Friday, December 22, 2006
Would you buy immortality?
Do you want to live forever? My gut reaction to this question has always been a resounding, "No way!" I have no desire to outlive my loved ones and to endure the aches and pains of old age on my own.

But what if you could die, then come back hundreds of years later with a new body? What if you weren't alone? What if your children, your spouse, even the family pet could come back with you? Well then...maybe I'd reconsider.

Recently, I met a group of people who believe that scenario will one day become reality. It's called cryonics. In short, it's the deep-freezing of human bodies immediately after death for preservation and possible revival in the future. Believers call themselves cryonicists and they pay big money. It costs $150,000 for the whole body and about half that for just the brain and head. There are discounts for entire families and pets.

I'm sure you've heard of cryonics. It's been spoofed in countless movies. Many people think Walt Disney (false) and baseball great Ted Williams (true) are resting in liquid nitrogen indefinitely. The hope is that one day, technology will advance to the point where cryonicists will be revived from their frozen state.

Sound unlikely? Yes, it does to me too, but spending time listening to some of the cryonicists' arguments have made me just a little less skeptical. They point to the exponential rate of technological advances. As for me, it does make me consider all the medical procedures that were simply mind-boggling just decades ago. Dialysis allows people with kidney disease to live longer, healthier lives. Operating on fetuses still in the womb is commonplace. Brain surgery can be done without incision.

Cryonicists see the transport of chilled organs and tissue for transplants as a step in the right direction. Doctors at Harvard Medical School are working on a process similar to suspended animation. They can take severely injured pigs, the size of humans, and slow down their body's functions, just long enough to mend their traumatic injuries. When the pigs are revived they show no sign of cognitive loss.

To be clear, most doctors we spoke to said it's unthinkable that cryonics will ever become a reality. After all, we're still talking about bringing someone back from death.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta will examine the medical possibilities of cryonics in a report airing on CNN tonight on Paula Zahn Now at 8pm Eastern and this weekend. You'll also meet some of the people who are planning for their future...their very distant future...that is.

Let us know what you think? How much would you pay to buy immortality?
Thursday, December 21, 2006
Solving your medical mysteries
When I met Dinh Thai, he had endured a near-constant facial twitch for three years and was excited about the brain surgery that would eliminate the spasms. The twitch had disrupted his sleep, his social life and his professional world for long enough. It went on for three years because no one could diagnose the rare condition (a hemi-facial spasm) properly. He had seen a neurologist, an ophthalmologist, an acupuncturist and a dermatologist, as well has his own family doctors. Finally a friend of a friend referred him to a neurosurgeon, who diagnosed the disorder within seconds.

Thai's long road made me wonder what resources are available for people like him, who have a condition that turns out to be something rare and difficult to diagnose, but that does have a treatment. There are some online resources that people can turn to. You can search the National Library of Medicine database for key words related to the condition. For example, the first four results from a search for the words "facial spasm"contained the words, "hemi-facial spasm."

Another place to look is the National Institutes of Health Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center. These sites can help patients be proactive about finding answers and can serve as starting points to discuss with a doctor in hopes of pinpointing the actual condition.

A couple of other pointers: It's always OK to ask for a second opinion. Another doctor in the same area of specialty might have a completely different diagnosis based on his or her experience and realm of knowledge, so don't be afraid to ask. Also, a patient should examine his or her own family health history with a doctor to identify any possible clues that could lead to a cure.

I hope you find this information helpful. I'm also curious: What other online medical and health resources do you use?
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Coming in sick is not something to be proud of...
Do you go to work even when you are sick? That's dedication your boss may not like.

"Presenteeism" - the term used to refer to sick employees who show up at work - is a growing concern for companies worried about the bottom line. A recent Unscheduled Absence Survey from CCH Incorporated, a publisher of human resources information, found that presenteeism affected more than half of the companies it polled. Other studies show that the loss of productivity from presenteeism, which can cost U.S. companies upward of $180 billion annually, is far worse than the reduced productivity that results when employees fail to show up to work. If an employee is sick, not only is he or she less likely to be productive but also risks contaminating the entire office.

