I receive email alerts from MedPageToday online.  Here’s the headline for a recent alert:

Stroke Rounds: Less Educated Smokers at Higher Stroke Risk

The article is about a large observational study conducted in Denmark.  The conclusions drawn by both the investigators and the reporter approach head-bang-on-desk levels of mushy thinking.  Let’s take a look:

The combination of a low level of education — a marker of socioeconomic status — with smoking appears to increase risk of stroke, especially in men, according to one of the first studies to analyze social inequality and stroke risk.

Social inequality and stroke risk?  Someone is studying that?  That had me scratching my head already.  Turns out the study was funded by something called the Danish Cancer Society Commission of Social Inequality in Cancer.  (And as Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.)  I don’t know why the Social Inequality division of a national cancer society is mucking around in the field of social inequality in stroke risk, but apparently they felt the need.  Anyway …

In a pooled cohort of more than 68,000 people, lower education and current smoking led to 134 (95% CI 49-219) extra cases of ischemic stroke per 100,000 person-years in men, the authors wrote.

“The combined effect of low education and current smoking was more than expected by the sum of their separate effects on ischemic stroke incidence,” wrote Helene Nordahl, MS, PhD, of the University of Copenhagen, and her co-authors online in Stroke.

So don’t smoke unless you have a college degree, which apparently will provide you with some protection against strokes.

This particular example of the impact of socioeconomic position on risk was “quite interesting and novel” and “the most surprising finding of our study,” Nordahl told MedPage Today.

The impact of socioeconomic position … you know where they’re going this, right?  They’re going to make a case that smokers with less education are having more strokes because of their lower socioeconomic status – and by gosh, someone (meaning the government) needs to do something about it.

Overall, the combination of exposure to smoking, low level of education, and hypertension on ischemic stroke was associated with 566 extra cases among men and 438 among women, compared with those who had no exposure to the three risk factors.

I’m not sure how you avoid exposing yourself to a low level of education, but I suppose refusing to respond to the greeter at Wal-Mart could help.

“In order to reduce social inequality in stroke we need to challenge disparities in unhealthy behaviors, particularly smoking,” Nordahl told MedPage Today.

Yeesh … I hope the goal of reducing social inequality in strokes doesn’t find its way to the United States.  Given the crowd currently running Washington, the result would be more strokes among wealthy people.

The social differences in risk of stroke have been a topic of interest for health research for a number of years, Nordahl told MedPage Today.

So let’s talk about those social differences.  Normally when studies like this are conducted and published in the U.S., reporters assume people lower on the socioeconomic ladder have worse health outcomes because of inferior healthcare.  The unfairness of U.S. medicine and all that.  If only we had a socialized system where everyone is equal, by gosh, we wouldn’t see these disparities.

I remember reading an article along those lines awhile back in our local socialist rag – excuse me, local newspaper.  The article pointed out that people living in Williamson County (where I happen to live) have lower rates of heart disease, cancer, etc., and suggested perhaps we need to find a way to move more poor people here so they’ll be healthier.  Clearly those well-to-do folks in Williamson County are enjoying superior healthcare. Oh, the unfairness of it all.

But wait … this study about stroke and social inequality was conducted in Denmark, which already has socialized medicine.  Since the researchers couldn’t blame inferior healthcare, they seem determined to blame “exposure” to a low level of education.  Must be the education disparity, ya see.

It’s the same problem we see over and over with conclusions drawn from observational studies:  researchers and reporters can’t seem to grasp that the data is nothing more than the result of comparing different kinds of people — and I’m not just talking about health-related studies.  Fuzzy-thinking conclusions about cause-and-effect have led to mistaken beliefs about education as well.  (The Denmark study researchers seem determined to pull off the unusual feat of engaging in fuzzy thinking about both health and education.)

I remember reading about the relationship between income and education in a book about economics.  (Sorry, don’t remember which one.)  The author noted that people who earn college degrees have higher incomes than those who don’t, and people who earn degrees from an Ivy-League school have much higher incomes.  Most people assume this means going to college will raise your future income, and going to an Ivy-League college will seriously raise your income.  Cause and effect.  So let’s make sure everyone goes to college, and we’ll end poverty.  (Just ask all those kids taking on $100,000 in student-loan debt to get a degree in Art History.)

But as the author explained, those correlations don’t prove cause-and-effect at all.  As he recounted in the book, it occurred to some researchers that perhaps people who attend Ivy-League schools have significantly higher incomes because they’re smart enough to attend an Ivy-League school.  There is, after all, a very strong correlation between IQ and income.

