Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Is There Suicide In Your Blood?

Seriously, experts now think there may be a gene in our bodies that might predispose us to killing ourselves.

According to, Johns Hopkins researchers say they have discovered a chemical alteration in a single human gene linked to stress reactions that, if confirmed in larger studies, could give doctors a simple blood test to reliably predict a person’s risk of attempting suicide.

The discovery, described online in The American Journal of Psychiatry, suggests that changes in a gene involved in the function of the brain’s response to stress hormones plays a significant role in turning what might otherwise be an unremarkable reaction to the strain of everyday life into suicidal thoughts and behaviors, much like, I suppose the turning of a normal cell into a cancer cell.

“Suicide is a major preventable public health problem, but we have been stymied in our prevention efforts because we have no consistent way to predict those who are at increased risk of killing themselves,” says study leader Zachary Kaminsky, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, at “With a test like ours, we may be able to stem suicide rates by identifying those people and intervening early enough to head off a catastrophe.”

He says that it might make sense for use in the military to test whether members have the gene mutation that makes them more vulnerable. Those at risk could be more closely monitored when they returned home after deployment. A test could also be useful in a psychiatric emergency room, he says, as part of a suicide risk assessment when doctors try to assess level of suicide risk.

In 2011 (the most recent year for which data are available), 39,518 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).  It notes that, In that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 13.3 minutes.

“We have found a gene that we think could be really important for consistently identifying a range of behaviors from suicidal thoughts to attempts to completions,” Kaminsky says. “We need to study this in a larger sample but we believe that we might be able to monitor the blood to identify those at risk of suicide.”

I remember a neighbor committing suicide when I was a kid.  He was only a couple of years older than I and I knew him from riding the bus.   He turned on the car in the garage, and he was gone.  (We didn't have much access to guns in those days.)

Though it happened almost 50 years ago, I remember it to this day, the sense of sadness, and creepiness, too, that a kid could do something like that.  His parents never got over it.  

Live longer? Run!

Finally I'm doing something right.

Experts now claim you'll live longer if you run.  According to, a new Iowa State University study found running for just five or 10 minutes a day can significantly reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

I run two to three miles a day.  Does that mean I'll live forever?

Seriously, though, DC (Duck-chul) Lee, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of kinesiology at Iowa State, says runners were 45 percent less likely to die from heart disease or stroke than non-runners. Researchers followed more than 55,000 adults for 15 years to gauge the benefits of running, newswise reports. Lee says runners reduced their risk of cardiovascular disease regardless of distance, duration and speed.

Which is good.  Because I barely run a 10-minute mile (although it used to be a 15-!).

“Most people say they don’t have time to exercise or to increase their physical activity, but I think most everyone can find five to 10 minutes per day to run for the health benefits,” Lee said at newswise. “I hope more people will be motivated by this study and hope that they can start running and continue to run.” 

Now, he doesn't say anything about injuries (I've just hurt my knee for the first time, but enough to wonder whether I now will be wearing a brace, or worse, have to give it up!).

Monday, July 28, 2014

Happy? You'll Post On Twitter. Not Happy? Not So Much

Guess where people like to share good news?

A new study has found that, when experiencing positive events, people preferr to share via texting and Twitter, because "both media are easily accessible from smartphones and are non-intrusive in that communication partners don’t have to reply immediately," according to

When experiencing negative events, people prefer using the telephone, a more intrusive medium.

“You often hear people say when the phone rings, it’s bad news,” study author Catalina Toma, an assistant professor of communication arts at UW-Madison, says at“Our data support that.”

The team also found that social sharing via media enhanced the emotional tone of the event. Sharing a positive event increased its impact. “Telling somebody makes you even happier,”she says, adding that “It’s almost like the event is not even real until you tell somebody."

But if you feel sad because you had a lousy trip to the dentist (don't tell my husband) or a fight with your spouse and post something about it on Facebook, you will not feel better. Regardless of which form of media people in the study used to share bad news, they felt worse (though sharing by telephone had the smallest negative effect).

“Their negative effect got aggravated,” Toma says. “Sharing also makes it more real.”

Sunday, July 27, 2014

What Is a Community?

I recently had a friend suggest to me that I write about community.

He was referring specifically to a small intimate Italian restaurant in town where, because it's so popular, and there's often a waiting list, he (and his wife) met and fell in love with another friend of mine, someone who's had a great influence on my life, and become very important to him, too. 

This restaurant is very popular (I won't say the name but it's very near Cummings Beach), and on Saturday nights, people have to wait for a table.  Seems both sets of friends ran into each other all the time because they each went to this restaurant on Saturday night and had to sit in the tiny alcove to wait for your table.

