Only Human

This is Only Human, a new podcast from WNYC Studios. Health is something we often choose to ignore—until it hits us in the face. Only Human is a show that isn’t afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations, or experiment with possible solutions. Hosted by Mary Harris, Only Human tells stories we all can relate to. Because every body has a story.


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May 17, 2017

In this special episode of Only Human, we partnered with the folks at WNYC’s podcast The United States of Anxiety, hosted by Kai Wright.

Starting with the 1925 Scopes Trial — also known as the “trial of the century” — we look at one of the most controversial topics in our time: the debate over evolution versus a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

It started with a substitute teacher in Tennessee who taught evolution in the classroom. What followed was a fiery debate that rocketed around the world.

The Scopes Trial reminds us that science has often upset the establishment. 

Then we turn to another controversy: doubt around the whole idea of climate change. And we go to that day in 1988 when NASA scientist James Hansen warned a congressional committee that climate change was real. Back then, Republican President George H.W. Bush touted himself as being pro-environment.

“I’m an environmentalist… And I always will be,” he said. “And that is not inconsistent with being a businessman. Nor is it with being a conservative.” 

Today, President Donald Trump considers climate change a “hoax” and is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate accord. It’s a radical change in 25 years. We’ll tell you how we got there.

Episode Contributors:

Kai Wright

Amanda Aronczyk

Elaine Chen

Karen Frillmann

Jillian Weinberger

Subscribe to the United States of Anxiety podcast on iTunes.

May 3, 2017

More than 50 years ago, Robert Krulwich met President John F. Kennedy and shook his hand. For decades, Robert wondered how much of President Kennedy might have stayed with him. Now, thanks to the new science of the microbiome, he can find out.

We partnered with Radiolab and Dr. Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist and author of the upcoming book, “Dirt is Good,” for an experiment. President Kennedy is no longer with us, so we recruited a stand-in: astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Together, we tried to find an answer to this question: when we touch greatness, how much of it stays with us?

 

 

April 25, 2017

Radiolab and Only Human have partnered with uBiome, a company that can identify the bacteria that live on you.

Here’s how it works: the first 1,000 listeners to sign up will get a uBiome skin sampling kit. Then you’ll swab behind your ear and send the sample to uBiome. They will process your skin sample and give you your individual results for FREE.

To get started, type in your email below so we can send you a code to get your free kit.

 

FAQ:

Who is uBiome?

uBiome is a California-based biotech company started in 2012 that sequences the DNA of the microbes that live on and in you.

Do I have to pay for my results?

No, as long as you are one of the 1,000 people to request a sampling kit with the code for Radiolab/Only Human listeners, the sequencing results are free! uBiome otherwise charges $89 to have a skin sample analyzed.

Am I going to find out if I’m sick?

This uBiome information isn’t for diagnosing any health condition.

How long will it take to get my results?

It can take from 3-6 weeks from when uBiome receives your sample to sequence, process and compile the material. So please send those samples back to the uBiome labs soon, so we can report back to you about the Radiolab/Only Human group.   

What is uBiome going to do with my microbiome info?

uBiome scientists are going to share aggregate level analysis with Radiolab and Only Human so we can give general results about our group’s skin microbiome. Aside from that, what uBiome does with your results generally depends on whether you choose to be included in research or share your information. uBiome is HIPAA-compliant, and their practices are reviewed by an independent committee for ethical research (an IRB). For more information, see uBiome’s summary of its privacy practices (just 6 pages in regular-sized font).

Will I be able to get my raw data?

Yes! Once your results are in, you’ll be able to download it as a CSV, JSON or FASTQ file.

Will they take my DNA and clone me?

If by “me”, you mean the human you, then no, uBiome isn’t going to clone, let alone even sequence human DNA.

More questions? Email health@wnyc.org.

April 19, 2017

Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, Tracy Clayton always heard that her ancestors were, in her mother’s words, “black, white and American Indian.” Like many black Americans, her immediate family didn’t have exact information on their roots — that heritage is difficult to trace through ancestors forced into the American slave trade. What little information Tracy’s family might have had was lost in a courthouse fire.

Tracy says she didn’t think about her ancestry very often until she moved to New York City, where she’s the co-host, with Heben Nigatu, of the BuzzFeed podcast Another Round. New Yorkers, Tracy noticed, take pride in their ethnic identity. A number of her friends hang flags in their window, or march in pride parades based on their country of origin.

“Which parade do I go to? What flag do I put in my window?” she wondered. She enlisted Only Human to help her figure it out.

With the help of DNA ancestry tests and experts on DNA and race, Tracy explores her own ethnic background. She accidentally upends her family lore — it turns out her she has very little Native American ancestry — and she also discovers why the mix of “black, white and American Indian” is such a common heritage myth among black Americans.

In the end, Tracy finds her flag, and discovers that her ethnic identity is more complex than she originally thought. The data revealed by DNA ancestry tests complicates the way she thinks about herself and her family’s history, but she also realizes that these tests don’t hold all the secrets to understanding ourselves and our heritage. The stories passed down over generations can be just as integral to the way we think about ourselves in the modern world.

April 5, 2017

Last year, North Carolina passed HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” banning anyone from using a public restroom that didn’t match up with his or her biological sex.  

After the law passed, we went to North Carolina to visit one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University’s Children’s Hospital. We spent a day-in-the-life there, learning how patients and doctors juggle big physical changes and political changes too.

Since our story last August, things have not calmed down. President Trump has canceled some key protections for trans students. This year, sixteen more states including Texas have introduced their own bathroom bills. And in a controversial decision last week, North Carolina lawmakers revoked HB2 — though trans activists called their replacement bill a bad deal.

So with all this happening, we decided to catch up with the three kids we met last summer — Drew, Martin, and Jaye — and see how their lives and their bodies have changed. We start by going back to our first episode, when each of them was just beginning hormone therapy prescribed by Dr. Deanna Adkins, the pediatric endocrinologist who started Duke’s transgender clinic two years ago.

Then, we reconnect with Drew, Jaye, and Martin one more time. We talk about the joys (and pitfalls) of dating online, how their bodies are changing, and how they’re doing under President Trump.

March 22, 2017

Last fall, a bunch of us got sick at the same time, and it seemed likely that the virus spread at the workplace. The question came up: who came to work sick? Or to put it another way: who was to blame for this office outbreak?

To find out, we partnered with NYU‘s Rumi Chunara of the goVIRAL research project, and Jeffrey Shaman, an expert in flu forecasting at Columbia University.

They helped us design a project looking at how respiratory illnesses spread in our workplace community. Once a week for ten weeks we swabbed our noses and sent the samples to a lab at Columbia where they could determine (if we were sick) what kind of respiratory infection we had caught.

We also filled in bi-weekly symptom reports. Some of the questions were benign: do you have a fever? Others were more accusatory: who do you think got you sick?  

The entire experiment was a whodunnit. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a flu-dunnit. But sometimes messing with what usually lies below the surface can have unexpected side effects. Flu-dunnit changed our office dynamic. Accusations started to fly, as our scientist sleuths discovered who were the victims — and who was the perpetrator.

March 8, 2017

When scientist Rachel Herz decided to study the connection between smell and memory, she chose five products emblematic of childhood: Coppertone suntan lotion, Crayola crayons, Play-Doh, Johnson & Johnson baby powder and Vicks Vaporub.

She studies the science of what’s called the Proustian phenomenon. The French novelist Marcel Proust writes about dipping a madeleine cookie into a cup of linden tea and the aroma immediately bringing him back to a long-lost memory.

Producer Julia Longoria has always had that relationship with Vicks Vaporub — the scent transports her right back to childhood, to days in bed with the flu at her grandmother’s house in South Florida. Julia and her cousins all knew not to tell grandma when they were sick, or they’d risk being slathered with “Vickicito”.

Julia never had a reason to wonder why Grandma loved Vicks so much, but this week’s episode reveals Grandma’s love for the product is deeper than Julia imagined. And while investigating Grandma’s (and the world’s) Vicks obsession, Julia is pulled into her family’s past, back to Cuba, before the Revolution.

February 22, 2017

While researching this week’s episode of Only Human, I learned a lot about the flu vaccine. Here are my top five takeaways:

  • Every year, the flu shot is a little bit of an experiment. In the next couple of weeks, a team of physicians will get together and vote on what should go inside it. In this article from a couple of years back, one of those doctors acknowledged “the virus is smarter than we are at this point. I don’t know of any disease that plagues us more. It’s very, very frustrating and a very inexact science. . . . We do it with varying luck, and I think the luck is mostly the virus’s whim.”
  • The “flu shot” isn’t just one thing. Every year there are a bunch of different versions of the flu vaccine: some inoculate you against three strains (trivalent); others inoculate you against four (quadrivalent). Some versions are more effective than others, and last year the CDC had to un-recommend a flu vaccine called FluMist (a nasal spray), because it was 0% effective. The vaccine we’re talking about this week, Pandemrix, was only available in 2009-2010, the year of the swine flu pandemic – it was monovalent, containing only one strain, the H1N1 virus.
  • A “universal” flu vaccine is the “holy grail” of flu vaccines. But it’s at least a decade away. You have to keep getting the flu vaccine again and again because the virus “drifts”: it shape shifts just enough each year to totally confuse your immune system. A doctor in New York is hard at work on a vaccine that could last for years, but getting it to clinical trials has been a challenge. (It looks promising when it’s tested… in ferrets.) You can hear a story I did a couple months back about the quest for the universal shot by clicking here.  
  • Things that might be in your flu vaccine: shark liver oil, cow bile, egg protein. And all of this stuff is totally safe. It’s just weird. The shark liver oil “boosts” a vaccine’s effectiveness; the cow bile helps clean the viral proteins. The egg protein is there because the flu shot is grown inside chicken eggs. In the US, flu vaccine is made and packaged in Pennsylvania – which, as a state, is the third-largest egg producer in the country.
  • There’s a reason you’ve never heard this week’s story before. This is a really thoughtful piece from Vox about why science journalists have a hard time talking about vaccine side effects — and why we need to do better.

Bottom line, the flu shot — like all shots — is safe and effective. But newer vaccines may have side effects that become apparent only after millions of people try them out.

February 22, 2017

When Mathilda Crisp was about three years-old, she stopped sleeping through the night. But during the day, she would fall asleep without warning — during a swim lesson, in the middle of her cereal bowl at breakfast.

Then other, stranger symptoms started materializing: when she got happy or emotional, she would suddenly collapse. (Her brother and sister started carrying her around the house on a chair so she could keep playing in their games.) She would thrust her tongue around her mouth. She couldn’t seem to walk in a straight line.

At first her doctors were sure she had a brain tumor. But her scans were negative. They tested her for leukemia, Lyme disease. Nothing. But when one doctor finally did diagnose Mathilda, it turned out to be just the beginning of an even bigger mystery: of why this little girl — and a handful of other kids in Northern Europe — had suddenly been struck ill. Trying to solve it has become one doctor’s life’s work.

Also check out:

  • Mathilda’s mom has written a book about her experience. You can read an exclusive excerpt from it, or check it out on Kindle.
  • Dr. Emmanuel Mignot is a key player in this story. He first got media attention for his colony of narcoleptic dogs. Check them out.
  • While researching this story, Mary learned a lot about the flu vaccine. Here are her top five takeaways
February 8, 2017

About nine years ago, 17.5 million people tuned into an episode of Grey’s Anatomy that, on the surface, appeared like any other — high-stakes surgery, high-drama love triangles. What those millions of Grey’s viewers didn’t know was that they were guinea pigs for a massive, secret experiment.

That experiment was arguably a referendum about a single woman: Jennifer Jako, and her decision to become a mother.

In 1991, at the age of 18, Jako had a one night stand with a high-school friend. It was the only time she’d ever had sex without a condom. She contracted HIV and spent years trying to debunk misconceptions: producing a documentary that aired on MTV, speaking at college campuses and on talk shows.

Over time, the country’s view of HIV evolved. As people started living longer, stigma decreased. People generally understood that the infection wasn’t a death sentence any longer.

But there was one area people couldn’t seem to understand: Pregnancy. Studies showed the general public simply didn’t know — or didn’t believe — that an HIV-positive woman, with the right treatment, had a tremendously low chance of passing the virus onto her baby — less than 2-percent at the time.

Jennifer Jako got a cruel lesson in where the public stood when she appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine, six months pregnant.

Later, as an experiment, the Kaiser Family Foundation decided to see if they could move the needle by trying something totally different: product placement of medical information in a Grey’s Anatomy episode.

In this episode of Only Human we tell the epic story of Jennifer Jako and how she managed to sneak into our livings rooms and, possibly, change public opinion forever.

January 25, 2017

Who knew counting a crowd would be so… political? If the election felt contentious, the inauguration seemed to make the country even more divided, between “us” and “them.”

After crowds gathered on the Washington Mall for President Trump’s inauguration and the Women’s March the following day, Only Human looks at what happens to us as individuals when we become part of a crowd. We look at the crowd psychology behind Donald Trump’s rallies, the crowd dynamics in anti-Trump protests, and ways to stay safe in a crowd.

Here’s a video of tips from a crowd management expert we spoke to, Paul Wertheimer.

 

 Animation by Nate Milton

January 24, 2017

How does being in a big crowd change your mind?

The inauguration struck us as a unique moment to test these ideas about identity, identity formation and group think with a massive number of people.

Jay Van Bavel, a social psychology professor and neuroscientist at NYU, has looked at the concept of “us” vs. “them,” and how our brain behaves when we divide ourselves into groups.

“There’s a lot of things that are happening psychologically and even biologically,” he said, “that are making a change in how you see yourself.”

Van Bavel puts his subjects in an fMRI machine and measures which areas of the brain are activated when, for example, we identify faces from our own group or race, compared to others.

Much as we would have loved to get everyone in an fMRI, we had to rely on more portable tools. So we enlisted Van Bavel to make a survey asking people: are you liberal or conservative? How much do you feel you have in common with the average person who shares your view of Trump? Would you do business with someone who didn’t share that view? Would you date them?

About 1,300 people filled out our survey before the inauguration. Around 600 took it again afterwards. Admittedly, these were largely public radio listeners, though we recruited other people from conservative-leaning political groups on Facebook and through email.

So what happened? Mainly liberals reported attending an event during inauguration weekend, and afterwards, their identification didn’t change much.

Beforehand, 71% of liberals said they agreed or strongly agreed that they had a bond with Trump’s opposition. After the inauguration, that number was 70%. (Over 80% of survey-takers identified as liberal or strongly liberal, regardless of whether they had gone to a rally that weekend).  

Two measures shifted more for liberals who protested compared to those who didn’t: They were slightly more certain that they could suss out a Trump supporter without talking about politics, and they had a stronger sense that the goals of Trump supporters precluded theirs.

Given this self-identified very liberal group, it maybe shouldn’t have been a surprise that they had strident views of the other side. Their views were much more strident than those of our conservative survey-takers — a group that self-identified as slightly conservative (53%) and conservative (25%).  

This group, let’s call them moderate-conservatives, were much more up for interactions with people who opposed Trump. More than half agreed or strongly agreed that they’d be willing to do business with the other side (58% vs. 21% for liberals) or be friends with someone from the other side (74% vs. 28%).

The most surprising result was about dating. Forty-four percent of conservatives said they’d be fine dating someone who opposed Trump, while only five percent of our liberals said they could date a Trump-supporter.

Van Bavel did have this idea: our largely female pool of liberal survey respondents may be especially turned off to Trump supporters after the President’s many sexist comments during the campaign.

It’s possible that the feeling among this group of liberals, Van Bavel said, is that “anybody who supports Trump is somebody … who can look the other way when a candidate confesses to engaging in sexual assault.”

One final thing we wanted to test in this survey was how people’s political affiliation might influence their perceptions.

“Scientists are starting to study this more and more,” Van Bavel said.We’re really getting a handle now on the power of our identities to shape our automatic judgments and maybe even … our interpretations of reality.”

The hypothesis is that our identity as part of a group can make us see things differently — things like distance, color or size. 

And this seemed to be borne out in our survey. We asked both groups, who had more people in D.C. during the weekend of the inauguration. Liberals overwhelmingly said there were a lot more protesters than supporters (84%). Conservatives were mixed: some said Trump supporters had more people (35%), others said the Women’s March did (35%), and others said there were about the same (12%).

This seems to replicate results Van Bavel has seen in his lab, where group identity, even when people are randomly assigned into meaningless teams, can affect how brains process new information.

January 17, 2017

Only Human is working on an episode about the psychology of crowds. We’re looking at what happens to us as individuals when we join a rally, a ceremony or a protest — such as inauguration, or the Women’s March on Washington.

And we need your help!

This survey will help us understand what kind of effect these events might have on us, whether you’re attending in person or watching from home. It should just take a couple minutes. Thank you!

Take our survey

November 7, 2016

This election has walked right into our homes, our relationships —we’re even talking to our therapists about Donald and Hillary. Our episode this week looks at what this election stress is doing to our bodies. And it got us wondering, what can science tell us about less stressful ways to engage with the other side?

The American Psychological Association recently released a guide to coping with stress from the election. It encourages people to limit their media consumption and avoid conversations about the election.

All good choices for our health, but not necessarily for the country.

Matt Motyl is a political psychologist. He says the APA’s advice amounts to sticking our heads in the ground. It’s not the best coping strategy, but it’s what we usually do. Over the last four decades, we’ve migrated away from each other, both figuratively and literally.

“There’s a lack of relationships,” Motyl says. “So when somebody tells you something nasty about the other side, you’re more inclined to believe it, because you don’t have conflicting information.”

According to Motyl, if we all just talked a little, partisanship would be far less pronounced. There is an overwhelming amount of evidence that face-to-face conversations work. A study published earlier this year found that a single ten-minute conversation between strangers could do more to cure prejudice than over a decade of media coverage and policy changes.

In this election where so many have disregarded rules of civil discourse, dialogue has never seemed less appealing. But researchers have found that these strategies can make the process a little bit easier.

Draw from personal experience.

Statistics aren’t actually all that important. People, as it turns out, don’t make decisions that wayA study on the effectiveness of canvassing about transgender rights found that it is far more important that the other person relates to your perspective. So talk about yourself, remind the other person that you’re a human, and they’ll be more likely to hear you out.

Make a concession.

You are not completely right, and the other person is not completely wrong. Introduce politics by mentioning something you think the other person’s party does well. Doing so prevents the conversation from becoming a competition, which is bad for relationships.

Watch your word choice.

A computer program could spot a congressperson’s party 87 percent of the time just by looking at certain terms they used. A liberal might say “undocumented worker” while a conservative would say “illegal immigrant.” Be careful with the words you choose—they might be more loaded than you think.

Find common ground.

Focus on the issues you know the other person cares about. Even if you don’t agree on the solutions, agreeing on the problems is a start. A study found that focusing on shared threats like climate change increases cooperation between groups.

Share a meal.

There hasn’t been much academic research on food and conversation, but organizations like Civil Politics and the Village Square have found that sharing a meal encourages dialogue between groups. There’s just something about food that alleviates tension and builds bonds. 

Even if your conversation does go awry, take heart: you can blame it on the politicians. Political economist Matthew Gentzkow says that ultimately we mimic the kind incivility we see our party leaders enacting. It will take change on their part to shift the national dialogue, but that shouldn’t stop you from reaching across the dinner table this Thanksgiving.

November 4, 2016

Every day another article comes out about how voters are stressed by this election. But we wanted to know: what is the election doing to our biology?

The American Psychological Association recently found that more than half of all Americans — 52 percent — say this year’s presidential election is a “somewhat” or “very significant” source of stress in their lives. The survey was self-reported, meaning respondents answered a few questions online and the APA took their self-assessments at face value. Anecdotally, those assessments probably ring true for many of us, but it turns out there’s a way to measure the physiological effects of election stress.  

Over the last few years, a group of neuroscientists and political scientists have pioneered a new field called biopolitics, the study of biology and political behavior. Professor Kevin Smith is a political scientist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a co-author of the book, “Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.” He often collaborates with Dr. Jeffrey French, who runs a lab at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and studies cortisol, a hormone we release when we’re stressed.  

One of Smith and French’s recent studies looked at stress and voting. They wanted to know if cortisol levels influence whether people vote. The easiest way to test cortisol is through saliva, so they collected spit samples from a bunch of participants and got their official voting records for the past six elections.

The researchers found that people with higher cortisol levels vote less. And that finding correlates with another one of their studies, which found that people who voted absentee experienced less stress than people who went to the polls.

So we asked French and Smith to help us design an experiment of sorts. We’d use the presidential debates as a proxy for the election. Our team would go to debate watch parties and collect saliva samples from viewers to measure their cortisol levels. We’d also ask the participants to fill out a survey about themselves: their party affiliation, age and self-reported stress level. And we’d see who had the biggest changes in their cortisol over the course of the debate.

During the first two presidential debates, we went to watch parties in Times Square, Midtown Manhattan and Northern New Jersey. Participants spat three times into tiny tubes: before the debate, to get a baseline sample, midway through the debate and after the debate.

We over-nighted the samples to Omaha, where Dr. French processed them in his lab. A few weeks later, he had the results.

We all agreed that the debate watch parties seemed stressful. At a bar in Times Square, we talked to young Republicans unhappy with their nominee and worried about their party’s future. Others were terrified at the prospect of a Clinton presidency. In Midtown, a group of Democrats had gathered to watch at the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank. A few of them brought their own alcohol, to temper their anxiety (French and Smith took alcohol and caffeine intake into account in their analysis) and a number of them worried about Trump’s popularity.