So the researchers went out and found thousands of people who had been accepted into an Ivy-League college but, for one reason or another, decided not to attend.  Guess what?  On average, they were just as financially successful as people who earned degrees from Ivy-League schools.  In other words, if you’re smart enough and hard-working enough to be accepted into Harvard, you’re probably going to do very well in life – even if you choose to attend a state university instead.

To a large extent, the same goes for the correlation between a college degree and a higher income.  Yes, there are many high-paying jobs you’d probably never get without attending college – good luck landing a job as a CPA without a degree – but according to the author of the book on economics, people who earn college degrees end up with higher incomes largely because they have higher IQs and more discipline on average than people who don’t attend college.

In other words, they’re different.  I’ve written before about what Dr. Mike Eades calls adherers vs. non-adherers.  (I think of them as conscientious people vs. people who don’t give a @#$%.)  As Dr. Eades pointed out years ago, adherers regularly end up with better health outcomes.  In drug studies, for example, the adherers get better results than the non-adherers even if they’re in the placebo arm of the study.   That means it’s not the drug making the difference.  Perhaps they just take better care of themselves in ways the study investigators don’t measure.  Perhaps their lives are less of a mess, so they’re less stressed.

One factor that separates adherers from non-adherers is the degree to which they are motivated by possible future consequences.  Adherers plan ahead and act accordingly.  Non-adherers are more likely to live for today.  I can think of all kinds of ways being motivated by future outcomes would cause an adherer to think and act differently:

  • That soda would taste good, but I don’t want to become fat and diabetic.
  • Those French fries smell awesome, but the broccoli would be better for me.
  • There are a lot of good shows on TV, but I need a good workout more than I need entertainment.
  • I’d like to go hang out with my friends, but I need to study so I can get good grades and get into a good school.
  • I’d love to own that new car, but I need to save more money to invest or use to start my own business.
  • Yeah, he’s hot as all get out, but he doesn’t seem to have any kind of work ethic and would probably be a lousy provider if we got married and had kids.  Pass.

You get the idea.  Compared to non-adherers, adherers are more likely to take care of themselves, so they’re healthier.  They think about long-term consequences, so they study and get better grades, probably go to college, are more willing to defer fun and gratification now if it means a higher income later, so they end up better off financially.

Then they move somewhere pleasant where the homes are bigger and more expensive – like Williamson County, for example.  The local schools end up being highly ranked because the smart adherer children of the smart adherer parents study and do their homework and pay attention in class.

Then researches and reporters notice how those well-to-do people have better local schools and lower rates of heart disease and cancer and stroke, and they think they’ve spotted social inequality that might need a government cure.

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When we got the brush-cutting mower we’ve since nicknamed The Beast, Chareva’s first request was that I clear an area around the chicken coop so she could expand the chicken yard.  A day or so later, she put up the electric fence that had previously surrounded Sara’s goats.  The idea, of course, is to discourage raccoons or bobcats from treating themselves to any more chicken dinners.

Here’s more of the fence, from the other side of the coop:

I hope it works.  If it comes down to a choice between losing chickens or killing a predator, I’ll kill the predator.  One chicken produces 250 eggs or more per year.  Rocky Racoon killed four of them, so he cost us 1,000 eggs over the next year — and all we got in return was one raccoon-stew dinner.  The bobcat cost us another 250 eggs per year.  But as several readers mentioned, that bobcat is a beautiful animal, and I’d rather just convince him to go away.

The chickens won’t be wandering the expanded chicken yard until we put some nets over the area.  Hawks aren’t impressed by electric fences.

I got home from work on Friday with about two hours to go before sunset, so I released The Beast and tackled the section of the side field you see below:

That gave me more of a workout than I’d expected.  It’s difficult to appreciate the slope of these hills unless you’re standing on them, but this picture taken soon after we bought the land should give you an idea:

That was the area I cut on Friday, and I found that my usual method of cutting around the perimeter wasn’t possible.  The mower wanted to tilt and turn downhill if I tried cutting across the slope.  So my only option was to guide it downhill, make a 180-degree turn, and go straight back up the hill – over and over.  The back wheels are powered, but there are no front wheels, which means I have to push down on the handles and keep the front slightly elevated, especially when cutting uphill.  It wasn’t quite like pushing a heavy weight uphill each time, but close.  So let’s just say I slept amazingly well on Friday night.  This is the after picture:

Same area, but looking up from near the bottom of the hill:

That left these two big sections of the side field still to be cut:

I figured I’d tackle those next weekend.  I was more interested in clearing the area behind the house, which had grown to look like this:

When I finished my morning coffee on Saturday and starting pulling on my work clothes and boots, it occurred to me that I was actually looking forward to the work.

