Issue 84

We're (nearly) back!

Dec. 1, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

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We’re (nearly) back!

Brian Kennedy, a biochemist at the National University of Singapore, has called aging the “climate change of health care.”

He was referring to the fact that globally, the proportion of people older than 65 is increasing while fertility rates are dropping, thanks to more access to health care, sanitation, and reproductive rights. But the flip side of this is that older adults tend to have many more medical needs. With fewer younger adults around, it’s not clear how societies are going to support their aging populations’ needs.

I agree with Kennedy that our aging demographics are a lot like climate change in that they present huge, daunting challenges we don’t know how to overcome, and frankly haven’t prepared for adequately.

But there’s a positive comparison, too: Like climate change, there are a lot of really smart people out there who are coming up with ingenious scientific advances and comprehensive policies to address aging—and even improve the quality of all of our lives over time.

Throughout the month of November, I reported and wrote a series of stories looking at some of these forward-thinking solutions—particularly as they apply to addressing dementia, or severe, progressive cognitive decline over time. Dementia is the single most expensive age-related illness on the planet, and age is the number one risk factor. At the moment, there are no ways to prevent dementia, cures, or treatments. Hopefully, that’ll change during my lifetime. In the meantime, though, there are some ways we can lower these costs, including detecting it earlier, administering effective drugs in these early stages, and making sure people who are living with dementia have access to affordable, personalized care.

Tomorrow, Dec. 2, all five stories will drop. In addition to stories about science and care policy, I’ve written a more personal essay about the parts of dementia science will never be able to solve: the heartbreak of caring for your loved ones who develop cognitive impairment. My colleague on the Things team, Youyou Zhou, has also contributed a handy, interactive calculator to look at the likely dementia rates in where you live by the time you hit 70.

If you’re not already a Quartz member, you can sign up here. For half off, you can use the promo code “KFOLEY3089.”

I’ve be sending a Scrap Facts on Thursday, Dec. 5, with my favorite tidbits from the series. On Friday, Dec. 6, I’ll be on a conference call at 11 am US eastern for members to talk about the series, and answer any questions you all have. I’ll send a link in Thursday’s email.

I hope you read the series, and welcome your feedback. In the meantime, here’s some other Scrap Facts to tide you over:

A bridge renovation made Austin, Texas the home to 1.5 million guests fo the summer.

I got to go to Austin as part of my reporting for this series. As of the 1980s, when the city rebuilt the Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin became the home to North America’s largest urban bat colony. About 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats hang out there from about March to September. I missed them, sadly, but I did love how much the people of Austin love their bats. Really, we should all be such bat enthusiasts.

One of the biggest kitchen appliance flops missed the point of cookies.

Found while reporting: To find the best tech for everyone, look to older adults.

Big tech has a hard job: They have to convince us to need new products we got along perfectly fine without before. Some of most successful new technology therefore solves problems we didn’t know we had, Brian McMahon, the founder of Segment International, a California-based design consulting company, told me.

Take bread makers. Although making bread from scratch can be fun and rewarding, it’s a pretty labor-intensive process with all the kneading required. A bread making machine solves that problem, even if you add all the ingredients yourself.

McMahon told me that back in the 90s, a company that had huge success with a bread making machine flopped horrifically when they tried to make a quick cookie-making machine. But cookies don’t take that long to make, and even if you make them from scratch, it’s a fun process that families and friends can do together. Plus, there’s already break-and-bake cookie dough for when you want just one or two. The company was trying to solve a problem that wasn’t actually a problem.

McMahon couldn’t give me the name of the company because of the nature of his work, but apparently it gave up on its idea of essentially an Easy Bake oven for adults.

Our brains start to experience minor cognitive decline just about when they finish fully forming.

Found while reporting: How the human brain stays young even as we age.

The very front part of our brains—which help us control our impulses and plan ahead—don’t finish creating the networks among neurons until we’re in our mid-20s. This is one of the major reasons that teens and young adults tend to be a little more reckless than those of us who are a little more seasoned.

But alas, shortly after this portion of the brain forms—peak maturity! Peak adulthood!—the effects of aging start to hit. For our brains, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing: While learning some kinds of information, like details about names or dates, becomes a little more difficult, connecting concepts and themes and discounting the future gets easier. It’s in part what makes some older adults better leaders.

Luckily, the vast majority of us won’t experience more than a little cognitive decline over time. This is because our brains are wonderfully dynamic, adaptive organs filled with redundant systems. If one fails, neurons can simply rely on another system to take care of things. We hardly notice anything, aside from simple stuff like using calendars more enthusiastically.

That’s all for now. Stay curious, friend! <3

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.