But the results surprised us: cortisol levels stayed close to normal levels throughout the debates. Clinton supporters had a small spike at the midway point, but not by much. Overall, the stress levels for liberals and conservatives didn’t really change — with one exception.

The researchers looked at cortisol levels based on whether participants had someone close to them who planned to vote for the opposing candidate. And for Trump supporters who had a conflict with a person close to them — a parent, a sibling, a spouse — cortisol levels actually went up after the debate. They probably found the debate more stressful.

French and Smith warned us that this wasn’t a pristine study. In fact, both professors laughed when we asked if they’d submit our work to a peer-reviewed journal. But they agreed that this finding was statistically significant. And they didn’t find it for Clinton supporters, or voters who supported a third party candidate.

The other significant finding related to baseline cortisol levels — the participants’ stress level before the debate. The researchers found that Trump supporters had much higher baseline levels compared to Clinton voters.

Smith, the political scientist, couldn’t tell us why Trump voters had two times as much cortisol in their saliva compared to Clinton supporters. But he did say that our experiment served as an interesting pilot study — one that made him think differently about what he hopes to study next: tolerance.

Here, Smith made a comparison to same-sex marriage. Opposition to it shifted when researchers found some biological or genetic basis for being gay — when it started to be considered innate. Smith wonders if the same is true for political difference. As he told one of our reporters, “If you’re a liberal and I’m a conservative and I believe you’re a liberal because you’re genetically predisposed to be, then am I more tolerant of you or less tolerant of you?”

In other words, if political difference is related to our biology, maybe we’ll be more tolerant of each other. And therefore less stressed. And therefore more likely to vote. At least, that’s the hope.

*

We’ve been on hiatus, working on some new stories. If you’re joining us for the first time, here are some of our favorite past episodes:

Keep the Baby, Get the Chemo

Your Sanity or Your Kidneys

Patients and Doctors Fess Up

Who Are You Calling ‘Inspiring’?

Your Brain on Sound

Bacon, Booze and the Search for the Fountain of Youth

How to Stop an Outbreak

A Doctor’s Love Affair with Vicodin

The Robot Ate My Pancreas

I’d Rather have a Living Son than a Dead Daughter

August 17, 2016

1. Before they are sold on the market, dietary supplements are not reviewed or approved by the FDA.

However, 54 percent of surveyed consumers believe that the government approves vitamin and mineral supplements before they are marketed (according to the 2014 Health and Diet Survey sponsored by the FDA).

2. There are around 85,000 supplements for sale in the US today, but only 25 FDA employees regulating them.

And the FDA has little authority to investigate supplements and the companies that manufacture them until consumers get sick. “We’re relegated to playing whack a mole,” said Dr. Oliver Catlin, President of the Banned Substances Control Group. He continued, “We’re talking about an arena that has a vast number of companies. It’s very easy to start a new company, disappear if there’s a problem, reappear under a new name, and then start the same ballgame gain.”

So how did we get here?

3. Back in the 1990s, when the FDA tried to tighten regulations of supplements, more people wrote to Congress about the proposal than about the Vietnam War.

Supplement companies started a huge marketing campaign, with the message that the government is coming for your vitamins. Consumers wrote their representatives to oppose expanding the FDA’s authority of vitamins and supplements. This TV ad of an FDA SWAT team breaking into Mel Gibson’s house to snatch his Vitamin C supplement is one example from the supplement industry’s campaign. Backed by a barrage of ad campaigns, supplement lobbyists got the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act passed, which effectively stripped the FDA of its regulating powers.

4. Today, what’s advertised on the bottle is not necessarily what is inside the pill.

“You can go out and grind up grass, put it in a gelatin capsule, and then bottle it, market it, and sell it,” said Dr. David Baker, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at Stony Brook University, who is using plant DNA to investigate herbal supplements.

A few years ago, he noticed that several of his patients were taking black cohosh supplements to help with menopause, and he wanted to see how much of the plant was in the pills. Dr. Baker found that, among the dozens of black cohosh supplements he sampled, 25 percent had zero trace of the plant. Imagine if 25 percent of orange juice on the market had no oranges. Though that would never happen, it’s fair to say that consumers would be pretty unhappy about it.

5. The dosages for some of the most commonly used supplements are much greater than the FDA’s daily recommended values.

The daily recommended value of Vitamin B-12 (6 micrograms) equals one bowl of fortified cereal. However, a typical 500 mcg supplement dosage is 8,333% times the recommended value — that’s 83 bowls of cereal! 

A 1000 mg Vitamin C supplement is 1,667% of the recommended value (60 mg). In other words, that’s like eating 14 oranges in one sitting (according to this report by FRONTLINE).

The steady rise of dietary supplement use prompted the editors at the Annals of Internal Medicine to write, “Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements.” They cited studies on tens of thousands of people finding no benefits from supplement use, and even possible harm. The message was simple: “Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.”

August 9, 2016

We have this idea of what therapy is supposed to look like. There’s a couch. An objective therapist sitting across the room scribbling notes. But of course it’s not that simple.

What happens when your therapist is not really a therapist? Or the therapist is the one in tears? And of course, should you or should you not, try to have sex with your therapist?

In this episode, six short stories, many from our listeners, looking at how the role of patient and therapist can get… complicated.

Our stories are courtesy of:

Thanks to Dr. Jeffrey Younggren for his thoughts and wisdom on ethics in patient/therapist relationships, and to Gary Schoener for his expertise on Dr. Renatus Hartogs.


A therapist’s office is usually a private space, a place to share secrets. We don’t often get the chance to see inside. So with many New York City therapists taking the month of August off, we invite you inside half a dozen or so therapeutic spaces. Make yourself comfortable, take your time and have a look around.
              – Amy Pearl, WNYC photographer

'Everything in a session has meaning, and the office is no different,' says psychotherapist Blair Casdin.

Blair Casdin, psychotherapist, LCSW-R
New York, NY
Everything in a session has meaning, and the office is no different. The furniture, the lighting, the books, even the flowers. Recently, I purchased a water pitcher. One client joked that the water filter is toxic. Was he suggesting that what I have to offer him is toxic? The next week, however, he allowed himself to take a drink. For another one of my clients, the sight of the pitcher provokes a thirst she cannot quench. She fills her cup throughout the session, and admits that she never feels satiated. Most of all, I think a therapy office should be a place of comfort, opening a space that allows for open and engaged and even new thought, for both of us. Maybe what I am going for is that feeling you have when you get home after a long day and can finally relax and put your feet up. 

'I want my patients to find something in my office that they can connect with,' says clinical psychologist Ali Mattu.

Ali Mattu, clinical psychologist, Ph.D.
New York, NY
I want my patients to find something in my office that they can connect with, something that makes them feel at home. I scatter characters who have faced their fears, grown from their setbacks, and demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity. This stuff doesn’t make Cognitive Behavioral Therapy any easier, but it does help the people I work with begin their own hero’s journey.

'I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that reactions to the therapist's space are as diverse and varied as the individuals who offer them,' says psychoanalyst Stephanie Newman.

Stephanie Newman, psychoanalyst and psychotherapist, Ph.D.
New York, NY
I have practiced analytic psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in NYC for approximately 20 years. I’m the author of Madmen on the Couch: Analyzing the Minds of the Men and Women of the Hit TV Show. I am sure it will not surprise you to learn that reactions to the therapist’s space are as diverse and varied as the individuals who offer them. For some, the chair, consulting room, objects I have displayed have become a sort of touchstone. I will elaborate: I recently moved to a new office after working for many years at another location. Once I was situated in the new place, many people shared their reactions. They noticed that things had been moved around to reflect the new office and layout but were generally glad to have their favorites, their touchstones. One common reaction (I paraphrase): ‘The space is larger but the chair is the same as always.’ Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose! Ultimately it is about the alliance, the relationship, and the bond you and the patient form, that which is shaped by the constant presence and steadfast attention over many hours and minutes and seconds, spent in the room with a caring and attentive therapist and hardworking patient. 

'I wanted to try and have my space be as open as possible,' couples therapist Howard Danelowitz

Howard Danelowitz, Imago couples therapist, LCSW
New York, NY
The office was actually built for my colleague and for me and I wanted to try to have it be as open as possible. It’s a little bit unexpected because when you walk into the very small waiting room you might expect something like that but there’s actually a lot of light here and I feel a nice breeze. People feel comfortable with symmetry so you can keep on seeing symmetry in the room with two chairs, two doors, two rows of paintings. Every once and a while, someone will come in and say, ‘I noticed your name on the paintings [in the waiting room]’ and I will just ask them, ‘How is that for you to know that those are my paintings?’ I want to get a sense of what it means to them and if we have to talk about it further. I have felt lucky to have this as an office because I’ve seen many offices and a lot of them aren’t special the way this is.

'It's eclectic but comfortable-- kind of like me,' Kate Dvorkin, psychologist

Kate Dvorkin, psychologist, Psy.D.
New York, NY
When people walk in they are comfortable, that’s the main thing. A lot of people find the couch very comfortable, people like at least some of the artwork. They walk in and they feel at ease because there are a lot of things to look at. The art work is varied, but it just has a nice feel; it’s eclectic but comfortable — kind of like me! I created a space that I was comfortable in. A lot of people walk in here and say, ‘This is a place I can work in and feel relaxed in.’ Just being relaxed and comfortable is what I’m aiming for so people can focus on what they need to focus on. The space shouldn’t distract you, you should be able to focus on yourself and your work.

Psychiatrist Own Muir's office was designed with the help of a psychologist who is also an interior designer.

Owen Muir, psychiatrist, MD
Brooklyn, NY
I practice mentalization-based treatment and Interpersonal Social Rhythms Therapy (for bipolar disorder only). No other modalities by me. Only these two evidence-based treatments. The space is hip, open, has daylight (for IPSRT that is helpful), encourages thinking about music and art (in Williamsburg my patients are artists much of the time) and is a bit more off-kilter and less straight-laced than many other treatment spaces. I also have a prominent whiteboard for learning together. The space was designed with the help of psychologist and interior designer Paula Madrid, who helped with all aspects of the setup: furniture selection, flow of the room. Dr. MacMillan made sure that even the pillows convey the right message. And there are fidget toys for patients with ADHD to fiddle with! The photography is by Angela Cappetta, a New York photographer. 

August 2, 2016

Earlier this year, North Carolina passed HB2, the so-called “bathroom bill.” The law bans anyone from using a public restroom that doesn’t match up with his/her biological sex. HB2 put the state in the middle of a national fight about gender. But North Carolina is also home to one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University’s Children’s Hospital.

This week, we spend a day in that gender clinic, the only one in North Carolina. We wanted to know how a clinic like this one operates in this political climate. And we wanted to find out how these patients are coping.

Dr. Deanna Adkins, a pediatric endocrinologist, started the clinic a year ago. Over the course of our day, we met three of her very different patients. Drew Adams is a 15-year-old trans man who came with his mom, Erica, all the way from Jacksonville, Florida. On the drive up, Drew wore a T-shirt with “This is What Trans Looks Like” printed on it. He told us he decided to change out of it before he stopped for a bathroom break in North Carolina; he used the men’s room. When Dr. Adkins told Drew that not only would he get a prescription for testosterone, but that he could give himself his first shot that very day, Drew stood up and cheered.

We also shadowed Dr. Adkins’s appointment with Jaye, an 18-year-old African-American trans woman. Jaye’s experience has been very different from Drew’s; her family has had a harder time accepting her transition. She also worries a lot about her safety, especially in North Carolina, and she can tick off the names of a number of trans women of color who have been killed over the last few years. But, like Drew, Jaye was thrilled when Dr. Adkins handed her a prescription for estrogen. She planned to pick it up that day.

At the end of the day, we met Dr. Adkins’s last patient, Martin, and his mom, Karen (we decided to use pseudonyms for them both). Martin was born a girl and came out as trans a year and a half ago, after a long struggle with depression and anxiety. At first, his mom worried that this was one more expression of Martin’s unhappiness. But Martin’s transition has completely changed his outlook. His mom said he used to be withdrawn; when his depression was at its lowest point, he started cutting himself and had to be hospitalized. Now, she says, “It’s more like we’ve become friends again and we’ve reconnected. I think it’s because he realizes that I accept him for who he is and I’m going to support him.”

This fall, Martin plans to present as a boy when he returns to school in Raleigh. When we asked him which bathroom he’ll use, he told us it will depend how brave he’s feeling.

August 1, 2016

North Carolina’s so-called bathroom bill, HB2, put the state in the middle of a national fight about gender. But the state is also home to one of the few gender clinics for kids in the South, at Duke University’s Children’s Hospital. This week, Only Human takes you to this clinic, which seems like the eye of a storm: a safe space for kids questioning their gender to get treatment in the middle of a state conflicted about their rights.

But when we got back from the clinic, we had a lot of questions about how the treatment of transgender people has changed over time, and what life for a kid who identifies as trans would be like in other countries. So we called Alice Dreger, a medical historian who studies sex and gender. She’s the author, most recently, of “Galileo’s Middle Finger.” Some of her scholarship is controversial, and we want to hear what you think. Take a listen, and weigh in below. 

July 28, 2016

The video above is a discussion moderated by Mary Harris at the American Museum of Natural History about the initial findings of a study on the healthy microbiome. 

Back in June, our friends over at the American Museum of Natural History convinced me to come uptown and let them stick a Q-tip up my nose — way up! — for science. (We even recorded it and posted it on Facebook.) Then they got out some swabs and wiped down my hands and even my tongue.

The idea was to try to learn more about my “microbiome” — the secret world of bugs living on and around me — and all of us. Scientists think these microbes work together, in a kind of ecosystem, keeping us healthy, or making us sick. The museum has been swabbing visitors for the last few months, hoping to find out what a “healthy” microbiome looks like. Eventually, they want to find out how our microbiomes change during flu season.

In July, I got to host a special event where scientists — Paul Planet of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Jeff Shaman of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and museum curator Rob DeSalle — gave a sneak peek to their very earliest findings from this study of museum visitors.  

Here are the top five things I learned when I got swabbed for science. Some caveats: these findings are early, so they may change, and scientists are still trying to figure out what these findings even mean:

The microbiome of tongues were REALLY different from noses.

In fact, the microbial population of your tongue is more likely to look like the tongue from someone from Madagascar than it is to look like your own nose. Crazy!

There are gender differences in the microbiome.

For instance there’s one family of microbes, actinomyces, that seems more prevalent in females. Bonus fact: actinomyces is a common infection… in kangaroos.

About 23% of people were staph carriers.

And, yes, the scientists I spoke to thought this probably meant these people were more likely to get staph infections than the rest of us. But they emphasized that most people were likely to be HEALTHY carriers, happily going about their days unconcerned by the staph colonizing their noses. Scientists think other bacteria in our bodies keep the staph in check. Which leads me to…

There are no “good” or “bad” microbes. But there are helpful — and not so helpful — microbial relationships.

Let me explain. A bunch of studies have shown that there is no one “healthy” microbiome. We’re all carrying around different bugs. BUT! Scientists are beginning to find little relationships between microbes that could be helping us. Say you were one of those people carrying around staph. It turns out there was this triangular relationship between staph and a couple of other bacteria. Meaning, if you had more staph, you had less of those other two. If you had more of one of the other two, you had less staph and were therefore less likely to develop an infection. This just hints at how our bodies may be controlling our own microbial ecosystems. Or how the ecosystem is managing itself, really. The takeaway for me was that while there is no one “healthy” microbiome, there is probably a standard set of relationships between microbes, and once we figure those out, we may understand a lot more. Stay tuned.

Our microbes are hella mysterious.

Sometimes, we literally just know nothing about the bugs we’re finding. Our tongues were filled with microbes like veillonella and prevotella, little bugs we’ve only started discovering now that we’re sequencing so many of our microbes. We don’t really know what they’re up to. We also have no idea how they’re surviving. Veillonella and prevotella are “anaerobes” — microbes that can’t survive in oxygen. But clearly they’re finding some way to live in our mouths.


The museum’s study continues this weekend! Stop by the Sackler lab at the American Museum of Natural History to get swabbed for science. For more info, click here.

July 26, 2016

When Robert Hoge was born in Brisbane, Australia, in 1973, his mother immediately knew there was something wrong. Instead of asking the doctors, “Is it a boy or a girl?” she asked, “Is my baby okay?”

He wasn’t. He had a tumor the size of his newborn fist smack in the middle of his face. His legs were very short; his feet were missing toes and twisted out of shape.

Robert had surgery to remove the tumor, but it left him with severe deformities. At first, his mother didn’t want to take him home from the hospital. She had four older children; she worried about Robert’s impact on them. Eventually, she relented. She hoped to give her son a normal life. But Robert’s life has been anything but normal.

This week, Only Human spends some time with Robert Hoge. By all accounts, he’s been wildly successful: he was the first in his family to go to college. He became a journalist, then a spokesperson for an Australian politician. He even carried the Olympic Torch before the Summer Games in Sydney.

But Robert’s also had to get used to people calling him “ugly.” And he knows better than anyone that there’s this lie we all tell ourselves: that it’s what on the inside that counts, and looks don’t matter. So what do you do when the way you look forces you to confront that, every day? And even if you can get past it — what about the rest of us?

 

July 21, 2016

In the heat of summer, everywhere in the city can feel sweaty, sticky, and smelly. It’s enough to make you want to douse everything in sanitizer to kill off all the germs. But which of the little bugs around us will actually make us sick — and which won’t?

We took an expert with us to places listeners said gave them the jeepers. Susan Perkins is a microbiologist at the American Museum of Natural History. She curated the museum’s current exhibit The Secret World Inside You.

Public restroom

Studies of the microbes in public bathrooms have found an extraordinary diversity. Bathrooms have more kinds of bacteria than there are kinds of birds in North America!

That’s little solace for germaphobes though.

More reassuring is that you’ve got skin, and it’s a pretty tough barrier. So even though toilet seats will probably have some fecal or skin bacteria, you’re not going to catch an infection from just sitting there. Dr. Perkins adds, “It might be a matter of taste that you don’t want to sit your naked bum where someone else’s naked bum was and that’s fine — but you’re probably not going to get sick.”

A real issue would be if there’s no soap, said Dr. Perkins. Water by itself isn’t going to do much; it’s soap that can break open most microbial cell membranes and kill them. Why do you want to kill them? While none of the bathroom bugs are likely to make you sick by being on your skin, it’s not so great to eat them or put them on your eye.

Garbage on the sidewalk

Oh, the smell of garbage in the summer! Yes, part of that odor is coming from microbes; they’re munching on food waste. That ability is a big reason our world isn’t just filled with corpses and dead plants; microbes break all of that stuff down. The microbes then produce some stinky chemicals into the air.

But breathing in that air doesn’t mean you’re breathing in those microbes. You’re just breathing in microbe farts.

Subway

The dark heart of every New Yorker’s fear about germs: one listener told us he learned to subway surf specifically to avoid touching the subway pole.

Headlines from a study last year of the microbes in the New York City subway didn’t help. The Washington Post declared ”From beetles to bubonic plague: Bizarre DNA found in NYC subway stations.” Others mentioned anthrax and superbugs.

This video by the Wall Street Journal explains why the scientists chose to look at the subway.

But Dr. Perkins said some headlines oversimplified the findings of the study done by Chris Mason of Weill Cornell, who’s been a collaborator with the museum.

It’s a challenge trying to identify microbes. Most scientists rely on fragments of DNA, as opposed to the entire genome, to tag particular bacteria. And sometimes, those fragments seem to match up with really scary germs. But often, what they actually find are pieces of harmless microbes that might be distant cousins to something dangerous.

And that subway pole? Not a very hospitable place for microbes to live. The metal may have some microbial material on it, but those little guys are likely not alive.

And about that hand sanitizer….

Dr. Perkins would love to take away all those ubiquitous bottles of Purell.

In a hospital, using hand sanitizer makes sense. Patients are vulnerable and at risk from deadly infections. But for everyday things, shaking hands, petting a dog, eating a burger, hand sanitizer is overkill.

Dr. Perkins explained that sanitizer “destroy[s] that healthy community [that lives on your skin and] gives you a layer of protection.”  

Though research on the microbiome is still evolving, one thing is clear: microbes live in an ecosystem. Sure, some of them might be dangerous, but others might be helping us fight off disease. And the problem with hand sanitizer is that it kills almost all of them.

So Dr. Perkins’ simple advice to us all: wash your hands with soap and water, after the bathroom, and before you eat.

Contribute your microbes to science! This month, on weekend afternoons, the American Museum of Natural History is swabbing visitors’ tongues, noses and hands for a study on the healthy microbiome. Click here for more information. 

 

July 19, 2016

You’ve probably heard that laughter is the best medicine. This week, we set out to see if there’s any truth to this idea.

First, our host Mary Harris went with Kurt Andersen, the host of Studio 360, to try something called laughter yoga. Its participants claim that laughing heals all kinds of ailments. It may sound far-fetched, but some scientists think laughter might actually have some measurable health benefits.

Then reporter Amanda Aronczyk looked whether laughter can be good medicine for our doctors — especially when they’re dealing with taboo things like death and sex. To find out, she spoke to a medical ethicist who teaches improv to doctors and nurses.

She discovered that what’s funny when doctors joke may depend on who is listening.

You can listen to Studio 360’s episode about the science of laughter here.

July 18, 2016

Are you fitter than a fifth grader? Saturday, July 23 at 5pm in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, join the team from Only Human for a playful throwback to the Presidential Fitness Challenge. 

The event is free and will be more fun than your 5th PE class, promise. To start with: you could win just for showing up! The first 7 to arrive will each get a VIP ticket for the Femi Kuti and Bombino performance that night for Celebrate Brooklyn! concert series.

RSVP here for location details!

July 12, 2016

One of our first guests on the show last fall was the young poet Max Ritvo.

Ritvo, 25, has spent years living with Ewing’s Sarcoma, an incurable cancer. Meanwhile he’s gotten married, taught at Columbia University, and performed in an improv comedy group. His first book of poetry, Four Reincarnations, comes out this fall. One work from that book, “Poem to My Litter,” was just published in the New Yorker.

But Ritvo is more than his accomplishments. He’s someone who reminded us that there are many different ways to look at death, and dying, and some of them make you actually laugh at loud.

He came back to visit us a few weeks ago on what he called his “farewell tour.” Even in his final days, Max says he keeps his sense of humor alive.

“When you laugh at something horrible, you’re just illuminating a different side of it that was already there. If you make something sad funny you’re much more likely to remember it. It’s a mnemonic device that makes our suffering rhyme with joy.”

We invited an artist, Nate Milton, to animate two of Max’s poems:

Poem to My Litter

 

Afternoon

 

July 11, 2016

We teamed up with the American Natural History Museum for an exciting event on the human microbiome: “What Are You Made Of?”

Join our host Mary Harris this Thursday, July 14, 2016, to find out what scientists at the museum have found out from swabbing hundreds of people to find out what makes us healthy on the microscopic level.

We’ve got 10 free tickets to give away to those of you in the area!

Rules and restrictions apply.

July 5, 2016

This week we’re revisiting an episode from our series on hearing, listening and sound.

When Rose* was growing up, she knew something wasn’t quite right about how she heard the world. She says it felt like she was isolated by an invisible wall. But when she got typical hearing tests at an audiologist’s office? She aced them, every time.

Rose’s problem was particularly bad in noisy places. “It doesn’t take much,” she says. “It could be five computers in a room and a bunch of shuffling around — you lose me at that point.”

It took Rose years, and plenty of doctors’ visits, to figure out what was happening. And when she did find out, it was thanks to the persistence of Professor Nina Kraus.

Kraus runs an auditory neuroscience laboratory at Northwestern University. For decades, Kraus has been conducting research on Rose and other patients like her to learn just how vital our brains are to understanding sound. And she discovered how hearing difficulties can be a marker for all types of neurological issues — autism, dyslexia, learning delays — that have nothing to do with our ears.

*not her real name

June 30, 2016

Earlier this week our host Mary Harris invited microbiologist Susan Perkins into her home to talk germs, mold and what exactly makes something clean or dirty. Perkins is co-curator of a microbes exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History exhibit, The Secret World Inside You.. She has some tips about germs, and how to have a healthy home.

  1. Keep the toothbrush away from the toilet. Every time you flush a toilet the microbes inside are sprayed outside the bowl. Not a great place to keep something that’s going in your mouth.
  2. Fruit should be kept dry and cold. Moisture introduces more microbes to those summer berries, so it’s best to keep them in a dry container. Bananas belong in the freezer as soon as they go brown so they don’t rot.
  3. Your TV is probably gross. Your TV is electrostatic so it attracts dust and other invisible microbes. You might not think to clean it too often, but it’s literally a magnet for germs.
  4. The smell test is real. Perkins says “we’ve evolved to detect rotten food.” So if you think something in your fridge seems funky, it’s probably a good idea to toss it out.
  5. Eggs and butter don’t need to be refrigerated. As long as it isn’t too hot or left unwrapped, these foods are pretty safe on their own. Since eggs are in their own natural case, they can actually survive a couple of weeks without refrigeration.
  6. Dogs are great for your microbiome. Dogs help spread microbes between family members or roommates, and a diverse microbiome makes us healthier and more resilient.
  7. There’s no such thing as a good microbe or bad microbe. Certain strains of the bacteria e-coli are healthy, and live comfortably in your intestines. Others are  life-threatening when they reach your bloodstream. It’s good to be extra careful when preparing raw meat, raw dairy and vegetables. Perkins also recommends thawing your meat in the fridge or microwave.

Watch Susan Perkins tour our host Mary Harris’s house.

June 28, 2016

The engineer who uncovered the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan  where the water was toxic enough to give kids  brain damage  doesn’t even live in Michigan.

His name is Marc Edwards, and he teaches engineering at Virginia Tech, more than 500 miles away. Marc started investigating water pollution in Flint last August. But he got his start more than a decade ago, in Washington, DC, when he discovered high levels of lead in that city’s water.

In DC no one would listen to him. He lost lucrative contracts and spent thousands of dollars  of his own money  sampling the water to prove it was contaminated even when the government insisted it was safe. In the end, he prevailed and the water was cleaned up. But not before thousands of kids were exposed to dangerously high amounts of lead.

This week, we talk to Edwards about his crusade to make our water safe. Getting the science right turned out to be just the beginning of a fight. The harder part was figuring out how to convince people he was right.

June 23, 2016

Reddit is not just a website on the internet – it’s a thriving, expansive community with about 243.6 million visitors per month who have discussed hundreds of thousands of topics with the comfort of anonymity.

So it’s no surprise that a subreddit (a forum within the larger site) called SuicideWatch has attracted thousands of people, mostly young men, looking for a safe place to voice their feelings and fears about ending their life. And sometimes, they get help that they can’t find anywhere else.

“I was at a stage in my life where I didn’t think I could be helped,” said Andre, a 20-year-old college student in Europe. “I ended up there, on Suicide Watch…searching for suicide methods.”

Posting about ways to kill yourself on SuicideWatch, however, is against the rules. So instead of tips, Andre got a message from Laura, one of the moderators monitoring the thread for abusive or harmful posts.

Laura had found the thread by accident one day when she was exploring Reddit. But with her own history of suicidal thoughts, and her work volunteering with a suicide hotline, she knew she wanted to get involved to help people like Andre.

Their relationship had a rocky start.

“We ended up in this several weeks-long argument,” she said.

Over the next weeks, months, and eventually years, that changed. Laura helped Andre through his third suicide attempt – sending him supportive messages through his time in a hospital’s psychiatric unit, and trying to help him understand where his suicidal thoughts were coming from.

While Andre was receiving other treatment, he said their interaction was essential to his ongoing recovery.

“No one has given me the insights Laura gave me,” he said.

And though the two redditors live thousands of miles away, and haven’t seen or heard each other, they both agree that their connection has been powerful. And that SuicideWatch has an important place in our increasingly online world.

“If it wasn’t for reddit, I wouldn’t be here right now,” Andre said. 

June 21, 2016

For many sick people, getting even a temporary break from pain sounds too good to be true. But this week we hear from three people who did get a reprieve from a chronic disease, sometimes in very unconventional ways.

One of our listeners, Allison, struggled with severe, undiagnosed depression in her twenties. She hooked up with a no-good boyfriend who got her into a dangerous habit: heroin. Today, she’s 57 and she knows the guy and the drugs were trouble. But she also says heroin had a surprising side effect.

Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian who grapples with agoraphobia, a fear of crowds and busy places. But during a trip to the Netherlands she encountered a place that changed how she faces this fear, and helped her see what life could look like when she wasn’t scared to leave the house.

Hanna wrote into us with a really intimate story about life with ulcerative colitis, an incurable disease with some gross side effects. When traditional treatments failed, she and her mom tried an experiment that changed how Hanna thinks about her body and her daily life.

June 14, 2016

As the Supreme Court nears its decision on a major abortion case this month, we’re revisiting an episode from earlier this year:

Willie Parker grew up in Alabama without electricity, one of six kids in a single-mother household. He learned to read by the light of a kerosene lamp.

He was also raised in a fundamentalist Christian community that believed abortion was wrong. Single, unwed mothers had to publicly apologize in church.

Today, however, Parker is a obstetrician gynecologist who specializes in providing safe abortions in the Deep South. He travels between states and clinics amid protests and threats, and treats the same demographic of women who might have gone to his church.

Parker credits his change of heart to a sermon he heard by Martin Luther King Jr., where he alludes to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan—a man who acts out of kindness for the greater good.

“The Good Samaritan asks what will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help them,” Parker said.

Women in this region of the United States have few options, Parker says, if they aren’t ready to be mothers. The last abortion clinic in Mississippi was attacked last year, and the state moved to block doctors from being able to admitting patients to hospitals after they received an abortion. Parker says the trend of unsafe, secretive abortions are too dangerous to deny women access to care.  

“Being born in the South, and being reared in abject poverty… if I couldn’t make those women a priority, who will?” he says.

That perspective has fueled his work and helped shape his faith. It’s also the reason he doesn’t shy away from being recorded on film or speaking in public, despite the pressure he gets from the pro-life movements that thrive in the Bible Belt.

And while Parker has lost some friends, and severed relationships, he is at peace with his decision.

“I believe my work is honorable. I believe it is always appropriate to help people,” he says. “And so I’ve made the conscious decision to practice my craft with the dignity and honor that I think it is due.”

June 7, 2016

This is the third and final part of our series with NPR about mental health and generation gaps.

Rachel Star Withers has had hallucinations since she was a kid. She sees store mannequins taking off their hats, or ticking clocks that don’t exist. She’s schizophrenic. And instead of hiding it, she talks about it all the time, in videos she posts on YouTube. 

In our tell-all, share-all culture, more and more people like Rachel are speaking openly about their mental health and challenging the stigma that comes with their diagnoses. And while Withers has to block some naysayers and internet bullies, she says the videos help create a more compassionate community.

“It really made me feel not so alone.”

May 31, 2016

This is the second part of our series with NPR about mental health and generation gaps.

When Giselle applied to medical school she decided to be completely open about her experience with mental health: depression, anxiety and a suicide attempt when she was 16 years old.

She’s not alone—roughly 300 physicians in America commit suicide every year, and a higher percentage of doctors are depressed than the average person. But the intensity and prestige of the medical field doesn’t always lend itself to an open conversation about these issues.

The stakes are high for Giselle. Her mental health makes some people—from her school to future patients—uneasy. And sometimes her anxiety is so bad she can’t take her medical school exams. But as you’ll find out in the episode, these are not challenges that Giselle is about to shy away from. She says her challenges will make her a better doctor, and hopefully encourage other physicians find the help they need, too.

May 24, 2016

Have you ever had a hard time talking openly about your mental health?

Only Human and NPR recently asked listeners that question. We wanted to know if the generation that lives so much online is any more comfortable talking about psychological problems  in real life  than their parents are.

Hundreds of thoughtful, heart-breaking, deeply charged responses later, we realized that we had stumbled onto a nest of generational rifts and cultural baggage. And we wanted to explore what it means to be open about mental health on Facebook and YouTube when you don’t want to talk about it with people in the real world.

One of these stories came from a young woman named Rose, a Pakistani American in Texas. Rose had never spoken to her parents about her own depression. But she channeled our question into an awkward conversation with her mother  listen to her story here.

We also talked with young adults who worry they spent too much of their childhood in therapy, people who watched family members suffer with depression in silence, and people who sent anti-anxiety prescriptions to the pharmacy across town so their families wouldn’t know. Generational stigma is an issue, many of them said, that we need to talk about publicly.  

With their permission, we’ll be posting some of these stories to our Facebook page at Only Human Podcast. We hope you’ll follow along and join in the conversation there.

If you or someone know is suffering from mental illness, please find helpful resources here.

May 17, 2016

Until 2012, if you had a rare genetic disorder, there didn’t seem to be much hope for a cure. The science just wasn’t there, and creating drugs for small populations made little financial sense for big pharma.

The story of one cystic fibrosis drug is proof: not only is treating the root cause of a rare genetic disorder possible; it can be profitable.

But the way this new drug was made is causing a stir among some of the very scientists and doctors who helped to create it.

This week: what happens when a charity dips its toe into the risky world of venture capitalism to speed the search for a cure — and the result is a drug with a list price of about $300,000 a year?

Scientist Paul Quinton, 72, who discovered the root problem in cystic fibrosis patients, called the price tag “unconscionable.” He is one of 28 doctors and scientists who wrote a letter to the pharmaceutical company pushing back on the price tag. He said he’s in a difficult position. 

“I’ve had friends tell me that they would shake hands with the devil if it meant that we would get a cure for this disease,” Quinton said.

But in the case of this particular drug, everybody wants to know: who gets to decide how much it costs to save a life?

 

Next month, we’re doing a show about not feeling at home in your own skin.  And we want to hear your stories: when did your body betray you and how did you learn to live with it?  Call and leave a message at 803-820-WNYC or leave a comment below.

May 10, 2016

Native Americans have some of the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism, diabetes and maternal mortality in the country. And while the federal government passed the Indian Healthcare Improvement Act  back in 1976 to make their care a priority, it spends just $3,000 a year caring for each Native patient. (We spend twice that on health care for every prisoner.)

Dr. Adrienne Laverdure and Dr. Ken Bernard, two Native American doctors, know this firsthand.The mother and son are both Chippewa Indians from North Dakota, and they’re part of the Indian Health Service (IHS), the federal agency that provides health care to all Native people in the U.S.

Laverdure had never left the reservation when she started college at the age of seventeen. She had her son during her sophomore year, and he stayed with his mom as she continued through medical school before taking a job on the Lac de Flambeau Reservation in Northern Wisconsin.

Bernard applied to Yale on a lark; he had never left the Midwest before his mom and his sister drove him to New Haven for his freshman year. He went on to Harvard Medical School, and he now works on the Navajo and Hopi Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona. He said many of his patients don’t trust their doctors because the Indian Health Service has a troubled history — a history he and his mother have seen affect their own family.

In the 1970s, Laverdure’s aunt went to an IHS hospital to give birth to her son. Doctors there sterilized her, without her consent. But she didn’t realize it until she tried to get pregnant a second time.

“I couldn’t believe that had happened,” Bernard said. “And more than that, I couldn’t believe that had happened less than 50 years ago.”  He explained that his great-aunt’s story reminds him what’s at stake in every patient visit to the IHS.

While both mother and son see some of the worst health care scenarios in the country, they remain optimistic. They’re not afraid to talk about the difficult situations they confront on the reservation; in fact, they believe that talking about these difficulties can only improve their patients’ circumstances in the long run.

“The federal government, the Indian Health Service, [and] local tribes have a long history of hiding things that we are embarrassed about in our history,” Bernard said. “But I think the time for that is over.”

April 29, 2016

When Kurt and Margie Kondrich’s second child entered the world, the doctor told the couple that the baby had the characteristics of Down syndrome.

“And that was very sterile, very clinical,” Kurt Kondrich said. “She was a beautiful little girl, beautiful blue eyes, and I said to the doctor, ‘Chloe’s going to be okay.’”

Since then, Pittsburgh-based Kondrich — who calls himself a ‘dadvocate’ — has been on a crusade to change the way we understand Down syndrome. As we explore in this week’s episode, modern medicine has made it far simpler to test for a number of genetic disorders before a child is born. This means parents have more information to decide if they want to have the child or to terminate their pregnancy.

What they don’t have, Kondrich believes, is information about how to raise a child with Down syndrome, and what these children are able to achieve. He wants to change that. So he was instrumental in passing a 2014 law requiring genetic counselors in Pennsylvania to share more information with parents about the services the state offers for children with special needs.

“Nobody was being given facts. They were just told to terminate the child,” he said. But he thought, “I want you to meet my daughter, see how cool she is. I want you to see the impact she’s having on this community.”

Chloe turns 13 this month. She plays baseball, takes dance lessons, and loves playing with her dog, Tina. Because of her father’s work, Chloe has also been featured on TV, in a book, and in several magazines. The Down Syndrome Prenatal Education Act that Kendrick worked to pass in Pennsylvania is dubbed “Chloe’s Law”, and she signed it with then Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett.

“How you support people who are vulnerable and at risk will reflect on you, who you are in your soul,” Kondrich says.

On his blog, Chloe’s Message, the “dadvocate” chronicles his advocacy across the country — linking to editorials he has written, or speeches he has delivered in states like South Dakota. Kondrich is a religious guy, but he says his advocacy isn’t about that. He says any family might find themselves changed by taking care of a child with special needs: he describes the relationship between his son, who does not have Down Syndrome, and his daughter Chloe as “magical.”

For Kondrich, this work is not just about being pro-life. It’s about a world where people with Down syndrome are not seen as the “other” — where normal isn’t quite so narrow.

“The world’s a crazy place,” he said. “And all of us are one accident, one illness, one mishap away from becoming completely disabled.

April 26, 2016

When Lee Herzenberg remembers the day her son Michael was born, she laughs and calls it a “cool birth.” Her obstetrician was a friend, and she describes it almost like a party — “a little bit painful, but that you forget very quickly.” Lee even got a kick out of the fact that a resident learned to do an episiotomy on her.

It was November 1961, and she was at the newly christened Palo Alto-Stanford Hospital Center; her husband Len was a biology professor on campus. Like most fathers at the time, he didn’t attend the birth — which meant he wasn’t there when their new child, Michael, started turning blue.

The nurses whisked the newborn off to the nursery without telling Lee anything was wrong.

It was then that a doctor noticed the characteristic features of Down syndrome: floppy muscles, eyes that slanted upward. They got Michael breathing again, but doctors thought his prognosis was grim. They gave Michael just a few months to live. A daisy chain of physicians was called, and Lee says it was a pediatrics professor who told her husband what had happened. Then Len was dispatched to tell Lee. She remembers the moment with uncharacteristic emotion.

“We hugged each other, and it was a terrible conversation to realize that you’d lost the baby, but the baby was lost,” Lee says now. “We knew immediately what we’d do – we had already made the decision that it was not a good thing to take the baby home, and so we didn’t.”

In the 1960’s — an era before neurodiversity movements and early intervention programs — many people still called people with Down Syndrome “mongoloids.” Playwright Arthur Miller institutionalized his son, Daniel, in 1966; a few years later, an article in The Atlantic Monthly argued that “a Down’s is not a person.”

Lee and Len Herzenberg had seen friends struggle with the birth of a child with Down syndrome and even gone with a colleague to an institution, where he dropped off his own infant daughter.

So, they made a choice: Michael would never come home.

But Michael wasn’t lost. Michael’s birth sparked their search for a blood test that has revolutionized prenatal care in this country.

I made the mistake of telling one scientist I was reporting about “Len Herzenberg’s lab.” He corrected me instantly: “Len and Lee’s lab”. Because Lee Herzenberg was “leaning in” decades before Sheryl Sandberg coined the phrase. At 81, Lee, a professor of genetics, is still running the lab she and her husband founded more than 50 years ago. Len died in 2013.

The lab is a quirky place, even by Stanford standards. Lee rarely sits on chairs, preferring cushions on the floor. She’s often accompanied by her bichon frise, Gigi. Researchers can often be found working in this basement office well into the night.

But Lee Herzenberg isn’t just quirky: she’s one of the few — possibly the only — professor at Stanford never to have officially graduated from college. Instead, she trained by her husband’s side, auditing courses while he got his Ph.D. at Cal Tech (women weren’t allowed to attend at the time), and working at his labs at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and the NIH.

And the science that’s done here has changed the course of medicine.

The Herzenbergs are best known as the creators of the modern-day fluorescence-activated flow cytometer, or FACS. It was a machine born out of frustration: Len couldn’t stand squinting down a microscope looking at cells.

Before the FACS, a biologist looking at slides could feel like he was playing a really intense round of “Where’s Waldo”, staring at crowds of all kinds of cells, trying to pinpoint the exact one he was looking for. Not only was it annoying, Len Herzenberg worried it wasn’t particularly scientific. He wanted a way to find and describe cells that didn’t rely on his worn out eyes.

The FACS was used to diagnose AIDS – because it can quickly and easily sort out T-cells. The FACS was used to find the first stem cells. When Len Herzenberg died, one colleague told The New York Times that “without Len, tens of thousands of people now alive would not be.”

But in the 1970s, the Herzenbergs were still proving the value of this machine. That’s when they started thinking about using it to create a blood test for Down syndrome.

Len Herzenberg had seen research from Finland claiming it was possible to see a fetus’ cells in a mother’s blood. It was hard to believe. But he knew that the FACS, with its nearly magical sorting capabilities, could figure it out. So he took on a medical student named Diana Bianchi as a research associate and made sorting out these cells her project. If they isolate these cells, he could know a lot about the developing fetus, including whether the fetus had chromosomal abnormalities.

“They had a very personal reason for doing this, because of their son, Michael,” Bianchi says now. “They wanted to have a test that could be offered to any pregnant woman – that would be noninvasive and would allow them to know if child had Down syndrome. The first step, however, was to show that you could pull out fetal cells.”

Scientists now estimate that for every 200 billion cells in a mother’s bloodstream – about 10 of those are fetal cells. Bianchi was one of the first people to see them. The New York Times quoted Len Herzenberg saying it was a “first step” towards a blood test for Down syndrome for all pregnant women. But it would take thirty years for a practical test to become a reality.

As it turned out, Len Herzenberg’s FACS wasn’t the right tool for prenatal diagnosis. There weren’t very many fetal cells to be sorted, and if a pregnant woman already had children, scientists couldn’t be sure if the cells in her blood came from the current fetus or one of her older kids.

But in 2008, Len helped ensure the right tool was found.

A researcher named Stephen Quake had discovered a way to sequence chunks of fetal DNA floating in expectant mothers’ blood. As a member of the National Academy of Sciences, Len made sure the paper was published in the academy’s journal. Another researcher, Dennis Lo, confirmed Quake’s findings. Three years later, the tests were on the market.

Now, at just 10 weeks into a pregnancy, a whole range of things can be revealed with this test. Not just Down syndrome, but a host of other chromosomal abnormalities as well as the sex of the child to be.

Until this test, doctors had to rely on amniocentesis, an invasive procedure that involves– inserting a needle in the womb to sample amniotic fluid, or biopsying the placenta — to tell them with any reliability whether a fetus had a chromosomal abnormality. These tests aren’t just uncomfortable, they come with a risk of miscarriage. By some estimates, in the last five years the number of these procedures performed in this country have plummeted by more than 50 percent.

To some parents, this knowledge can be alarming. Advocates in Ohio are trying to pass a law preventing abortions if Down syndrome is the reason (North Dakota and Indiana have already passed similar laws).

Lee Herzenberg is honest about what she would have done if she’d known early on in her pregnancy that Michael had Down syndrome.

“I’d say if I had the choice of not pushing Michael into this life – if I at that time would know I was carrying a Down syndrome child — I would have aborted the child,” she says. “I see no reason Michael has to live the life he leads. The fact that we’ve made it very happy for him or that he’s made it very happy for us — all of that is adapting to a situation, but I don’t think it’s fair or proper.”

But Lee Herzenberg is alarmed that these tests are now being used to determine the sex of unborn babies. She worries about parents choosing to abort girls.

Diana Bianchi, that medical student from the Herzenberg lab, is now a professor at Tufts, where she founded the Mother Infant Research Institute. She’s still working in prenatal testing. In fact, perfecting these tests has become her life’s work.

But her focus has shifted. Now that she can detect Down syndrome so early, she wants to treat it early, too: in the womb. Because finding this chromosomal abnormality at 10 weeks means there’s a window of opportunity: The brain changes associated with Down syndrome don’t occur until a month or so later. Theoretically, you could treat a fetus before some brain changes occur at all.

Bianchi’s work is still early. She’s experimenting with mice, giving them existing drugs in utero to see if she can forestall brain damage.  

There’s an often-quoted statistic, that 90 percent of parents who find out that their fetus has Down syndrome will abort. But that statistic is from a study done in the United Kingdom. In the US, far fewer women terminate.  

“We have to unpack this connection between prenatal testing and abortion,” she says. “We have good data to suggest that approximately 40 plus percent of women who know their fetus has Down syndrome continue their pregnancy. There are many women who speak very highly of the fact that this allows them to prepare.”

The Down syndrome baby who kicked off the search for this blood test is now a 54-year-old man. He lives in a squat house in Redwood City, Calif., just a 30 minute drive from his birth mother’s home.

For years, Michael lived with a local woman named Barbara Jennings, who raised a number of children with developmental challenges. The Herzenberg’s pediatrician helped them find her when Michael was a newborn. The Herzenbergs would visit Michael every month or so, but they never felt they should bring him home. When Barbara died, Michael moved to this group home.

It’s hard to know how much Michael understands when I talked to him, though he’s learned to read and use a cell phone. And he’s stubborn. A lot like his mother, actually. “Michael has the hardest head in the whole world,” says Janet Thomas, the caretaker who runs this house. “He does whatever he wants to do. He does not care whatever you say. He’s going to do whatever it is he wants to do — that’s Michael.”

I asked Lee if she ever regretted not raising Michael, and she said no.  “It was a decision that was selfish if you like, because we had things we wanted to do.  In retrospect, a lot of things would never have gotten done. There would be no FACS had we decided to do this. Because it would have been a very intensive kind of upbringing.”

As for Michael, he clearly loves his mother, no matter what she decided. In Michael’s room, there are photos on almost every surface, with snapshots of his biological and adopted families. In the corner is a huge poster of his father, celebrating when he won the Kyoto Prize for his contributions to biotechnology. And deep in one album, there’s a picture of Len and Lee together. The caption reads “Michael’s other mom + dad.”

April 22, 2016

In this week’s episode we met a woman whose pancreas is changing medicine. Dana Lewis has Type 1 diabetes, and when it was clear that medical manufacturers were behind on creating the device she needed to manage her disease, she hacked together her own artificial pancreas. Now, over 50 people have built versions of Dana’s system, OpenAPS (Open Artificial Pancreas System).

Dana, like many others in the community, credits Ben West, a San Francisco-based software engineer who was the first to write the essential code that allows patients to hack their insulin pumps and build this mechanical organ. A lot of you wanted to hear more from Ben. So did we.

  1. How did you get interested in ‘hacking’ Type 1 diabetes and medical devices?

Toward the end of my college career I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes – after being briefly misdiagnosed. I was using a portable insulin pump and I had to write down all the data from it every day and call and read it to the clinic at night. They told me that there was going to be an implantable version soon, but it didn’t happen. My device was preventing me from sleeping – it would give me chemical burns on my skin. I got pretty upset and started looking at what I could do.

  1. Tell us what you created.

When I started in 2010 to investigate talking to these devices, I thought we might be able to read information about insulin and pump operations from the insulin pump, read information about glucose from a CGM (continuing glucose monitor), or maybe a glucose meter, and then combine it in an application. In 2010, I called Medtronic to ask if they could provide me with the information I needed to talk to the pump, but they denied my request [so I did it myself]. Meeting  people like Adrian Gropper and Hugo Campos changed me.

Around that time we starting having hackathons – my brother and sister and dad would get together in the living room and go after this thing. [We were] trying to figure out how time is represented, how the pump responds to different kinds of inputs. Over time, each piece of the puzzle became smaller and smaller.

Finally we had some breakthroughs.  I met Scott and Dana several times in 2014, and showed them how to use the tools I had created to issue temporary basal commands [to administer insulin]. For them, this was the last piece they needed in their own DIYPs toolkit to “close the loop.” While they got up to speed with the devices, I sat down and dedicated around 3 months of devoted work that spring, and the result is openaps.

  1. Did creating your own device and “hacking” your own disease change the way you approach your doctors?

I don’t trust them anymore. There’s a loss of fidelity. Years ago, the clinicians told me to keep notebook and write down my experiences and even transcribe data from my pump and glucose meter. It was a lot of work to do, and it turned out they were never going to analyze the chicken scratch I had worked so hard to create, it was for my own awareness. 

  1. Code can be confusing. Do you ever feel responsible or worried about the risks that could come with people creating their own devices?

What’s interesting with the risk is that [traditionally] we’re given a bunch of insulin and we’re told to take it. We hold people responsible for getting it right. That’s not a humane thing, there’s no way you’re going to be able to balance insulin with all your needs.

The way I’ve set up these projects is you have to do something to make it work. You can’t accidentally cause something bad (or good) to happen. We see that when people are unsure they reach out. So this doesn’t bother me at all. The real risk, remember, is diabetes. I often say, I’m not hacking the devices, I’m hacking diabetes.

  1. Your code is open sourced and the diabetes community is active on Facebook and Twitter. How do you interact with this online space?

I’m not a fan of Facebook or Twitter.  The CGM in the Cloud Facebook group has nearly 18,000 people. That’s a place I can go and get saturated with feedback from people who aren’t technical experts like I am. It’s a swath from all over the world. As a system designer it’s one of the best places I can go to get more design input.

Twitter has been good for kind of pushing at the boundaries of these communities to be more inclusive, and connect them to more ideas. The Twitter streams are also pretty good focusing some of the advocacy efforts into a lens.

[Nightscout, the most recent open-sourced project that Ben created for people building their pancreases is here.]

  1. In our episode Dana and Scott talk about their run in with the FDA, which doesn’t approve of sharing information to create these devices. What has your experience been with government authorities?

As a reminder, I’m doing this as a last resort. Why does the market create such an intense pressure that multiple patients are willing to hack their own devices? I don’t see any conflict with the FDA. Their mission is to promote and protect safety. At the core that’s what it’s all about for me. The reason I’m doing this is because I want better safety for myself. I’ve actually worked with the FDA twice, I’ve had two official meetings with them. I’m excited about the possibility of working with the FDA. But right now their process is optimized for the vendors and regulators. I think they need to include patients as equal stakeholders. In practice, that means providing a way for small DIY projects like ours to work together.

April 19, 2016

“A Roomba ate my pancreas!” It sounds like the plot of a weird sci-fi comedy. But in Dana Lewis’s life, this is just a normal day.

Lewis is one of the first people in America to createher own mechanical pancreas in an attempt to better manage her type 1 diabetes. (Her robotic vacuum cleaner keeps slurping up and choking on the system’s many cables.)

Type 1 diabetes is, at its simplest, a broken pancreas. Sometimes called juvenile diabetes, the autoimmune disease disables the pancreas from producing insulin, a key component for controlling blood sugar. People with Type 1 diabetes often have to use glucose monitors and insulin pumps to allow their bodies to function.

For years, the Holy Grail of diabetes management has been the so-called artificial pancreas, a system that can measure blood glucose levels and automatically give the appropriate insulin dosage. And while a handful of companies are close to getting the technology to market, tech-savvy patients have grown impatient.

Dana Lewis and her husband Scott Leibrand devised a system to “hack” the usual methods of diabetes management, which they found tiresome for a normal, active person trying to live their life. Their Open Artificial Pancreas System (OpenAPS) rigged Dana’s glucose monitor and insulin pump to automatically understand shifts in blood sugar and adjust insulin rates accordingly.

An early version of the couple’s system caught the attention of the Food and Drug Administration – the government agency that regulates medical devices. The FDA strongly encouraged Scott and Dana to keep their invention to themselves and not distribute do-it-yourself pancreases or the code running them.

But last year the couple decided that OpenAPS was working so well for Dana, that they had a moral obligation to share it with the type 1 diabetes community. In February of 2015 they open-sourced the documents for the artificial pancreas and now, nearly 50 people have been built their own versions.

In this episode of Only Human, we look at how Dana and Scott hacked together one of the first artificial pancreas systems and the complicated ethical questions that come with sharing the technology.

Have you ever hacked your own medical advice? Tell us in the comments below.

April 18, 2016

At the start of 2016, thousands of people resolved to exercise more, just like they do each year.

We were among them. We knew our motivation would waver – it happens every time. But with all of the life hacking and motivational research and lifestyle tips out there, wasn’t there something we could do to make 2016 different?

We teamed up with behavioral economist Dan Ariely at Duke University who said: Sure! Let’s make an app to help people stick to their exercise goals. But let’s make it an experiment.

That meant we had to keep what we were studying and how we were studying it a secret – until now.

Dan’s Hypothesis: Could a Ritual Help You Exercise More?

Dan’s inspiration came from a study out of Harvard’s Business School by behavioral scientist Michael Norton. Norton wanted to see how he might impact healthy eating behaviors. Rituals, he knew, help people work through grief, move on after relationships, and grapple with loss. But what if ritualistic behavior could also make people feel better about everyday experiences, like eating a snack?

Norton explains his study like this: “We said, ‘Here are some carrots. You’re going to eat them, but what we want you to do in between each one is to do a little bit of a ritual. We want you to knock the table three times and snap a little bit, and then eat the carrot. And then we want you to do that again. And then eat the next carrot. And then do it again.”

The results were clear: People who engaged in rituals with carrots tended to enjoy them more than people who just grabbed the bag.

So Dan decided to come up with some rituals for exercise to find out if pairing them with an exercise routine would help people exercise more. 

What We Did

Stick to It participants were assigned to one of five groups, and four of those five were assigned a ritual.

Some found the rituals really helpful….

…and found a new approach to fitness.

Not everyone did the same ritual. We divided participants into five groups and asked them to download an app. For people using Android, that app was called Fabulous. For people using iOS, that app was called Sample Size Matters (SSM). Fabulous users were asked to check in weekly. SSM users were asked to check in daily and weekly.

The app asked users to do one of five rituals after waking up, right before and after exercising. Some were more elaborate than others:

  • Take a few sips of water,
  • Practice deep breathing (audio),
  • Take a certain number of sips of water depending on the day of the week (audio), 

  • Rub your hands together until they feel warm. Place your right hand over your heart and your left palm on your head (audio),

  • Or… nothing (we love you, control group).

We didn’t tell you what group you were in, and we didn’t tell you exactly what Dan and his team were trying to find out. You can see more details about the project design here.

What They Learned

First things first: to the question of whether rituals help you stick to an exercise plan… the results are inconclusive. That’s the beauty of running an actual open-ended experiment on a podcast: we get to try things, and not all of them work out the way we expect.

We asked Dan Ariely and his team to explain their takeaways. 

Q. What have you been able to conclude from the Stick to It data so far?

  1. Rituals may help you exercise more, but they don’t necessarily help you enjoy it more.
  2. There was no consistent evidence that one ritual worked better than another. That said, we know the two less elaborate rituals (taking a few sips of water and deep breathing) were less effective.

Here’s a visual:

 

Q: What differences did you notice between the ritual groups?

Most likely, different people got benefits from different types of rituals. On average, it was hard to make rituals consistently better for everyone. Our results suggest that rituals work better for some depending on religiosity and personality: rituals work better for those who are non-religious; less disciplined; or less active before joining the study (old exercise frequency <2 times/week); and it works less well for those who have no aspiration to improve (targeted frequency <= old frequency). E.g., on Fabulous, non-religious participants on average exercise 0.43 times more per week in ritual groups compared to those in the control group, whereas religious participants on average exercise 0.1 times more per week in ritual groups compared to those in the control group).

Q. What did you learn from this project that might help guide you in your next one?

We are most intrigued by how rituals work differently for different populations. For instance, you would expect [rituals] to work more for religious people because they are more familiar with the concept of doing rituals in their daily life. However, it could also work less well for them if the specific rituals designed are too “strange” or too different from what they normally expect of a ritual. I probably spent too much time in California because the rituals we created are too secular.

Q: What can participants do if they want more details or explanation about the results?

Email questions to advancedhindsight@gmail.com and use subject line “Stick to it”.

Participants: As they continue digging through the data, Dan and his team would love to hear more about how the project went for you, whether or not you stuck to it through the end. Take their follow up survey here.

April 12, 2016

A big part of a doctor’s job is listening. They listen to our symptoms, pain and life situations. They listen for what patients aren’t telling them. They listen to heartbeats.

But give them a mic, like the Annals of Internal Medicine did, and you’ll find out they also have plenty to say.

This week we hear from three doctors in what we call a “Doctor Story Slam” – like a poetry slam, except with more stethoscopes and medical degrees. We often hear about how doctors change patients’ lives. We wanted to know: how do patients change their lives?  These are the kind of stories you never hear during your routine check-ups.

Doctor 1: Dr. Richard Weinberg

Dr. Weinberg is a gastroenterologist at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. He talked to us about a patient suffering from stomach pain who he found impossible to diagnose, until he brought up some unlikely subjects that got her talking: bakeries and dreams. When he found out his patient’s actual history  a traumatic incident from when she was a teenager  he continued to listen, even though he knew her problem couldn’t be solved by one of his procedures or prescriptions.

Dr. Richard Weinberg

 

Doctor 2: Dr. Reeta Mani

Dr. Mani is a microbiologist in Bangalore, India. She told us about two patients who came to her with a very strange predicament: they were married, successful,and having problems in their relationship. But there was something even more pressing that she found in their lab results: both had two different kinds of HIV. Dr. Mani said their story surprised her, but not as much as the way they reacted to the news.

Doctor 3: Dr. Michael LaCombe

Dr. LaCombe is a cardiologist in Augusta, Maine. His story goes back decades ago, to the beginning of his residency. He had a six week rotation in the psychiatric ward and had a young patient who was schizophrenic and delusional. He would talk to her every day, two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. When his training was done he promised her he would write to her. He did, for decades, but he never heard from her again. Until 50 years later.

Listen to all of their stories in the player above or anywhere you get your podcasts. 

April 5, 2016

Dr. Kallmes’ medical degree is real. But one of his treatments for spinal fractures might not be.

Kallmes performs vertebroplasty, a surgery he developed that involves injecting medical cement into the fractured bone to stabilize the fractured area and relieve pain. He gets great results from his patients, and teaches the method to other doctors at conferences.

But here’s the thing: he has no idea why vertebroplasty works. So a few years ago, he decided to test it against a placebo.  Kallmes found that pretending to perform vertebroplasty – injecting a needle into the spine but without the cement – had similar effects. Both groups experienced immediate relief from pain after the surgery. He published his results in the New England Journal of Medicine.

So even though Kallmes’s research put the procedure into question, the practice continues: more than 14,000 patients received vertebroplasties last year.

Most of us would like to think the medicines and treatments we take – and pay for – are grounded in solid science, that our doctors know exactly what they’re doing when they prescribe them. But there’s consistent proof that placebos work just as well as some medical treatments, and it isn’t just because of a positive attitude.

Until recently, the “placebo effect” wasn’t taken seriously by the medical establishment. But one researcher, Ted Kaptchuk, has decided to make it the focus of his work.  “I kept seeing things that were not explainable by my training,” said Kaptchuk, who directs the Center for Placebo Studies at Harvard Medical School.

Kaptchuk had an unusual trajectory to the medical research field. He was the founder of the Students for Democratic Society at Columbia University, and then quit when he thought it became too radical. He studied and practiced Chinese medicine and acupuncture and lived in Asia for years.

He noticed that patients throughout his practice would get better from their interactions with the medical system, and the belief that they were being helped, even if the medicine’s impact was difficult to track.

He started to study this mechanism – the placebo effect – and the endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, that the body releases when it happens. He had a theory there was more to it than blind faith: a neurological reason, and maybe a genetic reason.

In one of the most revealing studies on this phenomenon, published back in 1978, researchers divided patients into three groups after a dental surgery and gave them each a different treatment: morphine (a painkiller), salt water (a placebo), and naloxone (a chemical that blocks endorphins). That third group didn’t get the placebo effect.

“It was the first time that we [could see] a biology, a neurobiology of placebo effects,” Kaptchuk said. “Patients were not making this up in their heads.”

And while the findings were now backed by evidence, the pain-killing endorphins and response to placebos actually come from a less measured place. Kaptchuk said it’s the ritual of medicine – seeing a doctor, planning a treatment – that triggers the brain into healing itself.

“I’ll be quite simple and say what I think I’m doing is quantifying and making the art of medicine a science,” he said.

April 1, 2016

This week our reporter Fred Mogul took us into the world of medical school cadavers. He explored how someone’s life – in this case, a musician named Haig Manoukian with a wife and many friends – can become just a stark scientific tool when the body lands on the anatomy lab table.  But as Manoukian’s wife says in the episode, donating Haig’s body was also a way for him to keep educating people after he died.

Some of our listeners said this episode made them think much harder about donating their bodies.

We put together this guide of what you need to know:

1. It’s a personal decision.

You’ve probably heard the reasons to donate your body – it helps medical students learn how to be better doctors and allows researchers to harvest organs to test new treatments. It’s also cheaper than a traditional funeral.

But it isn’t for everyone, or everyone’s family. Some people like the closure of a normal cremation or funeral. Others have spiritual beliefs that require keeping the body intact. Donating your whole body also overshadows the option of donating just your organs, because you usually can’t do both.

The decision to donate your body is not a moral obligation, it’s a choice, and there are plenty of ways to contribute to the world of research or your community.

2. Not every body should be donated.

In our episode we talked to a group of students who had to switch cadavers because one woman’s organs were too ravaged by cancer for them to learn her anatomy. While the parameters can differ by service, most donation centers do not accept bodies with certain illnesses, like HIV, tuberculosis and hepatitis. Obesity is also a limiting factor since the extra tissue can obscure other anatomy, and some programs have a weight limit at 250 pounds.

3. Where do you start?

If you’ve decided to donate your body, there are some reliable companies and organizations that can help. Many are affiliated with medical institutions, like the Cleveland Clinic Body Donation program and the Mayo Clinic so check with your local medical schools. There are also private companies that link researchers and educators to individual donors, like Science Care and Life Legacy. These companies will send you a registration packet to fill and sign.

The University of Florida has a pretty comprehensive list of accredited institutions providing body donation services.

4. What should you consider when choosing a donation service?

  • Accreditation: Make sure the program or service is honest and reliable.
  • Transport: Does the service provide free transport? Within what radius?
  • Cremation: Many providers will cremate the body and return the ashes, like New York University.

5. What exactly happens to your body?

It depends on the institution or service, but after you die your family may choose to have a funeral service, which some, but not all, of the institutions will pay for to an extent. Then the body will be transported to the institution of choice where they will follow medical guidelines to embalm the body – cleaning it and getting it ready for chemical preservation. Then the body is preserved with chemicals like formaldehyde and phenol to prevent decay during the time of study.

Your body  could be used for a variety of reasons: testing medical tools and equipment, testing car safety products, studying anatomy and decay, or testing new surgeries.

6. What can your family expect?

Your body has to be collected within hours after your death, so many families will not have a chance for a small service or extended goodbye. Most medical schools hold a memorial service for their cadavers, and some of them have burial plots for the bodies if requested. Families can choose to hold their own service after the cadaver is returned to them, which can be almost two years after the day you die.

