Tag Archives: death

Researchers list the 10 lifestyle choices most likely to kill you

We all want a long, happy life, but how does one get it? New research from the University of British Columbia (UBC) can’t tell us, but it will tell us which social factors were most associated with death between 2008 and 2014.

Image via Pixabay.

Smoking, alcohol abuse, and divorce were the three closest-linked factors to death during this time interval out of a list of 57 social and behavioral factors. The team used data collected from 13,611 U.S. adults between 1992 and 2008, tying it to which factors applied to those who died between 2008 and 2014.

A good life

“It shows that a lifespan approach is needed to really understand health and mortality,” said Eli Puterman, Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia’s school of kinesiology and lead author of the study.

“For example, instead of just asking whether people are unemployed, we looked at their history of unemployment over 16 years. If they were unemployed at any time, was that a predictor of mortality? It’s more than just a one-time snapshot in people’s lives, where something might be missed because it did not occur. Our approach provides a look at potential long-term impacts through a lifespan lens.”

The research was prompted by the observation that life expectancy in the U.S. stagnated, as compared to those in other industrialized countries, for the last three decades (only picking up recently). Medical and biological factors definitely have a huge impact, so they were omitted from this study in order to make room for social, psychological, economic, and behavioural factors.

Data was obtained from the U.S. Health and Retirement Study, a nationally-representative study with participants from 50 to 104 years old. While obviously still limited — the survey didn’t capture factors such as food insecurity or domestic abuse — its results can help us understand, in broad lines, which factors or coupling of factors seemed most closely aligned with death for the participants.

A total of 57 factors was analyzed. Out of this list, the 10 most closely associated with death, in order, were:

  • Being a smoker
  • A history of divorce
  • Past or present alcohol abuse
  • Going through financial difficulties recently
  • A history of unemployment
  • A history of smoking
  • Feeling lower levels of life satisfaction
  • Having never married
  • Having relied on food stamps in the past or presently
  • Negative affect

“If we’re going to put money and effort into interventions or policy changes, these areas could potentially provide the greatest return on that investment,” Puterman said.

While smoking has long been identified as a driver of preventable death, the weight of factors such as negative affect or unemployment is surprising. Given how important they were determined to be here, the team says that targeting them with interventions might be a good idea. However, it’s not yet clear what such interventions would look like, whether these factors can be targeted as such, and whether interventions here would actually lead to a reduction in the risk of death.

The paper “Predicting mortality from 57 economic, behavioral, social, and psychological factors” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Plague extent.

Study reveals true scale of one of the world’s deadliest plagues

New research shows that one of the deadliest plagues in the world was even more far-reaching than previously believed.


Image credits Alchemilla Mollis

The work was carried out by an interdisciplinary team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany and the Harvard University. They covered 21 archaeological sites across Europe and the Mediterranean that date back to the Plague of Justinian, back in 541 A.D. They report that the plague affected even more of the world than previously believed, reaching as far as the post-Roman British Isles.

Plagues for days

“This study shows the potential of paleogenomic research for understanding historical and modern pandemics by comparing genomes across millennia,” Johannes Krause, director of the Max Planck Institute and co-director of the Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean and the paper’s corresponding author, said in a statement.

This outbreak was one of the deadliest events in humanity’s history, killing an estimated 25-50 million people (between 13-26%) of the world’s population at the time of its first outbreak. It nearly brought the Byzantine Empire and its neighboring Sasanian Empire to the brink of collapse. Justinian’s Plague was the single deadliest pandemic to afflict Europe (and perhaps the world as a whole) until the Black Plague, and made repeated appearances until the year 750. The Black Death is estimated to have killed every 1 in 2 or 3 people living in Europe at the time. It was caused by the same bacteria.

The Justinian Plague gets its name from the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who ruled the eastern portion of the Roman Empire from Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) after the fall of Rome and the western Empire. The pandemic started during the reign of Emperor Justinian, and spread from Constantinople and ports around the Mediterranean. Accounts from the time say that the plague wiped out half of Constantinople’s population, although these have yet to be confirmed. Such impacts are still under active investigation by historians, archaeologists, and experts in ancient DNA at the Max Planck-Harvard Research Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean (MHAAM). In the current study, the team reconstructed the genomes of eight Y. pestis strains from samples gathered in France, Germany, Spain, and Great Britain.

Geographic extent of the First Pandemic and sampled sites.
Image credits Marcel Keller et al., (2019), PNAS.

Samples that the team recovered at these sites were examined for genetic traces of Yersinia pestis, the bacteria known to have caused the plague. The first finding was the confirmation that this was the plague that swept the Mediterranean during Justinian’s time, even if it is recorded under various names in historical documents.

Secondly, the team could chart the evolution of the bacteria over time. They report that the strains that popped over the two-century-long pandemic were quite diverse genetically. Samples taken during the latter days of the pandemic show Y. pestis had shed genes relating to two virulence factors, they explain.

