Archives for October 2008

A Lesson in Health Care Costs from The Biggest Loser

When I watch “The Biggest Loser” I am always struck by how great the contestants feel even after losing just a little bit of weight. By eating more healthily, getting more active, and caring about their health, they start noticing tangible benefits almost immediately. Many speak of going off medications and controlling dangerous health conditions, like high blood pressure. You can really see the quality of life improvement after they have been voted off, and they report how much weight they have lost at home.

This brings me to health care costs. I am thankful that I have health care, don’t get me wrong. However, I admit this issue gets me a little testy, because our insurance rates go up at a rate much higher than the rate of inflation every year. Personally, I am tired of increased health care costs eating into my raises, because like all people, I could use that extra raise money. Right now, for family health insurance, between me and my employer, we pay over $1,000 a month. I can’t believe it. I get upset because my wife and I go out of our way to make good and healthy choices, and visit the doctor only when necessary, and we are paying for those who couldn’t care less about it. I know how insurance works, and I know that it is about a group taking on risk, so I know I have to be in a pool with other people. However, why not provide financial incentives for those who are healthy and don’t use the system that much? I would take a $1000 rebate at the end of the year because I am within my weight range, or because I only went to the doctor twice, etc. Why not set up a system of rebates based on healthy choices? I know a lot of people who would suddenly care about their weight and health if they knew an extra grand was in it for them at the end of the year. And I am not saying anybody should be forced to be healthy. You don’t want to get healthy? That is your choice, but, as common sense dictates, you will be responsible for taking on the cost of your increased risk to the group. Obviously, the companies should not penalize things out of a person’s control, e.g. a congenital condition, but some rather large risk factors are within a person’s choice. I don’t think this is unfair, but it does get rid of the “free ride” mentality that many currently have related to health insurance.

Right now, the way most insurance is set up, it incentivizes bad behavior, because you might as well use all you can get because you’re paying anyway. The “throw money” at health insurance approach, whether government sponsored or through private insurance companies, isn’t working. Let’s use “The Biggest Loser” as an example. When people get healthy, they find that they don’t need to take as much medication, and their risk of suffering from expensive, chronic, diseases drops. Just imagine if half the people in your insurance group made changes like they do on “the Biggest Loser.” Even the initial drop in prescription drug costs would be tremendous. You may even see a rare decrease in rates! Now imagine if half the overweight people in the United States made a similar move. It wouldn’t fix our health care costs, but it would certainly help.

Artificial Light at Night Raise Breast Cancer Risk

An interesting study shows that sleeping in a well-lighted environment lowers melatonin levels, and stimulates the growth of breast cancer cells! This also explains why night-shift workers have higher levels of cancer, and the blind have lower rates. The body produces the most melatonin in pitch darkness, so if you live near a street light, or have a spouse that absolutely demands a nightlight, you may want to invest in one of those things that covers your eyes at night! There is also the option of taking melatonin supplements, which are pretty cheap.

Some Good Economic News…Some Not So Good

Good News: Oil prices have dipped dramatically lately. I have followed energy prices at the futures level since 2002 when I became upset that gas was skyrocketing to the insanely high price of $1.70. These days, $1.70 seems cheap. While I don’t think we will see $1.70 gas again, I do think a price around $1.99 is possible in many areas by December. Some people have said prices are going down because “an election is near.” Nope. It is because our economy is weak and getting weaker, and demand is down in developed countries, like the U.S. Thus businesses are using a lot less fuel, and so are consumers. Part of the price drop is that Americans have finally wised up, and have started conserving energy.

This is an example of why it is important to conserve energy. Using less fuel lowers prices. That is basic capitalism. If you want to lower a price you do one of two things. You either increase supply or reduce demand. Right now, the oil market is well-supplied because there is a lot of supply and weakening demand. It is a shame that it took a near economic collapse to lower oil prices, but there is at least a little good news amidst the doom-and-gloom. I just hope we don’t forget about $4.00/gallon gas, and that we keep conserving, and keep developing alternatives, or we will be back at $4.00 very soon.

How I Got Rid of My Knee Pain

The title of this post may sound like an advertisement for a joint supplement, but it isn’t. I thought I would share how I dramatically improved my knee pain over the last few months. I am not saying what I did will work for you, but it seems to have worked well for me. I like to run, and I play basketball with the high school basketball team twice a week, so I need healthy knees. One thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to go to the doctor unless I absolutely had to. I had no desire to be prescribed expensive, possibly toxic, drugs that burdened our already expensive health care system.

