Study Tracks Yik Yak App To Learn More About College Drinking And Drug Use

The Yik Yak app, lower left, is seen on an iPhone on Nov. 11, 2015. (Ronald Lizik/AP)

The Yik Yak app, lower left, is seen on an iPhone on Nov. 11, 2015. (Ronald Lizik/AP)

Consider this message, most likely posted by a college student in or around Brandeis University near Boston: “I just remembered I have a 4loko in my minifridge. Guess who’s getting sloppy day drunk tomorrow!”

Good luck finding the Four Loko fanatic. The post is from Yik Yak, an anonymous, free social media platform popular on college campuses.

Even so, a recent study analyzing Yik Yak posts gathered from 120 campuses suggests that tracking these messages does have an upside: Public health experts say it may ultimately help them learn more about issues like alcohol and substance use.

Over the span of one month, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Colorado at Boulder found 2,047 health-related yaks — the term for posts on Yik Yak — dealing with themes like smoking, drinking and drug use.

“Because it’s anonymous, people disclose things about themselves that they might not publicly post, either on Twitter or even necessarily to their doctors,” said Michael Paul, an assistant professor and founder of the Information Science Department at UC Boulder,  in an interview.

While big data collected from social media has been used to study public health, such as influenza surveillance through Google search queries and Twitter, the field is relatively new and Paul’s study is the first to look at public health using Yik Yak. Continue reading

CDC Warns Of Fetal Alcohol Exposure, Says Drinking Any Time In Pregnancy Is Risky

(Source: “Vital Signs: Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies — United States, 2011–2013")

(Source: “Vital Signs: Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies — United States, 2011–2013″)

If you’re a sexually active woman of childbearing age and not using birth control, public health officials say you should stop drinking alcohol — completely. That includes beer, wine or any other alcoholic beverage you might be considering.

In a report out Tuesday,  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that exposure to alcohol, even in the first weeks of pregnancy, puts developing babies at risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, “characterized by lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.” Because these disorders are completely preventable by abstaining from alcohol, and because officials say there is “no known safe amount of alcohol” that women can drink at any time during pregnancy, their basic message is: “Why take the risk?”

“Women wanting a pregnancy should be advised to stop drinking at the same time contraception is discontinued,” the report concludes. “Health care providers should advise women not to drink at all if they are pregnant or there is any chance they might be pregnant.”

Here’s more from the CDC news release:

An estimated 3.3 million U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk for exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to a new CDC Vital Signs report. The report also found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol.

Alcohol use during pregnancy, even within the first few weeks and before a woman knows she is pregnant, can cause lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime. These disabilities are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). There is no known safe amount of alcohol – even beer or wine – that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.

About half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned and, even if planned, most women will not know they are pregnant until they are 4-6 weeks into the pregnancy when they still might be drinking.

During a telephone briefing with reporters, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s deputy director, said:

What we’re recommending is women who are not trying to get pregnant make sure they have a conversation about birth control and how to avoid becoming pregnant. If they are not using contraception and are fertile and are drinking they could be at risk… One in two deliveries in this country occurs to someone who wasn’t actually trying to get pregnant when they got pregnant. So we do think that fertile woman that are not using contraception ought to be aware that they may become pregnant and that drinking during even that first couple of weeks of pregnancy can be risky.

Continue reading

Mom’s Rich, Fatty Diet May Trigger Taste For Drugs In Offspring

Yesterday, we reported on a powerful link between kids who gulp down sweet, sugar-laden drinks and their increased risk of becoming obese. Here’s a sad, what-goes-around-comes-around postscript to that story:

sugarMothers (at least mother rats) fed high-fat, high-sugar diets while pregnant may have kids with a “taste” for alcohol and a sensitivity to drugs, according to research presented at an annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

Here’s some of the APA news release:

Vulnerability to alcohol and drug abuse may begin in the womb and be linked to how much fatty and sugary foods a mother eats during pregnancy, according to findings from animal lab experiments presented at APA’s 121st Annual Convention.

“The majority of women in the U.S. at child-bearing age are overweight, and this is most likely due to overeating the tasty, high-fat, high-sugar foods you find everywhere in our society. The rise in prenatal and childhood obesity and the rise in number of youths abusing alcohol and drugs merits looking into all the possible roots of these growing problems,” said Nicole Avena, PhD, a research neuroscientist with the University of Florida’s McKnight Brain Institute.

Compared to pups of rats that ate regular rodent chow, the offspring of rats that ate high-fat or high-sugar diets while pregnant weighed more as adults and drank more alcohol, and those on high-sugar diets also had stronger responses to commonly abused drugs such as amphetamine, Avena said. Her presentation examined experiments from three studies, each lasting about three months and involving three to four adult female rats and 10 to 12 offspring in each dietary condition.

Researchers compared weight and drug-taking behavior between the offspring of rats fed diets rich in fats, sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup with the offspring of rats fed regular rodent chow during gestation or nursing. They tested both sucrose and high-fructose corn syrup because they are chemically different and could cause different outcomes, Avena said. Sucrose occurs naturally and is commonly processed from sugar cane or sugar beets into table sugar, whereas high-fructose corn syrup is synthesized from corn.

To determine effects of the mothers’ diets during gestation, the offspring of rats fed the high-fat, high-sucrose or high- fructose corn syrup diets were nursed by mother rats that were eating regular chow. To determine the effects of the mothers’ diets on the offspring during nursing, the pups with mothers that had eaten regular chow were nursed by mother rats that were eating either the high-fat, high-sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup diets.

The pregnant rats’ high-fat diet contained 50 percent fat, Continue reading

Health Of The Nation: Obesity Up, But ‘Notable’ Decline In Physical Inactivity

In our house, when there’s good news and bad news, we usually start with the good. So here goes:

According to a new national health statistics report out today analyzing five key health behaviors among U.S. adults — sufficient sleep, smoking, drinking, obesity, and physical activity — there are several bright spots. For instance, the survey found that fewer young people (18-24) are smoking and the number of adults who report they’re completely aerobically inactive showed ‘notable’ declines in recent years, from 39.7% inactive between 2005-2007 to 33.9% in the years 2008-2010.

O.K., now the bad news: Heavy drinking has increased, except among the senior set over 75, smoking prevalence remains virtually unchanged (beyond the youngsters) and obesity is up.


My first reaction is: Huh? Is anyone out there listening to Michelle Obama and all those other Get-Out-There-And-Move and Cut-The-Sugar advocates?

But then I talked to Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine and an assistant professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, who insisted on highlighting the positive.

A little background: Dr. Phillips’ focus is on physical activity, the link between health and exercise and on educating physicians about how to more seamlessly incorporate physical activity into the practice of medicine.

His takeaway from the CDC report is this: “People are starting to move.” Continue reading

Opinion: It’s Time To Raise Excise Tax On Alcohol

(joseph a/Flickr CC)

(joseph a/Flickr CC)

On Friday, Massachusetts State Rep. Kay Khan, a Newton Democrat and Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities filed a bill that would raise the excise tax on alcohol. (The bill isn’t online yet, says a spokesperson, but here’s the language from last year’s bill, which is identically worded.)

Our guest bloggers, Maryanne Frangules, executive director of the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, and John McGahan, president and CEO of the Gavin Foundation, Inc., argue here that the measure is badly needed to support addiction treatment and recovery services.

By Maryanne Frangules and John McGahan

Two years after voters repealed the sales tax on alcohol, which funded addiction treatment and prevention programs, the Massachusetts Health Council reported that alcohol abuse is more prevalent in Massachusetts than the U.S. on average, and emergency room visits (especially in eastern Massachusetts) for drug abuse surpassed that of other much larger metropolitan areas in 2011, including New York, Chicago and Detroit. In fact, Massachusetts ranked first — at a rate of four times the national average — for emergency room visits involving heroin.

These are not categories of achievement for which Massachusetts wants to lead the nation.

We have a drug and alcohol addiction epidemic in Massachusetts, and we need to get serious about prevention, treatment and recovery. The human and economic toll of alcohol and drug addiction are not sustainable for a healthy, civil society.

While the Legislature and Governor Patrick have supported funding for addiction services during the recession and its aftermath, we now face another fiscal year of lower revenues, reductions in spending for vital health programs and perhaps mid-year cuts to public health services, including addiction treatment.

It makes sense to invest in addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery services.  Otherwise our families continue to pay for the mounting social and economic costs of emergency room visits, law enforcement, court, and incarceration. Continue reading

Commentary: WHO Should Regulate Alcohol Globally

When you think about world-wide public health crises what jumps to mind? AIDS, malaria, malnutrition?

How about heavy drinking? Probably not.

Well, this thoughtful piece in the current Scientific American details arguments by Devi Sridhar, a health-policy expert at the University of Cambridge, who writes that the World Health Organization ought to start regulating alcohol, which “kills more than 2.5 million people annually, more than AIDS, malaria or tuberculosis.” Christopher Wanjek reports:

For middle-income people, who constitute half the world’s population, alcohol is the top health risk factor, greater than obesity, inactivity and even tobacco.

