Thursday, December 5, 2019

`The Body' -- Don't take it for granted -- Dec. 5, 2019 column

By MARSHA MERCER

Right now, your body may be doing something even more amazing than breathing in and out 20,000 times and your heart beating 100,000 times in one day. 

Every day, up to five of your cells turns cancerous, and your immune system captures and kills them. 

“Think of that. A couple of dozen times a week, well over a thousand times a year, you get the most dreaded disease of our age, and each time your body saves you,” Bill Bryson writes in “The Body,” a 450-page, head-to-toe tour of the mysterious and miraculous “warm wobble of flesh” we mostly take for granted.

If you need a break from impeachment hearings or holiday stress, you could do worse than to spend time with Bryson, an amiable guide and meticulous researcher known for his smart and witty books about hiking the Appalachian Trail, his other travels and popular histories.

Reading “The Body,” you may discover a sense of awe about being here at all, an appreciation of scientists you’ve never heard of, and even the resolve to treat yourself better. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

“The Body” is a compendium of facts, figures, oddities, history and fascinating characters engagingly told. For doubters and those who want to dig deeper, Bryson includes extensive source notes and a robust bibliography. 

“Our bodies are a universe of 37.2 trillion cells operating in more or less perfect concert more or less all the time,” he writes, and, while more than 8,000 diseases could kill us, “we escape every one of them but one.”

Often likened to a machine, the body is so much more, he argues. 

It “works 24 hours a day for decades without (for the most part) needing regular servicing or the installation of spare parts, runs on water and a few organic compounds, is soft and rather lovely, is accommodatingly mobile and pliant, reproduces itself with enthusiasm, makes jokes, feels affection, appreciates a red sunset and a cooling breeze.

“How many machines do you know that can do any of that? There is no question about it. You are truly a wonder,” Bryson writes. “But then so, it must be said, is an earthworm.”

All is not always wondrous, of course. A lot can, and does, go wrong with the intricacies of the body. 

“We choke to death more easily than any other mammal.” 

“Twenty years ago, about 5,000 genetic diseases were known. Today it’s 7,000.”

“Some 40 percent of us will discover we have cancer at some point in our lives. Many, many more will have it without knowing it and will die of something else.” 

When it comes to health care, America spends more than any other nation – and 2 ½ times more per person than the average of all the developed nations in the world. And yet we are 31stin global rankings of life expectancy. Why?

“We live in an age in which we are killed, more often than not, by lifestyle,” he writes. 

After reading his take on sugar, I took a look at the label on a bag of spice drops, one of my guilty pleasures, and felt more guilt than pleasure. I lost my taste for the sweet, nutrition-free treat. 

A pleasure of Bryson’s book is learning about obscure heroes of scientific research. Most have been men, and many saw their discoveries ridiculed or themselves cheated out of their rightful place in history. 

One such sad case was microbiologist Albert Schatz, who discovered streptomycin, the first antibiotic to treat such deadly diseases as tuberculosis.

Selman Waksman, Schatz’s supervisor at Rutgers University, took credit for the 20thcentury breakthrough and pocketed profits from the patent. Schatz sued and received a portion of the royalties, but his lawsuit made him persona non grata in academia. 

Waksman won the 1952 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine alone and when he died was lauded as the “father of antibiotics.” 

Not until 20 years later did Schatz finally receive recognition. The American Society of Microbiology gave him its highest honor -- the Selman A. Waksman medal. 

“Life sometimes really is very unfair,” Bryson observes.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Does money talk? Bloomberg's in -- Nov. 28, 2019 column


By MARSHA MERCER

An earthquake named Bloomberg shook up the Democratic presidential race this week.

“I think there’s a greater risk of having Donald Trump reelected than there was before,” former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Monday in Norfolk, a day after he announced his candidacy, adding, “And in the end, I looked in the mirror and said, `You just cannot let this happen.’”

Thus did Bloomberg acknowledge the donkey in the room. With no clear frontrunner and several Democratic candidates still bunched together in the polls, many Democrats fear none of their contenders has “it” – or enough “it” to dump President Trump.

Also sensing Democrats’ agita at this relatively late stage is former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

“I recognize running for president is a Hail Mary under any circumstances,” Patrick told reporters Nov. 14 in New Hampshire, as he launched his long-shot campaign. “This is a Hail Mary from two stadiums over.”

One enormous difference between the latecomers is that Bloomberg could buy the stadiums and pay cheering fans to fill them without blinking an eye, while Patrick is begging for money online. Nobody said politics was fair.

Bloomberg, cofounder of the financial information and media company Bloomberg LP, is personally worth a cool $55 billion, making him the ninth richest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine.