What the …?  Is that my brain getting all happy about a day of manual labor?

Yes, this is your brain.

But the whole two years we rented a house in a suburb, I never even mowed the lawn.  Mowing a lawn is drudgery.  That’s why I paid a service to do it.  Why the heck is this fun all of a sudden?

I don’t know.  I’m only a brain.  You figure it out.

So I spent two hours pushing The Beast around the area behind the house (only about a third of which is visible in the picture).  Now it looks like this:

I planned on calling it a day after that and working on a music project.  Then my brain started up again.

You know, you still have plenty of daylight left.  You could knock down one of those two sections in the side field.

Why on earth would I do that?

Because you want to.  You know you do.

Look, buddy, I do not want to spend the entire day … holy crap, the brain is right.  I do want to.  Okay, I’ll take down one of those two remaining sections.  Then I’m going inside.

So, despite being drenched under my shirt from the afternoon heat, I took down another section.  Then I turned The Beast towards the garage.

Hey, remember me?  It’s your brain again.  You know, that last remaining section really isn’t that big if you think about.

But I’ve already been doing this for nearly four hours, and it’s ninety-some degrees out here and … okay, I’ll get the gas can.

My muscles were tired and I was huffing and puffing at times as I hit the steeper slopes.  And yet I had to admit:  I was enjoying myself.  I don’t know if was endorphins from the work, the pride of accomplishment, or what Charlie Daniels called Dog-Tired Satisfied in one of his songs, but after spending five hours working outside on a hot, humid day, I felt terrific.

It occurred to me that this is one of the unexpected benefits of living on a small farm.  I’ve been a software programmer for years.  I’m good at it, I like it, and it pays well.  But of course, I sit down for that job (and for blogging).  The whole time I lived in Chicago and Los Angeles, I didn’t even have a yard.  I knew it was important to get some physical exercise, so I took long walks and worked out in a gym.  I still do.  A good workout in a gym is satisfying, but it’s not like this.  It’s not the joy of being Dog-Tired Satisfied.  I get that feeling when I spend a day tearing down a briar jungle, or cutting up a pile of wood, or pounding fence posts into the ground.

When we first bought the farm and started cleaning it up, cutting away the rusty barbed wire, digging gardens, reclaiming the jungle, etc., I occasionally grumbled to myself that it seemed the work would never be done.

Silly, silly man, my brain replied when I recalled those complaints as I was falling asleep on Saturday night.  Of course the work will never be done.  And if it ever is, you should probably buy more land.  You’re Dog-Tired Satisfied, and it’s the best kind of tired.  Now go to sleep.

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I have to admit, that was kind of fun.  See, what I did with the headline for this post was to look at a couple of observational studies and jump to the kind of unsubstantiated cause-and-effect conclusions so beloved by media health writers – and particularly beloved by many vegetarian zealots.

Take T. Colin Campbell – please.  He and his vegan pals show up in vegan propaganda films like Forks Over Knives and solemnly inform that world that in countries with high rates of meat consumption, people are more likely to die of cancer.  Must be the animal protein causing the cancer, ya see.  (Unfortunately, this unscientific claptrap is persuasive to reviewers like Roger Ebert, who apparently knew a lot about good filmmaking but almost nothing about good science.)

There could be all kinds of reasons other than animal protein causes cancer! that people who live in countries with high rates of meat consumption are more likely to die of cancer.  I’ll give you just one:  Animal protein is expensive compared to other foods, so people in prosperous countries eat more of it than people in poor countries do.  People in prosperous countries also have longer lifespans because of better medical care – which means they live long enough to die from the diseases of old age, including cancer.

T. Colin Campbell, Neal Barnard, John McDougall … I’m sure they’re all intelligent enough to understand that correlation doesn’t prove causation.   I’m also sure they don’t care, at least not when they can dig up a correlation that supports their vegetarian agenda.  That’s because they consider eating animal foods immoral.  It’s a sin, you see, so if they need to tell little white lies in order to stop people from sinning, that’s okay.   Nothing wrong with portraying correlation as causation if it supports the true cause.

So in that spirit, let’s take a look at the studies that inspired my headline.  Here are some quotes from an online article about a study linking vegetarianism to poor health:

Vegetarians may have a lower BMI and drink alcohol sparingly, but vegetarian diets are tied to generally poorer health, poorer quality of life and a higher need for health care than their meat-eating counterparts.

