Thursday, March 28, 2019


Imagine you hold a dial in your hand. Turn it to the left and you reduce the number of people killed in your state every year by 15 percent. Turn it to the right and it will increase the number of people killed by 9 percent. For example, if you live in California, you could save 279 lives with a flick of your wrist (or, if you're of a sociopathic bent, you could add 167 deaths per year). In Texas, you could save 197 people or see an extra 118 killed. In New York, you could prevent 92 homicides or provoke 55 more.

Now, new research by public health specialists at the Boston University School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital shows that the 50 state legislatures hold exactly that power.

Community health researcher Michael Siegel and his colleagues performed the first simultaneous controlled statistical study of the relationship between different gun laws and homicides in all 50 states, covering the years 1991 through 2016. Out of many different kinds of gun-related laws they studied, they found that three had powerful positive or negative impacts. Universal background checks preventing convicted violent felons from owning guns produced a 15 percent reduction in overall homicides. Laws blocking people convicted of violent misdemeanors cut the homicide rate by 18 percent. In contrast, "shall issue" laws that prevent authorities from using any discretion in granting concealed-carry permits resulted in a 9 percent higher homicide rate.

The researchers found that states with positive forms of all three laws--universal background checks preventing both felons and people with violent misdemeanors from buying or owning guns, and laws giving authorities the right to deny concealed-carry requests from people deemed risks to themselves or other--benefited from 33 percent lower homicide rates.

 Firearms confiscated from felons, California, 2011

For this study, the researchers excluded deaths from legal interventions (e.g. deaths at the hands of police), accidental firearm deaths and firearm deaths whose intent wasn't determined--in total 4.5 percent of firearm-related deaths. They also controlled statistically for many variables known to impact firearm fatalities, including the racial mix of each state, the percentage of young men between the ages of 15 to 29, and the rate of violent crimes other than homicide, divorce, unemployment and poverty.

They found that limiting dangerous people's access to guns is the most effective legal intervention, saving more lives than, for example, trying to limit the kinds of firearms that are available. Asked to summarize the implications of the study for policy makers, Siegel writes:

"Our research suggests that focusing on the “WHO” (i.e., who has access to firearms) is more impactful than focusing on the WHAT (i.e. what types of firearms are allowed). Based on these findings, the priorities for state policy makers should be: (1) universal background checks; (2) laws that prohibit gun purchase or possession by people with a history of violence (a conviction); and (3) extreme risk protection order laws that provide a mechanism for removing guns from people at high risk of violence to themselves or others."

In 2016, 17,250 people were the victims of homicide in the US. In the 26 years covered by this study, 859,871 people were killed. If I had a dial that could prevent even one death, I'd turn it. Wouldn't you? How about saving 2200 lives in a year? Or 130,000 lives over the next 26 years?


You can access the research paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, at this URL.

You can view earlier zerospinzone posts on gun-related issues at the following links:

stand-your-ground laws 

facts about guns in the US

guns and kids in the US

guns, young people and suicide in the US

New Zealand responds to gun violence


A slightly different version of this post appeared on OpEdNews at this URL.

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Monday, March 25, 2019


This is certainly not the most serious thing I could be writing about, what with the Mueller report finally coming to a fizzling end, Venezuela falling into chaos, the Middle East arguably growing even more explosive, decades of relative restraint on the development and potential use of nuclear weapons being tossed aside by the US and Russia, and, lest we forget, climate change.

Still, a little bit of actually useful information is probably worthy of at least a few moments of your attention.

Here's the snippet of news: If you're over 55 and you eat more than 10 grams (.35 oz or 2 teaspoons) of nuts every day, you're 40 percent more likely to enjoy good thinking and memory than your non-nut-consuming peers.

Can a few peanuts a day keep senility away?
Credit: Aney/Wikimedia

This was the main finding in a study of almost 5000 Chinese seniors. Eating more than 10 grams of nuts every day--mostly peanuts for this study group--boosted cognition by about two-thirds of a point as measured on a 40 point scale. That's equivalent to shaving off two to three years of age.

With a greying population putting millions of people at risk of dementia, any intervention that can slow brain ageing can be of great value to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some people will pay thousands of dollars for surgery to make them look a few years younger. How much is it worth to you to have your brain actually work like it did when you were a few years younger? If the "cost" is munching a few teaspoons of nuts every day, it would seem to be extremely well worth it.


You can reference the research report in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Ageing here.


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Thursday, March 21, 2019


Here in the US, whenever there's a mass shooting we re-enter a futile, paralytic cycle. Gun-control advocates use the tragedy to argue once again for stricter laws. Second-Amendment advocates launch a counter attack, saying "now is not the time." Their supporters in Congress offer "thoughts and prayers." Their critics point out their hypocrisy. Gun-lovers rush to buy more guns. Nothing changes. And, within a few days we endure yet another massacre.

 "This is not New Zealand"
Credit: AP/Vincent Yu

As we know, a week ago New Zealand was shocked when a white racist gunman murdered 50 people at their prayers. The nation united in revulsion. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke movingly about the victims, vowed never to mention the shooter's name in order to deprive him of the notoriety he sought, and promised to enact stricter gun-control laws and ban semi-automatic weapons entirely as soon as April 11.