Our mutual friend got very hungry one night and asked if they could have something to eat while they waited.  A small platter of cheese and crackers was presented and she and her friend asked the couple if they'd like to share.

And a beautiful friendship was born.

Here's where I come in.  My friend knew that her friend, a publisher of a magazine, was looking for a writer.  My friend also knew I'd been looking for work for some time.  "I don't know why this never occurred to me!" she told me last November.  "I'll tell Fred about you."

It's been a beautiful relationship ever since.

That's a community.  I grew up in Stamford and it's started to seem like there are no more communities here, the bigger it's gotten.  But then I started thinking about it, and I realized there are a lot of communities.  Right under my nose.

There's the Weight Watchers I go to every Friday (where I met our original friend, when my son was first born, 13 years ago).  She was the best friend I made there, but we developed other strong, lasting friendships, too.  We saw one friend go through ovarian cancer (happily, she's doing well seven years later), right around the same time I was diagnosed with breast cancer (happily, so am I).  We saw one friend, sadly, break up with a long-time partner. 

We all mourned together one of our beloved leaders (who always yelled at us when she weighed us and we'd gained weight), who died too quickly from lung cancer, and one friend and I went to her house, at her daughter's insistence, to pick out anything of hers we wanted (she told her daughter before she died she wanted me to have her -- Ralph Lauren and Polo -- clothes; I've never looked so good).

And when I found her granddaughter's pictures in her wallet, over a year later, I felt her right there with me, our community all around us.

I have another community.   It's my neighborhood.  Years ago when we moved in, we had no children and so I met no one.  But when my son came along a year and half later, and especially, when he started preschool, I met the world.  Two of the five mothers at our bus stop I met at preschool, and the other mothers became friends right away.  We were very lucky to move onto a street that had four kids all the same age, who, even now in middle school, remain best friends.

When I had cancer, these women bonded together and made dinner for us every night, watched over my son (then in kindergarten), and brought chocolate chip cookies, warm and gooey, fresh from the oven, to cheer me on. Oh, wait.  That was a friend from another community, Newfield Elementary School, where our sons went from kindergarten through 5th grade together. 

Finally, I have Rippowam, where my son attends middle school.  He'll be an eighth grader this year and so we only have one more year.  I've joined the Parent Teacher Organization (me, the non-joiner!) and I've come to know the teachers and administrators well (much better than when it was my high school in the 70s. . . and I try not to think of my son having gym in the very same cafeteria where we had the prom. At least, back then we didn't have the twerk).

I'll admit, it's been hard to watch Stamford change, Caldor's (where you got your first set of earrings after your ears were pierced) becoming Burlington, Columbus Park getting cleaned up (when I worked at The Advocate in the late '70s, you didn't go there after dark), and, one of the hardest, the beautiful cherry trees that once meant spring, cut down at Mill River Park (which, granted, at the time, was just thick brown mud).

So I guess there are still communities in Stamford, as much as it has changed, and everywhere.   You just have to look. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Why Does Your Friend Understand What You Mean When You Refer to Your Dog as a, Well, Dog?

Have you ever said a word, then felt that it was wrong in your mouth?  Have you ever read a passage in a book and stumbled upon a common word that suddenly seemed foreign?

I'm not talking about developing dementia or reading things in a foreign language.  But think about it.  Hasn't there ever been a time when you were thinking about a word it suddenly seemed like one you've never seen before?

Now a philopsopher, through game theory, says he may know why, when we say "dog" to a friend, that person understands that we mean the animal panting beside us, according to 

Kansas State University philosopher Elliott Wagner aims to address these types of questions in his latest research, which focuses on long-standing philosophical questions about semantic meaning. Wagner, assistant professor of philosophy, and two other philosophers and a mathematician are collaborating to use game theory to analyze communication and how it acquires meaning, the Web site reports.
"If I order a cappuccino at a coffee shop, I usually don't think about why it is that my language can help me communicate my desire for a cappuccino," it quotes Wagner. "This sort of research allows us to understand a very basic aspect of the world."
The researchers are using evolutionary game theory models to understand how words and actions acquire meaning through natural processes, whether through biological evolution, social learning or other adaptive processes.
"Game theory is a branch of mathematics that creates mathematical abstractions of social interactions and communication. Communication involves two agents — a sender and a receiver. The sender shares a message with the receiver through a sign or signal and the receiver uses the signal to act in the world. This interaction is called a signaling game," newswise points out.
The researchers used signaling games to study information flow in the natural world. 
Newswise notes that monkeys use vocalization to talk with each other. A peacock uses the size of his tail to signal his attractiveness to a female. People use gestures and language to communicate.
While these types of models have existed since the 1970s, Wagner and collaborators studied the dynamics of signaling games. The researchers incorporated evolution and individual learning to overturn other preconceived notions from previous models.
"Through this process an arbitrary signal with no pre-built meaning has come to mean something," Wagner said. "It appears that the meaning of a word has almost magically arisen out of this natural process. I think it's important for us to think carefully about features of our lives that we take for granted," Wagner said. "This research is one way for us to think carefully about why it is that words have meaning and how it is that words can acquire meaning through a natural process."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Are Dogs Jealous? Yes, Especially When Owners Pay Attention to Others (Dogs, That Is)

Anyone who has a dog already knows this.  But now scientists are copping to the fact.