I think the only correct interpretation of that finding is that if you’re going to be a vegetarian, you should also try to stay fat and drunk.

A new study from the Medical University of Graz in Austria finds that vegetarians are more physically active, drink less alcohol and smoke less tobacco than those who consume meat in their diets. Vegetarians also have a higher socioeconomic status and a lower body mass index. But the vegetarian diet — characterized by a low consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol that includes increased intake of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products — carries elevated risks of cancer, allergies and mental health disorders.

Vegetarians were twice as likely to have allergies, a 50 percent increase in heart attacks and a 50 percent increase in incidences of cancer.

Wow.  More physically active, more economically prosperous, less likely to drink, less likely to smoke, and less likely to be fat … yet still more likely to be in poor health, including more likely to develop cancer or suffer a heart attack.  Has T. Colin Campbell been informed of this finding?

The cross-sectional study from Austrian Health Interview Survey data and published in PLos One examined participants’ dietary habits, demographic characteristics and general lifestyle differences.

Many past studies have instead put an emphasis on the health risks associated with red meat and carnivorous diets, but this study points the other dietary direction. However, the researchers do caution that continuing studies will be needed to substantiate some of the rather broad dietary distinctions, associations presented in this current research.

No, no, no, we don’t need to be cautious.  If we find an association we like in an observational study, we can treat it as cause-and-effect and trumpet it from the hilltops … or in a book called The China Study.

Overall, vegetarians were found to be in a poorer state of health compared to other dietary groups. Vegetarians reported higher levels of impairment from disorders, chronic diseases, and “suffer significantly more often from anxiety/depression.”

So a vegetarian diet will give you mental problems as well.  But as a health writer, I don’t want to rely on a single study to reach that conclusion.  So let’s look at another one.  In this study from Germany, vegetarians were found to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, hypochondria and eating disorders.

Now, if we wanted to be careful, we’d have to consider all kinds of possible explanations.  It could be that people who are sick or depressed or have an eating disorder are more likely to try a vegetarian diet, hoping for a dietary cure.  It could be that more vegetarians are obsessed with being thin, which makes them more likely to semi-starve themselves, which it turns leads to poor health and depression.  Eating or not eating meat may have nothing to do with it, at least not directly.

But I’m not in the mood to be careful.  I more in the mood to channel the spirits of Campbell, Bernard, McDougall, and the other great vegan zealots.  So I’ll just declare that according to the recent research, a vegetarian diet will make you sick and crazy.

Heh-heh-heh … like I said, that was kind of fun.

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I mentioned in a previous post that even after we turned Rocky Raccoon into chicken-killer stew, something came around and killed another of Sara’s chickens.  In fact, it climbed to the top of the hoop-house and ripped open the tarp.

I figured it was yet another raccoon and baited my trap.  The next day, the bait was gone and the trap had been dragged 10 feet from where I’d set it.  So I baited it again, set a heavy concrete block on top so the trap wouldn’t move, and set my trail camera.  The next day, the bait was gone and there were deep scratches in the ground by the opening.  Something had eaten the cat food but still managed to back out of the trap.  The trap is 12″ high and 32″ long, so I figured maybe it was extra-large raccoon or a fox.

When I checked the trail camera, I found that the @#$%ing thing is now refusing to snap pictures after dark, no matter what settings I choose. So I borrowed a trail camera from a co-worker and set the trap again.

Lookie what I saw when I checked the pictures yesterday:

My first thought was, “Oh, great.  Some neighbor’s cat is sniffing around our chickens at night.”

But then I noticed this particular cat seems to be significantly taller than the trap — which, like I mentioned, is 12″ high.  And it seems to be as long as the trap or longer — long enough to stick its snout in and eat the food without getting trapped inside when the spring door is tripped. Hmmm, what breed of cat is … and then I saw this picture:

The picture is dark, of course, but if you look closely, you can see the cat has stripes and spots — kind of like this:

So that would be a bobcat.  I’m pretty sure my 32″ trap isn’t going to snag this little kitty.

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Back when I was using a weed-whacker with a blade attachment to hack my way through the briar jungles around our property, a couple of readers predicted that I’d end up buying a bush-whackin’ mower someday.

Yup.  The jungles are getting away from us again, plus Chareva wants to reclaim quite a bit of the overgrown field behind the house for chickens, fruit trees and gardens.  Rather than continue paying people to come out and bush-hog, we decided it was time to bite the bullet and buy something that will let us stay ahead of the growth.  So here it is:

Nothing like writing a post about a tick whose bite can cause a meat allergy, then heading out into the deep weeds the next day, eh?  As you can see, I tucked my jeans into my boots, as a reader advised.  I also sprayed my boots, pants, arms and shirt with Deep Woods Off.