Why don't sick workers just stay home? The CCH survey cited a number of reasons including wanting to preserve precious vacation time, saving sick days for later in the year, and even company loyalty. But the No. 1 reason for presenteeism in the office is the fear of missing deadlines.

Let's face it, we all have hefty work loads and it's not likely that someone else will pick up the slack while we are home recovering. But perhaps the following information from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention can help you decide when you really are too sick for work.

Generally if you experience any of the following symptoms, you should probably just stay home: high fever, headache, extreme tiredness, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle aches, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. In some cases, it's possible to work from home. But, if you absolutely must be at work, remember healthy habits such as covering your mouth and nose and frequently washing your hands can help prevent spreading germs to the entire office - a courtesy your coworkers will appreciate!
Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Scared into checking for skin cancer
A few years ago, I was walking with friends in downtown Chicago. Fleming, who was 8, came up behind me, grabbed the back of my upper arm, yelled "boo," laughed and ran ahead. A few seconds later, I felt a faint trickle of something warm. Blood was coming out of a mole. Not good. I immediately made an appointment with my dermatologist.

I thought about my experience when I heard that first lady Laura Bush had skin cancer (Full Story). In November, doctors removed a nickel-sized tumor from her leg. A biopsy determined it was a squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant tumor. It's the second most common form of skin cancer.

The exact numbers of cases of this type of cancer are hard to know because doctors are not required to report them, but the American Cancer Society estimates that between 200,000 and 300,000 cases are diagnosed every year. It kills up to 2,000 people annually, mostly the elderly in whom the cancer is detected far too late or those who are immune compromised. Men are three times more likely than women to get squamous cell carcinoma, probably as a result of more sun exposure.

Cancer experts also say that people with fair skin and who have had prolonged sun exposure are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma. It's more common in the southern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. Mrs. Bush is from Texas. Fortunately, her cancer was caught early and she's expected to make a complete recovery.

So what about you? Are you at risk?

The American Cancer Society says these are the warning signs for skin cancer:

1) Changes in existing moles, blemishes or freckles.

2) New growths, spots or bumps getting larger.

3) Sores that don't heal within three months.

Also - another thing to keep in mind, there may be suspicious moles in places you can't see every day, as in my case, the back of the arm. Make an effort to check those places as well.

When I saw my dermatologist, he took a punch biopsy of my suspicious mole. A short time later, he told me I had pre-cancerous melanoma or as he put it, "pre-John McCain cancer." (That's the bad kind - the American Cancer Society estimates close to 8,000 people die from that yearly.)

Had I waited another month to get it checked out, he said, it most likely would have been cancer. After my scare, I became more diligent about checking for skin cancer. I hope the first lady's news will prompt others to do the same.
A supercentenarian looks back over 112 years
Gertrude Baines, 112, is being studied to unlock the secrets of old age (Watch)Video
To look at her, you'd never know that Gertrude Baines was a day older than 80. That may sound odd, but consider this: Mrs. Baines is actually 112. That's right, 112 years old. She was born in 1894 when Grover Cleveland was president. The Ford Model-T didn't exist, and the Wright Brothers wouldn't make their famous flight for nine more years. (Searching for the secrets to a long life )Video


But to me, what makes Mrs. Baines so special is not her age, but how she has maintained her independence spanning three centuries, even when women and especially black women were considered second-class.

Mrs. Baines was born in a small town south of Atlanta, Georgia, and lived a pretty simple life. But there was nothing simple about her. She says her first real memory was of a car ride to Canada. In those days very few people ever left their hometowns. She left her country. She later married and had a daughter, who died at an early age. She moved to Ohio where she worked as a "house mom" at a state university. She eventually divorced and traveled to Los Angeles, where she retired and lives to this day.

A few months ago, Mrs. Baines was honored as the oldest citizen in California. President Bush sent her a letter, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger came to visit with a plaque. She is a member of an exclusive group of people older than 110, the supercentenarians. And researchers believe that by studying these super senior citizens, they may find the secret to the fountain of youth. They're so confident, a new research center is being set up to observe people like Mrs. Baines.

