Friday, April 30, 2010

Biogerontology Paper Now Published

My paper entitled "Framing the Inborn Aging Process and Longevity Science is now published in the June 2010 issue of the journal Biogerontology.

Here is the abstract:

The medical sciences are currently dominated by the “disease-model” approach to health extension, an approach that prioritizes the study of pathological mechanisms with the goal of discovering treatment modalities for specific diseases. This approach has marginalized research on the aging process itself, research that could lead to an intervention that retards aging, thus conferring health dividends that would far exceed what could be expected by eliminating any specific disease of aging. This paper offers a diagnosis of how this sub-optimal approach to health extension arose and some general prescriptions concerning how progress could be made in terms of adopting a more rational approach to health extension. Drawing on empirical findings from psychology and economics, “prospect theory” is applied to the challenges of “framing” the inborn aging process given the cognitive capacities of real (rather than rational) decision-makers under conditions of risk and uncertainty. Prospect theory reveals that preferences are in fact dependent on whether particular outcomes of a choice are regarded as “a loss” or “a gain”, relative to a reference point (or “aspiration level for survival”). And this has significant consequences for the way biogerontologists ought to characterise the central aspirations of the field (i.e. to prevent disease versus extend lifespan). Furthermore, it reveals the importance of shifting the existing reference point of the medical sciences to one that is shaped by the findings of evolutionary biology and biodemography.


Monday, April 26, 2010

Rej Research Paper on Tackling Aging

My latest paper entitled "Global Aging, Well-Ordered Science and Prospection" has been accepted for publication in the journal Rejuvenation Research. Here is the abstract:

Aristotle described the study of politics as an “architectonic” science that aspires to bring together insights from different fields of scientific inquiry to ensure that citizens have the opportunities to flourish. In order to meet the health and economic challenges of aging populations we must revive this Aristotelian vision of politics. Prioritizing biogerontology is a requirement of well-ordered science. But a number of cognitive limitations and biases impair our ability to perceive both the harms of the inborn aging process and the magnitude of the likely benefits of age retardation. Thus well-ordered science also requires us to address the social and cultural, and not merely scientific, obstacles that impede the aspiration to retard human aging.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Science Study on Teacher Quality and Genetic Effects on Early Reading

This study in the latest issue of Science is a good example of the complex role genes and environment play in the cognitive development of children.

Here is the abstract:

Children’s reading achievement is influenced by genetics as well as by family and school environments. The importance of teacher quality as a specific school environmental influence on reading achievement is unknown. We studied first- and second-grade students in Florida from schools representing diverse environments. Comparison of monozygotic and dizygotic twins, differentiating genetic similarities of 100% and 50%, provided an estimate of genetic variance in reading achievement. Teacher quality was measured by how much reading gain the non-twin classmates achieved. The magnitude of genetic variance associated with twins’ oral reading fluency increased as the quality of their teacher increased. In circumstances where the teachers are all excellent, the variability in student reading achievement may appear to be largely due to genetics. However, poor teaching impedes the ability of children to reach their potential.


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Statins and Colorectal Cancer

This study posted on the advance online papers of Cancer Prevention Research is worth noting and adding to my growing list of entries on statins.

Here is the abstract:

Statins are widely prescribed for cardiovascular disease prevention and also commonly used in patients at high risk for colorectal cancer. We report the results of a planned secondary analysis of the relationship between statin use and colorectal adenoma risk in a large chemoprevention trial. The Adenoma Prevention with Celecoxib (APC) trial randomized 2,035 adenoma patients to receive placebo (679 patients), 200 mg celecoxib twice daily (bid; 685 patients), or 400 mg celecoxib bid (671 patients). The study collected complete medical history and medication use data and performed colonoscopic surveillance to 5 years after study enrollment. The effects of statin use on newly detected adenomas and cardiovascular adverse events were analyzed as time-dependent variables by multivariable Cox regression. Statins were used by 36% (n = 730) of APC trial participants. When adjusted for covariates including cardioprotective aspirin use, age, and sex, participants on the placebo arm who used statins at any time had no benefit over 5 years compared with never users (risk ratio, 1.24; 95% confidence interval, 0.99-1.56; P = 0.065). Statin use for >3 years increased adenoma risk over 5 years (risk ratio, 1.39; 95% confidence interval, 1.04-1.86; P = 0.024). For all comparisons of patients treated with celecoxib, adenoma detection rates for statin users and nonusers were equivalent. Consistent with their use in patients at high risk, cardiovascular serious adverse events were more common among statin users. For patients at high risk of colorectal cancer, statins do not protect against colorectal neoplasms and may even increase the risk of developing colorectal adenomas.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Play and Politics (Video)


Friday, April 16, 2010

Ted Talk on Importance of Science

This Ted talk is brilliant!