These are all decisions to make when registering to donate your body. And there are some thorough cheat sheets and guides at The Conversation Project to help you think through things like writing a living will, deciding your advanced directives in case you’re too sick to make decisions about your health, and how much money to spend on your funeral.

March 29, 2016

When the first-year medical students at Table 4 met their male cadaver, they weren’t pleased.

The group was in the home stretch of anatomy class at NYU School of Medicine, and the final exam was a couple weeks away. They had dozens of vessels, nerves, and organ components to memorize.

And this cadaver was an interloper. They had grown attached to the first body they were dissecting — an elderly woman whose chest cavity was nice and neat, but whose intestines were so ravaged by cancer there was no point in working on her anymore.

But this new body on Table 4 proved more challenging, they said.

“Now we can’t see anything in our new body [in the chest], and we can’t refer back to that first work we did,” said student Samantha Ayoub, expressing the frustration of her six-person group.

Medical school instructors often refer to the cadavers as the students’ “first patient.” There are about 20,000 of them donated to U.S. medical schools each year, according to the Harvard Business School.

The schools encourage students to be grateful and respectful to these bodies, but with rare exceptions, schools don’t encourage students to think too hard about the lives of these “patients” prior to the dissection table.

And as it turns out, the body on Table 4 was far more than a collection of vessels and valves. Literally and figuratively, he was an instructor, guide and teacher.

His name was Haig Manoukian, and he and his wife, Michele Piso Manoukian, decided to donate his body to NYU so he could continue being an educator.

“He would become part of someone else’s wisdom,” Michele said.

Haig was a musician – a world-renowned player of the oud, a Middle Eastern stringed instrument, similar to a lute or guitar. People came from far and wide to study with him.

“He was very analytical and very patient,” Michele said. “I can kind of picture him [in anatomy lab], talking to the students about what they’re doing and the equipment they’re using, and saying, ‘Oh, you’re using this one? How interesting!’”

The six students at Table 4 knew none of this. At NYU and most places, cadavers’ identities are kept anonymous. The students found out from our reporter at Only Human, with NYU’s permission.

They were all fascinated, both by Manoukian’s career as “the Jimi Hendrix of the oud” and by the details of his terminal illness and his decision to donate his body to their education.

They were glad they didn’t know too much about Manoukian earlier – so they could dissect without knowing his cause of death in advance, and so they could avoid dealing with death emotionally. But some had mixed feelings.

“I feel bad that we didn’t really think about [his life],” said student Bianca Kapoor. “When you’re in the weeds of things, you don’t really think about that, because you’re just focused on ‘This vein goes to what vein?’”

After their course, Michele invited the students to a tribute to Haig’s life with several dozen friends and family members. There was food and music and reminiscence. Michele was busy playing hostess, but she greeted the group warmly, and they later agreed to get together for tea.

They promised her that his life would live on in their work.

“I hope I do that justice,” Samantha Ayoub said. “And honor his life and be a good doctor.”

 

WATCH: Haig Manoukian (far left) plays the oud at a summer retreat

 

March 25, 2016

In America, the women’s rights movement took off in the late 19th century  it was the time of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; of women fighting for the right to vote. And it wasn’t an easy battle.

So it might be a little bit surprising that a male bodybuilder from the same era stands out as an active feminist amid the suffragettes.

Bernarr Macfadden, the renowned bodybuilder featured in our latest episode, met his third wife in an unusual way: he won her in a contest.

In 1913, the men’s fitness enthusiast traveled to the UK to stage a competition for “Great Britain’s Perfect Woman.” Although it seemed like a simple celebration of athleticism, Macfadden had a secret agenda: he needed a wife. Mary Williamson, a 20 year-old swimming champion from a small town, was Macfadden’s pick, and they were engaged two months later.

This story captures almost everything you need to know about Macfadden  he was powerful, full of ideas, and famous for creating spectacles. But here’s what it doesn’t tell you: Macfadden, the man who literally claimed his wife as a prize in a contest he created, was actually  a feminist, especially for his time.

A lot of radical women were behind Macfadden’s publishing empire, including Williamson. True Story, one of the mogul’s most successful magazines, was her idea.

Between his editorials about fasting and milk diets, Macfadden wrote in support of women’s physical freedom and access to birth control and sex education. His men’s fitness magazine, Physical Culture, became an important platform for many feminist writers.    

Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, was a regular contributor to the magazine. Havelock Ellison, known for his studies on sex, wrote in favor of birth control. Macfadden even published one of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short stories. Its title: “If I Were A Man.”

When journalist Helen Rowland wrote “The Passing of the Helpless Woman” as a leading article for Physical Culture, Macfadden introduced her by writing, “The old-fashioned semi-invalid, hot-house type of woman is fortunately fast passing away, with the abandonment of the high-heeled shoes, the life destroying corset, and the senseless constricting garments which were held in such high favor since.”

In a similar vein, Macfadden prefaced an article by Ella Reeve Bloor, founding member of the Social Democratic Party, with “Women have been slaves for centuries. It is about time for them to fully comprehend what they, once and all, can easily attain.”

The bodybuilder’s support of women’s physical, political, and sexual freedom came at a pivotal moment. In the years these women wrote in Physical Culture, their ideas were just as radical as fasting to cure pneumonia – possibly more. They wanted men to know they were physically and mentally strong.

For Macfadden, this idea aligned with his deep reverence of the human body and its potential.  And a caption of a photo in the magazine is plenty of proof:

“The modern woman is as much at home on the athletic field as in the kitchen.”

Listen to more about Bernarr Macfadden on this week’s episode: 

March 22, 2016

Here are some things that the legendary bodybuilder Bernarr Macfadden believed in: Fasting to cure cancer. Fasting to cure asthma. Fasting to cure – here’s an interesting one – emaciation.

“I mean, there’s the old idea of starve a fever, feed a cold,” said Mark Adams, who wrote a book about Macfadden called Mr. America. “For Macfadden it was starve a fever, starve a cold, starve a sore throat, starve cancer, starve kleptomania.”

The alternative medicine enthusiast shook up the health scene in the early 1900s with his magazine, “Physical Culture.”  He focused on exercise and cleanses and fasting, sometimes up to seven days, and brushed off modern medicine as “murderous science”.

Macfadden’s ideas had a brief moment of popularity in the 20s and 30s but lost luster around World War II. Around the time penicillin started saving lives, alternative medicine – especially a starvation diet – didn’t seem as appealing a cure.

Almost a century later, updated and repackaged as the “ketogenic diet”, one of Macfadden’s starvation cures is making waves again.

“We know it works,” said Eric Kossoff, a pediatric neurologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore.“There are lots of different theories about how it works.”

The ketogenic diet is not the same as fasting – instead it’s an extremely high-fat, low-carbohydrate regimen that essentially tricks the body into thinking it’s starving. And the diet has made inroads into the medical community for treating epilepsy in children.

While Macfadden spent the early 1900s treating virtually everything with a fast, a New York City endocrinologist noticed that some epileptic patients in particular were responding well to Macfadden’s treatment. The doctor presented the treatment to the American Medical Association around 1920 and helped bring fasting for seizures into the medical mainstream.

 The ketogenic diet was eventually created to replicate the effects of fasting. Forcing the body to burn fat creates ketone bodies — molecules also created while fasting. While it’s still unclear exactly why the diet works, switching the body’s fuel source from glucose to fat has been shown to reduce epileptic seizures for some patients. (Kossoff says he sees around a 50-percent response rate.)

Bernarr Macfadden never broke down the science of ketosis when he talked about fasting, but his treatment — and the diet he helped inspire — went out of fashion as modern medicine developed into the 1940s.

“No study really showed the diet not being effective anymore, but I think it got overshadowed by lots of new drugs,” Kossoff said.

Macfadden himself could not be saved by fasting. At 87, he decided to treat a bout of jaundice with his go-to method. He was found unconscious and dehydrated in a Jersey City hotel room in 1955. Whatever the initial cause of the jaundice, Macfadden was too far gone, and died two days later in a hospital. But as a new crop of fasting diets – for both weight loss and disease – gains steam, his doesn’t seem so extreme.

“I don’t know,” said author Mark Adams, “but my guess is just [Macfadden] was a combination of ahead of his time and completely nuts.”

 

Hey Only Human listeners, we’re hoping to learn more about what you want to hear and how you listen to shows from WNYC Studios. Please visit this site and take our brief survey. Thanks!

March 17, 2016

More than 30 states in America have laws that punish people with HIV if they fail to disclose their virus when having sex, kissing or even spitting on people.

This week’s episode explored the fragile balance of protecting the public from sexually transmitted diseases and supporting the people who have contracted them already. This map, from The Center for HIV Law & Policy, shows how disclosure laws play out across the country:

 States handle HIV disclosure very differently, as ProPublica pointed out:

  • In Arkansas it’s a felony for a person who knows he or she has HIV to engage in “sexual intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio, anal intercourse or any other instrusion, however slight…without first having informed the other person of the presence of HIV.”
  • In Colorado, the presence of HIV makes a normal sexual offense higher than the upper limit of the usual sentence.
  • In Louisiana, it’s unlawful to expose someone to HIV through any means of contact, including spitting, biting and throwing of blood on the victim.

Meanwhile, advocates argue that many circumstances can make it difficult to disclose your HIV status, like the fear of domestic violence or exposure. And the American Medical Association has stepped in for health practitioners: “If HIV-related information is readily disclosed by health care providers, individuals may become more reluctant to seek testing,” write Drs. Laura Lin and Bryan Liang in the AMA Journal of Ethics.

Listen to the episode here:

March 16, 2016

Ivelisse Mincey’s son, Adam, is a seventh grader at Abington Avenue School, in Newark. For the last week, Mincey has sent Adam to school with a liter of water each day; his school is one of the 30 in Newark that had its water shut off after tests found elevated levels of lead in school water fountains.

While New Jersey environmental officials have told parents not to worry, Ivelisse still has a lot of questions about the how the contaminated water might affect her son’s long-term health.

“What do I say to my child?” she asks. “I don’t know. I have to I just basically have to get him tested and see what the next step will be.”

Newark’s Department of Health is offering free blood tests to children like Adam who might have been exposed. But some scientists say they’re not actually that useful.

Marc Edwards is a professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He’s dedicated his career finding and exposing water contamination, most recently in Flint, Mich. He offers some caution about the lead blood tests.

“If you found that lead was low, that might be considered reassuring, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t high a month ago, or two months ago,” he says. “The value of this blood lead testing is very, very limited. In many cases, it provides false assurance to parents that no harm was done.”

Edwards, who was on Capitol Hill this week testifying about the Flint water crisis, applauds the Newark Public Schools for testing the system’s water. Many schools don’t, he says. 

“Most people are not aware that there are no laws that protect children from lead in drinking water in schools,” he explains. “EPA wanted to have a law protecting children from lead in schools but that was legally challenged in court and they never really fought it.”

March 15, 2016

Last summer, in a Missouri courtroom, a college wrestler named Michael Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in prison for “recklessly infecting a partner with HIV.”

Johnson, who also goes by “Tiger Mandingo”, was accused of knowingly infecting his partners with HIV, although at least one of them said Johnson called to tell him the diagnosis when Johnson tested positive for the virus.

The case shed light on the stigmas surrounding sexually transmitted infections, or STIs, and especially HIV/AIDS. In more than 30 states there is a legal requirement for HIV positive individuals to disclose their status to whomever they’re having sex with. And while most people agree that honest conversation is a good practice, the laws allow people with HIV to be imprisoned for even spitting, biting or oral sex.

“Every person with HIV in the country who knows they have HIV is one accusation away from finding themselves in a courtroom,” said Sean Strub, director of The Sero Project.

Strub was diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s. Since then, treatments for STIs like HIV/AIDS has made significant progress across the globe. But Strub argues that an HIV diagnosis has continued to carry a stigma, perhaps even worse than before. And Strub said forcing people to disclose their status can backfire, and alienate a population that needs support.

While Strub is working to change the policy, New York University sex researcher and educator, Zhana Vrangalova, is focused on challenging society’s perception of risky sex.

“People really fear that STIs are more prevalent than they are…and that once you catch it you may always keep it,” she said.

Vrangalova is on a mission to de-stigmatize safe sexual behavior. Her website, for example, is about casual sex and provides a forum for people to talk about the flings and one-night stands that are usually dismissed in traditional sex education. Students in her class learn how to balance health and protection with redefining normal sexual behavior.

Jake Hernandez, a 23-year-old nursing student taking her class, has had personal experience with the same situation that got Michael Johnson behind bars. His ex-boyfriend called him to tell him he was HIV positive after they had oral sex, and luckily, Hernandez tested negative.

While he felt betrayed by his boyfriend, Hernandez still believes society needs to challenge the stereotypes surrounded STIs and the people who have them, especially gay men. While visiting a sex shop for his class with Vrangalova, he said the assumption is, “that we just walk around having sex all the time.”

“I mean I would probably say I’ve had casual sex once in my life. If I was dating a girl would you be saying all these things?”

March 9, 2016

If you’re a woman, or have had sex with a woman, you might know that female sexuality is not always straightforward. In our latest episode we explore that complexity with a sex researcher, Nicole Prause, and try to figure out why Addyi, the first “female Viagra”, has failed to serve women the way it’s counterpart serves men.

Addyi might have failed, but we turned to our listeners to figure out what women actually wanted in a pill to make sex better. Some of your answers are below, with a bonus playlist of songs that are all about…well, turning her on.

You may want to grow ’em big this summer.

A photo posted by Bedsider (@bedsider) on Jun 25, 2014 at 6:15pm PDT

 

Hanna, 23, Portland

“I’m a 23-year-old woman in a long-term relationship with another woman. We’ve been together over four years, and previous to getting involved with her, I hadn’t had any sex drive to speak of (hadn’t masturbated, hadn’t fantasized, hadn’t had any variety of sex). After getting with her, I began to identify on the asexuality spectrum, based on a variety of factors, including my sexual relationship with her. If taking a pill could increase the frequency with which we have sex and the quality of my orgasms, I would probably do that.”

Kayleigh, 26, Boston

“I already have a really high libido and it already causes enough problems, I don’t need to make it worse. If anything I would like a pill that could allow me to choose not to be so interested in getting some action. It’s be nice if I could control that when and where I wanted.”

How do you like them apples?

A photo posted by Bedsider (@bedsider) on Aug 6, 2014 at 6:18pm PDT

 

Chrissy, 33, New Hampshire

“I’ve always had a problem with sexual desire. I was sexually assaulted when I was 14, and then, maybe because of that, I was confused about my sexuality pretty much all my life. Then I had a hysterectomy when I was in my early twenties and not put on estrogen. I got married when I was 25 and I still, to this day, I don’t really know what to do. I think it would be great if there was some kind of pill or intervention that could help women like me, whether it’s because of mental or physical issues. To be able to overcome that and enjoy sex would be fantastic.”

Tracy, 25, Indianapolis

“I have endometriosis and one of the symptoms I have is just excruciatingly pain while having sex. It’s really disheartening for women like me, so I would definitely create a pill that could help women like me not have any pain or discomfort during sex.”

This juicy fruit helps to keep going and going and going.

A photo posted by Bedsider (@bedsider) on Jul 30, 2014 at 6:45pm PDT

 

Tanya, 37, Philadelphia

“I considered myself in person with a higher than normal libido for a long, long time. My partner and I had lots of amazing sex for the first nine years of our relationship, then we had kids and I was a dead zone for the better part of four years.  I breastfed my both my children and I felt that, combined with being completely overwhelmed with finishing my graduate degree, and being like touched out by the end of the day, really contributed to my drop in libido. We got back on track by taking small practical steps. We made it a point to engage in non-sexual touch every day, just snuggling on the couch, for example. We made date night mandatory once a month. We also started having adventure dates where we would go and do something together that was totally new for both of us. We did 30 days of oral sex, and we worked on redesigning our sex life. Today we have a healthy sexual relationship, engaging in sex at least two to three times a week. I would never take a pill – it’s just not for me.”

Julia, 22, Brooklyn

“If I could take a pill that would make sex better for me it would probably be something to counteract what appear to be anxious side effects I get from birth control. I’m not entirely sure they exist, or if it’s just me and as I grow old the anxiety is coming out more and more. But on the whole a pill that would reduce anxiety so I can better enjoy sex with my partner, because we don’t have four play as much as we have ‘calm down the me time’.”

 

 Playlist: Turn Her On

March 8, 2016

The only sexual education Nicole Prause had growing up in a small town in Texas was how to practice abstinence.

Then she went to college at Indiana University and started working at a sex laboratory at the famed Kinsey Institute. But the subject was still taboo at home. Prause would start talking about her job and her stepmom would say, “Not at the dinner table.”

That hush-hush attitude only served to convince the sex researcher and neuroscientist that women learn about sexuality the wrong way – with an emphasis on the risk of pregnancy or STIs, never on sexual pleasure or desire.

When a “female Viagra”, called Addyi, was introduced last year to rev up women’s sex drives, it was received with far less enthusiasm than its male counterpart. Mainly it’s because the drug isn’t all that effective: it only helped 10 percent more people than the placebo. The drug also comes with caveats: like not being able to drink alcohol or combine it with other medication.

Addyi wasn’t the first attempt to address female libido through medication, and it probably won’t be the last. But Prause is more interested in an element of desire that the drugs can overlook.

“If you take a Viagra and your partner is still very unattractive to you, or being mean to you, the Viagra will not be effective,” Prause says.

Her mission is not to create a new, more effective drug, but to understand the mechanism of desire. She’s focusing a lot on stimulating the brain to figure out what makes people want to have pleasurable sex.

Prause has used several tools to dissect this misunderstood science – from transcranial magnetic stimulation, a much milder shock therapy, to devices like an anal pressure gauge that she designed herself.

And while the scientist is focused on her laboratory, Liberos, she says the conversation around female sexuality needs to shift, especially in heterosexual relationships. Women often sacrifice their own desire to cater to, or “keep up”, with their partners. And men are not on the same wave length.

“To continually kind of deny that we have an interest in sexuality and make those demands…you really need to slow down [and communicate],” Prause said. “And then we will have better partners.”

February 26, 2016

On Tuesday’s episode we talked to Michelle Dunn and Larry Harris, a researcher and former NFL-player-turned-opera singer who teamed up to create a new technique to help people with autism calibrate their voice and speech patterns.

We wanted to know what it was like for people with autism to communicate and if they changed the way they speak. Here we talk to families at an autism conference (click here to listen) where Harris and Dunn presented their method, “Music of Speech,” which will also be the title of their book. And we hear from some Only Human listeners and people with autism about their own journeys.

Alan Baker, 24, California

“I feel sometimes [a social situation] is one that I know the ropes to and sometimes it is one that I may need a little help with. I may need a little help when I meet someone new.”

Daniel Combs, 10, Arkansas

“Sometimes I feel very different because I don’t always know what my school friends are talking about. I don’t always get their jokes. I like to talk about facts and knowing everything about one particular subject. My friends talk about sports. I don’t know who Lebron James is, or care who won the Super Bowl. My friends sometimes tell me that I’m loud when I talk, and I don’t always look right at them when talking either. I’m just glad that the cool guys at my school accept me in their group.”

Justin Coleman, 34, Texas

“It took me all through high school to deal with the struggle, both with the social interactions, but also when it came to the verbalization aspect. I actually had to force myself to think slower and allow my words to come out better and more clearly. I am planning on going back to college to study kinesiology so that I can help to open up a gym for mainly kids on the autism spectrum to help them not only work on their health, but also to help them gain more confidence in themselves.

However, now I struggle with my lungs when it comes to speaking because at times I talk so much that I run out of breathe and it causes me to yawn, as funny as that might sound. But overall, when I talk, most people never even know that I am autistic.”

Chris Hall, 22, Massachusetts

“It is hard at times to do things, but in life we all have days where we are not able to do everything. I live my days day by day, doing my work building PC’s for those with autism who are in need of a computer for their education and their social life. It’s like anyone else who communicates — some things are hard to understand, but when told the right way is easy to understand.”

February 23, 2016

Michelle Dunn and Larry Harris make an unlikely team.

Dunn is an autism researcher and Harris was an offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers – and is now an opera singer. They met at a church choir in New York.

Between sessions at the church they got to talking about Dunn’s work at the Montefiore-Einstein Center for Autism and Communication Disorders. She works with patients who are bright and high-functioning, but often struggle to speak and communicate in an effective tone and cadence.

“They speak in a very disfluent way or their voice sounds really unusual and people shut them down right away,” she said.

When Larry Harris heard about Dunn’s struggle with her patients’ speech, he was intrigued, and offered to help – using his opera training and his athlete’s background. Together they created lesson plans for the patients that incorporated training vocal cords and breath, which forces a person to stop and organize their thoughts.

“My brain just kicks into this place where I want to help them,” Harris said. “It’s exciting.”

Dunn had been working for many years with a patient named Devon* who was prone to repeating himself or fixating on a topic while speaking. But she and Harris started to focus on the new technique, and after just five months, they noticed great improvement in Devon’s speech. The quickest improvement Dunn had ever seen.

“I’ve been learning to take calming breaths and breathe pause,” Devon said. “I come across to people more normally.”

It’s been two years now since Dunn and Harris started their new technique, which they’ve chronicled in a guide called The Music of Speech. Autism manifests in people very differently, so Dunn and Harris’s approach may not work for everyone on the autism spectrum. But they’ve worked successfully with ten patients so far.