He has tapped his fortune previously to win elections, dropping at least $261 million of his own money on his three successful campaigns for mayor, The New York Times reported. Bloomberg plans to self-fund his presidential bid and is not accepting donations.

Anyone who lived through the 2016 presidential election knows better than to dismiss any candidate out of hand, but it’s not clear what Patrick brings to the field, except more moderate positions than those of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Isn’t that what Joe Biden is for?

As for Bloomberg, his great wealth automatically makes him a formidable presence. He quickly dumped $37 million on TV ads over two weeks.

And yet a snarky question hangs over him and Trump: Is this the best presidential choice America can muster: two 70-something white guy billionaires from New York?

Bloomberg is no Trump. He has more money and has given away billions – with a B – to causes he believes in. He gave $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University last year, after giving $1.5 billion earlier to his alma mater. He founded a gun control group and supports climate-related and other environmental projects.

Bloomberg and his media company are rightly taking criticism, though, for a memo from Bloomberg’s editor in chief.

Bloomberg reporters will continue to refrain from investigating him, his family or foundation and will extend the blackout to his Democratic rivals, the memo said, but they’ll continue to dig into Trump. What? A reputable news organization, which Bloomberg is, should act like one and put journalism first.

Naturally, the Democrats who have been on the campaign trail for months, if not years, lashed out at Candidate Deep Pockets.

“Michael Bloomberg is making a bet about democracy in 2020. He doesn’t need people; he only needs bags and bags of money,” Warren said in Iowa.

Sanders also complained that Bloomberg is trying to buy the election.

“We do not believe that billionaires have the right to buy elections,” Sanders said in New Hampshire, predicting Bloomberg is “not going to get very far in this election.”

History indicates Sanders may be right. In his 1992 presidential bid as an independent, Ross Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money -- $97 million adjusted for inflation, Real Clear Politics reports. Perot won 19 percent of the popular vote but not one electoral vote.

Steve Forbes’s 1996 and 2000 failed attempts to win the Republican presidential nomination cost him $70 million.

Bloomberg reportedly will skip the first four contests to focus on Super Tuesday, March 3, when 14 states will vote, including the delegate-rich states of California and Texas, as well as Virginia.

His big ad buys will make Bloomberg a household name, but that doesn’t guarantee Democrats will like Mike enough to support him.

To inspire Democrats, Bloomberg will need more than appealing videos and a catchy slogan – “rebuild America.” He’ll need solid ideas if he hopes to win votes – especially next November.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Grateful for a pause to reflect and give thanks -- Nov. 21, 2019 column


By MARSHA MERCER

As the Civil War raged in the fall of 1863, President Abraham Lincoln invited citizens to observe “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

People had been giving thanks on American soil since long before we were a country, but Lincoln’s proclamation started the observance of the last Thursday in November as a national day of gratitude.

President Franklin Roosevelt later sought to boost retail sales by moving Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday in November, where it remains.

We’re a nation of firsts, so it may not come as a surprise that several states claim the first Thanksgiving. Texas contends the Feast of the First Thanksgiving was in May 1541 at Palo Duro Canyon near what’s now Amarillo, according to the Library of Congress.

A couple of decades later, French Huguenots gave praise and thanks near Jacksonville, Florida. English colonists sat down with Native Americans for prayer by the Kennebec River in Maine in August 1607.

Virginia marks the first Thanksgiving when colonists offered prayers for a safe arrival in 1619, two years before Pilgrims in Massachusetts had their three-day feast with Native Americans in 1621.

Thanksgiving is more secular now. Most of us pray less and eat and shop more. But we still need a day to pause, reflect and count our blessings – especially now.

A majority of Americans believe the country’s political, racial and class divisions are so severe the United States is two-thirds of the way to the “edge of civil war,” Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service Battleground Civility Poll reported last month.

Republicans blame Democratic political leaders, social media, large newspapers, CNN and MSNBC, while Democrats blame Republican political leaders, social media, Fox News, wealthy special interests and President Donald J. Trump, the poll found. Independents mostly blame social media and Trump, the poll said.

It also showed we’re conflicted. Nearly everyone wants more compromise in Washington, but at the same time we want our own political leaders to stand up to the other side. That’s a recipe for continued strife, not harmony.

Other recent polls show we’re angry when we check the news, angry at a political system that seems to work only for insiders with money and power, like those on Wall Street and in Washington; and angrier than we were a generation or even five years ago. That’s a lot of angry.

This Thanksgiving brings a welcome time-out from televised impeachment hearings and other news stories that provoke us. It’s hard to muster gratitude when you feel like throwing something at the TV or bashing the phone screen that brings the latest news outrage.

