Category Archives: Health

Want Alzheimer’s? Rates rise near busy roads


Busy roadways and streets have been linked to a variety of other ailments, including early childhood cancers, juvenile-onset diabetes, obesity, poor kidney function, asthma, and heart attacks.

And now you can add dementia to the list.

From Public Health Ontario:

People who live close to high-traffic roadways face a higher risk of developing dementia than those who live further away, new research from Public Health Ontario (PHO) and the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) has found.

Led by PHO and ICES scientists, the study found that people who lived within 50 metres of high-traffic roads (like Ontario’s Hwy. 401) had a seven per cent higher likelihood of developing dementia compared to those who lived more than 300 metres away from busy roads.

Published in The Lancet, the researchers examined records of more than 6.5 million Ontario residents aged 20-85 to investigate the correlation between living close to major roads and dementia, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.

Scientists identified 243,611 cases of dementia, 31,577 cases of Parkinson’s disease, and 9,247 cases of multiple sclerosis in Ontario between 2001 and 2012. In addition, they mapped individuals’ proximity to major roadways using the postal code of their residence. The findings indicate that living close to major roads increased the risk of developing dementia, but not Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis, two other major neurological disorders.

“Little is known in current research about how to reduce the risk of dementia. Our findings show the closer you live to roads with heavy day-to-day traffic, the greater the risk of developing dementia. With our widespread exposure to traffic and the greater tendency for people to live in cities these days, this has serious public health implications,” says Dr. Hong Chen, environmental and occupational health scientist at PHO and an adjunct scientist at ICES. Dr. Chen is lead author on the paper titled Living Near Major Roads and the Incidence of Dementia, Parkinson’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis: A Population-based Cohort Study.

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Social media survey reveals Latin American hunger

And now for a story incorporating elements of our last two posts, media and health.

It’s a story about the failure of governments to ensure which should be the prime directive: the health and well-being of their citizens.

From El País:

Some 57% of people in Latin America who use social media did not have enough to eat either “occasionally or often” during the last 12 months, a new study conducted for EL PAÍS in conjunction with the Institute for the Integration of Latin America and the Caribbean of the Inter-American Development Bank has revealed.

In addition, 51% of users of social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube did not have running water in their homes, the study of the technological habits of more than 20,000 people in 18 countries in Latin America shows.

Latin America has experienced an economic bonanza in the last decade, with the high prices of natural resources driving growth, and this has led to a slight reduction in poverty. However, 28% of people in the region still live in extreme poverty according to the latest figures from the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

But during the same period, the number of people using the internet jumped from 17% in 2005 to 53% in 2015.

The Republican heathcare agenda targets the poor

J.B. Silvers is Professor of Health Finance at Case Western Reserve University, and as the former President and Chief Executive Officer of QualChoice, then owned by Catholic Health Initiatives, he knows healthcare insurance from the inside.

In this essay for The Conversation, an open source academic journal, he examines the Republican strategy for derailing Obamacare and predicts that Congress, under Rep. Paul Ryan, will effectively dismantle the program, an agenda directly targeted at America’s poorest and certain to drive insurers out of what companies think an onerous burden.

Call it class, rather than ethnic, cleansing:

There’s a joke among insurers that there are two things that health insurance companies hate to do – take risks and pay claims. But, of course, these are the essence of their business!

Yet, if they do too much of either, they will go broke, and if they do too little, their customers will find a better policy. This balancing act isn’t too hard if they have a pool sufficient to average out the highs and lows. I speak with some experience as the former CEO of one of these firms.

Employee-sponsored insurance has fit this model fairly well, providing good stability and reasonable predictability. Unfortunately, the market for individuals has never worked well.

Generally, this model forces insurers to take fewer risks so that they can still make money. They do this by excluding preexisting conditions and paying fewer claims. In such a market, fewer people are helped, and when they are able to get insurance, they pay a lot more for it than if they were part of an employee-sponsored plan.

The Affordable Care Act changed all of this. Companies were required to stop doing these bad things. In exchange for taking on substantially more risk of less healthy patients, they were promised more business by getting access to more potential customers.

The federal government offers subsidies to help pay the premiums for consumers whose income falls below a certain level. The law also stipulates that all people must be covered, or they face a penalty. This so-called individual mandate also guaranteed business for the insurance companies, because it led healthy people into the risk pool.

To entice insurers into the market, the ACA also offered well-established methods to reduce risk. For example, it built in protections for insurers who enrolled especially sick people. It also provided back-up payments for very high-cost cases and protected against big losses and limited big gains in the first three years.

These steps worked well in establishing a stable market for Medicare drug plans when this program started under President Bush in 2006. Competition there is vigorous, rates are lower than estimated and enrollees are satisfied. In other words, the market works well.

Congress did not honor the deal

But when the time came to pay up for risk reduction in the Obamacare exchanges, Congress reneged and paid only 12 percent of what was owed to the insurers. So, on top of the fact that the companies had to bear the risk of unknown costs and utilization in the start-up years, which turned out to be higher than they expected, insurers had to absorb legislative uncertainty of whether the rules would be rewritten.

It is no wonder that this year they have dramatically increased premiums, averaging 20 percent, to compensate for the extra risk they didn’t factor into the original lower rates. In contrast, underlying health costs are rising at about 5 percent.