Dunn says their work is not just about training people to speak a certain way to fit in, it’s about helping them feel comfortable enough to live their lives in society at large. So instead of getting shut down in the first conversation, Devon and others with autism can have a second, third or fourth conversation where they can maybe let go.

“It makes people care about me more, it makes people value what I have to say more,” Devon said.

*Devon’s name was changed to protect his privacy.

February 19, 2016

In our latest episode we talked to Peter Grinspoon, a Harvard doctor who struggled with painkiller addiction, about the dangers of drug abuse. He says drugs – other than marijuana – are evil. Our listener Jen O’Neal strongly disagrees.

O’Neal, a 23-year-old college student in Austin, Texas, has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects connective tissues between bones, skin and vessels. She’s been struggling to manage her pain since she was 6 years-old, and says she has a four-page medical history including a heart problem, hip preservation surgery, gastrointestinal problems and chronic fatigue. O’Neal believes the system that causes drug addiction also stigmatizes people who need painkillers to go about their daily lives. 

Here’s our conversation.

Only Human: What kind of painkillers do you use regularly?

Jen O’Neal: Last night, out of nowhere, my pain spiked so high that I couldn’t walk from my living room to the bathroom without help. I took an oxycodone so that I could get myself to bed, so I could stop the pain from creeping higher. Through pain management I have tried opioid (fentanyl, oxycodone) and non-opioid medication (Lyrica, Cymbalta, meloxicam). A good day for me is a 3 or 4 on the pain scale. An average day sets me at 5 or 6. I stop functioning well at around 7. As I write this I’m at a 6.

OH: Do you use any other remedies to manage your pain?

JO: I do everything you’re “supposed” to do with chronic pain and fatigue. I eat healthy, avoid alcohol and caffeine. I walk my dog every day and do tai chi twice a week (I just got my gold sash). I use a TENS machine, [which stimulates nerves]. I’ve tried massage and acupuncture but they are both very expensive (insurance doesn’t cover them) and they’re minimally effective. I have gone to therapy and continue to go semi-regularly. I try and meditate. I can’t do yoga because that’s bad for my joints. I take baths with epsom salts. I try and keep my stress down. I take every vitamin I’m told I’m supposed to take. I don’t know what else I can do.

OH: What kind of stigma and discrimination have you faced since becoming a regular user of painkillers?

JO: I walk with a cane sometimes and sometimes I don’t. I notice a shift in attitudes towards me based on how much my disability is showing – if I walk up to a pharmacist without my cane I get a lot more questions and a lot more “side eye”. I feel like I’m treated based on how sick I look. I’ve often had to convince doctors to get disability accommodations. I have to prove again and again that I am sick. I feel like my body and health is made very public – other people feel like my body is a public discussion. Just the system I go about getting them – it’s set-up to treat me as someone who already has an addiction. Guilty until proven innocent, if that makes sense.

OH: Has this stigma ever gotten in the way of you seeking help from a doctor?

JO: There was one time, after a surgery, I experienced anxiety. I was starting to wean myself off the painkillers but I was really scared of pain. I became really anxious – and I was afraid if I expressed that they would cut those drugs off. So I didn’t call any health professional other than my therapist [who doesn’t prescribe the medications]. I think that’s really disconcerting. I don’t have any power in the situation between me and my doctor.

Especially with chronic pain, when it’s not obvious – they think you’re faking it. There’s a lot of discussion around chronic pain being “all in your head”. There are doctors who are really understanding for people like me, but a lot of it has to do with legislation.

OH: What does the media and public get wrong about painkiller abuse and addiction?

JO: There’s an epidemic where people are dying from overdoses. And I think those people are victims of the same systemic issue I am. I think stories around the epidemic – they’re super-vilifying and in this case the villain is the drug. People are saying these drugs are evil, they should be banned.

There’s this idea that people who take opioids just f—-ng love them. Do you know how constipated they make you? My sex drive is super low, and I’m an engaged woman. Right now I’m going to school, I need to get home to walk my dog and make dinner. I don’t want to be high. Opioids are not the best thing, they’re just the best we have right now. 

Read more about opioids, stigma and regulations on Jen’s blog.

February 16, 2016

“Medicine is a land of opportunity for a drug addict.”

Take Peter Grinspoon’s word for it. The Harvard-trained physician spent years abusing painkillers, infatuated with the feeling of euphoria that he got from the drugs.

Getting pills as a physician wasn’t hard. Like an alcoholic working at a bar, Grinspoon was surrounded by Vicodin, Oxycodone, Percocet and other opiates on a daily basis. He had easy access to a prescription pad, and he convinced patients who were addicts themselves to share their meds with him.

“I was basically taking advantage of these patients. It’s very upsetting for me to think about,” he said.

Then one day, when Grinspoon was 39, he got caught. By now he was taking up to 12 of 14 pills a day. He’d been writing bogus prescriptions, and eventually, a local pharmacist caught on. She alerted law enforcement and Grinspoon was charged with fraudulently prescribing controlled substances and sent to rehab.

Grinspoon’s painkiller addiction happened in the midst of national opiate epidemic. In 2014 alone, a total of 10.3 million people in America reported using prescription opioids for non-medical reasons, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

Grinspoon’s recovery would be difficult. His addiction had broken up his marriage and jeopardized his career. He relapsed more than once after his first three-month stint in a rehabilitation center.

“I was embarrassed of the mess I made of my life,” Grinspoon said. “I think addicts in general suffer from overwhelming guilt and shame. And doctors who’ve been booted from their jobs feel profound guilt and shame.”

With the support of his brothers, and the motivation of being reunited with his children, Grinspoon has been sober for more than a decade. He’s back at work, and doesn’t prescribe pills in the same way he did before. He channeled his journey into a book, “Free Refills,” a memoir of his addiction and recovery.

Grinspoon said he still notices a bottle of Vicodin on the counter, and will always be sensitive to the drugs around him. But he no longer feels the cravings he used to feel.

“I think I burnt out my fascination [with drugs] by engulfing my life in flames,” he said.

February 11, 2016

When it comes to diet advice, Americans are fed plenty of junk. Many jaw-dropping reports that vilify or glorify a food are countered soon after. Part of it, as we explored in this week’s episode on calories, is because we just don’t have enough research to make reliable health rules. Other times, it’s because a brand or fad is enticing enough to override the science altogether.

So we put together our Top 5 nutrition myths that have been debunked over the years:

1. The Devil Egg

For the past 50 years, eggs, particularly egg yolks, were one of the culprits behind high artery-clogging, heart attack-inducing high cholesterol. Egg whites shot up to fame, and the egg substitute, Egg Beaters, made their way to refrigerators across the country. But this year the federal government introduced more flexible dietary guidelines about cholesterol that affirm what research from institutions like the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have been screaming: eating an egg every day is fine, even healthy.

(source: Giphy)

2. Don’t Drink To That

Once in awhile diets come out claiming you can eat your favorite “sinful” food every day – whether it’s chocolate, ice cream or beer. But photographer Robert Cameron took it to the next level with The Drinking Man’s Diet, which first appeared in 1964 and approved of a cocktail or two during lunch and dinner every day. And it sold more than 2.4 million copies. Forbes reports that Harvard laid the smack down on the diet soon after – claiming it was a recipe for “mass murder.”  Turns out that nightcap is not as wholesome as wheatgrass juice.

(source: Giphy)

3. The Ancient Food Pyramid

The United States Department of Agriculture has been tweaking its dietary guidelines over the years.  From 1992 until 2005, the large base of the food pyramid was filled with bread, rice and pasta – a whopping six to 11 servings of carbohydrates per day. The latest guidelines, by comparison, suggest that only about a quarter of your plate should be filled with whole, non-starchy grains like quinoa and millets.

(source: Giphy)

4. Low Fat = Low Science

Whole milk, nuts and high-fat oils became a sin in the 90’s, when low-fat diets were all the rage. But cutting the fat out of your diet hardly means shedding it from your body – in fact, it can get in the way of a healthy diet, as Harvard pointed out again last fall. It doesn’t help that the lower fat alternatives of foods like yogurt and ice cream often contain more sugar and other additives to make them tastier.

(source: Giphy)

5. Watered-Down Theories

Drinking eight glasses of water a day has become a of mantra over the years – as if we’re all running around in great fear of dehydration at all times. But in a British Medical Journal report, and several thereafter, researchers concluded that you don’t actually need that much water, especially since you get some from the foods you eat throughout the day. So unless you’re jogging to work, scientists say just drink when you’re thirsty.

(source: Giphy)

February 9, 2016

Calories are sneaky. For those who have tried counting them to lose weight, you know quite well that they slip through your fingers during that latte and biscotti snack break. But it turns out that regulating our diets strictly through calories, technically just a unit of energy, has recently proved less reliable than we thought.

Take nuts, for example. Nuts are generally regarded as a calorie-dense, energy-dense food group. But David Baer, a researcher at the United States Department of Agriculture, found that our bodies only absorb about 70 percent of the calories in almonds. Same with walnuts and pistachios.

And then there’s the question of what happens when food is changed from its natural state. Richard Wrangam, a Harvard anthropologist, was studying chimpanzees and decided to try and mimic their diet of raw, unprocessed foods. He quickly found this had a much different impact on his body: “I discovered that it left me incredibly hungry.”

His research found that our bodies absorb up to 40 percent more calories from meat, starches and fat when they are cooked. I mean, have you ever seen a chubby chimpanzee?

So if the way we prepare and digest food so strongly affects how many calories we consume, what’s the best way to keep track of what we eat? Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley, the co-hosts of Gastropod, a podcast about food science and history, took a detailed look into the latest research on calories.  And they found it’s hard to make a conclusion when there are so many variables – from the bacteria living in your stomach to how accurate our food labels are.

But wait, wait, don’t put away that fitness tracker yet. We might not know everything about calories, but they are still the closest thing we have for measuring how and what we eat.

“If you’re burning a certain amount and you want to lose weight, you have to take in more than you use up, it’s true – it’s still true,” Graber said.

February 2, 2016

Willie Parker grew up in Alabama without electricity, one of six kids in a single-mother household. He learned to read by the light of a kerosene lamp.

He was also raised in a fundamentalist Christian community that believed abortion was wrong. Single, unwed mothers had to publicly apologize in church.

Today, however, Parker is a obstetrician gynecologist who specializes in providing safe abortions in the Deep South. He travels between states and clinics amid protests and threats, and treats the same demographic of women who might have gone to his church.

Parker credits his change of heart to a sermon he heard by Martin Luther King Jr., where he alludes to the biblical story of the Good Samaritan — a man who acts out of kindness for the greater good.

“The Good Samaritan asks what will happen to this person if I don’t stop to help them,” Parker said.

Women in this region of the United States have few options, Parker says, if they aren’t ready to be mothers. The last abortion clinic in Mississippi was attacked last year, and the state moved to block doctors from being able to admitting patients to hospitals after they received an abortion. Parker says the trend of unsafe, secretive abortions are too dangerous to deny women access to care.  

“Being born in the South, and being reared in abject poverty…if I couldn’t make those women a priority, who will?” he says.

That perspective has fueled his work and helped shape his faith. It’s also the reason he doesn’t shy away from being recorded on film or speaking in public, despite the pressure he gets from the pro-life movements that thrive in the Bible Belt.

And while Parker has lost some friends, and severed relationships, he is at peace with his decision.

“I believe my work is honorable. I believe it is always appropriate to help people,” he says. “And so I’ve made the conscious decision to practice my craft with the dignity and honor that I think it is due.”

January 26, 2016

An unwelcomed stranger snuck into the city last summer, and New Yorkers were panicking.

A sudden outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a type of pneumonia caused by waterborne bacteria, had landed in the city in July. In just over two weeks, there were already 81 cases and seven deaths — and the source of the deadly bacteria was a mystery.

When the New York City Health Department got the alert, they realized this wasn’t like any outbreaks of the disease they’d seen before.

“We’re incredibly nervous and worried. We don’t know how this started, we don’t know how it’s going to proceed, and we don’t know how it’s going to end,” said Dr. Jay Varma, Deputy Commissioner of Disease Control.

When mapping out the outbreak, however, his team noticed that the disease wasn’t just choosing victims at random. Most of the patients were from a cluster of neighborhoods in the South Bronx, an area historically marked by neglect and poverty. The city needed to track them down, and quickly.

But getting that kind of information from severely ill people would not be easy. One of them, a 31-year-old taxi driver named Daniel Tejada, was heavily medicated and lying face down on a hospital bed with a 104-degree fever. It was challenging for Varma and his team to find out where exactly Tejada and the others had been exposed.

“They didn’t all go to the same hospital, they didn’t go to the same doctor, they didn’t swim in the same pool, or hang out at the same fountains,” he said.

The officials ruled out running water, which would have affected many more people at once. Instead they set their sights higher – on the roofs of large, commercial buildings where cooling towers are installed. The towers (which have nothing to do with drinking water) are meant to cool hot air within buildings, and emit mist. If the water in these systems are not properly treated, they can grow bacteria, including Legionella – which can cause a serious type of pneumonia when that mist is inhaled.

Over the next few days, “disease detectives” climbed up the buildings, testing water from the cooling towers and submitting their specimens to a lab in Albany. They narrowed down the search to five suspect water coolers in the South Bronx, and shared this information with the public.

Varma and his team at the health department still didn’t have all the answers to appease an anxious public. Though they eventually tracked the source to one cooling tower, they couldn’t be sure. They still needed to grow more Legionella in the lab and match it to the bacteria in infected people to confirm that they had indeed cleaned the right unit, which would take weeks.

Annie Minguez, Daniel Tejada’s cousin, spoke at a town hall meeting to share her frustration.

“I cannot sleep at night knowing that possibly he could get this again,” she said. “That’s all I came here for.”

With a nervous city on his hands, Governor Andrew Cuomo got involved, and called in the Centers for Disease Control to start a “massive testing effort.” Hundreds of city workers and scientists were dispatched to find any overlooked cooling towers, and to sample them. New legislation was passed that required building owners in the entire city, not just the Bronx, to clean their cooling towers within two weeks.

In the public’s eyes, this mass effort was something close to heroic. The deaths stopped, new cases weren’t reported. The whole city seemed to be actively fighting this strange disease.

But it was the city health department, quietly waiting for the Legionella to grow in labs, that would truly put an end to the outbreak. Dr. Varma and his team were able to match the bacteria samples to one single water cooler tower on top of a hotel. A tower they had, luckily, cleaned weeks before.

“Every outbreak has something where you just get lucky,” he said. “You’re not just smart but something right happens at the right time.”

January 19, 2016

Susannah Ludwig is a self-proclaimed optimist. And it seems to serve her well: she’s a successful movie producer — her film King’s Point was nominated for an Oscar —and mother to an 8-year-old son.

But her true desire has always been something seemingly simple: to be normal.

Ludwig was born with an incomplete esophagus, a rare birth defect that has made it impossible for her to eat and digest normally for the past 44 years.

In the movies, a bunch of heroic doctors might’ve swept in to fix her childhood problem so she could live a normal life. And they tried: When Ludwig was a baby, a team of surgeons tried to reshape her stomach to make a sort of tube where her esophagus should be.

But she would never be able to eat any food she wanted, like her peers, or just forget about her problem. While she joined Girl Scouts and took piano lessons, her life was still, as she describes it, “a major science experiment.”

Fortunately, Ludwig has had a close advisor along the way: her father. Stephen Ludwig is a pediatrician at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been very involved with Susannah’s health decisions. Even though he brought a medical perspective to his daughter’s issues, he says that the family tried to downplay her health problems.

“We tried to raise her with an attitude that she was normal, and that she should live a normal life and do everything that she wanted to do,” he said.

Meanwhile, they knew that at any moment her health could change. And it did – over the next decades, she would undergo several more surgeries – days in the hospital, weeks of recovery.  During one of the worst episodes, she went months without eating to allow her esophagus to heal. Even now, she has to stick to liquid diets a few times a week.

All of this without a guiding light, or blueprint, or textbook definition that states her problem and the solution. “In my darkest hours, it’s horrifying and scary and terrifying,” she says.

But then the optimism kicks in — the same glass-half-full stuff that she has cultivated over years.

“I also have a lot of faith in medicine and in thinking outside the box and I know I’m a fighter. And I try to stay with that.”

 

January 12, 2016

While we sweat it out at spin class in the name of good health, the world’s oldest people drink whiskeyeat bacon, and chug Miller High Lifes with a side of Johnny Walker Blue.

At least those are the life secrets we love to hear when we talk about supercentenarians — the exclusive group of people who live to be at least 110 years old. But the science is not that simple, and the lives of these super-survivors are proof.

The oldest person recorded in history, a French woman named Jeanne Calment, lived to be 122 years old. Calment, who was born in 1875, lived a fairly easy, stress-free existence, according to Jean-Marie Robine, a French demographer who met her and studied the last years of her life.

But the more significant marker of her longevity, he believes, is her direct ancestors who lived, on average, 22 years longer than expected. “So definitely, the gene pool [was] exceptional,” he said.

Tom Perls, a physician and researcher who runs the New England Centenarian Study, has studied about 150 supercentenarians. He agrees: living an extremely long life probably has to do more with your DNA than what you drink.

“It’s many complicated pathways that feed into what determines your rate of aging and your risk for age related diseases,” Perls said.

Today, the oldest known living person in the world is a woman in Brooklyn, New York, and lives a fairly quiet life. At 116 years old, Susannah Mushatt Jones has watched the world go form streetcars to hoverboards; from President William McKinley to President Barack Obama, who is framed in a picture on her wall.

Last July, she celebrated her birthday in style with the Brooklyn Nets, local politicians and a gigantic cake topped with (frosting) bacon, a food she eats every day because her doctor says, “why not?”

But she doesn’t talk as much as she used to, and spends most of her days with caretakers and family in Brooklyn — waking up to a big plate of grits, eggs and bacon every morning.

And she knows better than to credit the bacon for her extraordinary life.

“I have no secret,” she said in a video two years ago. “I just live with my family. My family makes me happy.”

 

January 5, 2016

 

You might know the name Dan Ariely. Maybe you’ve watched one of his very popular TED talks, or read one of his best-selling books about how and why we behave irrationally.  Or maybe you’ve already heard us say on the Only Human podcast that we’re partnering with him on a new project: a study that aims to help all of us stick with our New Year’s resolutions to get more exercise.  

The story of how Ariely became a behavioral economist begins dramatically and terribly. Ariely was a teenager in Israel, just finishing up high school, when an explosion left him with burns covering 70 percent of his body, and hospitalized him for close to three years. One particular part of his treatment — the painful daily removal and replacement of the bandages covering his wounds — led him to question the intuition of his nurses, who insisted that ripping off the bandaging quickly hurt less than carefully peeling them off.

For Ariely, it was an epiphany. “If you think about it, how many times even in a single day we work best on our gut intuition,” Ariely says. “And if our gut intuitions are wrong, maybe there’s another approach to do things that is actually better.”

In this episode, Mary talks to Ariely about why so many New Year’s resolutions don’t lead to healthier habits, but to mid-January guilt — because even when we know better, we make bad decisions. 

Are you resolving to get more exercise in 2016? This is your chance to be part of a scientific study! We’ve partnered with Dan Ariely and the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University to help you learn to finally keep your fitness commitments. Sign up for “Stick to It!” and find out more here.

 

December 29, 2015

How many times have you resolved to work out more, only to have your gym membership, treadmill, or jump ropes go unused? Only Human is launching Stick to It! to help you learn how to keep, for once, your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise. 


 

For this project, we’ve partnered with one of the foremost experts on our ability to procrastinate: behavioral economist Dan Ariely. Ariely and his Duke Center for Advanced Hindsight have designed a study running through the end of February that uses your smartphone to implement different approaches to get you exercising more.

By signing up for Stick to It! you get to take part in the making of science! The study’s goal is for participants to increase the amount of time they exercise — and hopefully, in the process, enjoy it more. This innovative project is part of Dan Ariely’s research on what helps motivate us to do the things we know we should.

How’s it going to work?

Sign up in the box above to participate. The study kicks off on January 5, when you’ll get an email with instructions to download a particular app on your Android or Apple phone. The apps have been customized for this study, and will be used to collect data for Ariely’s lab from January 5 through the end of February.

Yeah, but what am I going to be doing exactly?

Once you get the app, you will set your own exercise goal — whether that be yoga once a week or running five times a week. Until the end of February, you will get messages via the app. We can’t tell you more detail than that — for the study to be scientific, we can’t share information that could bias your results. You will be randomly assigned to a particular approach and be given instructions on January 5. The results of the study will be revealed in an Only Human podcast on March 8.

What’s in it for me?

Many of us make New Year’s resolutions about our health and fitness — and fail to keep them. With Stick to It! we’re hoping to learn what kind of tools will help you follow through on those commitments.

And as a little token of our appreciation, once you sign up and download one of the apps, you’ll have a chance to win a cool — and first ever! — Only Human water bottle. Click here for the rules.

Also, you will be invited to an exclusive online chat with Dan Ariely to discuss the results and ask questions about the study, before the rest of the world hears about it on our March 8 podcast. We will be in touch with details.

Other questions?

Feel free to contact us at onlyhuman@wnyc.org.

December 29, 2015

When Mary sat down with Zeke Emanuel, one of the main architects of the Affordable Care Act, she basically wanted to know one thing: if the ACA was supposed to revolutionize healthcare, how come she still can’t understand her medical bills?

