Friday, January 26, 2007
Overcoming Asperger's Syndrome
Daniel Tammet sees the world differently from the rest of us. For the 27-year-old Brit, numbers possess distinct sizes and colors and personalities. For example, sixes are tiny black dots, like holes, while ones are bright white. Nines are immense, and threes are round. Fives are loud, and fours are shy and quiet. Tammet's intimate association with numbers also allows him to calculate huge sums in his head without thinking, much like Dustin Hoffman's character Raymond Babbitt in the movie Rainman. The answer simply appears in his head. For example, when he divides two numbers, he sees in his mind's eye a spiral rotating down until it reveals the quotient - to almost 100 decimal places. These mathematical abilities make Tammet what is known as a prodigious savant, one of perhaps 100 in the world.

Tammet also has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. In his new memoir "Born on a Blue Day," Tammet describes his mathematical genius in fascinating detail. More interesting still is Tammet's description of his childhood and adolescence with Asperger's, a condition that makes it difficult to read others' emotions or decipher expressions that are not literal. Even though children with Asperger's often possess higher-than-average intelligence, they have difficulty making friends and functioning in social situations. As a result, they often experience profound isolation and loneliness. Tammet describes these feelings in detail, without self-pity. His book lets you see the world through his eyes, as a loner who stayed on the fringe of the playground during recess, an outsider looking in who was often subjected to the teasing and ridicule of his classmates.

Tammet's book joins a growing bibliography of excellent writing that gets inside the mind of those with Asperger's. Others include the novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Hadden, a former teacher, and the memoirs of Temple Grandin, "Thinking in Pictures: And Other Reports From My Life With Autism" and "Animals in Translation: Using the Mystery of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior."

Tammet, the subject of a documentary titled 'Brainman/The Boy with the Incredible Brain," first came to worldwide attention when he memorized pi to 22,514 decimal places. Simply saying that many digits took five hours. In addition to his extraordinary facility with numbers, Tammet is able to pick up languages with ease. He has learned Lithuanian, Spanish, Romanian, Welsh, French, German, Esperanto and Icelandic. He learned to speak Icelandic in a week and then appeared on a talk show there, conversing easily with the two interviewers on the current affairs program Kastljos (Spotlight). He now runs a web-based business for language tutorials.

From his awkward and isolated childhood, Tammet has emerged as a successful adult, comfortable in his own skin. You may know people like Tammet. What are their stories?
Thursday, January 25, 2007
There's more to hot sauce than just heat
A little restaurant I know in Silver City, New Mexico, serves the best enchiladas ever: stacked blue tortillas, smothered in fresh green chilies and cheese. They're so hot they make my husband's bald spot sweat! I literally cry when I eat them, but my tears are tears of joy. For me, the hotter the better! So when I read about a diet that helped a doctor lose 70 pounds by just sipping on hot sauce, it got my attention.

Dr. Spiro Antoniades, an orthopedic surgeon from Mercy Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, came up with the idea to down a shot of hot sauce every time he got a craving for something unhealthy, like doughnuts or cookies. After a while, he had punished himself to the point that those goodies just didn't seem very appetizing anymore. And guess what? His plan worked. Antoniades slimmed down in less than a year. Today he's a health nut, runs every day and watches his food intake, all because of a little bottle of heat. So many of his colleagues asked about the diet that he's actually published a book. There's no science to it. It's really simple behavior modification.

But that doesn't mean that scientists aren't interested in hot sauce. It's really the chilies, which are the main ingredient in the sauce. Researchers are finding that capsaicin, the compound that gives chili and cayenne their zing, has a lot of health benefits. For centuries, folk medicine practitioners used capsaicin to aid digestion, fight infection and stimulate the kidneys, lungs and heart. Capsaicin has even been put into topical creams that soothe sore muscles and joints. Now researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Public Health are looking at capsaicin's ability to mimic the type of pain you experience when you have arthritis. Researchers theorize that if doctors treat the pain that capsaicin causes in your mouth, they can treat the pain that arthritis causes. And, theoretically, the painkillers would be natural, with few side effects. And they would actually go directly to the pain, and alleviate the discomfort longer.