Repeal and replace?

And now comes the reality of the “repeal and replace” initiatives from the Republicans. If the uncertainty of this market was large before with the ACA, it is almost unknowable under whatever comes next. Thus the initial exit of some latecomers, including United Healthcare, and undercapitalized minor entrants, such as nonprofit co-ops, is almost certain to become a flood of firms leaving the exchanges. They have little choice since the risks are too large and the actuarially appropriate rates are still not obvious given the political turmoil and changing rules.

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Headline of the day: The beat goes on. . .or not

From the London Daily Mail:

Pacemakers CAN be hacked: US government issues cybersecurity warning over hackers programming bugs in medical devices

  • US officials have been investigating flaws in pacemakers since August when a batch ran out of battery three months before they were supposed to 
  • On Tuesday, the FDA issued a warning to say that pacemakers are easily hacked
  • They warn so-called ‘white hat hackers’ could lace the devices with bugs to expose issues in medical technology

Quote of the day: Be afraid. Be very afraid. . .

A sign of the complete corporate victory over the public interest, from Monday’s lead editorial in the Washington Post:

Having held partial or controlling stakes in companies ranging from Phillips Petroleum to American Railcar Industries, billionaire investor Carl Icahn certainly knows a thing or two about how federal regulators deal with business. He also is, at 80, a successful, intelligent, deeply experienced investment pro. Whether his is the ideal résumé for a special adviser to the president on regulatory reform is less clear. Foxes are experts on chicken coops, it is true.

Federal safety, environmental and financial regulations necessarily involve balancing of costs and benefits to the public. The Obama administration’s approach frequently struck the balance in favor of more rules, and there is a reasonable case to be made that pruning regulatory overgrowth could, indeed, help the economy — which, by the way, is doing reasonably well. But Mr. Icahn’s sweeping indictments of the regulatory agencies, voiced repeatedly during the campaign, suggest he would urge President-elect Donald Trump to swing wildly in the opposite direction. “You almost get enraged by some of the stuff,” he told CNBC on Thursday.

The Trump transition team’s statement announcing Mr. Icahn’s new role quoted him as saying that “under President Obama, America’s business owners have been crippled by over $1 trillion in new regulations.” We don’t know where that number comes from, though we did find an estimate from the conservative regulation skeptics at American Action Forum, a think tank, that puts the total cost of major new regulation imposed since the beginning of the second term of George W. Bush’s presidency at $1 trillion. Notably, that study also mentioned $745 billion worth of offsetting social benefits.

Nuclear waste explosion site to reopen next year

The nation’s most expensive nuclear disaster, the result of storing radeicative debris from the Department of Energy’s national laboratories in organic cat litter, will be reopening, but only after taxpayers have shelled out a fortune to clean up the mess.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico, was the site of an explosion on Valentin’s Day 2014 [previously].

The problem was traced to the packing material used to house the waste.

Traditionally, kitty litter was made from vemiculite, a stable, nonreactive mineral with a downside: It often contains asbestos, a potent carcinogen. Another mineral, bentonite, has also been used, a substance that’s also nonreactive. But a year before the explosion someone at the facility must’ve decided to go green and used organic kitty leader, made of plant waste materials and capable of, among other things, burning hen exposed to compounds in some radioactive aste.

In other words, mixing radioactive waste and organic cat litter was a recipe for disaster.

The cleanup has resulted in a large and growing burden on the taxpayers, as the Los Angeles Times reported in August:

The direct cost of the cleanup is now $640 million, based on a contract modification made last month with Nuclear Waste Partnership that increased the cost from $1.3 billion to nearly $2 billion. The cost-plus contract leaves open the possibility of even higher costs as repairs continue. And it does not include the complete replacement of the contaminated ventilation system or any future costs of operating the mine longer than originally planned.

An Energy Department spokesperson declined to address the cost issue but acknowledged that the dump would either have to stay open longer or find a way to handle more waste each year to make up for the shutdown. She said the contract modification gave the government the option to cut short the agreement with Nuclear Waste Partnership.

It costs about $200 million a year to operate the dump, so keeping it open an additional seven years could cost $1.4 billion. A top scientific expert on the dump concurred with that assessment.

And now, as United Press International reports, the facility will soon be back in business, albeit on a limited scale:

A nuclear waste storage facility in New Mexico will resume some operations as early as next month — nearly three years after it closed following an accident that contaminated the facility with radiation, officials said Friday.

The U.S. Department of Energy said Friday the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in southeast New Mexico has been approved by regulators to resume at least some of its operations.

The plant was closed after a February 2014 incident in which a drum of nuclear waste ruptured, exposing part of the facility to toxic radiation.

“Safety has and will continue to be our number one priority,” Energy Department spokeswoman Bridget Bartol said.

Ah, nuclear, the gift that keeps on giving.

A fourth of Florida’s Zika virus cases are local

It started in West Africa, then spread to Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

And while once the only Zika cases in the United States were those contracted abroad, the disease reached Florida, home to many Latin American immigrants and families who travel to visit families in the south.

And now one in four cases of Zika reported in Florida has been contracted from native mosquitoes now carrying the virus.

From the latest Florida Department of Health Daily Zika Update: