Why Our Brains Say “Yes” When the Facts Say “No”

If you’re an employer trying to motivate your workers, how do you get past their biases to get everyone on the same page, or at least rowing in the same direction? Psychologists suggest that, rather than taking on people’s surface attitudes and beliefs directly, tailor messages so that they align with their motivation.

Using vaccinations as an example, everyone agrees that deadly diseases exist, that they are bad, and that people are getting sick and dying from them. By exploring what happens when people resist vaccinating themselves or their children – the very real possibility that those adults or children will either get sick themselves or be a carrier who gets another child or person sick – and by examining statistics from reliable sources, we can “agree to disagree,” but still make a decision based on logic and the well-being of those around us.

That same thinking can be applied to getting employees to work together toward a common cause or goal. Influential people – leaders, both natural or by ranking in the workplace – can sway opinion. People want to be accepted, recognized, and considered a valuable part of a team. By looking for the things we have in common, listening to differing opinions, recognizing how people make decisions and then finding solutions and compromises, we become more effective leaders.

It isn’t entirely our fault that we err to the side of comfort. Based on scientific research, our brains protect us, validating information that supports our biases, often to the point of denigrating the information with which we disagree, accepting compatible information that makes us feel better – or which supports our beliefs – almost at face value. Scientists link this to our innate “fight or flight” response, with the twist being we may choose to fight by latching on to what we want to believe, in essence, “taking flight” from the truth to protect our opinions.

Psychologists have identified key factors that can cause people to reject science – and it has nothing to do with how educated or intelligent they are. In fact, researchers found that people who reject scientific consensus on topics such as climate change, vaccine safety, and evolution are generally just as interested in science and as well-educated as the rest of us. It’s just that they think more like lawyers than scientists, meaning they “cherry pick” the facts and studies that back up what they already believe is true.

As hard as this is to believe, or to understand, the rationale for this behavior often comes down to a simple, though troubling truth: No matter how irrefutable the evidence is, many people reject anything which contradicts their deeply entrenched false belief.

How they arrive at their false belief often has to do with how they are raised, religious doctrine, political leaning and their willingness to accept and believe information from powerful or confident people. Oftentimes, people would rather think they are right, even if they’re wrong. It becomes a tug of war between ego, self-esteem, long-held beliefs and the desire to stick with something that meshes with your own way of seeing the world, even if facts refute or contradict your opinion.

Over 90 percent of our decisions are made at an unconscious level. Brain imaging has shown that when the brain inputs data, the emotional centers light up first (what does this mean to me?), followed by the logic centers (what do I do with it?). This means that ‘facts’ are what people use to validate decisions already made at an unconscious level.

For example, if someone believes that vaccinations aren’t safe, they will ignore the hundreds of medical studies that support vaccination safety and glom onto the one study they can find that casts doubt. These phenomena are known as cognitive bias – people treat facts as more relevant when those facts tend to support their opinions. They may not totally deny facts that contradict their beliefs, but they will say that those facts are “less relevant.”

Our brains tend to easily accept information compatible with what we already know, and minimize information that contradicts what we already know, or believe we know. The information goes into our brain, but the importance our mind allots to these facts and information is being weighted unconsciously in favor of those bits of data that already fit our preconceptions. Our brains unconsciously diminish their importance, regardless of the truth or facts, and since they are perceived as “less important,” these facts or truths quickly fade from memory.

 


 

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Make Mine Shaken, Not Stirred

It’s encouraging to see that milk shakes are making a big comeback across America, especially since overall cow milk consumption – a critical component in maintaining strong bones and a healthy diet – is down, dropping 25 percent from 1975 to 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In part that’s due to milk allergies and lactose intolerance, but also to the proliferation of non-dairy drinks and the wide variety of “milk” products now available.

But just because it says “milk” on the label doesn’t make it milk – and the many substitutes attracting consumers are not necessarily as healthy as the real deal. So, what do we need to know about milk? Is it safe, is it healthy, and what types of milk products are best for us?

