Posted tagged ‘Age’

I Hope So Too: McCain Debate Expectations/The Data Matter edition

October 15, 2008

Heard on NPR today:

McCain, speaking at a fundraiser in NYC last night:

“I hope I do half as well as Governor Palin against poor old Joe Biden.”

First up:  “Old” Joe Biden.  That would be Senator Biden, born Nov. 20 1942, or more than six years after the birth of one John McCain III, born August 29, 1936.

That is to say, if Biden is old, I guess that makes the top of the GOP ticket positively medieval.

But McCain’s attempt to diminish his much more accomplished Senate colleague is the side show here.  What got my attention was the bar he set for himself, to do a fraction as well as his running mate had in her debate.

He might want to rethink that a bit.  Last time I checked, this was the outcome of that bout:

CNN Snap poll:  Biden wins — 51%.  Palin wins:  36%.

(See also this more long-term take on the way the debate played, buried in the weeds of yesterday’s surprising CBS/NYT poll –h/t John Cole.)

This is ancient history, of course — but y’all recall that Biden won on every card.

So, strangely, I find myself in complete agreement with Senator McCain, just this once.  I hope he does half as well as Sarah Palin too.

McCain’s Can You Hear Me Now… possibilities

September 19, 2008

When I wrote this post, I was struck by Senator McCain’s verbal incoherence, and I took it to reflect genuine confusion and a mind not up to the task of constructing and communicating complex thoughts under pressure.

That is, I was picking up on a subterranean line of criticism that has poked above the surface occasionallly, that John McCain is an incurious and not terribly attentive man with a bad temper (in which qualities he does, in fact, seem to have found a soul mate in his ticket’s second banana (sure about that ordinal?– ed.).

But then the whole Spanish Prime Minister/Spain’s in Latin America thing came up.  Now the really telling part of that story is not that McCain botched a question in an interview, but that his campaign spent a day or more coming up with ever more preposterous explanations as to how McCain didn’t botch the question, answered it exactly as he intended, with all the wealth of nuance and sophistication required of a potential President.  Or not.

What most people aren’t saying in loud voices, though, is that the McCain attribute that links these two seemingly disparate verbal performances might simply be that he is…old.

The former instance — his odd, almost incomprehensible rambling on the fundamentals of the economy in Floriday on Monday afternoon —  has already brought comparisons to the waning days of the Bob Dole campaign , which is a pretty naked reference to the fact that McCain now, like Dole then,  has a lot more yesterdays than tomorrows to contemplate.

The notion that McCain is subject to senior moments, especially when tired and/or under pressure is one the campaign surely wants to downplay, but it did come into my mind watching the Florida video.

But when the Spanish interview hit the news, I wondered if there were a simpler explanation for at least some of McCain’s seemingly reckless winging of it on that occasion and in other interviews.

Hearing loss is one of the most common chronic conditions that afflict the aging.  It is more prevalent in men, and exposure to loud noises in one’s life (as, for example, a carrier pilot would have endured on a daily basis) can exacerbate the condition.  Between 25 and 40 percent of the population over 65 suffers from the some age-relating hearing loss, and that percentage jumps as you go over 75.

Now I am reasonably certain that the McCain campaign does not want to trot their candidate out there with a pair of hearing aids in his ears.  The campaign has worked hard to present the image of a candidate much younger in spirit and energy than the calendar would suggest.

But while practicing medicine at a distance and without a license is truly a mug’s game, moderate hearing loss would account for at least some of McCain’s confusion in the Spanish interview…and if this wild speculation turns out to be true, then it will continue to be a problem for McCain in other settings between now and the first Tuesday in November.

And even if it is not, contemplating the chronic conditions that accompany aging — hearing loss, arthritis, cognitive impairments, hypertension and so on — reminds us of the package we might get if we elect a 72 year old man with a history of cancer and of extreme physical hardship.

To put that another way. When you look at McCain, don’t just ponder the memory of our recent Alzheimer Presidency.*  Think about these three words:  President Sarah Palin.

That is all.

*The link leads to a Wikipedia entry that reports that Reagan’s doctors deny that he had Alzheimers in office.  Credible (to me) private communication from a source who was present in the Oval Office with Reagan in his second term suggests — anecdotally, to be sure — that he did show clear symptoms that match those of the disease.

Guest Post: Michelle Sipics on Trouble in the Zoo…

June 19, 2008

With this post Inverse Square launches what I hope will be an expanding part of its repertory. The goal of this blog is to probe the intersection of science and public and daily life. That’s a big beat, the biggest — and it is much more than any one person could hope to cover.

So with the following work, Inverse Square’s first guest post we see the beginnings of what I would like to see become a community of insight into the ways science penetrates our experience at every level.