Basically, I took two major steps that likely had the biggest effect on healing my knee pain:

1. I lost weight – I was only 10 pounds heavier than I am now, but that 10 pounds made a big difference on my knee. This is not surprising, given that every pound lost results in a fourfold reduction in load. So basically, I took 40 pounds of load off my knee. No wonder 10 pounds made such a difference! I also started running when I was about 30 pounds overweight, so I am sure this put even more strain on my knee, that eventually led to pain.

2. I strengthened my leg muscles – I read some articles online (and took the advice of a friend of mine who is a runner) that suggested that a lot of knee pain originates in the quadriceps muscle. I thought, “I have strong quads because I run almost every day, so it can’t be that.” Wrong. As my friend told me, running doesn’t really build the quads that well, but it can hurt  the knee. I found out very clearly how weak my quadriceps muscles were when I added leg press and leg curl to my regular lifting workout. Despite running regularly for over a year, my initial weight lifted was very low. In fact over two months, I have increased my leg curl load by 450%. That shows that my quads were just crying out for serious development! Initially, the quad exercises hurt my knees, but it ceased gradually. Some more good news is that developing large leg muscles (like the quads) may help the body build muscle elsewhere, because of changes it causes in the entire body.

I also made a few minor changes that may or may not have had an effect:

1. I began taking MSM – MSM has been shown in some studies to help with knee pain. It is debatable whether it helps, but since it is pretty much harmless, I decided to give it a try (as a side benefit, some people think it may help prevent wrinkles!). I have taken Glucosamine Sulfate as a preventative measure since about 2001, and I am not sure how well it has worked. I still developed knee pain while taking it, but it is possible it prevented more serious pain and damage.

2. I increased my enzyme supplements – Protein digesting enzymes, like Bromelain and Papain, when taken on an empty stomach, have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Some studies show a positive benefit for joint pain. I started taking them much more regularly in the last few months. They are best take preventatively, before exercise. One drawback is that you need a lot of them to have an effect.

What I didn’t do:

1. Use Salicylic Acid based creams – I read somewhere (I can’t find it now) that using even a little of this sort of sport cream is liking taking multiple aspirin tablets a day. I didn’t want to merely cover up the problem at a risk of toxicity from too much aspirin and aspirin-like compounds.

2. Use knee braces – Studies show commercial ones (that you can buy at stores) don’t really work that well. I found that my knees hurt worse after using a brace I bought at Wal-Mart a few years ago.

Knee pain stinks, and I am not saying what I did will work for you, but I hope it helps you find your way to healthier knees!

Image of me running (in the upper right…yes, it’s blurry)

Eat Fast and Get Fat

People who eat quickly until feeling full are three times more likely to be overweight according to a recent study. It has long been believed that eating quickly contributes to weight gain, because your brain needs time to feel full. The study authors recommend eating more slowly, in a  calm environment. In other words, try to avoid eating fast food while standing up.

Reconsidering Splenda

Every Friday I go to Tim Horton’s for coffee. One week I drive, my buddy buys. The other week, he drives and I buy. I even jokingly refer to Fridays as “Saint Tim Horton’s Day.” Without hesitation, I order a large coffee, with cream, three Splendas, and a shot of Pumpkin Spice flavoring. I may have to reconsider the Splenda, because a new study shows that it may have problematic side effects.

Based on animal studies, Splenda reduces the amount of “good bacteria” in the gut by 50 percent, increases PH level in the intestine, and may even cause weight gain.

Personally, I try to balance my use of sweetners. I generally use Stevia at home, and Equal or Splenda at work. This way, I am not putting all of my eggs into one basket, in terms of bad side effects. Stevia seems to be the safest of the three.

Some Thoughts on the Health Care Crisis

This was originally posted on my old blog in 2007, but I think it is still relevant:

Whole Foods Market has instituted a revolutionary insurance policy for their employees, involving a health savings account, with a high deductible for certain preventable conditions. However, the company contributes money to the Health Savings Accounts of their employees, which can be used for medical expenses that are not covered until the deductible is paid off. This means that (gasp) employees actually have the ability (and the responsibility, if they want to keep some of their money) to shop for better – and cheaper – medical care. In fact, it also means that an employee might think twice before going to the emergency room for a sore throat, when seeing the doctor the next day would save him a couple hundred dollars. It also might make an employee ask a doctor why he is prescribing antibiotics for a viral infection, when they do no good and just add to the cost of the visit. In other words, such a plan may actually help consumers and companies save money, because the consumer saves money by being frugal about health care.