My favourite part is at 10:25, when Specter discusses how those attracted to "alternative medicine" are always suspicious of "big pharma", and thus they leap into the arms of "big placebo".

I also like his comment towards the end about "high-tech colonialism".

Here is a test I want you to try next week.

Firstly, I want you to only drink tap water (proviso: assuming you live in a country with safe drinking water, as we do in Canada). No bottled water, no "brita filtered" water, just plain old (fresh, cold and cheap) tap water.

Secondly, when you go to the grocery store don't buy anything that labels itself as "organic". Deliberately avoid the organic section. Empower yourself to make consumption choices based on science, not unfounded fear and superstition. This can be an empowering act.

After one week what will happen? Well, you'll be (at least) as healthy (see this and this) as you would otherwise be, but you will also a little richer.

You might also even be a bit happier and healthier. Worrying too much can be bad for your health. There are enough things to worry about in life already without needlessly inventing new things to worry about.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Science Review Article on Slowing Aging

The latest issue of Science has this review article on extending healthy lifespan. Here is the abstract:

When the food intake of organisms such as yeast and rodents is reduced (dietary restriction), they live longer than organisms fed a normal diet. A similar effect is seen when the activity of nutrient-sensing pathways is reduced by mutations or chemical inhibitors. In rodents, both dietary restriction and decreased nutrient-sensing pathway activity can lower the incidence of age-related loss of function and disease, including tumors and neurodegeneration. Dietary restriction also increases life span and protects against diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease in rhesus monkeys, and in humans it causes changes that protect against these age-related pathologies. Tumors and diabetes are also uncommon in humans with mutations in the growth hormone receptor, and natural genetic variants in nutrient-sensing pathways are associated with increased human life span. Dietary restriction and reduced activity of nutrient-sensing pathways may thus slow aging by similar mechanisms, which have been conserved during evolution. We discuss these findings and their potential application to prevention of age-related disease and promotion of healthy aging in humans, and the challenge of possible negative side effects.

And the image above is figure 1 from the article [click on the image for a larger version of it].

When I have more time I will add a more substantial post on this article.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Prospection Errors are Obstacles to Longevity Science

This excellent article by Gilbert and Wilson outlines some basic prospection errors that humans typically make when they think about the future.

Imagine future event X. The amount of hedonic experience you will feel in thinking about X will be influenced by the mental representations you have of X, and by contextual factors (like events occurring in the present).

Gilbert and Wilson identify a number of common prospection errors, like the fact that simulations are unrepresentative, essentialized, abbreviated, and decontextualized.

I believe that prospection errors explain the prevalence of "gerontologiphobia" (see my earlier post). Recall, Miller defines gerontologiphobia as follows:

There is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvelous but to regard research on aging, and thus all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce. No one who speaks in public about longevity research goes very far before encountering the widespread belief that research on extending the life span is unethical, because it will create a world with too many old people and not enough room for young folks.

I am working on a new paper (hence why blogging has been sparse) that examines how misperceptions about the present and future state of global health are themselves major obstacles to tackling aging.

Because simulations are based on memories, medical research that proposes to eliminate a disease is much more likely to invoke hedonic experiences in our simulations then is a medical intervention that retards aging.

These prospection errors explain why this is what usually happens in our simulations:

Imagine a world without cancer.... lots of hedonic experience.... we have a moral duty to prevent people from dying of cancer.

Imagine a world where humans age slower than they currently do.... simulations invoke memory of "being old", then ask "Why would we want to be old for longer?".... then imagine a world filled with lots of old people.... invoke concerns about inequality, invoke concerns about overpopulation, climate change, etc.

Very few hedonic experiences occur in this second simulation. And this is a big problem as slowing aging would reap larger health and economic dividends than eliminating cancer.

I believe there are many complex factors at play here, factors that keep the medical sciences wedded to the "disease-model". But our inability to make accurate, sensible simulations of what a future of retarding human aging would entail (for both the developed and developing world) is itself one of the greatest obstacles to prioritizing aging research. And this problem needs to be redressed.


Thursday, April 08, 2010

A Tale of Two Johns

*Originally posted June 30, 2009*

When I began my graduate studies back in the mid 1990's I decided early on that I would write my dissertation on John Rawls. I was moved by the elegance, sophistication and persuasion of Rawls's theory of justice. And in my dissertation, and then early publications, I attempted to defend Rawls's theory against various critics- communitarian, egalitarian, left-libertarian, etc.

But over time I became less committed, then somewhat critical, and then very critical, of the Rawlsian project (by which I mean the industry of Rawlsian scholarship rather than Rawls's own specific contribution). This culminated in this book which is a critique of the principled paradigm and ideal theory more generally.

What lead me to change my views? There were many things, and I have expanded on them before (see here, here, here, here, here and here). I won't repeat these various points again here, but those interested in my concerns can check out some of my earlier posts.