Your poster, Michelle Sipics, knows what she’s talking about in the piece below (and much besides). After deciding that her two degrees in computer engineering from Drexel weren’t enough, she came to MIT to join the Graduate Program in Science Writing, where she spent a good part of her year working on issues of geriatric mental health. Right now she’s writing and thinking in her beloved Philadelphia — and lending her formidable intelligence, wit, and style to all of us over here in the first of what I hope will be many future conversation-starters. (I don’t need to add, but I will, that Michelle was one of those students that make teachers want to keep teaching.)


When my gracious host first offered to let me guest-post on this blog, one thing worried me more than anything else: what would I write about? Could I come up with topics that would interest readers, generate discussion, and actually be informative simultaneously? Sometimes even attaining two out of three is difficult enough.

But earlier today, as I was browsing through my bookmarks to make sure that none were garbled during my transition to the lovely and fabulously improved Firefox 3 (note: they all survived), I came across an article that I bookmarked several months ago in a state of severe agitation. It was a story from my local paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, with the somewhat self-explanatory but still vague headline “Philly Zoo deals with aging animals.”

I could lie and say that I don’t know what made me click on this headline and read the article. Yes, I like animals, and I’ve been to the Philly Zoo–as zoos go, it’s not bad, and I went there with my cousin’s kids a few years back. But I’m not particularly interested in animals or zoos. Instead, I clicked on the link because I had a vague impression that something infuriating was waiting for me in the article, and I admit it: I sometimes enjoy getting fired up. Hey, sometimes getting angry about something is the first step toward improving a situation.

So, I clicked. And what did I find out? Well, let’s look at a few excerpts:

A few weeks ago, Philadelphia Zoo keeper Mandy Fischer heard a small cough.

It was Spot, 25, a grandmother and matriarch of her group of spectacled langurs.

X-rays and ultrasound showed that the elderly Asian primate is not just losing her teeth. She has advanced cardiac disease.

Ok. That might not seem terribly interesting, but here’s why it caught my attention: we’re talking about a zoo monkey who was given–without having to file paperwork, wait a month for a doctor’s appointment, or fight an insurance company to have a claim paid–X-rays and an ultrasound. If you read on, you’ll find out about a giraffe that gets arthritis pills hidden inside bananas. An emu (24-year-old “Mrs. Emu”) gets anti-inflammatory medication to treat her arthritis. And then we find this little three-sentence, three-paragraph gem:

Philadelphia has adapted living spaces for the elderly.

A tree kangaroo that could no longer climb her pole got handrails and ramps.

A snow leopard with failing vision got brighter lights.

You might still be wondering why this article irritates me so much. Well, it’s not the article that irritates me; it’s the fact that animals are getting immediate medical attention and treatment while elderly human beings have to fight to be seen by a doctor, struggle to pay for life-saving medications, and find a way to cope with diseases like Alzheimer’s, which the doctors and researchers that I’ll collectively refer to as “science” can’t claim to understand. Let me be clear: this is not a rant against scientists or doctors. Most of them are doing their best to keep up with the impending massive increase in the elderly population in this country as the Boomers turn 65, and are fighting against a lack of funding and–at least until recently–a general lack of interest in geriatric research. This is also not a rant against zoos, zookeepers, animal lovers or the animals themselves. The zookeepers are just doing their jobs, trying to keep the animals healthy; and the animals have a right to be kept healthy, I’m sure. But if a monkey can get arthritis medication, why is it so difficult for elderly human patients to receive good medical care? As the linked Washington Post article states, “The quality of care received by vulnerable elderly Medicare, Medicaid patients is barely acceptable.” To wit:

The study found that vulnerable elderly patients — those at risk of death or functional decline — received only 65 percent of tests and other diagnostic evaluations and treatments recommended for a number of illnesses and conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.

And less than a month after running the homegrown story about the Philly Zoo animals, the Philly press picked up an AP story detailing the impending crisis (note to AP: I came up with that phrase before I noticed that it was part of a quote in your story; please don’t sue me) in geriatric health care. In brief: there’s a shortage of geriatric specialists; there’s a shortage of available training; most of the people who DO work in the field are underpaid and stressed with a workload of too many patients; and Medicare doesn’t allow for a lot of the treatment and care that its patients require.