“It’s a fantastic example of how we can get new results that are really important in a debate that, kind of paradoxically, is heating up right now about whether the Justinianic pandemic was an important thing or not, just as new evidence really starts to appear,” says paper co-author McCormick.

“The archaeological and archaeogenetic evidence is opening up a whole new — not just a chapter — a whole new book on this great story.”

The team also found traces of the plague in Britain, an area where it hadn’t been previously confirmed. The bacterial DNA found there is more basal, the team explains, which suggests that it arrived there directly from areas where the plague was first reported — such as Egypt — rather than the Roman Empire.

“If that’s so,” McCormick said, “that suggests almost direct transmission from Egypt to Britain.”

This last tidbit is especially interesting. Given that the plague spread from and around the Mediterranean, one would assume that any Y. pestis in Britain would have been carried there by Romano-Celts moving into the islands after the Romans left, a century later. However, the team found the bacteria in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, among people who were expanding their control of Britain at the time. The question now is how the four infected individuals in Britain contracted the plague — a finding which the team says will give us a better understanding of the social, political, and economic dynamics of the day.

McCormick said researchers will continue to expand the picture of this period, focusing on the role the plague played not just in human health, but, given its extraordinary death rate, also in warfare, politics, economics, and a whole host of other human activities.

“We now have a pathogen whose molecular history we can follow for thousands of years,” McCormick said, adding that our understanding of the plague’s impact on this era will continue to grow. “The jury’s out, evidence is accumulating, and we’re all going to learn as we go forward.”

The paper “Ancient Yersinia pestis genomes from across Western Europe reveal early diversification during the First Pandemic (541–750)” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Sudden infant death syndrome linked to a rare genetic mutation

A group of researchers discovered a new, important genetic mutation, associated with the breathing muscles, that is implicated in cot deaths. They believe future research will find a way to prevent such tragedies.

Via Pixabay/RitaE

“Previously the whole focus of trying to understand it was either the heart or the brain cells controlling breathing,” said Professor Michael Hanna of the MRC Centre for Neuromuscular Diseases at University College London, one of the authors of the new paper published in The Lancet.

Professor Hanna said that researchers now want to investigate all the other genes associated with the breathing muscles that may be implicated in cot deaths and see what role they are playing.

The newly discovered genetic mutation causes a dysfunction in the management of low oxygen levels in the infant’s blood, researchers said.  It alters the shape of a “sodium pump” that maintains an electric current to stimulate muscle contraction.

“I think the evidence is pretty compelling that some cases of SIDS are caused by sodium channel mutations,” said Prof. Hanna.
“There must be a vulnerability, and what we’re saying is that in some cases, the sodium channel is rendering them vulnerable,” he explained.

Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), is also known as crib death because the seemingly healthy infants often die in their cribs during sleep. The affected babies are less than a year old. These tragic events are rare, about 300 such unexpected deaths happening in the UK every year and 2,400 in the US.

Doctors recommend to lay the babies on their back and not their front, not to smoke near them and not to share a bed with them. Time has proven that these measures reduce the risks of cot deaths, but scientists have never understood why such horrible events happened. Previous research has described one other genetic mutation in a heart gene which may play a part in SIDS.

In this new paper, researchers studied the cases of 278 children who died unexpectedly and were diagnosed with SIDS – 84 from the UK and 194 from the US. After sequencing their genome, scientists compared them with the ones of adults with no cardiovascular, neurological or respiratory diseases.

Next, researchers looked at the prevalence of the SCN4A gene that codes for a cell surface receptor found on top of breathing muscular cells. At birth, the expression of this surface receptor is low, gradually increasing during the first two years of life.

Scientists observed that the rare mutation was found in four of the children previously diagnosed with SIDS, and in none of the adults. Even though the figure may not seem relevant to you, researchers say it is highly significant because it is normally found in fewer than five people in every 100,000. The research team believes that this mutation could affect children’s breathing muscles, making them weaker. Infants are most vulnerable when sleeping in the wrong position or tangled in the bedclothes.

“In the population we studied, the evidence is strong that it is at the very least a risk factor in those cases that had it [the genetic mutation],” said Hanna. “It certainly doesn’t explain the majority of Sids,” he concluded.

Luckily, in the future, researchers will be able to find all the genes implicated in triggering SIDS and develop a method to fight this dreadful syndrome.

Lead exposure might be responsible for 10 times more premature deaths than previously thought

A new study suggests that lead exposure may be responsible for nearly 10 times more deaths in the United States than previously thought.

Credit: Wikipedia.

Scientists have discovered that nearly 412,000 deaths each year in the US can be attributed to lead contamination. That number is ten times higher than the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle had previously reported.

“Today, lead exposure is much lower because of regulations banning the use of lead in petrol, paints and other consumer products, so the number of deaths from lead exposure will be lower in younger generations. Still, lead represents a leading cause of disease and death, and it is important to continue our efforts to reduce environmental lead exposure,” explained Professor Bruce Lanphear, from Simon Fraser University in Canada.