But be careful. Capsaicin can also be harmful. Take a lot of it, and you can actually send your body into shock. Research on capsaicin's bad side is still in the early stages, but scientists have found that it can cause some tough side effects: abnormal blood clotting, blistering of the skin and severe diarrhea. Long-term use can lead to kidney and liver damage, so go easy.

Has hot sauce ever helped or hurt your health? Let me know.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Bush health plan: will it help you?
The news media usually get the text of the State of the Union address about an hour before the president begins the speech. When it hit my inbox last night, I sat up straight. My pulse quickened. I clicked and scanned for any mention of health or medicine. I found them. There were six paragraphs on health care.

President Bush is proposing a new tax deduction for everyone who has health insurance. The goal is to get more people insured who otherwise couldn't afford it. It's a standard tax deduction - $15,000 for families and $7,500 for individuals. My first reaction? Great! I get a tax deduction courtesy of George W. Bush.

But, of course, it's a tax code initiative, so it's complicated. Right now, the money you and your employer pay into your health plan is exempt from income and payroll taxes. The president's plan would turn all employer-provided health insurance into taxable income. Whatever you and your employer pay for your insurance would show up on your W-2 form. Suddenly, health care seems almost as tedious as doing taxes.

So does this plan help or hurt people? For the 160 million Americans with employer-based coverage, there would be slight differences. The White House says 80% of employer plans fall below the $15,000 and $7,500 caps. They estimate an average tax decrease of .3%. So, people like me with a decent employer-based insurance plan would see negligible tax relief. One out of five people with employer plans have insurance coverage costing more than $15,000 and $7,500. For them, taxes would increase an average of .1%, according to the White House. All in all, the Bush plan gives people incentive to get lower-priced plans.

So far, the American Medical Association, the American College of Emergency Physicians and insurance groups have applauded Bush's plan to get more people insured. According to the White House, 3 million people will pick up insurance under this plan. But there are 47 million uninsured Americans, and critics say the president's plan doesn't help enough of them. After all, a tax deduction won't help the 43 percent of the uninsured who are so poor they aren't required to pay income taxes.

Democrats and labor unions say this proposal will encourage employers to stop providing health insurance. One nursing group points out that it provides tax incentives for purchasing cut-rate plans that traditionally have high deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses.

According to some analysts, the time when your annual health care spending exceeds the $15,000/$7,500 tax deduction may happen sooner than you think. The standard deduction amounts are tied to inflation, not to health care costs, which have increased by double digits in recent years. Also, you may be harder hit if you live in an area where health care costs more, such as the Northeast, or if you work for a company with an older and sicker work force with higher premiums.

It's been almost 60 years since a commander in chief first mentioned health care in a State of the Union address. It was President Harry Truman in 1948. "Our ultimate aim must be a comprehensive insurance system to protect all our people equally against insecurity and ill health." Six decades later we're still struggling with that goal.

What do you think about health care in America? Will the president's plan help you? Is it a step in the right direction? Or will it cause more problems than it solves?
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Buying cells & buying hope?
Every year thousands of sick and disabled Americans make medical pilgrimages to China, Russia and Mexico looking for cures. Most are fragile and disabled.

Meeting one of them, Jim Dunn, left a lasting impression on me. Jim is an ex-Marine, a vibrant, fun guy who had skydived for more than 40 years. But when we met, Jim was in a wheelchair. He was violently attacked six years ago, his spinal cord severed. He's a quadriplegic. After years of lying in bed and hearing, 'You'll never walk again," Jim decided to take action. The wheelchair wasn't his destiny, he believed, and he was willing to pay whatever it took to walk.

He found neurosurgeon Dr. Huang Hongyun in China, who said he could help. Jim traveled from California to China for the experimental operation Dr. Huang offered, which would cost more than $40,000.