What I do want to consider here is this question: if I had to do it all again, would I still chose to do a dissertation on Rawls? Despite the vast amount of respect I have for Rawls as a political philosopher, my answer now would be "No". Instead, I would have liked the opportunity to write a dissertation on the American pragmatist John Dewey (1859-1952).

Unlike Rawls, whose theory has dominated the field of political philosophy for well over 30 years now, Dewey has remained a relatively marginalized figure in the field. But the neglect of Dewey is not a reflection on the quality of his work, rather it is a reflection on how impoverished and insular the field of political philosophy has become.

If I were a betting man I would wager a few dollars that, a 100 years from now, Dewey's influence on the field will actually surpass Rawls's. I admit that few of my colleagues would agree with me about this. And I say this not to belittle Rawls's work (which I greatly admire), but rather to praise Dewey's contribution.

Dewey was a brilliant philosopher who wrote a voluminous amount of work. I am by no means an expert on Dewey's work, but recently I have made an effort to read more of his work and have been struck by the range of his interests and intellect, and have found his work to be some of the most rewarding to read.

OK, since I am talking Dewey up so much I better provide a few details as to why I find him so interesting to read. Dewey's work, like my admiration for Greats in philosophy (like Plato, Aristotle or Mill) resonates with me on many different levels. Dewey resonates with me:

(1) as an educator
(2) as a democratic
(3) as a pragmatist
(4) as a perfectionist
(5) as someone who has a deep respect and appreciation of the importance of science.

While I also appreciate analytic rigour, it is not among the "top 5" things I look for in an inspirational and interesting philosopher. If it was, the list of great political philosophers would be very short indeed, and include no one before Rawls!

So here is an interesting counterfactual worth pondering:

Where would the field of political philosophy be today if the field had spent as much time and energy examining and debating Dewey's work as we have Rawls's?
[Perhaps we should revise that to read "if the field had spent just 25% of the time and energy examining and debating Dewey's work as we have Rawls's" since no one philosopher ought to dominant debates as much as Rawls has!]

My short, speculative answer to this hypothetical question is: The discipline would be more interesting, truly interdisciplinary, more expansive in terms of the issues it tackles, and yield more practical wisdom than it currently does.

Of course this is just my personal speculation so take it for what it is worth. But rather than have decades of debates on the speculative nature of the self, or extending the difference principle globally, or refining luck egalitarianism, a sustained engagement with Dewey would have brought psychology, democracy, education, and pragmatism to the fore of the discipline. And that would, in my opinion, have been a very positive development indeed.


Friday, April 02, 2010

New Yorker Article on Positive Psychology

The New Yorker has this excellent article on positive psychology.

The discussion of Bok's new book “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being” (which is sitting on my desk and is on my must read soon list!) is truly fascinating. Egalitarians will find the following sample from the article of particular interest:

To suggest that the U.S. abandon economic growth as a policy goal is a fairly far-reaching proposal. Bok concedes as much—“The implications of this critique are profound”—but he insists that all he’s doing is attending to the data. He takes a similarly provocative and, again, empirically driven position in a chapter titled “What to Do About Inequality.” His answer is, in a word, “Nothing.”

It’s true, Bok acknowledges, that rich Americans tend, on average, to be happier than poor ones. It’s also true that the incomes of the country’s top earners have, in recent decades, grown several times as fast as those of the earners at the bottom. But the statistics show that, over the past few decades, the subjective well-being of those at the bottom has remained unchanged. If the poor aren’t bothered by the growing disparity, Bok asks, why should anyone else be?

“The most obvious reason for deploring income inequality is our instinctive sympathy for those who must make do with many fewer goods and services,” he observes. “It is not immediately clear, however, why growing inequality should elicit such compassion if lower-income Americans themselves have not become less happy.”

After scratching growth and income redistribution off his list, Bok goes on to discuss measures that, the evidence suggests, would increase aggregate happiness. Job loss, he points out, has been shown to be singularly upsetting. According to one frequently cited study, as a downer it outranks divorce or separation. Even when workers find a new position at similar pay, they often fail to regain their earlier level of happiness. But the U.S., according to Bok, does “less than virtually any other advanced industrial nation to cushion the shock of unemployment.” Surely, there is room here for improvement. Bok recommends that unemployment insurance be extended to the fifty per cent (or more) of American workers who are not now covered, and that aid be offered to those who lose their jobs and want to go back to school.

And the following passage is of special interest to me, given my hunch that the "playful" life is in fact the good life:

...Bok’s recommendations continue in this vein—better treatment of sleep disorders, more recreational sports programs for kids, improved civics classes. (Research shows that people who participate in political activities such as voting are happier than those who don’t.) The measures may strike readers as inadequate to the task of increasing gross national happiness. But that, it could be argued, only proves Bok’s point: “People do not always know what will give them lasting satisfaction.”