Lanphear and colleagues estimated that 28.7% of heart disease-related premature deaths in the US could be caused by lead exposure, which comes to a total of 256,000 deaths annually. 

Researchers used data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which monitored 14,289 US adults for 20 years. Of the 4,422 participants who died by 2011, approximately 18% of them could have been saved by reducing blood lead concentrations to 1.0 micrograms per deciliter.

Compared to those with low lead blood concentrations, people with high lead levels (over 6.7 micrograms) had the risk of premature death from any cause increased by 37%, the risk of cardiovascular death increased by 70%, and double the risk of death from ischemic heart disease.

“Our study calls into question the assumption that specific toxicants, like lead, have ‘safe levels’, and suggests that low-level environmental lead exposure is a leading risk factor for premature death in the USA, particularly from cardiovascular disease,” Professor Lanphear said in a statement.

Lead exposure can contribute to cardiovascular disease by various pathways. Lead affects the epithelial cells of the blood vessels, which increases the chances of developing plaques that can then cause a heart attack. Lead contamination also leads to kidney damage, which causes high blood pressure and probably acts synergistically with plaque formation.
Also, if you live near an airport, your blood lead levels will be a little higher than if you live farther away due to the lead found in the aviation gas used in single piston jets.

“Estimating the contribution of low-level lead exposure is essential to understanding trends in cardiovascular disease mortality and developing comprehensive strategies to prevent cardiovascular disease. Currently, low levels of lead exposure are an important, but largely ignored risk factor for deaths from cardiovascular disease,” said Professor Lanphear.

The team admits that the study’s principal limitation is that the research relied heavily on one blood concentration measurement taken at the beginning of the study period, almost 20 years ago.
“Our reliance on a single blood test as opposed to serial blood tests means that we have underestimated the impact of lead exposure on cardiovascular disease,” Lanphear said. “There are some things in the study design itself that we really couldn’t change.”

The team urges the retirement of lead-contaminated housing, lead-laden jet fuels, lead water pipes, and the reduction of emissions from smelters and lead battery facilities.

“We’ve made tremendous progress in reducing these exposures in the past four to five decades,” Lanphear added. “But our blood levels are still 10 to 100 times higher than our pre-industrial ancestors,” Lanphear concludes.

Scientific reference: Bruce Lanphear , Stephen Rauch, Peggy Auinger, Ryan W Allen , Richard W Hornung. Low-level lead exposure and mortality in US adults: a population-based cohort studyThe Lancet Public Health, 2018 DOI: 10.1016/S2468-2667(18)30025-2

Skull statue.

Death creeps through the brain as a “spreading wave” of silence and inactivity

New research looks at the neurological processes of death.

Skull statue.

Image credits Alchemilla Mollis.

We’re all afraid of dying — us and (almost) every other bit of life on this planet, as well. Talking about death can get very uncomfortable, but it’s a natural, quite significant part of our lives. Understanding what we can of it might help us come to grips with death; maybe even fear it less.

The roots of the paper we’ll be discussing here stretch as far back as the 1940s, when Harvard biologist Aristides Leão, working with lab rabbits, observed a “spreading depression” in their brains. Leão described this phenomenon as a silencing of electrical activity following injury in the exposed brains of unconscious animals. The silencing began within 5 minutes at the point of injury before extending over more distant parts of the brain. For what should be quite self-evident reasons, Leão never did replicate his study with humans — so we were unsure whether our brains similarly experience this spreading depression or not.

However, new work published by an international team of neurologists builds on Leão’s research and looks at what happens in the brain of a dying human. To gather their data, the researchers worked with hospitals in Berlin and Cincinnati; after getting consent from next of kin or other legal representatives, they recorded the brain activity of nine patients who died with electrodes implanted into their brains. All of the patients had existing conditions that required invasive neural monitoring, meaning the electrodes were already installed before doctors pulled them from life support.

The nine patients all had severe brain injuries. One was a “47-year-old male occupant of a car struck by train,” another, a “57-year-old male who was found at the base of a stairway”. The others were victims of heart attacks or strokes. The team notes that because of their condition, the nine had likely already experienced their first “spreading depression” before the electrodes were applied — their bodies were being kept alive, but ‘they’ were already dead.

The carbon computer

Brains are made up mostly of cells called neurons. These are the ones which handle information processing, the ones doing the thinking, remembering, and everything that has to do with information.

Like everything else in our bodies, they need finely-tuned conditions to survive. That’s called homeostasis. However, unlike most other cells in the body, neurons need to be able to create a lot of electric impulses, and do so on a dime, every time — they do that through careful application of chemical imbalances that create electrical ones. In short, when a neuron wants to fire, it floods itself with charged ions, which spread an electric shock to its neighbors.

