In early January a friend mentioned that his New Year’s resolution was to beat his chronic depression once and for all. Over the years he had tried a medicine chest’s worth of antidepressants, but none had really helped in any enduring way, and when the side effects became so unpleasant that he stopped taking them, the withdrawal symptoms (cramps, dizziness, headaches) were torture. Did I know of any research that might help him decide whether a new antidepressant his doctor recommended might finally lift his chronic darkness at noon?
The moral dilemma was this: oh, yes, I knew of 20-plus years of research on antidepressants, from the old tricyclics to the newer selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that target serotonin (Zoloft, Paxil, and the granddaddy of them all, Prozac, as well as their generic descendants) to even newer ones that also target norepinephrine (Effexor, Wellbutrin). The research had shown that antidepressants help about three quarters of people with depression who take them, a consistent finding that serves as the basis for the oft-repeated mantra “There is no question that the safety and efficacy of antidepressants rest on solid scientific evidence,” as psychiatry professor Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College recently wrote in The New York Times. But ever since a seminal study in 1998, whose findings were reinforced by landmark research in The Journal of the American Medical Association last month, that evidence has come with a big asterisk. Yes, the drugs are effective, in that they lift depression in most patients. But that benefit is hardly more than what patients get when they, unknowingly and as part of a study, take a dummy pill—a placebo. As more and more scientists who study depression and the drugs that treat it are concluding, that suggests that antidepressants are basically expensive Tic Tacs.
When Samantha Burton started having complications in her 25th week of pregnancy, the Florida mom of two went to see her doctor. When he ordered bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy—potentially 15 weeks—she wanted a second opinion. “I did not feel I was receiving the care I needed,” she told NEWSWEEK, in a prepared statement.
But Burton did not get a second opinion. She was not allowed to leave the hospital. After she protested her doctor’s orders, the hospital obtained a court order requiring her to comply with her doctor’s medical advice as to “preserve the life and health of Samantha Burton’s unborn child.” So Burton remained in the hospital where, three days later, she miscarried.
Around 4 p.m., I saw a weird Facebook status update from a friend, a journalist turned lawyer whose writing is usually smart, grammatical, and comprehensible. The update read, “rose and lavender paisley.” Huh? Over the next seven hours, more than half the status updates in my feed turned out to be colors, mostly pink, beige, and black. I figured out that these were colors of bras. Then I chuckled a little at my friends who had written “nothing” and “pink” (that friend was a man) and “harvest gold” (him, too).
You know what I didn’t do? Think about breast cancer. That, however, was supposedly the point of the exercise. No one yet knows who started the meme, but apparently, someone kicked it off a few days ago with a chain-letter-style Facebook message to a bunch of women, asking them to virtually flash the world in the name of supporting medical research, and to forward the note only to other female friends, and to be aware of breasts. Sorry, breast cancer. Right.
The message is not “Here’s your destiny. Get used to it!” Instead, it’s “Here’s your destiny, and you can do something about it!” Diseases result from a combination of genetic vulnerability and lifestyle. If you know you have high risk of certain diseases, it’s in your interest to know and practice the lifestyle that reduces your risk—and the younger, the better.
I had this ‘Oh my God’ moment, thinking, how many kids have been produced?" he says. "I thought the doctors were keeping track of each birth, but when I realized they weren’t, I began to worry. What if they start dating one another?" He also began to worry about their genetic health. "I wanted to know if I have anything totally lethal or deranged or recessive in my genes that I may have passed along.
The fact that Republicans and Democrats differ on whether health-care reform should include a public option is no surprise. That they differ on setting a date for exiting Afghanistan, sure. On Sarah Palin, of course. But on physics? And biology? That the growing list of issues where there is a partisan divide now includes the accuracy of scientific findings may be lamentable for a democracy (if we can’t agree on facts, how can we agree on policy?), but it’s a gold mine for research on how personality and other psychological factors influence political ideology.
The red-blue split on mammograms is particularly striking. In a recent poll, the Pew Research Center asked 1,002 American adults about a preventive-health task force’s conclusion that most women can safely begin mammograms at age 50, not 40, and have one every two years, not annually. (Large studies have found that earlier mammograms save almost no lives; since the radiation can cause cancer, it therefore makes sense to minimize them.) Among Republicans, 15 percent agreed with that. Among Democrats? Twice as many.
Research has linked genes to intelligence, social skills, neuroticism, risk taking, impulsivity, and more. In most cases, “linked” means determining that the behavior is partly inherited, but not how the gene brings about the behavior. What if the gene affects a trait known to be strongly heritable, such as appearance or temperament, and what if that trait in turn elicits particular behaviors from parents and teachers: behaviors such as responsiveness, paying attention to, interacting with, speaking to—things that affect how a child turns out academically and socially? If so, we are mistakenly attributing these outcomes to genes “for” intelligence and the rest, when in fact all the genes do is give a child looks or temperament that elicits, for instance, IQ-boosting responses from adults.