The primary types of milk sold in stores include whole milk, reduced-fat milk (2%), low-fat milk (1%), and fat-free milk (containing no more than 0.2% milk fat). The percentages included in the names of the milk indicate how much fat is in the milk by weight. Whole milk is 3.5% milk fat and is the closest to the way it comes from the cow before processing. All of these milks contain the nine essential nutrients found in whole milk but less fat.

The United States government sets minimum standards for fluid milk that is produced and sold. Reduced fat milks have the same nutrients of full-fat milk; no water is added to these types of milk. Additionally, most milk undergoes processing before we buy it. The three primary steps include pasteurization, homogenization and fortification.

Pasteurization heats the milk to destroy harmful microorganisms and prolong shelf life. Normal pasteurization keeps milk safer while maintaining its valuable nutrients. Ultra-high temperature (UHT) milk is pasteurized at a much higher temperature to make it sterile. UHT milk is then packed into special containers that keep it safe without requiring refrigeration.

After pasteurization, milk undergoes homogenization to prevent separation of the milk fat from the fluid milk. Homogenization creates a smooth, uniform texture. Then milk is fortified to increase its nutritional value or to replace nutrients lost during processing. Vitamin D is added to most milk produced in the United States to facilitate the absorption of calcium. Vitamin A is frequently added to reduced-fat, low-fat and fat-free milks. Vitamin A promotes normal vision, particularly helping the eyes to adjust to low-light settings.

All milk must comply with very stringent safety standards and is among the most highly regulated and safest foods available. Organic milk is produced by dairy farmers that use only organic fertilizers and organic pesticides, and their cows are not given supplemental hormones. Dairy farmers and producers also make many specialty forms of milk to meet consumer preferences and needs, such as milk that is lactose-free and ultra-pasteurized.

Consuming Dairy Milk Alternatives

While milk consumption per capita has been on a steady decrease, the mainstreaming of plant-based dairy alternatives like soy, almond and rice milk has averaged annual U.S. sales growth of 10.9 percent since 1999, resulting in more than $1 billion in annual retail sales.

The non-dairy milk product category was created to accommodate people who are lactose intolerant or have vegan dietary restrictions – not because they are nutritionally equivalent or better. Alternatives like soy milk and almond milk generally are much lower in calcium and vitamin D, but many of these products make up for it by adding the nutrients later.

Conventional milk is an excellent source of protein and bone-strengthening calcium, as well as vitamins D and K. The National Academy of Sciences recommends that people aged 19 to 50 should digest 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day, or drink around one to two glasses per day, but it’s still unclear how much calcium we should be consuming. Researchers also warn that too much milk could mean an excess of saturated fat and retinol (vitamin A), which can sometimes end up weakening bones.

Soy milk is a protein-rich alternative to cow’s milk but lacks in calcium. Soy often is used for babies who have trouble digesting whole milk. It is richer in vitamin B and has 10 percent of our recommended daily intake of folic acid, a B-complex vitamin. Soy has proven effective in lowering cholesterol, but to obtain that benefit requires that you consume about four to five soy products daily. Also, because processing of soy results in a bitter flavor, soy milk products have added sweeteners and flavor enhancers, and these extra carbs can be harder to digest, making people gassy.

Almond milk sales have climbed over the past few years; it has been touted as a healthier alternative to milk and soy milk, and does not contain lactose. Its benefits include fewer calories than soy (90 calories in 8 ounces), no saturated fat or cholesterol, about 25 percent of our daily vitamin D, and almost half of our vitamin E requirement. Though almond milk has also been recognized for preventing heart disease, it lacks the same nutritional value as conventional milk, containing very little protein.

Rice milk is processed, milled rice, blended with water until it transforms into a liquid. During the process, carbohydrates become sugar, giving it a natural sweetened taste. The sugary alternative is very low in nutrient value unless vitamins and calcium are added to it. It’s the least likely to trigger allergies, but contains almost no protein.