Maintaining this imbalance, however, requires a constant and quite significant expenditure of effort and resources. The same electromagnetic forces that form the signals try to wipe the ions’ charge clean off and fix the imbalance — even as the neurons work to maintain it. So, they need to be supplied with a lot of oxygen and chemical fuel from the bloodstream to maintain proper function. When the body dies, and the blood supply is cut, neurons try to save up as many resources as they can, the team writes.

Sending signals back and forth is a huge expenditure of energy, if you happen to be a neuron; so the cells go silent and pool all their efforts into maintaining their internal charges, waiting for the blood to start flowing again.

The authors also report that the first wave of darkness doesn’t spread — rather, it happens everywhere at once, as starving neurons throughout the brain clamp down on signaling. The final, spreading wave comes a few minutes later, after the cells have burned through their limited stores and their ions leach into thee surrounding tissues. This marks the final moments of brain function for dying patients, the authors report.

However, they note that this shouldn’t be used as an end-all marker of death. Past research has shown that if blood and oxygen return to the brain quickly enough after the spreading wave, the neurons resume activity and recover their chemical charge. It takes several minutes for the depolarized neurons, sitting in this chemical cocktail, to reach a “commitment point” beyond which they cannot restart their function.

The paper “Terminal spreading depolarization and electrical silence in death of human cerebral cortex” has been published in the Annals of Neurlogy.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

More than half of police killings in the United States were not officially documented

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A disturbing new study reports that half of all people killed by police in 2015 in the United States were severely undercounted. Harvard researchers compiled data from media reports in order to find the misreported police killings, arriving at a harrowing tally of 1,166 fatalities for 2015.

“To effectively address the problem of law enforcement-related deaths, the public needs better data about who is being killed, where, and under what circumstances,” said Justin Feldman, doctoral student at Harvard Chan School and lead author of the study, in a public statement. “But we also found that a different approach — compiling data from media reports — can help solve this problem.”

This is the first study to measure the undercounting of police-related deaths, providing the most accurate count to date. The main issue that prevents us from reliably following police killings is the lack of a nation-wide system that tracks all law-enforcement related fatalities. As such, the Harvard scientists had to turn to two incomplete datasets. One is the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which documents fatalities based on state death certificate data. Since 1949, the NVSS features a category called “legal intervention” which coroners can fill under cause of death. The other is a dataset compiled by British media outlet The Guardian called ‘The Counted’ which tallies police killings based on news reports and crowdsourced information.

The media was able to count 93 percent of all police killings. The government barely managed to count half

Researchers looked at the number of people who appeared on The Guardian list only, the NVSS list only, and both lists, then, using statistical tools, ascertained the degree of overlap. They estimate that there were 1,166 law-enforcement related fatalities in 2015.

Some of the key findings from the new study:

  • The main reason why police killings were undercounted was due to the coroner failing to mention police involvement on the death certificate.
  • There were 599 deaths reported in The Guardian only, 36 reported in the NVSS only, 487 reported in both lists.
  • The NVSS documented 44.9% of the total number of deaths and The Counted documented 93.1%.
  • Undercounting of police-related deaths varied widely across states. For instance, nearly all of the 17 police-related deaths in Oregon were counted, but none of the 36 such deaths in Oklahoma were
  • Misclassification rates for police-related deaths topped 60% among several groups: people under age 18, blacks, people killed by something other than a firearm (particularly Tasers, which accounted for 46 deaths), and people killed in low-income counties.

The authors caution that the nation needs laws requiring police to report all law-enforcement related casualties to public health authorities. The new study also shows that news media reports can be used by state officials to identify police-related fatalities in order to more accurately track such incidents. This shouldn’t be too difficult seeing how a 2014 study of homicides showed that 99 percent were recorded accurately on death certificates. The problem, as such, seems to be unique to law enforcement involvement. Right now, this gross failure to accurately report police killings is unacceptable and, hopefully, the Harvard study will serve as a wake-up call to policymakers.

“As with any public health outcome or exposure, the only way to understand the magnitude of the problem, and whether it is getting better or worse, requires that data be uniformly, validly, and reliably obtained throughout the U.S.,” said Nancy Krieger, professor of social epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and senior author of the study. “Our results show our country is falling short of accurately monitoring deaths due to law enforcement and work is needed to remedy this problem.”

Scientific reference: “Quantifying underreporting of law- enforcement-related deaths in United States vital statistics and news-media-based data sources: A capture-recapture analysis,” Justin M. Feldman, Sofia Gruskin, Brent A. Coull, Nancy Krieger, PLoS Medicine, October 10, 2017, doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002399.

Doctors record brain activity in a deceased patient 10 minutes after death

A medical oddity was recently recorded by doctors who studied the electroencephalography (EEG) diagrams from four terminally ill patients right at the moment life support was unplugged. One of the patients had brain activity even ten minutes after the heart stopped which is totally not normal to say the least. Nobody knows for sure what happened.


