Joint pain? Don't blame it on the rain

Also in this edition: How media literacy can help combat conspiracy theories; lifestyle vs. drugs in Type 2 diabetes prevention; and plants can actually be sedated.

And did you know that plants can be sedated?

The common assumption that rainy days make people's joints ache may simply not be true, a new study says. (KN/Shutterstock )

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Ever since 400 BC and the days of Hippocrates, humans have been blaming the weather for their aches and pains.

But over the years, studies using patient surveys have failed to confirm an association between aching joints, humidity and changes in barometric pressure.

Still, no one had ever taken a big data approach to the question. 

Using big data to ask quirky medical questions is Dr. Anupam Jena's specialty. He's a physician-economist at Harvard Medical School who has already made headlines using what he calls a "freakonomics" approach to medical research.

To test the rainy day pain association, he compared two enormous data sets  — more than 10 million doctor visits billed to the U.S. medicare program — and the number of rainy days in hundreds of communities across the country.

"We knew where the doctor visits were and what day they were so we were able to link that to data from more than 3,000 weather stations in the U.S.," he said.

'Human beings have a tendency to perceive patterns where patterns don’t exist,' says Dr. Anupam Jena, a physician-economist at Harvard Medical School. (Harvard Medical School)

Then he crunched the numbers to see if there were more doctor billings for joint pain on rainy days.

"No matter how you analyze the data, you don't see a relationship," Jena told CBC News. The study was published this week in the BMJ.

But Jena is not dismissing the pain people feel on rainy days.

"Pain is pain," he said."If you're feeling pain on a rainy day, it maybe doesn't matter if the rain caused the pain."

"Human beings have a tendency to perceive patterns where patterns don't exist."

In other big data analyses Jena has posed a series of provocative questions, such as, what happens to patients who are hospitalized during major cardiology conferences when many heart doctors are out of town attending the meeting? That paper published in JAMA Internal Medicine had a surprising conclusion — fewer patients died.

"We found that if a patient has a heart attack during the dates of those meetings their mortality rate is actually lower than if they have a heart attack any other time," he said. "It suggested that we might be intervening too much and during the dates of these meetings we pull back a bit on the medical care and they do better."

In another study Jena concluded that if your city is hosting a big marathon, it's a bad day to have a heart attack. The data showed an increase in mortality rates. It also showed that ambulance transport times get longer.

The takeaway from that is not to cancel all marathons, he said. Instead cities should be aware of the problems created by traffic congestion during big urban events.

Scientists link media literacy to conspiracy beliefs

The best defence against fake news? Knowledge about how the news media work. That's the conclusion from a recent study by University of Illinois journalism professor Stephanie Craft  after she surveyed almost 400 adults to see whether their tendency to believe in conspiracy theories was related to their understanding about how the media work.

Craft used methodology from previous researchers to create a list of conspiracy theories that coincided with both liberal and conservative political views.

'Simply increasing someone’s knowledge about something affected their likelihood of endorsing a conspiracy theory,' says Stephanie Craft, a journalism professor at the University of Illinois and author of a study on media literacy and fake news. (Merriam-Webster dictionary/CBC News)

She also tested how much people knew about the media using a survey that asked questions such as whether reporters need a professional licence to work as journalists (no) and whether it was a reporter's job to write press releases (no).

Craft discovered that the more people know about the news media, the less likely they are to believe that vaccines cause autism, that climate change is a hoax, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and that recent mass shootings were staged.

"[The fact] that this study found that simply increasing someone's knowledge about something affected their likelihood of endorsing a conspiracy theory is really quite hopeful, because increasing someone's knowledge is something you can do," Craft told CBC News.

In Canada, the Canadian Journalism Foundation is working on a program to bring greater news literacy to students. The program, called NewsWise, has received $500,000 from Google Canada to design information literacy courses aimed at students in Grades 4 to 12.

The courses will be operated by Civix, a non-profit organization that is working with school boards across Canada to encourage young people to become more engaged in the political process.

Lifestyle vs. drugs in Type 2 diabetes prevention

Even for people at high risk, it is possible to stop the diabetic disease progression. Sometimes a medication is prescribed. Most often people are encouraged to lose weight and become more active. Which method lasts longer? 

Dr. Sonya Haw, an endocrinologist at Emory University in Atlanta, wanted to find out. She analyzed a series of clinical trials investigating ways to prevent Type 2 diabetes in high-risk populations — people who are considered pre-diabetic based on measurements of blood glucose levels. Without intervention more than 50 per cent of those people would be expected to develop diabetes within three years.

A new study suggests that intensive diet and exercise could prevent type 2 diabetes in some people who are at high risk of developing the disease. (Yeexin Richelle/Shutterstock)

Haw's conclusions? In clinical trials that tested drugs for diabetes prevention, the effects were short term.

"With medications, when you stop the effect goes away right away.," she told CBC News.

But intensive diet and exercise kept diabetes at bay for years.

"It should be encouraging for people who are pre-diabetic to see that if they are very diligent about lifestyle changes — exercise and healthy diet, which are the two biggest components of lifestyle modification — that they can prevent diabetes, and continue to prevent diabetes for a fairly significant amount of time."

The study is also further proof that diabetes can be prevented even in high-risk people.

"If individuals in this high-risk group continue to do the 150 minutes of physical exercise a week, and continue to eat a low-calorie, low-carb diet, and continue those efforts long term they may be able to continue to prevent progression to diabetes."

The study also confirmed that losing even a small amount of weight helps prevent diabetes.

"Even just one kilogram of weight loss was associated with reduced diabetes risk," Haw said. 

Plants can be sedated too

No one really knows why anesthetics work the way they do, even though these drugs have been around for nearly 200 years.

Ether, the first anesthetic, was discovered in 1818 and used in surgery as an inhaled vapour in 1846.

Since then many different chemicals have been found to induce anesthesia in humans and other animals.

What's puzzling to scientists is that these compounds have no structural similarities. And while there are several theories, no one knows for sure what these drugs have in common that makes us lose consciousness.

To find out, one group of researchers has taken an unusual approach. They decided to try to anesthetize plants.

In their quest to find out exactly how anesthetics put humans and other animals to sleep, researchers tried to anesthetize plants — and found the drug could leave a plant unable to close its trap around its prey. (Marco Uliana/Shutterstock)

Their study showed for the first time that the same concentration of an anesthetic can have an immobilizing effect on different plant systems — some that had leaves, others tendrils and some traps. Picture the iconic Venus Fly Trap unable to close its infamous trap around its prey, for example.

Frantisek Baluska, one of the study authors and a cell biologist from the University of Bonn in Germany, said the research challenges one of the most widely supported theories about how anesthetics work — that they act on some sort of receptor in the nervous system.

Instead, the study supports other theories that suggest anesthetics target cell membrane activities in both animals and plants, Baluska told CBC News.

While we still don't know exactly how the drugs we rely on during life-saving procedures really work, this research could bring us closer to solving that mystery.