Dr. Huang injected fetal nose and brain cells (called olfactory ensheathing cells) into Jim's spinal cord, saying it would help regenerate his nerve fibers. Jim's heart stopped after the surgery. He almost died.

Six months later, Jim still is not walking. He's had a little improvement with movement and sensations in his hands and arms, but some doctors say that could be the result of intense rehabilitation.

I interviewed Dr. Huang after Jim's surgery and when I asked him whether Jim would ever walk again, his answer startled me: "I don't think our method right now can cure his spinal cord injury. I don't think Jim Dunn can walk again." I couldn't believe that Jim would have made the trip had he known that. Later, I asked Jim: "Did Dr. Huang tell you that you wouldn't walk again?" His face said it all. Jim looked stunned. "No," he said, "He never told me that." It still gnaws at me, thinking I may have taken some of Jim's hope away.

Jim never saw Dr. Huang after his surgery and there has been no follow-up. Was it all worth it? Would he do it again? Jim says yes even though he still doesn't know the outcome of his surgery decision. It was like "rolling the dice," he says, and he still hopes he will walk and skydive again.

I want to know what you think. Is it worth risking your life for an experimental surgery? Does experimental research deserve more funding?
Monday, January 22, 2007
The state of health care
Tomorrow night, President Bush will deliver his seventh State of the Union address. Call me a nerd, but I have watched every State of the Union since I was 5. I'm proud to say that I have never missed my annual checkup with the president. After all, the State of the Union is a unique public opportunity for the president to lay out his agenda for the upcoming year and to point to accomplishments of the last. To oversimplify, it's a summary of the year in the White House.

In that spirit, here's a very brief look at some of what Bush has said about health care in the State of the Union since he entered office:

2001: Medicare is a top priority: "No senior in America should have to choose between buying food and buying prescriptions."

2002: Tax credits and Medicare float to the top: "I ask Congress to join me this year to enact a patients' bill of rights - to give uninsured workers credits to help buy health coverage - to approve an historic increase in the spending for veterans' health - and to give seniors a sound and modern Medicare system that includes coverage for prescription drugs."

2003: Bush surprises many in AIDS community with a $15 billion commitment over 5 years to fight global HIV/AIDS with special mention of Africa and the Caribbean.

2004: Of all of his state of the union addresses, the president spends the most time this year on health care. He proposes tax-free health savings accounts and 100 percent deductible catastrophic health care premiums.
"A government-run health care system is the wrong prescription. By keeping costs under control, expanding access, and helping more Americans afford coverage, we will preserve the system of private medicine that makes America's health care the best in the world."

2005: Tax credits and health savings accounts headline again. The president also addresses the ethical issues of embryonic stem cell research.
"I ask Congress to move forward on a comprehensive health care agenda with tax credits to help low-income workers buy insurance, a community health center in every poor county, improved information technology to prevent medical error and needless costs, association health plans for small businesses and their employees - expanded health savings accounts - and medical liability reform that will reduce health care costs and make sure patients have the doctors and care they need."

2006: Familiar themes: insurance coverage expansion, medical liability law reform: "We will make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology, to help control costs and reduce dangerous medical errors. We will strengthen health savings accounts - making sure individuals and small business employees can buy insurance with the same advantages that people working for big businesses now get. We will do more to make this coverage portable, so workers can switch jobs without having to worry about losing their health insurance. And because lawsuits are driving many good doctors out of practice - leaving women in nearly 1,500 American counties without a single OB/GYN - I ask the Congress to pass medical liability reform this year."

As we prepare to cover tomorrow night's speech, we already know the president will propose tax reform designed to make basic private health insurance more affordable. It's no surprise, considering he's mentioned insurance coverage in every one of his yearly check-ups with American citizens. To be fair, health care coverage is a huge issue and there is no quick or easy fix. But with only two years left in office and a Democratic Congress, one question this year is whether he'll be saying the same things next year.

What do you hope to hear from the president tomorrow night? Do you think he and Congress have achieved any of their previous health care goals?
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