Even though he’s an oncologist, bioethicist, and healthcare wonk, Dr. Emanuel still struggles to navigate the system. Arcane hospital bills stump him, too. So if patients aren’t to blame for not understanding medical costs, is there anything we can do? Emanuel suggests that we start looking closely at the number of medical tests we sign up for.

Take the PSA blood test for prostate cancer: it prevents a very small number of deaths, and often results in overdiagnosis. Some doctors disagree with him, but Emanuel sees it as a totally unnecessary expense that can lead to even more costs. He has never wanted one for himself, yet he’s been given the test twice — without being aware of it. When a doctor called to give him his results, Dr. Emanuel slammed the phone down before hearing them. He believes the PSA leads to unnecessary worry — and, more importantly, unnecessary treatment for men in this country.

This week, Dr. Emanuel talks about what you can do to be a smarter consumer of healthcare, and the ways the system might be slowly changing to help all of us — doctors, hospitals, insurers, and patients — understand cost better.

 

December 15, 2015

Does a more humane hospital make a safer hospital? That’s a question Johns Hopkins is grappling with — and Dr. Peter Pronovost believes the answer is yes.

Dr. Pronovost is a critical care physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He’s known best for innovating an approach to patient safety a decade ago with something really simple: checklists. Preventable death rates at hospitals are high. Infections from central lines, the catheters inserted into major veins to let doctors administer drugs and draw blood more easily, are estimated to account for more than 60,000 deaths per year — about as many as breast and prostate cancer deaths combined. Dr. Pronovost created a checklist of five simple precautions to follow — such as washing hands, draping the patient in a sterile sheet — and brought the infections rate down to almost zero.

Now, Dr. Pronovost wants to tackle all preventable risks in the hospital, such as ventilator-related infections, blood clots, and delirium. Johns Hopkins is calling this experiment Project Emerge. For the past year and a half, doctors and nurses in an intensive care unit at the hospital have been using a tablet app that automatically runs a patient’s medical records through different electronic checklists — and then flags any risk. The goal is to make it impossible to miss a dangerous mistake.

Project Emerge does something else too — it makes humane care a top priority. The system flags “disrespect of a patient” or a “mismatch of goals” for a patient’s care. Johns Hopkins is testing the theory that safety and empathy go hand in hand — and whether they can engineer more humane care in the hospital.

 

December 8, 2015

Bishop Gwendolyn Phillips Coates is on a mission. She’s a preacher in a small church in South Los Angeles, and she’s made it her job to get her congregation prepared for one thing: death.

Bishop Coates has lost two husbands and both parents, so she knows first hand how important it is to tell your loved ones what you want at the end of your life. “Having the conversation is not a death sentence, having a conversation is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to someone,” she says. But getting people to think ahead about end of life care is a tall order. Especially in the African American community, where a history of exploitation by the medical establishment lingers, such as the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment started in the 1930s.

Far fewer African American patients get hospice care or have advance directives than white patients. “The distrust of the medical profession means that I’m not sure that my doctor always has my best interests at heart,” Coates says. And that distrust, she says, makes people push for every last treatment.

“I’ve seen people who have had absolutely excruciating, horrible deaths, who have died on dialysis machines, who have died in so much pain.”  Bishop Coates is convinced that talking about the inevitable from the pulpit can help ease that suffering. And that, she thinks, can make living better too.

 

December 7, 2015

So last month I went to TEDMED, the TED talks of the health and medicine world. TEDMED is like House crossed with Google plus a hint of Wall Street: geniuses from medicine cross-pollinate with tech innovators encircled by a smattering of venture capitalists. I quickly surmised that it was not an appropriate place to ask the doctors about a cure for my rash. It was very intense.

And because I started my travel day on a cold, grey day in New York, and then 12 hours later found myself in sunny Palm Springs, California, I felt like I had landed on the moon. 

Turns out people wear less black in California. Who knew?

The sun-drenched locale magnified the intensity – over two and a half days I heard from 50 remarkable people whose work touches on health and medicine.

Now, no one at TEDMED is just a doctor or just a scientist, it’s more like: cardiologist-by-day-Nashville-singer-songwriter-by-night, or Olympic-hopeful-cancer-survivor-donor-registry-founder. I am not making these people up!

And because you weren’t able to leave your presumably dismal town and join us in the desert, I have curated the TEDMED talks for you, and promise something for everyone.

The final, slick videos will be posted in a few months, so consider this a preview.

1) If you… wish there were new ideas to fight global malnutrition, this video is for you.

Activist and academic Raj Patel says there’s a malnutrition paradox: “We have enough food in the world today to feed everyone well,” he says. “The problem of malnutrition is one of distribution, it’s a problem of ecology, a problem of economics, of poverty, of power.” There is no magic bullet.  

So what can you do?

You could give a man a fish. Sure, that’s easy, but it doesn’t help past that one meal. You could also teach a man to fish. That’s fine too, Patel says, if somewhat patronizing.

Patel learned from a group of women fighting malnutrition in Malawi, that the real question is, regardless of how that man got that fish, will he actually use it to make dinner? 

Raj Patel – Food Fix @ 24:51

 

2) If you… have ever been prescribed a drug and then were prescribed another drug, and wondered what are all these drugs doing together? Then please watch Dr. Russ Altman’s talk.

Years ago, I was helping to look after my 96-year-old grandmother and I’ll never forget the day we had to list all the drugs she was taking for her physician — seven different drugs, several that she had been taking for years after she should have stopped. And who knows how they were interacting? So Dr. Altman’s talk made perfect sense to me.

He and his student did almost all of their research using data – data from the FDA and anonymized patient info from Stanford, Vanderbilt and Harvard to figure out how two common drugs, Paxil (for depression) and Pravachol (for high cholesterol) were interacting.

They found that if you prescribe the two together, you do increase glucose levels and can create a new problem. When they submitted their research, they hadn’t tested thousands of patients, or done, according to Dr. Altman, “a single real experiment.” It was all data, a promising example of what Big Data could bring to health research.

Dr. Russ Altman @ 44:45

 

3) If you… would like your heartstrings pulled, then you need to watch Melissa Walker.

Melissa Walker works as a creative arts therapist for Walter Reed, the military hospital in DC. And because of her own grandfather’s experience in the Korean War, she was drawn to studying trauma.

“We have had various names for post-traumatic stress though out the history of war,” she explained. “Homesickness, soldier’s heart, shell shock, thousand-yard stare, for instance.”

And, she said, as we become increasingly good at treating the visible wounds, there’s been growing interest in how to treat the invisible ones.

Walker’s antidote for PTSD is a surprising one.

Melissa Walker – Mind Matters @ 51:51

 

4) If you… dream of growing your own organisms, then synthetic biologist Dr. Floyd Romesberg’s talk is for you.

Dr. Romesberg looked at the basis of life and decided to rewrite it. He took the four letters of the genetic alphabet: A-T-G-C, and then grew single bacterial cells with two additional letters: X-Y.

“There’s nothing special about the natural system that nature uses to encode information,” he said.

“Maybe life itself can be similarly engineered or modified, and maybe new life forms created.” Why dream small?

Dr. Floyd Romesberg – Techno-Utopia @ 15:44

 

December 1, 2015

Noise is one of the most common causes of hearing loss in the United States, but it is largely preventable – which is what motivated audiologist Deanna Meinke, a professor at University of Northern Colorado, to contribute to Dangerous Decibels, an education program to promote healthy hearing.

One of the coolest classroom activities is building Jolene, an eye-catching tool to encourage folks to find out how loud their headphones are. It’s made by hacking a sound measurement device and putting part of it inside a mannequin with a silicone ear that closely models an actual ear. 

We brought together some students from the Level Up Media Arts program in the Bronx, who were learning about sound design and music production, and the education group, Stoked on STEAM, to try building Jolene.

One of the participants, Darius Taylor, 19, said he often listened to his music on the max volume, “mostly because I like lyrics. I like the substance inside a song. I’m a producer myself so I like to hear everything that’s going on inside a song.”

Lucy Galarza, also 19, has studied the cello for almost 12 years and said she prefers to listen to music on speakers instead of headphones so it’s less of an anti-social experience.

After building Jolene, Taylor learned that he typically listened to music at around 94 decibels, an amount that could cause hearing damage after more than 1 hour. Taylor said he usually listened to music about 5 hours a day.

You can find more info at dangerousdecibels.org. And below is a sample classroom activity from the Dangerous Decibels Educator Resource Guide

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Students from the Level Up Media Arts program and instructors from Stoked on STEAM work on making Jolene, an instructional sound measurement tool to figure out how loud your headphones are. 

 

Good Vibrations

Students experiment with a tuning fork to gain an understanding of the connection between sound and vibration. 

Grade level: K-12

Minutes:

Advanced Preparation: 30 minutes

Set-up: 15 minutes

Activity: 30 minutes

Clean-up: 5 minutes

Materials

  • Tuning fork
  • Ping-pong ball 
  • String (about 18 inches)
  • Tape

Set-up

  1. Cut a piece of string approximately one foot long
  2. Tape one end of string to a ping-pong ball
  3. Place string with ping-pong ball and a tuning fork at the table 

Introducing the activity

Begin with an introductory, interactive demonstration in which students feel the vibrations created by their own voices. Talk to or ask the students the questions in bold

  • We are going to feel the movement made by our voices when we talk, sing, hum, or shout. (Note: Tiny repeating movements are called vibrations)
  • Can you feel the sound of your voice by putting your hand on your body while you talk? Where do you think is the best place to feel your body move when you talk, sing, or hum? (Note: Encourage a variety of answers. Each answer represents what they know about sound. Students may think the vibrations will be strongest coming from their mouths, but they are actually stronger at the throat.)
  • Test your hypotheses with a partner. (Have students test various hypotheses suggested by the class and possibly the teacher. Test by having students place their hand on a part of their body while they talk.)
  • Include testing of the face and throat. Have each student hold her hand against her own face as she talks and feel the movement (vibrations). Next, have students put a finger on the front of their throat, close to their “voice box,” (middle of the throat) being careful not to press too hard.
  • Do you feel tiny movements from speaking? Where do you feel them best?
  • Ask students to share their observations.

Demonstrate the activity before students do it themselves.

  1. Have one student in a standing position hold the string with the ping-pong ball at arm’s length. Be sure the student is holding it as still as possible.
  2. Have another student gently move the tuning fork towards the ping-pong ball until it just barely touches it.
  3. Have the second student strike the tuning fork against a book or shoe and again gently move the tuning fork towards the ping-pong ball until it just barely touches it.
  4. One more time, have the same student gently touch the ping-pong ball with the tuning fork. 

Ask the students the following questions to facilitate an open-ended discussion. 

What happened when you touched the ping-pong ball with the tuning fork the first time?

What happened to the ping-pong ball when you touched it the first time after hitting the tuning fork on a book?

What happened when you touched it a second time?

Did anything surprise you when the tuning fork touched the ping-pong ball? Why do you think the ping-pong ball moved?

What else did you notice (observe) with your eyes or ears? 

Can sound move things? 

Do you know anyone who seems to have trouble hearing some sounds?

Give examples of some loud sounds you are exposed to in your environment. 

More activities can be found in the Dangerous Decibels Educator Resource Guide

December 1, 2015

This week, Only Human introduced you to Professor Nina Kraus. Kraus is convinced: all of us are probably hearing the world a little bit differently. And the proof is in our brain waves.

Using EEGs, she’s shown that some autistic children don’t process pitch well. Children with reading disorders often have neurons that fire out of sync. And as all of us age, there’s more “background noise” in our brains.

The analogy Kraus uses is that the world around us is like a great concert – and our brains are a mixing board. How that mixing board translates what we’re hearing can have a profound impact on what we understand about what’s going on around us.

She’s played around with movie clips to make her point.

Say someone with a normal hearing brain was watching the movie “Network.” Kraus says they’d see that famous scene where Howard Beale, the newscaster, goes a bit crazy on live television and hear this:

But someone with autism, they might hear the same clip more like this:

That flattened pitch you’re hearing could have real consequences – since pitch is how we understand emotion when we communicate. 

Kraus says a dyslexic listener might hear the same clip, more like this:

 

There’s a bit of an echo because the neurons aren’t firing in sync.

Here’s the good news: Kraus also firmly believes that our brains can be be trained to hear more clearly. She’s found that musicians and people who are bilingual are able to process sound better than the rest of us.

She gave us a little audio test to prove her point.

First, listen to this quick bit of sound:

  

You couldn’t make sense of it, could you? That’s ok, we couldn’t either. Now, listen to this clip:

 

Finally, listen to that first audio clip again, the one you couldn’t understand the first time.

Now it makes perfect sense, right?

That’s because over the course of a few seconds, you trained your brain to make sense of that first clip. And that is, essentially, what a musician, or someone who speaks a second language, does over the course of years — train their brains to more finely understand the audio around them.

 

December 1, 2015

When Rose* was growing up, she knew something wasn’t quite right about how she heard the world. She says it felt like she was isolated by an invisible wall. But when she got typical hearing tests at an audiologist’s office? She aced them, every time.

Rose’s problem was particularly bad in noisy places. “It doesn’t take much,” she says. “It could be five computers in a room and a bunch of shuffling around — you lose me at that point.”

It took Rose years, and plenty of doctors’ visits, to figure out what was happening. And when she did find out, it was thanks to the persistence of Professor Nina Kraus.

Kraus runs an auditory neuroscience laboratory at Northwestern University. For decades, Kraus has been conducting research on Rose and other patients like her to learn just how vital our brains are to understanding sound. And she discovered how hearing difficulties can be a marker for all types of neurological issues — autism, dyslexia, learning delays — that have nothing to do with our ears.

*not her real name

 

November 24, 2015

It’s not a coincidence that we decided to tackle listening right before a big holiday, when a lot of us are about to spend time with family. After all, sometimes the people we love the most can be the hardest to listen to — and that can make for contentious conversation (unless you’ve got Adele to save you).

So we’re rounding out Only Human’s Listen Up project with some guidance to navigating the dialogue at your Thanksgiving dinner table. Henry Alford, who writes about manners for the New York Times, had heard about so many family trainwrecks during the holidays. And he started wondering, what would people who deal with serious conflict have to say about getting through a challenging family gathering? He called up the experts: crisis negotiators.

Some strategies he heard from the FBI: saying sorry even when you might not be, and acknowledging differing opinions without actually disagreeing. But what these techniques really boil down to is being attentive and thoughtful.

“The person who can come up to me a year later and say, ‘How’s your cat?’ or ‘How did your mother’s surgery go?’ Just any little bit of emotional recall, that’s hugely flattering,” Alford explains. We all want to be listened to, but we’re not great listeners. So this Thanksgiving make sure to offer the mashed potatoes, as well as an attentive ear.

 

Did you use any of our Listen Up! strategies at your Thanksgiving table?  Tell us. Leave a comment here or Tweet us @onlyhuman, using #ListenUp.

 

November 23, 2015

Arthur Aron runs the “Interpersonal Relationships Lab” at SUNY-Stony Brook. (And, by the way, he does that alongside his wife, Elaine Aron. They’ve been together 47 years.) I called him up because I wanted to figure out how important listening was to making all of us closer. The answer: really important. Fundamental, even.

But it’s not just listening, it’s how you listen.

“The research suggests that the biggest effect of listening is how responsive you are,” he said. “If you listen and the other person doesn’t know you’re listening, it doesn’t do much good.”

Responsiveness is about more than just nodding along: it means processing what a speaker has said, and building on it. Aron says good listening comes down to three core elements: letting your partner know you understand them, validating them (you don’t have to agree, just let them know their point of view makes sense), and making sure they realize you care for them.

Aron knows all this because he’s the guy who devised the now-famous “36 questions.” It’s a list of questions that range from routine (“Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?”) to deeply personal (“What is your most terrible memory?”). The idea is for couples to pair off and exchange answers. This mutual disclosure speeds up the kind of intimacy we usually experience when making a new friend. The questions were popularized earlier this year, when a New York Times article framed them as “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.” (Actually, they’ve been shown to reduce bias and create friendships in addition to sparking romance.)

It turns out, for these questions to work, listening is essential. Couples get closer if they take turns answering – rather than having each person answer all the questions at once. The questions open up an opportunity for us to genuinely respond to each other. To listen and build. That’s their magic.

And it can work for Thanksgiving conversation too. Aron and his wife have played the question game with friends and at parties. His research has shown that if you have two married couples answer the questions, together, everyone benefits – the partners are closer, and the bond between the couples gets stronger, too.

So, if you’re looking for a turkey day icebreaker that gets everyone to listen a bit better, you might consider getting people together in smaller groups and giving out question cards. Aron and his wife also recommend that people write their own questions to add to their original list of 36. The key, they say, is to have the questions gradually ramp up in intimacy.

Here are some from our team. Tell us what you might ask!

From host Mary Harris: What’s the one place on earth you want to visit? Why haven’t you been there yet?

From reporter Kenny Malone: What recurring nightmares do you have?

From project manager Elaine Chen: What was your first job?

From reporter/producer Paige Cowett: Can you remember what it felt like to be a little kid? Describe it.

 

November 20, 2015

It’s day five of Only Human’s Listen Up! bootcamp week. You’ve made it to our final challenge, which ties together everything you’ve learned from this past week. If you’re here for the first time, you can catch up on our previous challenges here.

The Challenge: First have a conversation where every response starts with “No.” Then, have another conversation and start every response with “Yes, but.” Finally, have a “Yes, and” conversation.

When you’re in a situation where you have to collaborate with other people, it’s easy to get stuck in a sludge of unproductivity. We all have ideas, suggestions, and strong opinions–and everyone wants the opportunity to voice their own. But the way we respond to the ideas of others — down to the very words we choose — can make all the difference.

So we’re borrowing an exercise from the world of improv comedy, “Yes, And… ,” which is used to keep conversation flowing. Instead of shutting down the other person’s ideas with “no” or “but,” you build upon them. Imagine an improv scene where actors didn’t listen to each other: you would have one person pretending to be an astronaut on Mars, and the other pretending to be a snowman. It would be total chaos.

“Yes, And-ing is more of a concept of life, and being open and free of judgement,” explains Molly Lloyd of improv theatre Upright Citizens Brigade, which was started by Amy Poehler and friends. You might remember Lloyd from the very funny (and sadly true) comedy sketch, “Everyone’s Upstairs Neighbor.” The improv comedienne and teacher, who guides us through this week’s challenge, encourages developing this “muscle of ‘yes, and-ing’” and using it when it’s appropriate. “When you’re building on each other’s ideas,” says Lloyd, “you just never know to what heights you may rise.”

So if you’re collaborating with others on something, say like a podcast, definitely use “Yes, and…” But if all that idea building takes you somewhere completely crazy… you didn’t hear it from us.

Molly Lloyd and Achilles Stamatelaky appear with the improv group Airwolf every Saturday night at the UCB East Village theatre.

 

We’d love to know if this leads to any great or ridiculous conversations! We might include them in our next podcast. Tweet us @onlyhuman or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC.

November 19, 2015

More than 4,000 of you took us up on testing your hearing with the Mimi Hearing Test app — which is remarkable, considering the national stigma surrounding hearing loss. That may be why many American adults have not been tested. 

But mobile technology like Mimi has increasingly made it possible for people to find out about their hearing ability. The challenge is that we can now access a form of health data without a medical professional to help interpret it. 

So we brought some questions you’ve raised about your hearing results to Dr. Lawrence Lustig, professor and chair at Columbia University Medical Center’s Department of Otolaryngology. You might remember him from our episode on deaf composer Jay Zimmerman.

How much hearing loss is natural and nothing to worry about? Average adults will naturally be unable to hear very high pitched sounds (above 8000 Hz) that young children can. Is there a good rule of thumb?

That is a tough question. There’s no absolute or bright line. If you were a military veteran and were exposed to loud explosives, you probably have experienced some amount of hearing loss and the cause was clearly identifiable. It’s not that the hearing loss can be ignored, but one can be reasonably certain it doesn’t represent something like a tumor or infection causing the hearing loss

But if you’re young, under 40, and notice hearing loss affecting your day-to-day, that should be checked out as soon as possible. 

Hearing loss above 8000 Hz is not a huge deal since a majority of the speech frequencies are between 500 and 2000 Hz. In general, high tones are lost first, and female and children’s voices are higher pitched, and thus these are the voices that people with hearing loss generally have a harder time hearing.

For a lot of people, a moderate loss is manageable, if all they have to do is turn up the volume on the TV. However, those same people could have difficulty in a noisy background, at a restaurant, dinner table with family, or in a meeting at work. In the end, any hearing loss that affects your day-to-day life should be evaluated by a professional.

What are the risks of leaving your hearing loss untreated?

There is no inherent ‘risk’ of leaving your hearing untreated, barring such instances such as getting hit by a car or bus because you didn’t hear it coming and you weren’t paying attention!

But keep in mind that hearing loss is a form of brain deprivation, at least for someone who had hearing for most of their adult life (for the born-deaf, their other senses are amplified). If you wait too long, say decades, it becomes harder to address because the parts of your brain that would process that sound don’t work as well.

In addition, there are some causes of hearing loss that need to be investigated to be sure there is not an underlying condition causing the loss, such as a tumor at the base of the brain, an infection, or other disease. Thus all forms of hearing loss should really be evaluated by a professional to be sure there are no underlying causes that need to be treated. In particular, hearing loss in only one ear, definitely needs to be looked at because it could be the result of a treatable infection. Similarly, sudden cases of hearing loss should be evaluated as soon as possible.