One problem with health insurance in America is that most Americans forget what health insurance actually is. It is designed as a way to spread out risk from serious illness or injury among many people. In other words, you pay a small(!) amount each month in the event that you get seriously ill or injured, you will be covered. It is not meant to be an all-access pass to free health care. However, I can’t help but think most Americans view it this latter way. One perfect example is the way over-protecting and hysterical parents freak-out over any minor illness in a child. If little Johnny has a slight fever, the reasoning is that it is better to get him to a doctor and be safe than sorry (costing the employee about $30 in co-pay, and the insurance company about $100-150). While I can sympathize with such concern for a child, how did most of us ever manage to grow up and survive into adulthood without such over-protection?? In times past, common sense, a little rest, chicken soup, and some time, likely would have easily healed Johnny, yet if his fever got around 103 or 104, then the doctor would have been called, and insurance used. Now, imagine my figure of $130 per event like this, and multiply it by the number of Americans that actually take this overprotective attitude about health care, and you can see why health care costs are out of control. Insurance is not free. My dental plan covers 100% preventative care, and sometimes when I am getting ready for an appointment, I use the word free…and trust me (as my school and I see every paycheck) it is not free.

This day and age, it seems many people go to the doctor for just about anything, whether serious or not, and insurance allows them to get away with it. Also, there is no incentive to shop around for cheaper and better quality care when everything is seen as “free” because of insurance. So you may very well be overpaying an incompetent doctor, but because of insurance, you won’t know it, and because your costs generally remain the same regardless, nobody cares. I guarantee that if I had to pay out-of-pocket for a doctor’s visit, and if my employer gave me a couple hundred dollars a year towards this, I would shop around for the best deal (price coupled with quality), just like I would whenever I use my hard-earned money in the real world. For example, if my insurer said, “you currently pay $4,000 a year in insurance, and if at the end of the year, you have used less than $2,000 of it, we will give you $500 back,” you bet I would make wise decisions to save that money, although if I needed to spend it on health care because of catastrophe, I would. Can you see my point here, how our current system doesn’t really provide us with incentives to save money on health care?

One thing we should all remember, and teach our kids, is that insurance isn’t “free” by any means. When I was a single male paying for my own insurance, I was paying 120 dollars a month (up from 85 the year before), which translates to $1440 per year. This amount went up every year. Now, I pay about 1000 dollars a year, and my job pays about 3,000 per year. “Free” care indeed! [Now that I am married, my school and I pay around 10,000 combined for insurance]

I admit I don’t care for big medicine very much. I have great respect for doctors, but I don’t like the idea of taking prescription drugs. Part of this is because they have so many side effects. It is estimated that adverse reactions to prescriptions killed 106,000 people in 1998 alone! In fact, there are 783,936 annual deaths due to conventional medicine mistakes! Compare that to dietary supplements, which while not free of side effects, have claimed only 230 lives from 1983-2004, averaging out to about 11 deaths per year. For some reason, politicians jump all over the supplement regulation bandwagon when one person dies from using an herb or vitamin, but why don’t we see more regulation of prescription drugs? I am not arguing for more regulation of drugs, but what is good for the inexpensive goose (supplements) should be good for the pricey gander (prescription drugs). So yes, I am suspicious of prescription drugs, and thus less willing to seek them out, let alone pay for them. However, when I absolutely need them, I will use them. Perhaps this attitude of only taking drugs when necessary would help lessen the health care crisis, leading to a better situation for most Americans (disappointing only those working for or investing in pharmaceutical companies).

As an example of my lack of use of prescription drugs, I have had only three antibiotic prescriptions in the last 7 years, one because of a misdiagnosis (the problem wasn’t related to an infection). I took steroids for 2 weeks a few years ago for a bad case of poison ivy on my arms. That is the extent of my recent prescription drug use. When I have the flu or a cold, I rest a lot, up my intake of garlic, vitamin C, Vitamin D, and cayenne, and start taking Olive Leaf extract, Zinc Lozenges, and Oregano Oil at the first sign of infection. I monitor my temperature and symptoms, keeping alert for more serious symptoms. I almost always get some type of 2-3 day “bug” a year, and with the exception of a period in 2002 when I had a chest infection that didn’t go away for 2 weeks, I usually get over them without aid of modern medicine. I also get my flu shot every October too. I try to get regular physicals, keep my weight at a normal level, exercise regularly, eat right, take my vitamins, and use hand sanitizer. I am not saying I am immune from all illness because of my lifestyle, or that I am perfect and to be imitated, but I am saying that I am taking commonsense steps so that when I do get sick (whether very serious or not), it is an occasional, essentially non-preventable occurrence, the exact scenario for which insurance exists. In other words, I am trying to live a safe, healthy, and commonsense lifestyle, which means I am taking reasonable steps to prevent illness. Obviously, genetics, random occurrences, and other factors outside of my control will affect my health, and I understand this. This is what insurance is for, a safety net for the unpredictable, not a crutch for an unhealthy and unsafe life.