When I interviewed Mrs. Baines for our story on the Supercentenarian Research Center, I expected to meet a fragile, feeble woman. Instead she greeted me in her wheelchair, wearing a fancy leopard print hat and a big smile. She didn't want to discuss airplanes, shuttle launches, civil rights, iPods or politics. Instead, she preferred to talk about her family, her loves, her heartbreaks, her faith. It didn't matter what historic events she had witnessed over the last 112 years. It was more important to her to talk about how she lived.

When I asked why she thought she had lived this long, her answer was... "God. Ask him... I took good care of myself, the way he wanted me to." So simple, but so complex. How do you extract that kind of attitude and put it in a bottle? How do you take that zest for life and make a vaccine? That's really up to the scientists who are studying Mrs. Baines and people like her. But here's a thought. Maybe long life is more than just good genes, exercising and eating well. Maybe healthy longevity depends on your faith, the way you treat people, the way you love, the way you handle bumps in the road and the way you face the day every morning.

What are your ideas for living a long, healthy life?
Monday, December 18, 2006
Recognizing symptoms of hypothermia
Hearing the news yesterday about Kelly James, who died on Mount Hood (Full Story), I was reminded of my days in EMT training. I was also reminded of how little experience I've had treating cold related injuries because I worked in Atlanta. It's a rare year when we see more than a quarter-inch of snow.

I thought it might be a good time to refresh my memory, and yours, on how to spot hypothermia.

First of all, it's important to remember that you don't have to be stranded on a mountainside to get hypothermia, which strictly speaking is defined as a core body temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit or below. The condition is considered life-threatening at temperatures of 90 or below. But if you're very young or very old, you could have problems just being out in the cold weather. The biggest indicator of hypothermia is confusion.

The first thing to go as your body loses heat is your brain function. In fact, I read yesterday that once your body temperature drops below 95 degrees, for each additional degree of temperature loss, you also lose about 4 percent of your brain's processing power.

Other symptoms... If you start to slur your speech, feel very fatigued or lethargic or start breathing very slowly, you should try to get medical attention immediately.

If you're concerned that a loved one may be affected, the best thing to do is get him or her inside, out of the cold, and take off any wet clothes. Once you're inside, you can start the re-warming process, but be very careful to do it slowly... Blankets and hot tea will get you started, but it's a good idea to call for medical help.

There's a saying in the medical field: "You're not dead until you're warm and dead." Exposure to extreme cold can actually slow your heart and metabolic rates so much that they're virtually undetectable. With all your processes practically standing still, it's also possible to survive a longer time without breathing. If you come upon someone in this condition, you should begin CPR and rescue breathing immediately, and call 911 for help.
Are we really prepared for the flu?
"The nation is nowhere near as prepared as we should be for bioterrorism, bird flu and other health disasters," says the Trust for America's Health, a prominent group that promotes public health and emergency preparedness.

Just one example: During even a moderate flu pandemic, half the states would run out of hospital beds within two weeks, the group says. The news isn't all bad. For example, every state has at least started planning for a flu disaster. In 2003, just 13 states had even considered the possibility.

On a related note, health officials from around the country gathered recently to discuss what they might do to slow a pandemic. There's a lot of talk about 1918, which saw the worst influenza pandemic ever recorded - though not as bad, we're cautioned, as the next one could be. In 1918, a new flu strain - which, by the way, mutated from a version found in chickens - killed at least 100 million people around the world in a matter of months. 600,000 people died in the United States.

New research, led by University of Michigan historian Howard Markel, examines how 45 major cities handled the outbreak. St. Louis closed schools and banned public gatherings when the city still had relatively few influenza cases. Philadelphia did the same things, but not until the disease was burning through its population like a brush fire. Everywhere, the pattern was the same. The scope of the catastrophe could be explained almost solely by how quickly health officials moved to prevent large gatherings.

Most people think our best hope against killer flu is finding a vaccine, or the right medicine. But even today, it may be more important to keep from being exposed in the first place. Would your boss let you stay home, or telecommute, if an outbreak lasted months? How long would your child's school stay open?

Better to think about these questions now, than when a crisis is in full swing.

You can see whether the Trust For America's Health thinks your state is ready, at healthyamericans.org
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