Dogs get jealous.

Sadly, I've never had a dog (hope to get one soon).  But from knowing friends' dogs, it's obvious that they get sad, and depressed and excited, just like we do (only, we don't wag our tails!).

"Emotion researchers" have been arguing for years whether jealousy requires complex cognition, reports. And some scientists have even said that jealousy is an entirely social construct – not seen in all human cultures and not fundamental or hard-wired in the same ways that fear and anger are.

But the new findings support the view that there may be a more basic form of jealousy, which evolved to protect social bonds from interlopers, according to the Web site.

They show that dogs exhibit more jealous behaviors, like snapping and pushing at their owner or the rival, when the owner showed affection to what appeared to be another dog (actually a stuffed dog that barked, whined and wagged its tail). Dogs exhibited these behaviors more than if the same affection was showered on a novel object and much more than when the owner’s attention was simply diverted by reading a book.

“Our study suggests not only that dogs do engage in what appear to be jealous behaviors but also that they were seeking to break up the connection between the owner and a seeming rival,” said UC San Diego psychology professor Christine Harris. “We can’t really speak to the dogs’ subjective experiences, of course, but it looks as though they were motivated to protect an important social relationship.”

 Dogs were about twice as likely to push or touch the owner when the owner was interacting with the faux dog (78 percent) as when the owner was attending to an object (42 percent). About 30 percent of the dogs also tried to get between their owner and the stuffed animal. And while 25 percent snapped at the “other dog,” only one did so at the two other objects paid attention to by owners -- a pail and a book -- also used in the study.

 “Many people have assumed that jealousy is a social construction of human beings – or that it's an emotion specifically tied to sexual and romantic relationships,” Harris said. “Our results challenge these ideas, showing that animals besides ourselves display strong distress whenever a rival usurps a loved one's affection.”

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Smoke? You May Be More Likely to Commit Suicide

Here's another reason to give up smoking.  It may make you want to commit suicide.

Seriously, a new study has found that smoking may contribute to suicide risk.

Cigarette smokers are more likely to commit suicide than people who don’t smoke, studies have shown.  In the past, this used to be attributed to the fact that many people with psychiatric illnesses, smoke, and they, of course, may be more prone to suicide.  But new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis finds that smoking itself may increase suicide risk and that policies to limit smoking reduce suicide rates.

 The study reports that suicide rates declined up to 15 percent, relative to the national average, in states that implemented higher taxes on cigarettes and stricter policies to limit smoking in public places.

“Our analysis showed that each dollar increase in cigarette taxes was associated with a 10 percent decrease in suicide risk,” said author Richard A. Grucza, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry. “Indoor smoking bans also were associated with risk reductions.”

From 1990 to 2004, states that adopted aggressive tobacco-control policies saw their suicide rates decrease, compared with the national average, the study found.

The opposite was true in states with lower cigarette taxes and more lax policies toward smoking in public. In those states, suicide rates increased up to 6 percent, relative to the national average, during the same time period. From 1990 to 2004, the average annual suicide rate was about 14 deaths for every 100,000 people.

“States started raising their cigarette taxes, first as a way to raise revenue but then also as a way to improve public health,” Grucza explained at “Higher taxes and more restrictive smoking policies are well-known ways of getting people to smoke less. So it set a natural experiment, which shows that the states with more aggressive policies also had lower rates of smoking. The next thing we wanted to learn was whether those states experienced any changes in suicide rates, relative to the states that didn’t implement these policies as aggressively.”

Using statistical methods, comparing rates of suicide in states with stricter tobacco policies to rates in states with more lenient laws and lower taxes,and whether people who had committed suicide were likely to have smoked, they learned that suicide risk among people most likely to smoke was associated with policies related to tobacco taxes and smoking restrictions.

“If you’re not a smoker, or not likely ever to become a smoker, then your suicide risk shouldn’t be influenced by tobacco policies,” Grucza said. “So the fact that we saw this influence among people who likely were smokers provides additional support for our idea that smoking itself is linked to suicide, rather than some other factor related to policy.”