And this is referring to general health care; it doesn’t even discuss the dire state of affairs that is geriatric mental health in the US. I’ll leave most of the details on that situation for another post, but if I may briefly quote from a document I prepared as a student back in 2006, I will point out that several years ago, Anita Rosen, then-chair of the Mental Health and Aging network of the American Society on Aging, addressed the Policy Committee to the White House Conference on Aging, and pointed out drastic shortages in the number of professionals specializing in geriatric mental health:

[Rosen] reported that as of 2002, only 5 percent of social work practitioners listed aging as their primary area of expertise, and that only 1,115 Masters-level social work students specialized in aging. In contrast, the [National Institute on Aging] issued a report nearly 20 years ago emphasizing the need for 60,000 to 70,000 social workers specialized in aging by 2020. Despite two decades of warning, experts fear that the actual numbers will fall drastically short of the predicted need.

Why? Rosen lists bias and stereotyping as major issues, both for aging and for mental health. And it gets worse:

Rosen also cited shortages in the number of psychiatrists providing specialized care for the elderly. At the time of her testimony to the White House conference, less than 7 percent of the 38,691 practicing psychiatrists in the U.S. specialized in aging. According to Rosen, given the existing trends in medical schools and the retirement of current practitioners, there will be 5,682 older adults with psychiatric disorders for every one geriatric psychiatrist in America by the year 2030.

Meanwhile, kangaroos get ramps and handrails, emus get X-rays and arthritis medication, and I get really, really ticked off.

Image: August Macke, “Great Zoological Garden, Triptychon,” 1913. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Off-Label use of a DKos Post

June 12, 2008

Check out this — not so much for the snark about McCain, but for the delightful gallery of (period) appropriate tech.

Actually, while I enjoy a good, well prepared, someone-with-not-enough-to-do, professional grade snark as well as the next blogger, I fear that the author, DHinMI, is being a bit unfair here. [Of course s/he’s being unfair. It’s a blog, bozo! It’s a sarcastic bit of fun for the morning! Get a life. –ed.)

No, no — not unfair to McCain; he’s fair game, and if he didn’t want to be twitted for his age, he should have won in 2000.

No, what impressed me about this gallery is the degree to which the technology and experience at the end of the 19th century was so much more like our own than it was like that of the generation of the founders a century before.

Look at the photos on offer: Long distance communications; mass transport; medicine, (not really represented in this gallery) which, for all the easy humor, at least had the germ theory, a grasp of infection and the need for sterile conditions in hospital operating suites, new energy sources, organized, professional, government run emergency services, mass visual media, and, perhaps above all, electricity with which to make so much of the rest go.

Compare this, as I once heard the great physicist and teacher Philip Morrison do, to the situation in 1800. Whale oil as the primary source of light with which the reading and writing public could extend their work into the night. Slow transport, entirely powered by one’s own body, one’s horse, or by wind or water. Debridement and then amputation as the primary therapy for infected wounds. Communication beyond line of sight/hearing proceeding at the same rate as the transport of other goods: slow, slow, slow. And so on.

Morrison, in the lecture I heard, went into detail about the operations of a major wheat growing operation in the upper midwest in 1900. The web existed — or rather a web, a network; telegraph communications enabled the farm’s owners to follow grain prices around the world on a daily basis. Rail transport meant that the threshed wheat from that farm could enter that global market in a timely way.

Chicago, the nearest major city, was home to 1.6 million people. All those people consumed with a vengeance: in the landmark Marshall Field complex on and around State St. in the first decade of the twentienth century, the famous department store employed 12,000 people, doing 25 million dollars in retail and twice that, 50 million in wholesale business around the world. The technology needed to permit such enormous agglomerations of people advanced too — Chicago’s supply of indoor plumbing required continuous tending, culminating in the opening of its new, model sewage system in 1900, centered on a canal that could carry 600,000 cubic feet of water per minute.

All of which means that Morrison’s wheat farmer, some miles out of town, was, all of a century ago, completely innocent of HTML and the joys of a 3G iPhone — but was nonetheless enmeshed in a global system of information exchange and commerce, mass produced consumer goods and entertainment (even recorded music, via the mass market business in player pianos that boomed with new technology in the 1890s and 1900s).

To put it another way: I can imagine myself adapting pretty readily to life in my current home of Boston in 1900. 1800? Not so easy, I think.

So, channeling a little bit of that remarkably clear thinker, the late and missed Professor Morrison, it’s always tempting to think that what’s happening right now is so new, so wonderful, that it is without precedent in human experience. But there has been a whole lot of such experience over time, and sometimes at least, the newness of technology is in the ease of what it enables, and not in its pure, raw, novelty. That is: a question one should ask of the past is not just “how far?” but “how near?”

(Not that any of this, of course, makes me want a president more comfortable with a Hollerith calculating machine than the device on which I compose this.)

Image: Camille Pissarro, “Place du Havre, Paris,” 1893. Location: Art Institute of Chicago. Source: Wikimedia Commons.