Fast takes on diabetes, sepsis, hyperparathyroidism, mental illness, Big Pharma hype

Here are some fast takes on some good reads─on diabetes, sepsis, schizophrenia, Big Pharma’s hype campaigns, and, yes, why some Terps are health information twerps.

ymcaDIABETES: Uncle Sam says 29 million Americans have this condition of high blood sugar levels. It can “cause serious health complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, and lower-extremity amputations” and it is “the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.” In a best-case scenario, there would be a high-tech “cure” for the disease, says a health policy columnist for the New York Times. But he points out that sound, fact-based research has resulted in a highly effective, cost-sensible way to provide preventive care to keep many Americans  from becoming diabetics, with potentially dire results. There’s a surprising partner in this initiative, a venerable organization with branches all over the United States: the YMCA. Under the Affordable Care Act and as part of a key initiative to curb diabetes and control costs in Medicare, federal officials will be investing in and working more with the Y, the columnist says.

And, in case you missed it, there was related good news: Americans continue to cut their consumption of sugary sodas and diet soft drinks, too, with demand declining to levels not seen since the mid-1980s. This is great news, as I have written before about how our health outcomes would improve if Americans would slash processed and refined foods, especially sugar and artificial sweeteners, from their menus.

patty dukeSEPSIS: The death of film and stage star Patty Duke didn’t get as much media attention as it might have. Or is that because those of us of a certain age knew her work better–from her eponymous hit television show and her path-breaking portrayal  of Helen Keller, in the movies and on Broadway? The actress, who further polished her reputation by heading a major actors’ union, leaves a health legacy, too: Critics say her legendary erratic behavior, and her growing awareness of it, helped to blaze a trail for a better public understanding and acceptance of mental illness, specifically for her bipolar disorder. The cause of her death also may lead to greater public knowledge about sepsis, an all-too-common and deadly infection that scourges hospitals. I’ve written about how this blood infection kills swiftly and can leave patients with lasting harm. Doctors and hospitals, if they put their minds to it, can do a lot, easily, to reduce sepsis and septic shock.


shandlingHYPERPARATHYROIDISM: It’s tough to get attention, funding, and other support for relatively rare health conditions—just ask those afflicted by them or who have loved ones with them. So it’s worth taking a look when, again, the sudden, shocking death of a celebrity brings attention to just such a disease. James Fallows, a longtime national correspondent and independent thinker for the Atlantic Magazine, has put the infrequent spotlight on hyperparathyroidism in connection with Garry Shandling, the recently deceased and pioneering comedian. As the author, who also suffered from the affliction, points out, the parathyroid glands play a critical role in regulating calcium in the blood. He says his physician told him that: “a parathyroid disorder was about as damaging as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. It weakened the bones; it raised the risk of heart attacks and some cancers, and kidney stones too; it caused mood disorders; and—I’ll confess the most alarming—it led to memory lapses, attention failures, and dementia.” Surgery for the disorder can be tough and complex, as the glands sit in a sensitive, nerve-rich area of the neck. Fallows said Shandling disclosed his condition not long before his death during a conversation with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The author says he wished he had known about it earlier, and had undergone the surgery sooner, because he feels so much better now.

Siddhartha_MukherjeeSCHIZOPHRENIA: He’s a Rhodes Scholar, and a graduate of Stanford, Oxford, and Harvard Medical School. He’s also a Pulitzer Prize winner, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia, and a prominent cancer researcher. Even with all those stellar credentials and accomplishment, Siddartha Mukherjee writes in the New Yorker about the lifetime of stigma that has haunted him and his family due to its many members with mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. The author, poignantly and artfully, takes a reader into his family’s troubled past, including ugly spats between his father and grandmother over her sheltering a mentally ill uncle. As he treks across continents following his diasporan kin, he also traces how two internationally renowned genetic researchers ended up near each other in Boston. They are, he says, making key findings about fundamental errors that occur at the gene level and appear to play a key role in schizophrenia, explaining its hereditary nature and its common onset in early adulthood.

HIGHLINE-logotype-blackBIG PHARMA’S HYPE:  It’s great to see long-form, investigative reporting finding new homes online, especially as traditional media like newspapers continue to decline. It’s also intriguing to see a detailed dissection of Big Pharma’s expensive, sophisticated marketing, aimed as a piece on the Huffington Post’s Highline section describes it, to get Americans to buy “Drugs You Don’t Need for Disorders You Don’t Have.” The author drills down on a pricey sleep medication, which regulators told the maker it needed for safety’s sake to sell in smaller doses. That wasn’t helpful to the company, because it also undercut the effectiveness of the drug, which was seeking market share in a highly competitive niche where there already were cheaper, just as effective options. So what? the maker said. It turned to a $96-million advertising campaign, much of it fuzzy and promoting peaceful sleep as much as the drug so as to get around existing restrictions on ads’ truthfulness. The approach appears to working, as the med is expected to bring in $300 million in revenue and become a market leader─this despite, quoting another headline on a story about why consumers should skip it:  “It’s expensive, barely helps, and poses safety concerns.” I’ve written about why big budget advertising and marketing campaigns by Big Pharma and hospitals and medical centers is creating great concern by health care experts.

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