We can declare the Thanksgiving dinner table a politics-free zone. Let us savor family and friends and pass the turkey without commenting on the turkeys in Washington.  

Or, let us open a couple of beers. Samuel Adams’s new ad suggests drinkers “Toast Someone” who has made a significant impact on their life. The ad shows several popular comedians toasting and thanking someone who made a difference.

It’s a clever idea, because people are notoriously awkward when they try to put their thanks into words. And yet, decades of research show that people who are grateful and express their gratitude are happier and healthier than others.

In one study, participants were assigned to write and deliver a letter of gratitude to someone they’d not properly thanked. Those who did “immediately exhibited greater happiness,” the Harvard Mental Health Letter reported.

Such studies cannot prove cause and effect, and not all studies show people feeling better about their lives through gratitude. Children and adolescents who wrote and delivered letters of gratitude didn’t feel better about themselves, but the recipients probably did.

The Harvard newsletter summarizes the power of gratitude this way: “Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.”

Gratitude also “helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.”   

In these toxic times, we could all do with stronger connections to other people, nature or a higher power. Happy Thanksgiving.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Vaping damage `an evil that I haven't faced before' -- Nov. 14, 2019 column


 By MARSHA MERCER

In case you missed it, with all eyes on impeachment, there was sad and shocking news about vaping.

A 17-year-old boy required a double lung transplant last month after vaping destroyed his lungs, hospital officials in Detroit announced Tuesday.

His parents described their son, who was not identified, as a perfectly healthy high school student who loved sailing and playing video games -- until he came down with pneumonia-like symptoms in September.

His worsening condition became so dire he needed the double lung transplant to survive.

“What I saw in his lungs is nothing that I have ever seen before, and I have been doing lung transplants for 20 years,” Dr. Hassan Nemeh, surgical director of thoracic organ transplant at Henry Ford Hospital, told reporters, describing scarred and dead lung tissue.

“This is an evil that I haven’t faced before. The damage that these vapes do to people’s lungs is irreversible,” he said, adding: “Please think of that – and tell your children to think of that.”

He’s right. We can’t rely on any company or the government to protect us from the ravages of vaping. It’s up to each of us.

More than 2,000 people have become ill since March with e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury, known as EVALI. Of these, 39 have died. Many victims had used products containing THC, the active ingredient in marijuana that makes someone high, and some had used only nicotine.

The Centers for Disease Control found an association between vitamin E-acetate, an additive in some THC products, and EVALI.

 E-cigarettes were supposed to be a safe way for smokers to quit. They work by heating a liquid to produce an aerosol that users inhale. The liquid can contain nicotine, THC, chemicals and additives.

The hospital did not say what or how long the boy had vaped. The median survival of people who receive a lung transplant is seven years, although he might beat the odds, medical personnel said.

About 28 percent of high school students and 11 percent of middle schoolers use e-cigarettes, a new study reported. No one knows the long-term health effects.

Facing pressure, Juul, the leading e-cigarette company, stopped selling some of its sweet flavors favored by kids, including mint, paused its marketing campaign, and cut 650 workers or about 16 percent of its workforce.

Congress is moving toward regulating e-cigarettes, along with other tobacco products. While e-cigarettes aren’t technically tobacco, they contain nicotine, an addictive substance that comes only from tobacco.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Health Subcommittee Wednesday sent to the full committee a bill to limit tobacco sales nationwide to those 21 and older, prohibit online sales, ban flavored products, including mint and menthol, prohibit marketing to children and increase health warnings.

The House last month passed another measure raising the age for online sales and delivery to 21, among other things.

The Trump administration said in September it will ban the sweetly flavored nicotine delivery systems kids love, sparking an outcry. Hundreds of vape fans protested Saturday on the National Mall, chanting, “We vape, we vote!”

Amid signs cracking down on e-cigarettes could anger voters in key states of Florida, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump said he would also consider jobs along with health. As of this writing, he has not acted.

But even if e-cigarettes were banned, kids will find them.

What’s needed is an intensive ad and social media campaign to change attitudes and the culture -- to persuade a new generation that e-cigarettes are no better than the ugly cancer stick of a combustible cigarette.

As someone who began smoking cigarettes in high school and smoked on and off for 25 years, I know how comforting nicotine can be – and how deadly. A close friend died of lung cancer in 2002. She was 52.

I’d already quit smoking by then, less because of health than embarrassment. Smoking was no longer cool, like Bogart and Bacall. It was just a smelly, nasty, old habit.

Smoking still kills nearly 500,000 Americans a year. Adults can make their own mistakes, but we can’t allow young people to believe e-cigarettes are an acceptable alternative. That’s just blowing smoke.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.
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