Goat milk is popular around the world, though not as common in the United States. People perceive that it’s healthier than cow’s milk, and easier to digest, but that isn’t the case. It has more saturated fat than cow’s milk, similar levels of cholesterol and is higher in calories and total fat. And goat’s milk, like cow’s milk, contains lactose.

Hemp milk is less well known among American consumers, but worth considering. A glass of hemp milk contains the same number of calories as soy milk, one-third to one-half of the protein, but 50 percent more fat (five to six grams per serving). However, most of the fats in hemp milk are omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids, key for nervous system function and healthy skin and hair. Certain omega-3 and omega-6 fats also appear to reduce inflammation and lower blood lipid levels.

Whichever milk you choose, some type of milk is important for good nutrition. If you cannot digest cow’s milk, alternatives are useful, but you may need to take calcium or other vitamin supplements for nutritional balance. Check with your physician or a nutrition specialist to see what’s best for you, and bottoms up!


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The Pests of Summer

Say what you will about winter hiking–it’s cold, clothes are bulky, and you risk falling on slippery ground–but there are no pesky bugs!  As soon as the buds open, mosquitos, gnats, wasps, ticks, and other annoying insects also emerge, buzzing in our faces, biting our exposed skin, and becoming a general nuisance during outdoor activities. The more aggressive species will bug us to relentlessly, and their bites or stings can cause allergic reactions, discomfort, itchy side effects or illness.

Protecting yourself from bites, stings, and the hazards of bug-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease and West Nile Virus is crucial during the late spring and summer months. You can improve your odds of not getting bitten by wearing protective clothing, headgear and socks, using insect repellants and citronella products, minimizing use of cologne and perfume when planning outdoor activities, avoiding swampy areas, and moving the party indoors during the worst of bug time. You also can spray clothes with repellent containing permethrin and use a repellant like DEET on your skin.

Of great concern is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks, which are common to Connecticut. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

Lyme disease is diagnosed based on symptoms, physical findings (such as a rash), and the possibility of exposure to infected ticks. Most cases of Lyme disease can be treated successfully with a few weeks of antibiotics. Steps to prevent Lyme disease include using insect repellent, removing ticks promptly, applying pesticides, and reducing tick habitat. The ticks that transmit Lyme disease can occasionally transmit other tick-borne diseases as well.

Certain types of mosquitos carry diseases such as West Nile Virus (WNV), which has been present in Connecticut since 1999 in mosquitoes, horses, wild birds and people. Most people who are infected with WNV have no symptoms or may experience mild illness such as a fever and headache before fully recovering. In some individuals, particularly persons over 50 years of age, West Nile virus can cause serious illness, including encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain and spinal cord). Symptoms range from a slight fever, headache, rash, swollen lymph nodes and nausea to the rapid onset of a severe headache, high fever, stiff neck, disorientation, muscle weakness, and coma. West Nile virus infection can lead to death in three percent to 15 percent of persons with severe forms of the illness.

Health professionals also are keeping a vigilant watch for the Zika virus, which is spread mostly by the bite of an infected Aedes species mosquito, which bite during the day and night. Zika can be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, and infection during pregnancy can cause certain birth defects. There is no vaccine or medicine for Zika, and while local mosquito-borne Zika virus transmission has been reported primarily in tropical climates like Florida, Connecticut experienced a few dozen cases in 2016 and again in 2017.

Protecting Against Tick and Mosquito Bites

Ticks are most active in warmer months (April through September). In summer, when out hiking, biking, camping, and spending time in and around grass and woods, there are several steps we can take to limit bites from ticks, mosquitoes and other disease-bearing insects:

  • Avoid direct contact with ticks and mosquitoes as possible. If you can, avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking, picnicking or walking, try to remain in the center of trails.
  • Use repellents that contain 20 percent or more DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on the exposed skin for protection that lasts up to several hours. Always follow product instructions. Parents should apply this product to their children, avoiding hands, eyes, and mouth.
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Treat clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. It remains protective through several washings. Pre-treated clothing is available and remains protective for up to 70 washings.
  • If you’re using other repellents, go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website for safety information.

