Linkage 12/17: Around the Quad and Holiday Risk Factors

214px-nussknackerHyde Park Research Flurries

There’s been a lot of great research around the University of Chicago this week that hasn’t fallen into our territory at the Medical Center. Not that we’re jealous – we had cancer-fighting nanodiscs and sharp-toothed dinosaurs, after all! But in case you missed these stories from other departments around campus, here’s a quick review.

From our colleagues in Psychology came the latest in a fascinating series of papers looking at how social isolation affects the risk of acquiring breast cancer. Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the paper by Gretchen Hermes and Martha McClintock found that isolating rats elevated the stress-related hormone corticosterone, an observation previously seen in the very social species. But as the animals were allowed to grow into “middle age” (about 15 months) the isolated rats also showed a much increased chance of contracting mammary tumors – 135% more tumors and 84 times the tumor load (which takes into account tumor size) of socialized control rats. “There is growing interest in relationships between the environment, emotion and disease,” Hermes told the BBC. “This study offers insight into how the social world gets under the skin.” (see also Time, Reuters, and U.S. News & World Report)

A good case of lemonade-from-lemons came from the Divinity School, where a miniature book thought to be a 16th-century artifact turned out to be a very well-crafted forgery. The Archaic Mark, an illustrated Greek translation of the Gospel of Mark, has been in the University’s collection since 1937. But questions have always lingered about the book’s authenticity, until Alice Schreyer, Director of the Special Collections Research Center brought together experts in imaging and Biblical texts to settle once and for all whether it was the real deal. The conclusion? It’s a fake, possibly made as late as the early 20th century. But it’s a good one, with an animal hide covering that legitimately dates back to Medieval times, and the University will give it a second life as an example of skilled forgery. “It’s actually tremendously satisfying to have a definite result,” Margaret Mitchell, a Divinity School professor, told the Chicago Sun-Times. “Scholarship depends as much as possible [about] being absolutely certain about these things.”

Journeying to the east side of campus, two researchers from the Booth School of Business and one from the Department of Health Studies developed a unique way of trying to prognosticate where the current H1N1 flu is headed. Using Google Flu Trends, the tool developed to transform health-related searches into epidemiological data, Nicholas Polson, Hedibert Lopes, and Vanja Dukic developed a mathematical model to convert incoming data into accurate predictions of the future. A well-done Chicago Tribune article explains most of the details – including how the flu appears to be slowing its spread – and I hope to track down the researchers for our own piece later this winter.

Yuletide Bummer

If you want to kill a couple hours at work pre-holidays, you could do worse than digging through the archives of Piled Higher & Deeper, aka PhD Comics. Started in 1997 by mechanical engineering graduate student Jorge Cham, the comic alternates traditional four-frame format jokes about the oddities of grad school life with on-target graphic commentaries on the world of science (like this smart take on the science news cycle or these graphs of buzzword patterns in scientific publications). Last week, Cham posted a text-strip that featured highlights from a Christmas-oriented literature search, from the discovery of “Christmas disease” (later rechristened with the much duller mild hemophilia B) to the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count.

But one article that jumped out at me was the cheerfully-named  “Cardiac mortality is higher around Christmas and New Year’s than at any other time: The Holidays as a risk factor.” Hey, it’s more tactful than another one I found: “Tis the season for many things–thanksgiving, celebration, fellowship, and good cheer. Oh yes, and heart attacks.” But seasonally inappropriate morbidity aside, it’s a pretty interesting topic: why would the holiday season bring out people’s cardiac trouble?

Turns out that’s partially due to wintry temperatures – cold weather has long been associated with increased cardiac death, in part due to the cold causing arteries to constrict. But even on top of that increase, there are peaks that correspond to Christmas and New Year’s Day – the latter of which is the deadliest day for cardiac incidents in the 1973 – 2001 data the authors analyzed. Some theories as to why this might be the case is the emotional stress of the holidays, or the stress/mistakes created by travel (such as forgotten medicine or a broken routine), or a change in diet (too much eggnog?).

All of these theories are effectively rebutted in the paper, in favor of one I’ve heard from emergency room doctors: the delay of care. Around major holidays, sick patients hold off on going to the hospital emergency room on holidays because they don’t want to ruin a family gathering or find themselves in an unfamiliar town visiting relatives. If true, one would expect noncardiac deaths to also peak around Christmas and New Year’s, which turns out to be the case.

How would one solve this deadly holiday phenomenon? Well, the authors point out that an anomalous year where the holidays were slightly less than their normal – 1973, when the OPEC gas embargo was in effect and holiday travel was down. Their conclusion then, is “If the holiday effect occurs in part because of delays in seeking medical treatment by travelers, then a reduction in travel may produce a reduction in the holiday effect.” So if you were looking for that excuse not to travel for Christmas this year…you’re welcome!

[ScienceLife isn’t going anywhere for the holiday, so expect posts Mon-Thurs next week, followed by a week off for redesigning.]

About Rob Mitchum (525 Articles)
Rob Mitchum is communications manager at the Computation Institute, a joint initiative between The University of Chicago and Argonne National Laboratory.
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