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Brilliant algorithm on the shape of epidemics

I was reading this fine article by Kevin Drum on lead and crime, when this paragraph jumped out:

Experts often suggest that crime resembles an epidemic. But what kind? Karl Smith, a professor of public economics and government at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it's everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and the fall of crime in the '90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule.

The way to fight ebola is said to be contact tracing, but I can't a graph mapping the shape of the contacts; my guess is that its spread follows transportation routes, or maybe it leaps via transport nodes, and then ans out from each node. I'm not sure why there's no shape listed for "viral," as opposed to microbia.)

But I wasn't thinking of ebola.

I was thinking of obesity. (Pause to point over there for shaming and health discussion. Anybody who travels in and out of the United States regularly can see that Americans are just heavier. Massively heavier.) Could be High Fructose Corn Syrup (as in the wonderful King Corn) but something else, or other molecules in combination, over time, since the food-like products in this country are a witches brew of chemicals. And plenty of other oddball diseases that seem to be diet related in some way.

I'm not sure at this point we can figure out what, or have the the time to figure out what, which is why Michael Pollan's mantra -- Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. -- is probably the best way to go. Cut out everything (except for water) that might have those molecules in it, and you'll be healthier and happily. (In some ways, the nutrition sites remind me of CT; bogged down in detail and sucking energy from solutions. We don't need to know which molecule to know a molecule; and culture takes it from there with taboos and customs. We'd get a lot further on global warming, I am convinced, if we could get hydrocarbons treated as the objects of taboo that they indeed should be, being icky, sticky, corrosive, flammable, and poisonous.*

Looks like the right wing loons got the idea right. They just got the wrong molecule.

"On no account will a Commie ever drink water, and not without good reason."

NOTE * OK, OK, confession time, I mowed a lot of lawns as a kid, and the fresh smell of gasoline....

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quixote's picture
Submitted by quixote on

I've been saying for years (over on Acid Test, which even fewer people read than this blog :D ) that endocrine disruptors are a major enviromental cause of the obesity epidemic. Many pesticides disrupt hormones, and those kinds started being widely used after DDT was banned. So they coincide with the rise of obesity post-1970s. Also, components, especially breakdown components, of plastics (like the well-known BPA), flame retardants, etc., disrupt hormonal signalling. They're everywhere in the water supply and in food. Hormones are hugely important for determining fat deposition. Think man-boobs, which are everywhere now and were rare in the high and far-off times.

So there's your (set of) molecules that appeared everywhere and caused the same problem everywhere.

Plus, of course, a huge rise in fast food advertising.

One of the other points worth noticing is that if endocrine disruptors really are a major cause of obesity, dealing with it would mean a complete change of our industrial and agricultural systems.

No wonder they keep telling everyone to fix obesity by dieting.

Alexa's picture
Submitted by Alexa on

Excerpt from "Inequality, Health Disparities, & Obesity," [Patrick F. Clarkin, Ph.D., biological anthropology, war & health, growth & nutrition]

Furthermore, there is good evidence that inequality itself, and not merely gross national income per person, is harmful to health and social problems (Pickett and Wilkinson 2007). . . .

Rates of obesity are increasing globally, and this is no longer confined to wealthy countries (Balkau et al 2007), but the association between socioeconomic status (SES) and weight is complex. . . .

For the U.S. and other high-income countries, various mechanisms and pathways may link lower SES (socioeconomic status) and obesity, including:

(1) Economic constraints and reduced food choice options preventing acquisition of more expensive, less energy-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals), and greater reliance on cheaper fatty and sugary foods, including sweetened drinks (Miech et al., 2006).

(2) ‘Food deserts.’ Farther distance from supermarkets with better food variety and fewer transportation options in poorer neighborhoods (Zenk et al., 2005).

Overall decrease in leisure time and time for recreational exercise for adults (Monteiro et al., 2004). (Especially for those who work multiple minimum or low-wage jobs.)

(3) Lower levels of education and nutritional knowledge (Oh and Hong, 2003).

(4) Lower neighborhood safety and parental fear for child safety precluding outdoor exercise (Molnar et al., 2004).

(5) Skipping breakfast, and possible overeating at lunch and dinner (Miech et al., 2006).

(6) Possible cyclical binge eating when food is available in food insecure households (Basiotis and Lino, 2003).

Submitted by lambert on

But all the causes you list are all over the world.

I could see the shift in a few short years in Thailand. The fast food came in, and in less than a decade it was no longer remarkable to see obese Thai people.

However, as far as the shape of the epidemic... I would think it's different from the molecule, probably blotchy by class. It's easier to be thin if you're rich.