Ticks embedded in our skin can be gross but are painless. The best bet is to keep them at bay. But if they do find you, here are tips for dealing with them easily and effectively:

  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors (preferably within two hours) to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body upon return from tick-infested areas. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in hair.
  • Examine gear and pets. Ticks can ride into the home on clothing and pets, then attach to a person later, so carefully examine pets, coats, and day packs. Tumble clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill remaining ticks.
  • Consult your doctor or a nurse (or internet sources) to determine the best method for removing the tick; it’s important to remove the entire tick, or it can leave parts embedded in your skin.

Should you or a family member develop a bulls-eye-type red rash near the bite site, or exhibit other side effects such as a fever, lethargy or extreme exhaustion, consult your doctor. You may need to be tested for Lyme disease.

If you know you have an allergy to one or more biting insects, you should always carry an epi-pen or other backup medication in case you’re stung or bitten, and seek immediate medical attention. For the rest of us, most bites or stings leave a mark and cause some swelling and irritation. Ice or a cool compress applied directly to the site can bring relief, as can topical salves, ointments or sprays sold over the counter. If the area around the bite continues to expand or becomes blistery and weepy, you should get checked for a possible infection.

If you’re not aware of allergies but react dramatically, experiencing symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting, trouble breathing or extensive swelling, it’s important to get to a hospital, urgent care center or physician immediately, or to call for emergency medical assistance as quickly as possible.

To add to the summer fun, there are biting spiders in Connecticut. Most spiders in New England are relatively harmless if you’re not allergic to their bite. One of the common venomous spiders in this region is the Brown Recluse. You can identify this spider by the violin-shaped marking on its back. The bite produces a mild stinging, followed by local redness and intense pain within eight hours. A fluid-filled blister forms at the site and then leaves a deep, enlarging ulcer. Reactions from a Brown Recluse spider bite vary from a mild fever and rash to nausea and listlessness. On rare occasions death results, more often in children.

If bitten by a spider, try and identify the type of spider that bit you. Clean the site of the spider bite well with soap and water. Apply a cool compress over the spider bite location. If the bite is on an extremity, elevate it. Aspirin or acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) and antihistamines may be used to relieve minor signs and symptoms in adults. Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

We shouldn’t be nervous or afraid of going outdoors – dress and protect yourself appropriately and have fun . . . the snow will be falling again before we know it!


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

 

Recognizing and Preventing Staph Infections

Infections are insidious little buggers. Microscopic germs or bacteria – many already present in our bodies and long dormant – are triggered by immune system weaknesses, poor nutritional health, existing chronic diseases and many other factors, and then run rampant through our bodies. Fortunately, if identified and treated in time with the proper antibiotics, we can limit the damage and return to full health. But infectious diseases are major killers and shouldn’t be ignored or treated lightly.

Here’s a sobering reality:  Of more than 500 known infectious diseases, we lack cures for about 200 of them. One often misunderstood but extremely common type of infection is caused by staphylococcus bacteria, types of germs commonly found on the skin or in the nose of even healthy individuals. Most of the time, these bacteria cause no problems or result in relatively minor skin infections.

But staph infections can turn deadly if the bacteria invade deeper into our bodies, entering the bloodstream, joints, bones, lungs or heart. A growing number of otherwise healthy people are developing life-threatening staph infections at alarming rates. Treatment usually involves antibiotics and drainage of the infected area. However, some staph infections no longer respond to common antibiotics.

Symptoms 

Staph infections can range from minor skin problems to endocarditis, a life-threatening infection of the inner lining of the heart (endocardium). As a result, signs and symptoms of staph infections vary widely, depending on the location and severity of the infection.

Many people carry staph bacteria and never develop staph infections. However, if you develop a staph infection, there’s a good chance that it’s from bacteria you’ve been carrying around for some time.