Maybe I learned this from my grandmother. She does not have a particular philosophy against prescription drugs, but at 84 takes one, count it, one prescription medication, a drug she has taken since she was in her twenties, after she had her thyroid removed. Through living moderately, eating right, and walking 2 miles almost every day, she has managed to stay healthy enough to avoid overuse of prescription drugs. While you may not find this too impressive, consider that the elderly spend an average of $2,322 per year on prescription drugs! My grandma spends about 120 dollars a year. If even 30 percent of the elderly were this healthy, I guarantee your and my health care costs would go down. Not to mention, remember that you, through Medicare, are paying for the health care of many elderly persons.

While my interest in health has allowed me to take these attitudes about health care and health, I know many people who would never view insurance and health this way, unless there was a financial benefit to being healthy, or some financial penalty for being unhealthy. It seems to me that what Whole Foods is doing is providing this sort of incentive and punishment system, and not surprisingly, it is saving both the company and employees money in the end. Also, such a high-deductible plan would be far more affordable for your average uninsured person to afford. Maybe the “answer” to our health care crisis is not throwing more tax-payer money at a ridiculously broken system, but setting people up with health savings accounts in which there is incentive to save money and seek better, and less frivolous, care. Perhaps some government money could even make its way into our accounts in the form of tax rebates, and so forth. Of course, then again, the same government known for buying 500 dollar nails and 200 dollar toilet seats isn’t probably going to take the lead on this one, so maybe it is up to us consumers and small businesses.

Vitamin D and Autism

I was reading some information on Vitamin D today (our July 2008 Nutrient of the Month, by the way), and came across an interesting article entitled the Vitamin D Theory of Autism. It is an interesting read, and makes a strong case that the almost obsessive calls for virtually everybody (including pregnant women and children) to avoid sun exposure has contributed to the rise of autism. The only problem with this medical advice is that nobody bothered to mention that avoiding the sun causes the body’s Vitamin D levels to plummet. And the funny thing is, our ancestors didn’t avoid the sun like we do, and they didn’t have as much skin cancer (they were a little more wrinkled perhaps). And Vitamin D, a product of sunlight and hard to get from food, is necessary for proper brain development (among other things):

Yes, Professor John McGrath and Dr. Darryl Eyles of the University of Queensland in Australia have repeatedly warned us that normal brain development depends on adequate amounts of activated vitamin D to orchestrate the cellular architecture of the brain. Both the vitamin D receptor and the enzyme necessary to make activated vitamin D are present in a wide-variety of human brain tissues very early in pregnancy…

We do not know what vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy does to human brains, but we know what it does to rat brains and it is not good. In a series of recent animal experiments, Professor John McGrath, Dr. Darryl Eyles and their Australian group found severe maternal vitamin D deficiency in mother rats produced babies with abnormal apoptosis (normal cell death) and abnormal brain cell proliferation, reduced production of proteins involved in nerve structure, and baby rats who have subtle abnormalities in both learning and memory.

Because of this, researchers speculate that Vitamin D may help prevent autism, because it seems to explain just about every unexplained fact about autism:

The theory that vitamin D deficiency, during pregnancy or childhood, causes autism is just a theory. However, the theory has a plausible mechanism of action, explains all the unexplained facts about autism, subsumes several other theories, implies simple prevention, and is easily disprovable—all components of a useful theory.

Some researchers think that Vitamin D may even help improve the health of those with autism, although it cannot undo damage as a result of earlier deficiency. This will come as good news for parents of autistic kids:

If vitamin D was involved in autism, then symptoms might improve in the summer, when vitamin D levels are the highest. To the best of my knowledge, no controlled studies of such seasonality exist. A case study reported dramatic improvements in both sleep and behavioral problems in an autistic Japanese boy in the summer. Others reported significant improvements in autistic behaviors during a summer camp program that included swimming, hiking, boating, and other activities that would increase brain levels of activated vitamin D.