The World Health Organization has meticulously documented the extent of alcohol abuse in recent years and has published solid recommendations on how to reduce alcohol-related deaths, but this doesn’t go far enough, according to Sridhar…

In a commentary appearing [February 15] in the journal Nature, Sridhar argues that the WHO should regulate alcohol at the global level, enforcing such regulations as a minimum drinking age, zero-tolerance drunken driving, and bans on unlimited drink specials. Continue reading

As you Age, A Drink A Day May Help Keep The Doctor Away

Just a quick note on my way to the package store:

In thousands of nurses, moderate drinking in mid-life appears to be linked to a healthier old age, according to a new study just published in the journal PLoS medicine.

Just joking about the package store. In fact, the study’s lead author, Dr. Qi Sun, an Instructor in Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, says the study’s results still leave him cautious about recommending that non-drinkers take up the bottle, because other research has found that even moderate drinking may slightly raise the risk of breast cancer.

But the results do mean, he said, that in people who already drink moderately, the benefits may be significant. So, to put his quantitative analysis into my own words, “Cheers!” (And don’t forget that exercise and healthy weight maintenance have also been shown to lead to a healthier old age.)

The study fits in to a growing body of research that has found health benefits from “moderate” drinking equivalent to about one-third glass to one glass of wine per day. It did not distinguish between types of alcohol, but Qi said that the nurses in the study did tend to drink wine rather than beer or hard alcohol.

From the press release:

Researchers evaluated alcohol consumption during middle age in 121, 700 participants in BWH’s Nurses’ Health Study using data from food frequency questionnaires. They included participants who were not heavier drinkers when middle-aged and examined the health status in the 13,984 women who lived to 70 years and over. Continue reading

10 Health Facts About Massachusetts That Will Surprise You

Among adolescents, the survey found that those who drink started before age 13, with some trying alcohol as early as 10

A snapshot of the current health status of Massachusetts shows a more violent, fatter state, but also one filled with more insured residents and fewer adult smokers than in years past. The data, gathered by the Massachusetts Health Council, as part of its 2010 health indicator report, also unearthed some health statistics you probably don’t know. Here are 10 of the most surprising:

1. Females outpaced males in heavy drinking in 2009: 6.5 percent compared to 5.7 percent

2. In 2009, 27.6% of Massachusetts adults with current asthma reported a diagnosis of depression

3. Only 44% of the state’s primary care doctors are accepting new patients.

4. 27% of Massachusetts’ high school students reported riding with an intoxicated driver one or more times during the previous 30 days

5. Due to HIV treatment advances, many people living with HIV can achieve a normal life expectancy

6. Mass ranks 36th in the nation for residents who have fluoridated water

7. Rape and attempted rape increased 27% from 2008 to 2009

8. Binge drinking is more prevalent in higher income and educational groups

9. From 2000 through 2009, current asthma prevalence in the Bay State increased 27%, from 8.5% to 10.8%

10. Massachusetts middle school students overweight rate is 17%

Read the full report here.

Repeal Of Alcohol Tax Will Boost Morbidity And Mortality, Expert Says

John Kelly, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Mass. General Hospital, says repeal of the alcohol tax will cost lives

Now that Massachusetts voters have repealed the 6.25% tax on alcohol (depriving the state of about $110 million in revenue that was funding alcohol treatment programs) what will happen next?

Well, aside from making its liquor-industry backers very happy, the tax rollback will certainly fuel consumption of alcoholic beverages, which will lead to an increase in drinking-related deaths, accidents and other harms to society, according to John Kelly, associate director of the Center for Addiction Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Indeed, on Monday, the medical journal, The Lancet, published a study that found alcohol to be the most dangerous drug — surpassing heroin, cocaine, esctasy and others in terms of the harms it can inflict on society.

One of the simplest, and best known tactics in public health (and one that has been used effectively in tobacco-prevention strategies) is to raise taxes on products you want the public to avoid, Kelly says. The relationship between price and consumption is “very robust,” he says. Slap an extra tax on beer, and people reduce their drinking; repeal the tax, they reach for that Rolling Rock again.

But there’s a public health cost, Kelly says: For every one liter of alcohol that the population consumes per capita, there’s a corresponding increase in mortality of 1%. The deaths attributable to alcohol abuse are well documented in numerous studies, he notes.

It’s unclear whether the state will tap other funding streams to pay for alcohol treatment programs, or if the programs will simply be eliminated. Still, Kelly says, if taxpayers think they’re saving money in the long run, they’re wrong. That’s because all of us will still be covering the cost of emergency room visits, road accidents, alcohol-related cancers, loss of productivity in the workplace and other social problems that alcohol abuse can create.