When a person dies, 99% of the time this will be a ‘cardiac death’ meaning death has occurred when the heart stopped beating. Without the heart pumping blood, vital oxygen doesn’t reach the brain resulting in death. Once the heart stops beating, it shouldn’t take long before death sets in because cells in the brain start shutting down. In fact, it can happen even sooner, as we’ll notice later.

According to a 2013 study that recorded death-related brain activity in rodents, there are four distinct stages of brain death. Stage 1 is cardiac arrest and it takes only approximately 4 seconds between the last regular heartbeat and the loss of oxygenated blood pulse. The second stage lasts about 6 seconds and ends with a burst of low-frequency brain waves, the so-called ‘delta blip’ or ‘death wave’. In the third and final active death stage there is still some brain activity which lasts around 20 seconds which, very intriguingly, resemble brain waves recorded in waking state leading some to speculate this may be the source of “highly lucid and realer-than-real mental experiences reported by near-death survivors”. Stage four: dead for good.

Studying a person’s final brain activity is very challenging, though, for obvious reasons. There is still much we don’t know about what goes on inside the brain once a person passes but this strange recent case reported by Canadian researchers is just mind-boggling.

Patient #2, for instance, out of the four investigated by Loretta Norton and colleagues of the University of Western Ontario, Canada, ceased displaying EEG activity 10 minutes before the heart stopped beating. Patient #4, however, displayed the opposite pattern. All four EEGs are shown in the diagram below where ‘time 0’ represents the moment of cardiac death and yellow vertical lines show brain activity.

The yellow lines you’re seeing are the delta wave bursts, which are the same brain waves we experience during deep sleep. As you can notice, each of the four EEGs exhibits a unique pattern. This may mean that, in some way at least, no two deaths are the same.

“Electrocerebral inactivity preceded the cessation of the cardiac rhythm and ABP in three patients. In one patient, single delta wave bursts persisted following the cessation of both the cardiac rhythm and ABP. There was a significant difference in EEG amplitude between the 30-minute period before and the 5-minute period following ABP cessation for the group, but we did not observe any well-defined EEG states following the early cardiac arrest period,” the researchers wrote in their paper published in The Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences.

The real star of the paper is this patient #4. The researchers have no biological explanation for what may have prolonged brain activity for this much time. All four patients were terminally ill and were on a tonne of medication before life support was unplugged. The sample size of the study which includes only four recorded deaths also makes difficult to draw any conclusions. Again, there are only a few dozen people who have had their brain activity recorded mere moments before death. Bearing this in mind, the researchers think that this anomalous delta wave pattern could be due to some faulty equipment.

That may sound disappointing to hear but the truth is no seems to know what happened here.  In 2011, the same ‘death waves’ were recorded in a rodent even one minute after it was decapitated yet again highlighting the difficulty of pinpointing the moment of death. But the good news is that we’re constantly learning more. Maybe one day, science will become so advanced it will unravel what happens even in death. What that happen, we might be even able to trick it.

Masaya Nakamura, the “father of Pac-Man” dies at age 91

Toy and game software company Bandai Namco Holdings announced on Monday that its founder Masaya Nakamura, the man behind Pac-Man, has died on Jan. 22 at the age of 91. Bandai Namco’s statement gave no further details regarding the cause of death.

If you’re into games today, Nakamura is one of the people who made it happen for you. A ship-building graduate at the Yokohama Institute of Technology in 1948, Nakamura got into the amusement ride business in 1955 as the country’s economy recovered after WW2. He started with two rocking horses on the roof of a department store in Yokohama, southwest of Tokyo. The rides were hugely popular, and were later installed throughout the country.

But it wasn’t kiddie rides that he made history with — it was video games. He understood their huge potential, so in 1970 Nakamura hired a bunch of software engineers, bought Atari’s Japanese branch, and turned Namco’s hand to making video games.

Ten years later, the company would release the highest-grossing arcade game ($7.68 billion adjusted for inflation in 2016) of all time: Pac-Man. The public loved it. So much so that the Guinness Book of World Records to named it the world’s most successful arcade game at the time.

Nakamura’s work made him into one of the pillars of Japanese and international gaming industries. After Pac-Man, he heavily developed and invested in hand-held and console systems — he’s one of the people without whom you wouldn’t have the old Pokemon Nintendo, or toady’s triple A shooters on consoles.

In 2005, when Namco merged with Bandai, Nakamura took up the honorary position of top adviser for the holding company. In 2007, he was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette — the highest honor the Japanese government bestows upon a civilian — for his contribution to Japanese industry.

The company’s statement requested respect for his family’s privacy. Nakamura’s funeral and wake were held privately, with Bandai Namko planning to offer a separate memorial service for the public.

Whales mourn, and grieve, and feel the loss of a loved one — just like you or me

A new study has found evidence of mourning behavior in more than six species of marine mammals. The animals have been seen clinging to the bodies of dead relatives or podmates, refusing to let go — a behavior similar to that of human grieving.

