Sunday, January 30, 2011

What to Do About Household Toxins

Chemicals in paints and household cleaners might be contributing to a rise in childhood cancers, according to the toxin watchdog group Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families. The group is a coalition of individuals and organizations such as Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Moms Rising.

A recent WebMD article, "Childhood Leukemia, Brain Cancer on the Rise," explained that Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families believes that chlorinated solvents (used in paints and spot removers, for example) and lindane (a chemical sometimes used to treat scabies) might be contributing to rising childhood cancer rates. The number of childhood leukemia and brain cancer diagnoses has been increasing about 1% a year over the past 20 years, according to Boston University environmental health professor Richard Clapp.

The article states that improved diagnostic techniques might mean that these cancers are not really becoming more common, they are just being diagnosed more accurately. Some experts also believe that the chemicals and pesticides used today are more targeted, and thus less harmful, than those used in the past.

Still, it is worth thinking about our day-to-day exposure to toxins and their impact on our health. Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families would like to expand the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act to better regulate the wide range of chemicals now in use in everyday products. Their website includes a resource page with links to nontoxic tips.

Surely everyone can take a few steps to decrease their household exposure to potentially harmful substances: replace a cleaner with a non-toxic alternative, switch out some standard produce for organic alternatives (start with the Environmental Working Group's dirty dozen, the most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables), or order the Oregon Environmental Council's Eco-Friendly Home Checkup Guide.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Optimism and Teen Girls' Health

A new study of optimism has had a lot of media buzz lately, in a society somewhat obsessed with measuring happiness. The study raises questions about how optimism affects health in adolescents.

The study of 5,634 tweens and teens in Australia, published recently in Pediatrics, found that the more optimistic the participants were, the less likely they were to develop symptoms of depression. This effect was especially apparent among girls ("A Prospective Study of the Effects of Optimism on Adolescent Health Risks").

The study participants were surveyed to find out whether their levels of optimism were very low, low, high, or very high. The gender differences in how optimism affected them were striking. "Compared with girls with very low levels of optimism," the authors wrote, "boys with the same level of optimism were approximately half as likely to be depressed." 

Adolescent girls in the western world, who are more likely than adolescent boys to become depressed, are often expected to be cheerful and helpful. Are glum girls frowned upon where glum boys are tolerated? I worry that teen girls might feel pressured to deny or suppress occasional sadness, making those feelings more difficult to overcome.

Optimism can be difficult to measure, because people are often encouraged to act and think optimistically, whether or not they actually feel optimistic, so that they will be happier. But happiness is also a result of personality, history, life circumstances, and many other variables.

It's good to try to see the positive side of even difficult circumstances; an optimistic viewpoint is helpful in life. But it shouldn't be required all the time.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Would You Want to Know?

If you could find out what diseases you might have in the future, would you want to know? Researchers at Tufts Medical Center in Boston recently asked people this very question.

The survey they conducted, and whose results were published in a recent issue of Health Economics, asked 1,463 participants whether they would take a blood test to learn whether they would develop Alzheimer's disease, arthritis, breast cancer, or prostate cancer in the future. They were also asked how much they would pay for that test ("Willingness-to-pay for predictive tests with no immediate treatment implications: a survey of US residents").

Most participants in this hypothetical scenario said that they would want to know whether disease would strike in the future, particularly prostate or breast cancer. They would also be willing to pay up to several hundred dollars to find out.

About a quarter of participants, however, said they would not want to take the blood test. Researchers found that those who were healthier, older, well-educated, and female were more likely to decline the test. "Major concerns expressed included the cost of the test, living with the knowledge of one's disease risk, and the lack of preventive measures [to stop the disease from occurring]," a press release on the survey explained.

Is it better to know, or not to know, what illness you might develop in the future? For some people, it's easier not to know, to not add another worry to their life. I was surprised to learn that most people do want to know what diseases they might develop, though, even if they can't do anything to stop them.

Knowledge is power, and the participants that would want to take the blood test said that they would make the most of their time if they knew they were slated for a life-altering illness in the future, spending more time with family and traveling, for example.

A serious illness brings its own clarity to a person, stripping away trivial concerns, and refocusing their energies on the people and things they care about most. I wish more people had this clarity - without any traumatic trigger such as illness.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Skipping the New Year's Resolutions

No one I know seems to make New Year's resolutions any more. When I ask, people usually shake their heads and say that they don't think these resolutions are practical or helpful.

WebMD agrees. Rather than saddling yourself with a list of intimidating resolutions, it's better to make small, consistent, and measurable changes over time, writes Neil Osterweil ("In One Year, Out the Other").

I'm a list-maker myself, and I tend to write long lists of things to do. But staring at a multi-page to-do list is not motivating, especially first thing in the morning. Earlier this year, I read that it's better to just pick a few things to do each day. One life coach even suggests limiting your to-do list to a three-inch-square sticky note each morning, and not adding anything to your daily list once it's written ("If It Won't Fit on a Post-It, It Won't Fit in Your Day").
So I decided to write a short to-do list each day. I try to make my tasks concrete and make sure each one moves me toward my professional or personal goals. As a result, I have found that it's easier for me to cross everything off the list, which makes me feel and become more productive. With a shorter list, it's also easier for me to figure out how to divide up my time each day.

A list of ambitious New Year's resolutions is an extreme version of a long list of tasks to do; often, it will just make you miserable. Perhaps the recession has taught us to rethink our expectations, focus on smaller, more achievable goals, and enjoy a sense of accomplishment more often.