What can be done about tinnitus?

There’s no magic pill to make it go away. Usually people have tinnitus in association with hearing loss, but they don’t necessarily go together. We have only a crude understanding of the cause of tinnitus. There’s some evidence that it starts in the ear and sets up in the brain stem. The lack of animal models is the part of the challenge in addressing the condition. You can’t ask a lab mouse, do you have tinnitus?

We have some anatomical correlates of brain scans of what tinnitus looks like, but we’re not 100% sure those relationships are accurate. That being said, there are a number of treatments, each with varying degrees of success, depending on the individual, including the use of tinnitus maskers, use of hearing aids for those that already have hearing loss, and retraining therapy with sound

A few people have written to us about bad experiences with hearing aids – they were expensive and didn’t work in all environments. Is that changing?

Hearing aids are getting better all the time. They are still not perfect: they cause trouble with feedback, with the ‘occlusion effect’ (sensation of something plugging the ear), and the challenges of amplifying not just what you want to hear but also what you don’t want to hear. However, newer processing algorithms and directional microphones are making them better for amplifying what you want amplified while suppressing background noises. Smaller devices and better ear inserts are also improving the cosmetics and ear-plugging factor, and some now even come with tinnitus suppression software. Advances will continue to occur in the industry.

For less serious hearing loss there are many cheaper options such as smartphone apps or Bluetooth devices that can amplify voices in challenging environments, like noisy restaurants.  

If you suspect that someone you know has hearing loss, what are some strategies for getting that person to seek help?

The best thing is to be upfront and non-judgmental. We tell people if we think they are losing weight, or look pale, or have vision troubles, and most are thankful for that feedback (well, maybe not the weight comment). If you think someone has hearing loss, let them know it’s affecting their ability to interact, and also let them know the field is advancing and there are many new treatment options available that were not available even a couple years ago. In the end, the most important thing is to get people hearing again and not feel ashamed they have a hearing loss. For some reason, no one is embarrassed or ashamed to wear glasses! So why is there a stigma associated with hearing aids? There shouldn’t be. We should all be accepting of this like any other medical condition. 

November 19, 2015

It’s Day Four of our Listen Up! bootcamp week. Today we’re putting your memory to the test. And if you’re here for the first time, you can catch up on our previous challenges here.

Today’s Challenge: Listen to our podcast with today’s guest Joshua Foer. Then apply Foer’s memory trick in our quiz at the bottom of the page. It includes a video, where you’ll be introduced to several people, and questions about them. And if you’ve got an occasion today to meet lots of people, try it out in real life. Let us know how you do!

If you have to make something memorable, you have to make it weird. At least for information lacking much context — like meeting a lot of new people at once. Memory champion and science journalist Joshua Foer is well-acquainted with this common challenge: you’re at an event where you don’t know anyone; introductions are made; you forget their names ten minutes later.

When Foer was a contestant at the US Memory Championship, he had to memorize a whole batch of faces and names. While training for this event, he learned that associating people’s names with an image helped his memory — and the weirder the picture, the more it stuck in his mind. Listen to today’s podcast to find out how he did it.

The good news is that memory can be learned, and it’s a skill you can work on. But Foer also reminds us of the importance of paying attention, and — remember yesterday’s episode? — caring a little more.

How did you do? What was the weirdest mental image you came up with to memorize a name? Tweet us @onlyhuman or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC.

November 18, 2015

You’ve made it to Day 3 of our Listen Up! bootcamp week. Thanks for sticking with us. If you’re here for the first time, it’s not too late. Here’s how to participate.

The Challenge: Take three minutes of silence by yourself. Do it before before you head off to work, or before an important conversation. Tune in to your breathing or the layers of sound you hear, like the drip of the coffee maker, or the traffic outside.

Silence gives your ears and your mind a chance to recalibrate. So often we scramble to fill up that space with something, anything. But the best listeners know when others just need to be heard.

It’s something Ken Feinberg relies on to do his job. He’s the lawyer and mediator who oversaw the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund. He had a similar role after the massacre at Virginia Tech, the Sandy Hook shootings, and the Boston Marathon bombing.  Feinberg has listened to countless stories from victims’ families — stories full of grief, anger, resentment — and then has the difficult task of having to put a dollar amount on that loss.

After one exchange with a man who had lost a son during 9/11, Feinberg learned an important lesson:

“Without thinking, I said to this man, ‘Mr. Jones, This is just terrible. I know how you feel.’ He looked at me, tears coming down his cheeks. He said, ‘Mr. Feinberg, you have a tough job. But I have some friendly advice.  Don’t tell anybody like me that you know how I feel. Mr. Feinberg, you have no idea how I feel.'” 

Truly empathetic listening, Feinberg says, is not just about saying the right thing, but knowing when the other person just needs to be heard. And one thing that helps give people an empathetic ear? A little solitude.

“I think contemplation and silence while you sort out life’s dilemmas is a positive. It certainly is for me,” Feinberg says.

So take a breather. Even better take a few. The more often the better.

How hard is it to find your three minutes? Where does your mind go during that time? And most important: does taking three minutes help you in the conversations you’re having today?Tweet us @onlyhuman or leave a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC.

 

November 17, 2015

Welcome to day two of Only Human’s Listen Up! bootcamp week. If you’re here for the first time, here’s how to participate.

The Challenge: Find a friend, stand face to face, and reflect the other person like you’re standing in front of a mirror. If they smile, you smile back. If they frown, you frown. Pay attention to your partner and reflect back what you see. Fall in sync, and move together.

Watch Only Human’s Mary Harris and Paige Cowett demonstrate “mirroring”:

Okay, we know it seems strange to talk about body language for a listening challenge. We don’t listen to body movements or facial expressions. But we would be missing a whole lot of information if we ignored them. Plus, your own body language during conversation communicates a lot, even affecting how well someone tells a story to you.

So we took a page from some experts on body language: actors. Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan performs two very different types of characters in the smash hit musical Hamilton. Being able to read and “mirror” the body language of others is one of the keys to Onaodowan’s success on stage — and it also helps him better understand and empathize with people in his everyday life.

Fay Simpson teaches movement at the Tisch School’s graduate acting program at NYU. She developed a physical training method for actors called The Lucid Body, and often has her students “mirror” each other as a frequent exercise in the studio. “When you understand body language,” Simpson explains, “you understand the intention of someone, what they want from you.”

 

Do the mirroring exercise with a partner, then tell us what it was like for you. Did you get past the awkwardness? Did you learn something about your partner? Leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC or send a voice memo to onlyhuman@wnyc.org 

To make sure you hear every challenge, subscribe to the Only Human podcast on iTunes or anywhere else using our RSS feed.

November 16, 2015

The Challenge: Today, if someone starts an important conversation with you on text or email, respond in person.  In a pinch, make it a phone call. Then tell us how your day went! Call us, of course, and leave a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC. Or send us a voice memo at onlyhuman@wnyc.org.

To kick off our listening bootcamp week, we first want you to create more opportunities to listen.

We have so many ways to connect digitally that we don’t have to use our listening skills as often — and sometimes we prefer it that way. Even just the presence of your phone will affect your in-person interactions. But while we might feel the pull of digital communication when we’re offline, we also know that online messages can often be harder to decipher.

Beatrice de Gelder, a professor of neuroscience and psychology, says reading the words of someone’s message is easy, but understanding them? That’s “a whole different ball game.” We miss a lot of crucial information — facial expressions, tone, gestures — when we keep our conversations to text or email.

The comedian and MTV “Decoded” host Franchesca Ramsey has mastered the art of finding humor in serious topics — and getting her audience to listen. But she says our infatuation with the internet can make us poor listeners. “Especially because social media’s all like, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking, here’s what I’m eating…” Ramsey explains, “like every single thing online is about me, me, me, rather than an actual conversation.” 

Watch an episode of MTV’s “Decoded” below, and be sure to check out Franchesca’s weekly podcast “Last Name Basis.”

To make sure you hear every challenge, subscribe to the Only Human podcast on iTunes or anywhere else using our RSS feed.

November 10, 2015

When Marvin Miller was growing up in small town Michigan, it never occurred to him that his family was the only deaf family in town. If new neighbors moved in, he wondered what was wrong with them if they didn’t know sign language. It was only as he got older did he realize that his situation was the exceptional one.

That’s when he started to dream of starting an all sign language town; a town where everyone from the mayor to the garbage collector would know how to sign, and being deaf would be the norm.

When he was in his early 30s, he started to realize his dream by optioning 380 acres of farmland in McCook County, South Dakota to establish Laurent, a town named after Laurent Clerc, a 19th century deaf educator.

Not everyone was thrilled with the idea. Some locals were concerned about having a community that spoke a foreign language so close by. But ultimately, the idea of Laurent was embraced.

So what happened?

Tune into Only Human to find out.

Special thanks to KSFY, the ABC affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Peter Musty; Kaitlin Luna and Professor Patrick Boudreault of Gallaudet University; NPR; WBUR’s Curt Nickisch; NYC Municipal Archives and to WNYC archivist Andy Lanset. 

November 9, 2015

Has anyone ever complained that you’re not listening to them? 

No matter how well we might hear (and if you don’t know, click here to take the Mimi hearing test), intentional listening — understanding the complex layers of information a person communicates to you — is something we can all work on.

So we’re launching our Listen Up! challenge week to help you become a better listener: five days, five tips with five master listeners. We’ve lined up folks from improv comedy, psychology, and mediation to share their insights with you. 

Here’s how to participate:

1.  Every morning during the week of November 16, we will release a short podcast to get you started for the day. Subscribe so you don’t miss an exercise and can catch up on earlier challenges. 

2.  Before you work on your listening, take this quiz to find out what kind of listener you are and where you could use improvement. 

 

3.  Sign-up for the Only Human newsletter to get reminders in your email each day during the Listen Up! challenge week. 

November 9, 2015

A hearing test, like many health tests, can be a little intimidating.

If you’ve ever worried at one point about your hearing, you don’t want to really know for sure because then it’s real.

And for the vast majority of Only Human audience, the Mimi hearing test, part of our Listen Up! engagement series, was the first time they had taken a hearing test as an adult.

Annie Ungrady from a blog called Audiologue wrote: “I will say that I was rather nervous to take it…My best friends..always tell me that my hearing is truly impaired…”

And another listener wrote that even a test result saying “everything is fine,” would be a little worrisome “because I know that this is the age where my grandma and mother began losing their hearing.”

Fortunately, about 350 of you decided to take us up on the challenge. Below is the distribution of the actual ages of people who took the Mimi Hearing Test.

So overall our group skewed younger – the average age was 39 years-old. And here’s the spread of their hearing ages:

For some people their hearing results were better than they expected:

Vindicated! Can’t wait to show the results to my mumbling husband

I often feel like I can’t hear because I can’t understand what people are saying in crowded places so it’s interesting that I seem to have good hearing

21% of the group thought that their hearing adversely affected their day-to-day. But most had not gotten their hearing tested before as adults, nor did they use any assistive device.

Whatever your result, it’s never too early to hear better. Contact your local audiologist to figure what might work for you.

Mimi calculates your hearing age by comparing your hearing ability to survey results from dozens of audiometry studies of adult populations. 

Rebecca from New York City wrote to us:

I started having hearing loss in my late teens as a side effect of chemo. I am very lucky that I did not lose even more hearing, but even this level of hearing loss can feel a little alienating – I’ll end up avoiding loud parties or bars because I end up spending the whole night trying to barely keep up with conversation. It makes me feel like I’m the oldest 27 year-old ever. Maybe this will be be easier when I get to an age where more people have lost some hearing?

While some amount of hearing loss is caused purely by age, scientists and clinicians are still trying to figure out when and how much.

But according to the National Institutes of Health, many adults experience hearing loss likely because of loud noise. The louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause hearing loss: the few seconds of gunfire by your ear could cause permanent damage whereas loud headphones might take longer.

On the plus-side: noise-induced hearing loss is generally preventable. Keep the volume on your devices low and avoid loud environments or if that’s not possible, use hearing protection, like ear plugs. 

November 3, 2015

This month on Only Human, we’re telling stories about how different people hear the world. And we want you to be a part of it. 

First we’re going to start by finding out how well you hear.

So we’ve partnered with an iPhone app called Mimi, which lets you test your hearing and gives you a “hearing age” (see the FAQ below). 

Once you take the test, share your results with us! 

Hearing loss actually affects more people than you think — more than 20% of people in this country. But most of us don’t get tested. Let’s start a conversation about how well we hear and how it affects our day-to-day lives. 

This is the first part of our “Listen Up!” engagement series. Has anyone ever complained that you’re not listening to them? Check out the week of challenges from our listening bootcamp.  

FAQ 

  1. What’s a hearing age?
  2. I got a hearing age older than my actual age — should I be worried?
  3. What about for Android users?
  4. What if I don’t have a smartphone?
  5. How can I share my Mimi hearing results with Only Human? 
  6. If I share my results with Only Human within the Mimi app, are you going to know my identity?

What’s a hearing age?

Mimi calculates your hearing age by comparing your hearing ability to survey results from dozens of audiometry studies of adult populations.

While there is some amount of hearing loss that comes just with age, scientists and clinicians are still trying to figure out when and how much. The challenge is that noise exposure is a common culprit for hearing loss, and its effect is cumulative. Genetics also play a role, determining the rate of hearing loss due to age or noise. 

A “hearing age”, though, isn’t something your doctor or audiologist would use, and Mimi doesn’t replace an examination by a trained hearing professional. So if you are worried about your hearing, go see your local audiologist

What about for Android users?

The Hearing Test made by e-audiologia is a free Android app and will also give you an audiogram, showing what frequencies you can hear at what sound intensity. 

What if I don’t have a smartphone?

The Apple-based app Mimi can be taken on an iPad as well, but not on a laptop.

For a web-based option, the British non-profit Action on Hearing Loss has a hearing screening that tests your ability to recognize numbers spoken over white noise. The screening will tell you if you likely have any hearing loss. 

If I share my results with Only Human within the Mimi app, are you going to know my identity?

No, your hearing results remain anonymous. When you opt-in to participate in our project, the only information that can be identified are your comments about how you feel about your results, and that’s solely if you provide your email address. And we hope you do so we can follow-up with you! We want to know how hearing affects you on an everyday basis and what you think now that you have a sense of your hearing ability. We will not publicly identify your comments, even if you provide your email address, unless you explicitly give us permission. 

How can I share my Mimi hearing results with Only Human? 

Within the Mimi app, after you take the quick or in-depth test, you’ll get to the results page and a prompt for Only Human will pop-up.

 

Click, “Yes, I’ll participate” and after a handful of questions, you’ll get to this final screen (below) where you’ll tap “Continue” to submit. 

 

November 3, 2015

Jay Alan Zimmerman discovered he was losing his hearing when he was in his early 20s, trying to make it as a musician on Broadway in New York. As his hearing worsened, Jay considered other professions, but ultimately he couldn’t imagine a life without music.

Recently, Jay found out about some experimental medical research that could make it possible for him to get his hearing back. In the late 1980s, researchers discovered that chickens could do something unexpected: if their hearing is damaged, they can regenerate the ability to hear again. Since then, scientists have been trying to figure out how the process works and if the same kind of regeneration might be possible in humans. Now, the very first clinical trials are underway to regenerate the damaged hair cells in people with hearing loss.

Jay has to decide if he wants to be a part of the experimental phase of this new treatment, or if the potential risks are too great. Meanwhile, he’s found ways to keep composing with the little bit of hearing he has left.

 

This is the first episode of our series focusing on how we experience the world with and without sound. Have you had your hearing checked lately? Check out our Listen Up! project and join us in our endeavor to become better listeners.

October 27, 2015

At 24, Max Ritvo has a lot going for him. He’s a gifted poet with a teaching job at Columbia University and a manuscript that he’s shopping to publishers. He’s a new husband. He’s a comic in a darkly funny experimental improv group. But he’s also a cancer patient whose prognosis isn’t good.

Max was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma when he was 16. He got the news after going to the hospital with a fever and a pain in his side. The doctors at first thought it was pneumonia — but then Max woke up in the cancer ward.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is so terrible! I’m just a young, acrobatic, wiry, handsome bloke of sixteen!'” he says. “‘And they must have run out of beds elsewhere, and they’re putting this virile healthy young man with a great crop of hair among all these decrepit old people with cancer milling about. And it’s so sad for them.'”

Max finds humor not only in the hard story of his diagnosis, but also the way we talk about illness. He jokingly calls himself an “inspiring cancer survivor.” It’s a genuine effort to make us laugh — and it’s a reminder that we should be better and smarter than the usual platitudes.

Watch Max’s “guide to health, fitness and fun.”

 

Many of you listening have your own experiences with cancer — and the experience is different for everyone. Tell us your story. Leave a comment here or visit our Facebook page.

October 20, 2015

A couple of weeks ago we asked you to share your health confessions with us. The secrets about your health, or the gambles you take. Many of you tweeted your confessions using #OnlyHuman, and you can see them in a gallery we’ve created here.  

It turns out you guys have all kinds of vices. Some of you eat the wrong things, some of you use drugs, and some of you are guilty of sins of omission: details you’d rather not tell your doctor.

Christian (not his real name) called to tell us that he feared losing his driver’s license if he was honest with his doctor about his seizures, which are starting to increase in frequency. Debra told us that she did not tell anyone when she bought a plane ticket to Tijuana to get a gastric sleeve, a weight reduction procedure, because her American doctor refused to do it.

Do doctors know we’re not always telling the truth?

“I wouldn’t call it lying,” said Dr. Henry Lodge, an internist at Columbia University Medical Center. “It’s very hard to share things that we feel uncomfortable about.”

In this episode, we go to that uncomfortable place, and hear stories from patients — as well as doctors — as they discuss the mistakes, mishaps, and near fatal errors that happen between doctor and patients. 

This episode features: Dr. David Bell, Dr. Christine Laine, Dr. Henry Lodge, Dr. Owen Muir, and Dr. Danielle Ofri.

 

What are you afraid to tell your doctor? What do you keep even from your own family and friends? Tell us. Comment below, send an email to health@wnyc.org, or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC (9692). 

October 13, 2015

Jaime Lowe started taking lithium when she was 17, after a manic episode landed her in a psychiatric ward. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and for more than 20 years, the drug has been her near-constant companion. She’s taken it for so long that she can’t say for sure where she ends and lithium begins.

“It’s hard to know if lithium is actually — like, if it dampens my personality, or if it normalizes my personality, or if it allows me to just sort of be who I am,” she says.

Jaime has tried to go off of lithium only once, in her mid-20s, and the result was not good.

She developed grand delusions. She would start an organization to defend the First Amendment. She would marry a friend she only recently met. She would change the world. She sent wild emails to would-be employers, adorned herself with glitter and stacks of necklaces, and barely slept.

When she finally pulled herself back together again, Jaime made a resolution. She’d stick with lithium. And that worked — until she learned last year that her long-term lithium use has taken a physical toll. It’s damaged her kidneys. Now, she faces a choice that’s not much of choice at all: an eventual kidney transplant, or going off the drug that has kept her sane all these years.

 

Have your mental and physical health ever collided? Tell us. Comment below, send an email to health@wnyc.org, or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC (9692). 

October 6, 2015

For our first episode of Only Human, our host, Mary Harris, shares her own story of when her health changed her life.

A couple of years ago, my husband and I had just decided to try for a second kid when something really unexpected happened.

Something felt off in my left breast. “Is that a lump?” my husband asked.  

“No way,” I said quickly. I’d just gotten a breast exam at my OB’s office, and I was 35. It seemed impossible that what we’d felt was anything to worry about.

A mammogram, an ultrasound, and a biopsy later, we learned how wrong we were. I had breast cancer.

Then, a few weeks later, as I was getting ready for a lumpectomy, we learned something else. We’d managed to get pregnant.  

It was what we wanted. But the timing? Terrible.

As I went through surgery and got ready for chemo, I taped the conversations I was having — with my husband, Mark, and my five-year-old son, Leo, and with doctors I consulted.

A note about this story: getting a cancer diagnosis during pregnancy is rare, but doctors think there will be more patients like me. Women are having babies later, and cancer is getting diagnosed earlier. More and more, these trendlines intersect.

My hope is that by hearing my story, other women who find themselves in this situation will realize that something that seems impossible might not be.  

Do you have a “health confession” to share with us?  Leave a comment below, email us at health@wnyc.org, or leave us a voicemail at (803) 820-WNYC, and we might use your story on the show.

Special thanks this week to Jad Abumrad, Emily Botein, Theodora Kuslan, Delaney Simmons, Sahar Baharloo, and Lee Hill.

September 22, 2015

A deaf composer gets a shot at hearing again. A woman with bipolar disorder tries going off her usual medication. Our host finds out she has breast cancer—and is pregnant—at the same time. 

This is Only Human, a new podcast from WNYC Studios. Health is something we often choose to ignore—until it hits us in the face. Only Human is a show that isn’t afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations, or experiment with possible solutions. Hosted by Mary Harris, Only Human tells stories we all can relate to. Because every body has a story.

Join us every week, starting October 6. And subscribe to us on iTunes by clicking here

September 21, 2015

Health is something we often choose to ignore — until we can’t. 

Hosted by Mary Harris, on Only Human is a place where we’re not afraid to have uncomfortable conversations, or experiment with possible solutions. Because every body has a story. 

Listen to Only Human every week, starting October 6. Subscribe in iTunes.