A mother orca with her dead newborn.
Image credits Robin W. Baird/Cascadia Research

The most likely explanation behind the animals’ observed behavior is grief, the researchers believe. Barbara King, emeritus professor of anthropology at William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, and author of the book How Animals Grieve, defines animal grief as emotional distress coupled with a disruption of usual behavior.

“They are mourning,” says study co-author Melissa Reggente, a biologist at the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy. “They are in pain and stressed. They know something is wrong.”

There is previous evidence of a growing number of species that seem to be stricken with grief at the loss of a family member. Elephants will even return over time to the resting place of a dead companion. All this lends weight to the argument that animals feel emotions. Throwing their hat into the controversy, Reggente and her colleagues gathered reports (most of them yet unpublished) of grieving behavior in seven whale species, from sperm whales to spinner dolphins. Their study found that all of these species have been reported to keep company with their dead around the globe. They’re not just isolated cases, either.

“We found it is very common, and [there is] a worldwide distribution of this behavior,” Reggente says.

And the animals seem to understand exactly what they’re doing. In one case, researchers on a boat in the Red Sea watched an Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin push the badly decayed corpse of a smaller dolphin through the water. When they lassoed the dead body and begun towing it towards land to bury it, the adult swam alongside the body, occasionally touching it. It escorted it until the water became dangerously shallow, and remained just offshore long after the carcass had been taken away. The relationship between the two dolphins isn’t clear, but Reggente believes they were either mother and child or close kin.

This behavior is even more striking when you consider just how costly it is for the animals. Keeping vigil over a dead companion means that the animals don’t feed and aren’t interacting with other whales, putting it at risk of starvation or social exclusion.

On other occasions, the scientists did have clues about the relationship between the mourner and the dead animals. One female killer whale, known as L72, was seen off San Juan Island in Washington carrying a dead new-born in her mouth. L72 showed signs of recently having given birth, and the researchers observing it reported that it was likely due to have another.

“She was trying to keep the [dead] calf up at the surface the entire time, balancing it on top of her head,” says study co-author Robin Baird of Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia, Washington, who witnessed the mother’s efforts.

A killer whale mother and her offspring may spend their whole lives together, he adds. When one dies Baird believes that “the animals go through a period where they’re experiencing the same kind of emotions you or I would when a loved one dies.”

The study also found reports of whales holding dead calves in their mouths, pushing them through the water or touching them with their fins. Grieving can also involve a whole community of whales — in one case, short-finned pilot whales in the North Atlantic Ocean created a circle around one adult and dead calf, seemingly protecting them.

Another case involving spinner dolphins took place in the Red Sea. Here, one adult pushed a young animal’s body toward a boat, and when the vessel’s crew lifted the carcass on board, the entire group of dolphins nearby circled the boat and swam off.

“We cannot explain why they did this,” Reggente says.

“Sure, sometimes we may be seeing curiosity or exploration or nurturing behavior that just can’t be ‘turned off,’” King said. “[But] it’s undeniable that we can also read something of the animals’ grief in the energy they expend to carry or otherwise keep dead infants afloat, to touch the body repeatedly, to swim in a social phalanx surrounding the primary affected individual.”

This behavior certainly has an element of curiosity or remanent nurturing instincts behind it, but they can’t, by themselves, explain what we’re seeing these animals do. They expend a whole lot of energy, either individually or as a group, in their rituals of carrying or keeping dead individuals afloat. The social interaction, centered on supporting the grieving individual, is also highly reminiscent of human society when confronted with the loss of its members.

We all know the pain and harrowing loneliness of losing a loved one, and it seems whales do too. The question now is how will we treat these animals, knowing they feel the same way as we do.

The full paper, titled “Nurturant behavior toward dead conspecifics in free-ranging mammals: new records for odontocetes and a general review” has been published online in the Journal of Mammalogy and can be read here.


Zombie genes are turned on even days after an organism dies


Credit: Wikipedia

Even days after we die, gene expression is still active. Even more striking, some genes that are rarely turned on during our lifetimes, like those responsible for development in the embryo stage, become active after an organism has expired.

This and much more was reported by a team of researchers led by Peter Noble of the University of Washington, Seattle. The researchers used a novel method which they developed to see ‘what happens when we die’.

Mouse and zebra fish cadavers had taken samples taken and genetically sequenced two days and four days, respectively, after the animals expired. They found “transcriptional abundance profiles of 1,063 genes were significantly changed after death of healthy adult animals in a time series spanning from life to 48 or 96 h postmortem.” Most of these genes became active in the first 24 hours, but even after four days some genes changed their profile despite the organism itself was long dead.

Many of these undead genes become active in times of emergency triggering inflammation, firing up the immune system, and counteracting stress. “What’s jaw-dropping is that developmental genes are turned on after death,” Noble told Science. These sort of genes are active in the embryo stage, spurring growth, but become essentially useless after birth. Apparently, they have an important role after death.

Perhaps, the most important find was that many genes associated with cancer were also turned on, which might explain why patients who have undergone transplants with organs from cadavers have such a high cancer incidence.