…However, if vitamin D is involved in autism then young autistic children, whose brains have not been irreparably damaged, may improve if they move to sunnier latitudes, increase their sun exposure, or start consuming more vitamin D in their diet. Consistent with the theory, not all children diagnosed with autism keep that diagnosis in adulthood and a few children either improve spontaneously or improve after one of the numerous treatment programs available. Naturally, any reports of improvement generate suspicion that the initial diagnosis was incorrect—an obvious possibility. A controlled 3-month study of 20 autistic children found that multivitamins with even low doses of vitamin D (150 units) improved symptoms compared to placebo. What would physiological doses of vitamin D do?

The article suggests pregnant women consider taking 2000 IU of Vitamin D per day (based upon a blood analysis of Vitamin D first). That is 5 times the RDA. One researcher concludes that in order to keep blood levels of Vitamin D normal, people need 3000 IU/day, which is much higher than the RDA, but is equivalent to what a fair-skinned person makes from being out in the sun for 3 minutes.

This is provocative reading, that is for sure, and it would be great if autism could be prevented (and helped) with a little sun exposure or a few pills. I highly recommend everybody read this article, and see what you think. Vitamin D is cheap. Even if you took 2,000 IU/day, it would cost about $13.00 per year from Puritan’s Pride. That is a heck of a lot cheaper than dealing with Autism after the fact (3.2 million per case over a lifetime).

Where Did All the Money Go?

We have been hearing lately that trillions of dollars of American wealth have vanished over the last few weeks as the stock markets have plummeted. Perhaps you were wondering where that money went. A good article from the Associated Press explains what happened:

If you’re looking to track down your missing money — figure out who has it now, maybe ask to have it back — you might be disappointed to learn that is was never really money in the first place.

Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale, puts it bluntly: The notion that you lose a pile of money whenever the stock market tanks is a “fallacy.” He says the price of a stock has never been the same thing as money — it’s simply the “best guess” of what the stock is worth.

“It’s in people’s minds,” Shiller explains. “We’re just recording a measure of what people think the stock market is worth. What the people who are willing to trade today — who are very, very few people — are actually trading at. So we’re just extrapolating that and thinking, well, maybe that’s what everyone thinks it’s worth.”

Shiller uses the example of an appraiser who values a house at $350,000, a week after saying it was worth $400,000.

“In a sense, $50,000 just disappeared when he said that,” he said. “But it’s all in the mind.”

Though something, of course, is disappearing as markets and real estate values tumble. Even if a share of stock you own isn’t a wad of bills in your wallet, even if the value of your home isn’t something you can redeem at will, surely you can lose potential money — that is, the money that would be yours to spend if you sold your house or emptied out your mutual funds right now.

And if you’re a few months away from retirement, or hoping to sell your house and buy a smaller one to help pay for your kid’s college tuition, this “potential money” is something you’re counting on to get by. For people who need cash and need it now, this is as real as money gets, whether or not it meets the technical definition of the word.

Still, you run into trouble when you think of that potential money as being the same thing as the cash in your purse or your checking account…

There was a time when nobody had to wonder what happened to the money they used to have. Until paper money was developed in China around the ninth century, money was something solid that had actual value — like a gold coin that was worth whatever that amount of gold was worth, according to Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Denver.

Back then, if the money you once had was suddenly gone, there was a simple reason — you spent it, someone stole it, you dropped it in a field somewhere, or maybe a tornado or some other disaster struck wherever you last put it down.

But these days, a lot of things that have monetary value can’t be held in your hand…

So basically, your stock market portfolio, 401k, or whatever you invest in, is not really money, but potential money based on an assumed value of ownership in a company. However, when you invested in it, you put in your “real” money, so I can understand why folks treat stock values are real money. I haven’t bothered to check my mutual funds recently. If I recall, I started investing back in 2003, so I may still have a few gains left; who knows. Nonetheless, if the bottom to this thing is near, stocks are pretty cheap, so now may be the time to get in. Until then, I have some of my money at Dollar Savings Direct, which is offering a 4.0% APY right now.

My Employer Taking Health Seriously

My employer, which I’ve noted in the past has taken positive steps to improve the health of its employees (here) is at it again. Now, I’ve found out that they have quietly been working with unhealthy employees to try to improve their overall health. Last spring we filled out a health survey that determined our health in several categories. Evidentally, they’ve singled out people from that survey who need a helping hand and once a week they bring in an expert from the Cleveland Clinic to teach them health and fitness tips. I only know of a few people in the program (it’s kept pretty quiet, I assume to avoid embarassment), but overall the results have been amazing.

Although they are probably concerned with the bottom line primarily (healthcare costs are ridiculous), I applaud this effort. My employer is taking wellness and health seriously and actually doing more than just talking. I’m incredibly proud of them!