Anyway, this particular model is called a Predator.  Pretty powerful little machine for the money.  The reviews were almost uniformly positive, although several people complained that the cables running from the engine to the handles hang loose, which means they can get snagged and yanked out.  So on the advice of the same reviewers, we wrapped plastic tubing around the cables and secured them to the side handlebars with zip-ties.

My only other minor complaint is the speed.  Even in fourth gear, it’s a slow walking pace.  I’d like to move a little faster, but I guess the slower speed is necessary to give the blades time to tear up all that brush.  According to the both the manual and the reviewers online, this thing will suck in and tear up saplings up to an inch-and-a-half thick.

Yes, it would have been nice to just mow down all that briar, even at a slow walking speed.

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After I went from a mostly vegetarian diet to a meat-based low-carb diet and saw my health improve, I swore I’d never swear off red meat. But … uh … (say it ain’t so, Joe) … a run-in with the wrong insect could apparently change all that:

A bug can turn you into a vegetarian, or at least make you swear off red meat. Doctors across the nation are seeing a surge of sudden meat allergies in people bitten by a certain kind of tick.

A tick? You mean those nasty little critters who crawl up my legs while I’m playing disc golf or working around the property? Oh, no …

This bizarre problem was only discovered a few years ago but is growing as the ticks spread from the Southwest and the East to more parts of the United States. In some cases, eating a burger or a steak has landed people in the hospital with severe allergic reactions.

The culprit is the Lone Star tick, named for Texas, a state famous for meaty barbecues. The tick is now found throughout the South and the eastern half of the United States.

Well, maybe the anti-meat ticks are farther south and east than where I live. So if I just stay in my part of Tennessee …

In Mount Juliet near Nashville, Tennessee, 71-year-old Georgette Simmons went to a steakhouse on June 1 for a friend’s birthday and had a steak.

“About 4:30 in the morning I woke up and my body was on fire. I was itching all over and I broke out in hives. Nothing like that had ever happened to me before,” she said.

A few weeks later, for a brother’s birthday, she ordered another steak. Hours later she woke “almost hysterical” with a constricted throat in addition to hives and a burning sensation. She, too, recalled tick bites.

Mount Juliet?! Holy @#$%, that’s not only near Nashville, it’s north of where we live. So the demon ticks are already in our area.

At the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, “I see two to three new cases every week,” said Dr. Scott Commins, who with a colleague, Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills, published the first paper tying the tick to the illness in 2011.

One of the first cases they saw was a bow hunter who had eaten meat all his life but landed in the emergency department several times with allergic reactions after eating meat. More cases kept turning up in people who were outdoors a lot.

People who were outdoors a lot … gulp.

Here’s how it happens: The bugs harbor a sugar that humans don’t have, called alpha-gal. The sugar is also is found in red meat — beef, pork, venison, rabbit — and even some dairy products. It’s usually fine when people encounter it through food that gets digested.

But a tick bite triggers an immune system response, and in that high-alert state, the body perceives the sugar the tick transmitted to the victim’s bloodstream and skin as a foreign substance, and makes antibodies to it. That sets the stage for an allergic reaction the next time the person eats red meat and encounters the sugar.

A reader recently sent me a link to an article about a professor of bioethics who proposed making people allergic to meat to save the planet from climate change. Somebody should investigate and see if this little screwball has been messing around with ticks in his lab.

Doctors don’t know if the allergy is permanent.

Please, God, don’t let it be permanent.

Some patients show signs of declining antibodies over time, although those with severe reactions are understandably reluctant to risk eating meat again. Even poultry products such as turkey sausage sometimes contain meat byproducts and can trigger the allergy.

Michael Abley, who is 74 and lives in Surry, Virginia, near Williamsburg, comes from a family of cattle ranchers and grew up eating meat. He developed the meat allergy more than a decade ago, although it was only tied to the tick in more recent years.

“Normally I can eat a little bit of dairy,” he said, but some ice cream landed him in an emergency room about a month ago.

Okay, so if I get bit by one these little demons, all I’d have to do is give up beef, pork, dairy products, and perhaps poultry products. If you hear a scream loud enough to break windows in Georgia coming from Tennessee, you’ll know I got bit by a Lone Star tick.

Up to this point, I’ve been trying to be judicious in my use of Deep Woods Off before working outside. I believe I’ll start soaking myself with it. And washing my clothes in it. And using it for shampoo.

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