In another paper published in bioRxiv by the same Noble and colleagues, the researchers also outline how their post-mortem gene activity measurement method can be used to accurate establish time of death. “Many biological, chemical, and physical indicators can be used to determine the postmortem interval, but most are not accurate,” the researchers wrote in their paper. Some genes transcript levels peak after half an hour, others after 48 hours, so by sequencing samples taken from deceased individuals forensic scientists could use this method with great success.

It’s not clear so far why some genes are so active in death. It could be that many genes which were kept in check by others have been activated when the whole network collapsed due to death. The headline of this study is that we can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death,” Noble says.


People faced with the threat of death go out shopping more


Death is ubiquitous and inevitable, and people have learned to cope with it in various ways. In some places of the world, however, death is a more immediate prospect than in others. A team of researchers at Michigan State University led by marketing  professor Ayalla Ruvio found that people faced with a mortal threat such as a terrorist attack are more likely to engage in  compulsive consumption, and impulsive buying than those who are less exposed to such a threat. Their findings suggest the more materialistic the individual, the great the urge to shop – often buying habits include purchasing things people don’t actually need or afford. The findings extend to people who fear death and are materialistic, though they live in a low-threat environment such as the U.S.

The research consists of two major studies on two different kinds of shoppers: one in Israel, and the other in the U.S. For the Israeli study, the researchers handed out questionnaires at a community center in a town just one kilometer from the Gaza Strip, during six months of daily rocket attacks there in 2007.  The same survey was distributed to people living in a town much farther away from the fighting, who were aware of the ensuing violence but weren’t directly exposed to the threat.

The questionnaires were built in such a way so that the researchers might correlated shopping habits with traumatic stress. Did they experience post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares or memory loss? Did they cope with negative feelings by buying things? How often did they return from a shopping trip with items they hadn’t meant to purchase? Other questions assessed how materialistic the subjects were—did they place a lot of value on owning nice things?

Shop and stop thinking about death

Based on questions such as these, the researchers found that Israelis who were under threat of dying from the bombing were both more likely to report more post-traumatic stress and admit to more compulsive or impulsive shopping behaviors. The more materialistic the participants  , the stronger the two of the effects were found to be.

In the second study, the researchers gathered data from 855 American subjects who participants in an online survey. The questionnaire was similar to the Israeli one, in the sense that it asked people what their shopping habits are and measured how materialistic they are. Because the U.S. participants weren’t subjected to a direct threat, the survey measured how much they thought about their own death. The researchers found that people who are more materialistic both feared death more and were more likely to engage in impulse shopping, than people less materialistic. According to the researchers, this makes bad events even worse.

“Our U.S. study suggests that these effects are likely due to the fact that materialistic individuals exhibit lower levels of self-esteem, which reduces their ability to cope with traumatic events. Thus, our results indicate that, in addition to its well-documented harmful direct effect on psychological well-being, materialism also exerts an indirect negative effect by making bad events even worse.”

via Ink Fish

Death pathway

Death occurs more slowly than thought, like a wave killing the body cell by cell

Death pathwayStudying death in humans has always been precarious. I mean, it’s not like anyone would volunteer to be live dissected as they slowly die, and even if someone would agree to such a procedure, most likely it would not be allowed. Not in any western hospital anyway. Luckily, death is such a common, as in inevitable, occurrence for all living beings that most animals models are good enough to offer insights into the analogous effects of death in humans as well.

With this in mind, a new study claims that death in  organisms, including humans, spreads like a wave from cell to cell until the whole individual is dead. What interesting enough is that the scientists from the Institute of Health Aging at University College London who made the study believe that this biochemical process may be halted and death may be delayed.

To study how death spreads throughout the body, the researchers chose to study worms, which oddly or ironically enough are considered immortal in the face of aging. Anyway, they’ve been proven to be very mortal in the present research and quite valuable too. A neat feature of worms is that when they die the underlying process that follows can be easily seen through magnification. As the organism dies, a  fluorescent blue light is released caused by necrosis, namely a molecule called anthranillic acid.  Apparently, this is dependent upon calcium signaling.

“A blue grim reaper…”

“We’ve identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates cell death in worms, which we see as this glowing blue fluorescence traveling through the body. It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished,” David Gems from the Institute of Health Aging at University College London.

What this implies is that death doesn’t occur in the entire organism in an instant, but gradually propagates through out the entire body triggered by the death of vital individual cells, such as the case during a stressful event like a car accident or gunshot. This damage also happens, at a much slower pace albeit, when the individual ages.

Aged individuals are beyond hope and repair, according to the researchers, however if their trials on the worms offer in indications it’s that death could be “fooled” by stopping the calcium signaling biochemical spread of death under other non-aging-related circumstances.

“We found that when we blocked this pathway, we could delay death induced by a stress such as infection, but we couldn’t slow death from old-age,” Gems said. “This suggests that aging causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel.”