Most remarkably, at least some New Zealanders are voluntarily turning their weapons over to the police to be destroyed.

There's a problem. The government responds. People respond. It sounds so sensible. It must feel very good to be part of a functional society and government.

Why not here?


Click here for a more in-depth commentary on this subject.


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Thursday, March 14, 2019


New research in mice has shown for the first time that it's possible to stop the formation of amyloid plaques--one of the key pathological features of Alzheimer's disease--and for the brain to clear them away entirely. This line of research has the potential to lead to medications that can slow, stop, or perhaps even reverse the ravages of this dread, mind-destroying disease.

 Comparison of a healthy brain and a brain with severe Alzheimer's disease
Credit: Wikimedia

As many people know through personal experience with friends or family members, Alzheimer's is an implacably progressive neurodegenerative disease that  robs individuals of their memory, cognitive functions, ability to care for themselves, personalities and, eventually, their lives. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and, strikingly, ". . . is the only disease in the 10 leading causes of deaths in the United States that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed."

A new study, however, opens up the possibility that Alzheimer's may in fact one day be slowed or prevented, if not cured. Working with mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer's disease, neuroscientist Riqiang Yan* and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic-Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, found that gradually reducing an enzyme called BACE1 blocked the development of amyloid plaques, which are a central part of Alzheimer's pathology.

Although their study was complex and highly technical, the logic behind it is clear. BACE1 is one of two enzymes that snip amyloid precursor protein, or APP, into the shorter pieces that glom together into the plaques that are thought to disrupt and eventually kill neurons. Since BACE1 has important biological functions, removing it early in life or completely creates serious neuro-developmental problems. Still, the researchers reasoned, reducing it gradually in adult mice might slow or stop Alzheimer's without causing unacceptable side effects. That's exactly what they found.

"In our study," says Yan, " we showed that if we delete BACE1 in the adult mice, even after plaque formed, with sequential and increased deletion of BACE1 the plaque was removed. That indicates that if we can get to a patient early enough, it will be beneficial in removing amyloid plaque."

Yan was not surprised to see that lowered levels of BACE1 slowed or stopped the formation of new plaques. He was both surprised and excited to find already existing plaques cleared away--the first time that this has been seen. "To our knowledge," he says, "this is the first observation of such a dramatic reversal of amyloid deposition in any study of Alzheimer’s disease mouse models. We didn't expect the pre-existing plaque would be removed. That was the very interesting part, and warrants additional study to find out why."

While completely blocking BACE1 causes developmental and cognitive problems, a gradual lowering in adult mice appeared appeared safer. Those mice performed better on learning and memory tasks than untreated Alzheimer's prone mice.  However, they still showed some abnormalities in synaptic signalling. Despite this problem, Yan thinks that compounds can be developed that, when applied at the right time and at the right dose, will slow or stop the development of plaques, allow the brain to clear away existing ones, and so keep Alzheimer's at bay.

Prevention is more powerful than treatment

Yan compares this to the enormously successful use of statins to control cholesterol levels enough to block the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease, even though cholesterol has vital functions in the body. "The critical thing is will this lead to some safe drugs?" he asks. "We need to find something very safe like a vitamin that people can take every day without any concerns. Another similarity is to the statins, taking statins to prevent cholesterol from building up. The idea is that prevention is even more powerful that treatment." 

The next step for Yan and colleagues is to track the effects of reduced BACE1 on the mouse brain in more detail and on older mice. "Human patients are typically older than in the mouse model," he explains. "In the mouse model we started to delete [BACE1] at 4 months, which is like 20 years old for people. We now want to delete it in older mice. We need a new mouse model for this later stage."

Robert Vassar is a professor of neurology at Northwestern University, in Illinois, and a pioneer in the study of the role of BACE1 in Alzheimer's disease. He's very supportive of Yan's new findings, and, like Yan, thinks they hold significant promise for Alzheimer's prevention. Vassar too likes the analogy with statins and cardiovascular disease. "You can't turn off the tap of cholesterol, but you can turn it down enough to not accumulate the plaques in the heart that cause heart disease," he says. "It's saved the lives of many people. The BACE1 inhibitors can do the same, if we find the right dose and the right stage of the disease--how much to inhibit and when to treat." 

Vassar and Yan are both aware that years of further research with animals and humans are needed to turn these promising findings into a safe and effective preventative treatment for people. They foresee a long road, but one that urgently needs to be followed. "We have to bold about this disease," says Vassar.  "We're headed for an epidemic of this with the baby boomers, so we've got to do something."

As a baby boomer myself, I couldn't agree more!


You can access Yan and his colleagues' full research paper here.


*Professor Yan is currently Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and William Beecher Scoville Professor in Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut, in Farmington, Connecticut.


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Sunday, March 03, 2019


Joseph McCarthy, February 9, 1950:

"I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

Credit: Getty Images

Donald Trump, March 2, 2019:

"We have people in Congress right now that hate our country. And you know that. And we can name every one of them if they want."

 Trump at CPAC 2019
Credit: Rolling Stone


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