, a decrease of two-tenths of a year from 2015. American women’s life expectancy remained at 81.1 years.
The change was driven largely by a rising death rate among younger Americans. The death rate of people between the ages of 25 and 34 increased by 10 percent between 2015 and 2016, while the death rate continued to decrease for people over the age of 65.
The only racial group that saw a significant increase in their death rate between 2015 and 2016 were black men: Their age-adjusted mortality rate increased by 1 percent.
“What you see this year is a leveling off of the gains that we’ve had over the years, especially with heart disease and cancer,” among black men, said Garth Graham, the president of the Aetna Foundation and former head of the U.S. Office of Minority Health. “And the opioid epidemic is starting to overtake whatever gains we’ve made in that sector.”
The rise in young American deaths has been fueled by fentanyl overdoses. Unintentional injuries, a category that includes drug overdoses, became the third leading cause of death in 2016, after heart disease and cancer. In 2015, it had been the fourth-leading...
Every week, Dr. Shannon Carr flies to Texas, where she works in one of the state’s seven remaining abortion clinics after House Bill Two effectively shuttered nearly two-thirds of the facilities in the state. Filmmakers Leah Galant and Maya Cueva follow Dr. Carr as she meets patients and performs safe and legal abortions, despite the state’s vigorous anti-abortion stigma and legislation.
“The work that I do is necessary,” says Dr. Carr in the film. “So why not talk about it? It’s gone on for centuries—it’s going to continue to go on—and all we do is keep stuffing it under the rug.”
Dr. Carr attempts to make human connections with her patients—some of whom travel more than 150 miles to the clinic. “It’s the stories that drive us,” Dr. Carr says. “Some of these women walk in with life circumstances that are chaotic and very difficult, and it might be the first time in their life that somebody really looked into their eyes and gave a damn about them.”
The filmmakers also interview pro-life advocates, including Karen Garnett, one of the movement’s preeminent leaders in the country, and Emily Horne, who co-authored the HB2 bill. We also hear from Sarah Weddington, the attorney who won the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case.
“One of the biggest challenges of production was trying to capture both sides of the debate,” Galant and Cueva told The Atlantic. “It’s not easy filming a topic where the division runs so deep. Naturally, we...
When T.R. Reid, an American reporter, went to his American doctor for an old shoulder injury, he got a very American recommendation. The doctor suggested a total shoulder arthroplasty, a Cadillac of a procedure that would saw off his shoulder joint, replace it with silicon and titanium, and cement it into place.
Reid declined, then set off to get the same shoulder treated in five other countries, documenting the experience in his book, The Healing of America.
A French doctor demurred, saying a total shoulder replacement was only for those in constant pain. A British NHS doctor didn’t mince words: “You are living your normal life without much impairment. So [surgery] is not indicated.”
Reid’s book offers a frank look at how differently national health systems approach pain management. The Americans—zealously, expensively—and the British—stiff-upper-lippedly—came up with wildly different cures for the same problem. (The British doctor did agree to “maybe” some physical therapy—if Reid developed “acute pain.”)
Now, a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper explores how Americans also perceive and report pain differently from people in other countries. In other words, not only are our doctors more trigger-happy when it comes to treating pain; we seem to find ourselves covered in Bengay and sitting on the exam table more than most.
The paper, which is fittingly titled “Unhappiness and Pain in Modern America,” featured a question from a 2011 survey that asked people across 30 countries the following:
During the past four weeks, how often have you had bodily aches...
Can training the mind make us more attentive, altruistic, and serene? Can we learn to manage our disturbing emotions in an optimal way? What are the transformations that occur in the brain when we practice meditation? In a new book titled Beyond the Self, two friends—Matthieu Ricard, who left a career as a molecular biologist to become a Buddhist monk in Nepal, and Wolf Singer, a distinguished neuroscientist—engage in an unusually well-matched conversation about meditation and the brain. Below is a condensed and edited excerpt.
Matthieu Ricard: Although one ﬁnds in the Buddhist literature many treatises on “traditional sciences”—medicine, cosmology, botanic, logic, and so on—Tibetan Buddhism has not endeavored to the same extent as Western civilizations to expand its knowledge of the world through the natural sciences. Rather it has pursued an exhaustive investigation of the mind for 2,500 years and has accumulated, in an empirical way, a wealth of experiential ﬁndings over the centuries. A great number of people have dedicated their whole lives to this contemplative science.
Modern Western psychology began with William James just over a century ago. I can’t help remembering the remark made by Stephen Kosslyn, then chair of the psychology department at Harvard, at the Mind and Life meeting on “Investigating the Mind,” which took place at MIT in 2003. He started his presentation by saying, “I want to begin with a declaration of humility in the face of the sheer amount of data that the contemplatives are bringing to modern psychology.”
It does not...
On Thursday, the Trump administration instructed policy analysts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to use the following words in official documents being prepared for the 2018 budget: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity," “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based,” and “science-based.”
This news came in a report Friday from The Washington Post, with the possible implication that research in areas involving these words will be stifled.
Based on this list, one can’t help but wonder if the following words might also make the administration’s censored list:
“Cluster of cells”
“Abuse of power”