He continued that “the findings cast doubt on the theory that aging is simply a consequence of an accumulation of molecular damage. We need to focus on the biological events that occur during aging and death to properly understand how we might be able to interrupt these processes.”

Findings were detailed in a paper published in the journal PLoS Biology.

[source: Discovery]

Sleeping pills

Sleeping pills might put you to bed for good: linked with higher death risk

According to a recently released study authored by American physicians, sleeping pills are  linked to a more-than fourfold risk of premature death. If that wasn’t enough, the study goes on to state that people who take high doses are associated with a  35-percent increased risk of cancer, compared to non-users, although a valid explanation as to why this happens couldn’t be offered by the authors.

The conclusions were drawn after a team of doctors at the Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center in La Jolla, California , lead by Dr. Daniel Kripke, analyzed the records of 10,500 adults living in Pennsylvania who were taking prescribed sleeping aids, and compared them against more than 23,600 non-user counterparts, matched for age, health and background.

Sleeping pillsDuring the two and a half year long study, the researchers considered the administration patterns of subjects taking widely prescribed sleeping pills, like benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepines, barbiturates and sedatives. During this time frame, around a thousand fatalities occurred. At a first glance, no striking differences between the mortality rates in the two groups could be observed, upon a closer look though, things turned scary.

Those who took between 18 and 132 doses of the pills per year were 4.6 times likelier to succumb to death than the “control” group. If you might believe the metric, terrifying as it may be, is describing only a highly limited fraction of the group, like the hardcore consumers, keep in mind that even those who took less than 18 annual doses were more than 3.5 times likelier to die.

“Rough order-of-magnitude estimates… suggest that in 2010, hypnotics (sleeping pills) may have been associated with 320,000 to 507,000 excess deaths in the USA alone,” says the study.

The doctors involved in the study say they have an evident correlation at hand between sleeping pills usage and increased mortality rate, but up so far, the link is only statistical and they have yet to find the cause to the effect. The data is interesting enough though, considering the incredibly common usage of such drugs in the United States.

“We estimate that approximately six to 10 percent of US adults used these drugs in 2010 and the percentages may be higher in parts of Europe,” they write.

The average age of the people involved in the study, both users and non-users, is 54. While the study did not show the drugs actually caused cancer or death, the authors said there were many known ways for sleeping pills to shorten life because they were associated with depression which can trigger suicide, as well as interfering with motor and cognitive skills, which can cause accidents. Sleeping pills are also known to cause sleep apnoea for some people, which can lead to heart failure.

“From this nonrandomized study, we cannot be certain what portion of the mortality associated with hypnotics may have been attributable to these drugs, but the consistency of our estimates across a spectrum of health and disease suggests that the mortality effect of hypnotics was substantial.”

The researchers’ findings were published in the journal British Medical Journal’s Open.

image credit

[INFOGRAPHIC] The Truth About Sitting Down

Guess what you’re doing right now? Same thing I’m doing as I type this in, I know, but sitting down for too long is not at all alright. Actually, sitting down for more than six hours a day can increase your risk of death by as much as 40%! And no, even if you exercise 30 minutes a day, chances are you’re still not making up for the immense amount of time your body spends sitting.

The below captioned infographic was developed by MedicalBillingandCoding, and although it has a very panicky nature to it, it does tell a big truth – sitting is killing you.

Everest clean up team goes up again

Everest is known as many things; first of all it’s the highest point in Asia, and in the world. It’s perhaps the peak over 8000 meters that most people try to climb (due to obvious reasons); but it also kills.


Despite not being the most dangerous peak on the face of the earth, it has killed over 300 people since the 1950s, and the numbers continue to grow. It’s also called the highest dumpster in the world. For these two reasons, every now and then, a team has to go up the mountain and clean any debris left behind, and, sadly, bodies as well.

A team of 20 Sherpas left in late April with the purpose of gathering any garbage left behind by climbers and to retrieve the bodies the mountain claimed in the death zone – above 8000 meters, where the air is 3 times thinner than on sea level. They also achieved one of their major goals – bringing back body of Swiss climber Gianni Goltz, who died in a brave attempt to climb the mountain without oxygen.

Also, along were brought the corpses of New Zealander Rob Hall and American Scott Fischer, guides in the infamous 1996 disaster described in the best-selling book Into Thin Air. When people die in these conditions, they are often left behind, due to the practical problems their carriage would rise. It’s a sad but necessary reminder that when tackling this type of heights, something unexpected can (and probably will) appear – in which case you have to be absolutely prepared; and even then, things can go wrong, especially when you consider there are other peaks way more dangerous than the everest.

The garbage left behind includes discarded tents, oxygen supplies, food, etc, and it will be put up for display at an exhibition at Everest base camp.

“Eight Sherpas have dug out the body from under the snow of Swiss climber Gianni Goltz and have brought his body down from the South Col to Camp 2,” Karki wrote.