These bacteria can also be transmitted from person to person. Because staph bacteria are so hardy, they can live on inanimate objects such as pillowcases or towels long enough to transfer to the next person who touches them. They also can survive drying, extremes of temperature, stomach acid and high levels of salt.

Many kinds of skin infections are caused by staph bacteria as well. They include boils, impetigo, cellulitis, and staphychoccal scaled skin syndrome. Additionally, staph bacteria are one of the most common causes of food poisoning. Symptoms come on quickly, usually within hours of eating a contaminated food. Symptoms usually disappear quickly, too, often lasting just half a day.

A staph infection in food usually doesn’t cause a fever. Signs and symptoms you can expect with this type of staph infection include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure

Risk Factors 

A variety of factors — including the status of your immune system and even the types of sports we play — can increase our risk of developing staph infections. So can underlying health conditions. Certain disorders or the medications used to treat them can make us more susceptible to staph infections. People who may be more likely to get a staph infection include those with:

  • Diabetes who use insulin
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Kidney failure requiring dialysis
  • Weakened immune systems — either from a disease or medications that suppress the immune system
  • Cancer, especially those who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation
  • Skin damage from conditions such as eczema, insect bites or minor trauma that opens the skin
  • Respiratory illness, such as cystic fibrosis or emphysema

Of great concern, staph bacteria remain highly present in hospitals, where they attack the most vulnerable, despite vigorous attempts to eradicate them. They are particularly invasive to people with weakened immune systems, burns and surgical wounds. If staph bacteria invade your bloodstream, you may develop a type of infection that affects your entire body. Called sepsis, this infection can lead to septic shock — a life-threatening episode with extremely low blood pressure.

These commonsense precautions can help lower our risk of developing staph infections:

  • Wash hands.Careful hand-washing is our best defense against germs. Wash hands briskly for at least 20 seconds, then dry them with a disposable towel and use another towel to turn off the faucet. If your hands aren’t visibly dirty, you can use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Keep wounds covered.Keep cuts and abrasions clean and covered with sterile, dry bandages until they heal. The pus from infected sores often contains staph bacteria, and keeping wounds covered will help keep the bacteria from spreading.
  • Reduce tampon risks.Toxic shock syndrome is caused by staph bacteria. Since tampons left in for long periods can be a breeding ground for staph bacteria, you can reduce your chances of getting toxic shock syndrome by changing your tampon frequently, at least every four to eight hours. Use the lowest absorbency tampon you can and try to alternate tampons with sanitary napkins whenever possible.
  • Keep personal items personal.Avoid sharing personal items such as towels, sheets, razors, clothing and athletic equipment. Staph infections can spread on objects, as well as from person to person.
  • Wash clothing and bedding in hot water.Staph bacteria can survive on clothing and bedding that isn’t properly washed. To get bacteria off clothing and sheets, wash them in hot water whenever possible. Also, use bleach on any bleach-safe materials. Drying in the dryer is better than air-drying, but staph bacteria may survive the clothes dryer.
  • Take food safety precautions.Wash your hands before handling food. If food will be out for a while, make sure that hot foods stay hot — above 140 F (60 C) — and that cold foods stay at 40 F (4.4 C) or below. Refrigerate leftovers as soon as possible.

Staph bacteria are very adaptable, and many varieties have become resistant to one or more antibiotics. For example, only about 10 percent of today’s staph infections can be cured with penicillin.

The emergence of antibiotic-resistant strains of staph bacteria — often described as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) strains — has led to the use of IV antibiotics, such as vancomycin, with the potential for more side effects. Your doctor may perform tests to identify the staph bacteria behind your infection, and to help choose the antibiotic that will work best. Antibiotics commonly prescribed to treat staph infections include certain cephalosporins, nafcillin or related antibiotics, sulfa drugs, or vancomycin.

Staph infections spread quickly, and can be contagious, so it’s critical that potential infections get diagnosed by a medical professional immediately. Waiting a day or two can be the difference between life and death, literally.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!