Issue 88

Coronaviruses vs the flu, treadmills as punishment, and please get your dental work done

Feb. 1, 2020

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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Not all infections tear down the body in the same way

Found while reporting: Coronaviruses hit seniors the hardest.

You’ve heard lots about the novel coronavirus that got its start in Wuhan this week. It causes pneumonia, and cases have skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks, with nearly 10,000 cases (as of Friday morning when I last checked).

The virus has killed some 200 people. But I noticed an interesting trend among these death rates: Most of them seem to be older adults with other health conditions. So while these cases are worrying, they’re not entirely unexpected. Older adults are more likely to die from lots of infectious diseases — they already make up most flu deaths annually.

I spoke with Vineet Menachery, an immunologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who studies how coronaviruses affect aging immune systems, and he said that different viruses have different ways of damaging the body. Even if the end result is the same (death), it happens differently. He used bank robbers as an analogy (slight editing for clarity from me):

The flu is like bank robbers that are bursting open the doors with guns blazing. They doesn’t care about the host. Coronaviruses are like bank robbers that try to cut the alarm and hide as much as possible. They’re both two ways to get to the same thing—walking away with the bank’s cash—but they go about it differently. Both are effective in their own ways.

Not to freak you out, but you can get a brain infection if you put off your dental work for too long.

Found while reporting: The sorry state of US dental insurance led to the rise of direct-to-consumer orthodontia.

Most research papers in medical research are based on data from an experiment with many participants. Every now and then, though, physicians will publish a study on a single person. These papers, called case studies, show what happens in extreme or rare case. In other words, they aren’t average presentations of what can happen to the body.

This case study I came across is of a 30-year-old otherwise healthy man who went in for a root canal. Dentists do root canals when there’s a bacterial infection deep in the tooth that needs to be taken out, usually as a result from tooth decay over time.

Unfortunately, during the root canal it seems like some of the bacteria from the infection in this guy’s tooth made it into one of his sinus cavities, and ultimately his brain. He went blind in his eye after two days, and died shortly after going to the emergency room.

I bring you this fact not to terrify you of the dentist, but to encourage you to go to one regularly if you can. AND to remind you that dental health is ultimately a huge part of the rest of your physical health, too. AND to point out that for many people, dental insurance is so meager (or non-existent), that exorbitant costs keep them from doing routine maintenance, like getting cleanings or cavities filled. It’s not a big deal for a while, but can blow up into a major issue all at once.

Oral health is important at every age. It’s particularly important as we age, however, and our teeth wear down and need extra work. Additionally, failing to brush teeth daily, either because of newly acquired physical or cognitive limitations, can be the early flags of a much more serious condition, like cognitive impairment. At the moment, the US does NOT cover dental for adults over 65 through Medicare; you can get it for extra, but it’ll cost you—and it may not be possible on a fixed income. We’ve got to get that changed ASAP.

Oscar Wilde was forced to run on a treadmill as punishment for sodomy.

Found while reporting: This obsession email on treadmills.

Today’s world is not always friendly to the LGBTQ+ community, but it was way worse in the 19th century.

On May 25 in 1895, writer Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison in the UK after word got out that he had sex a man. His boyfriend’s father turned Wilde in. Instead of leaving the country, Wilde went ahead with a trial. In the first, one juror refused to condemn him; in the second, most witnesses refused to testify, but the judge sentenced him to two years in prison anyway.

The treadmill was invented not for exercise, but for prison labor. In the late 1800s, prisons were just starting to phase out treadmills—but they were still there.But unfortunately, running on a treadmill for seven to ten hours daily isn’t great for you in the long run; because of high mortality rates, prisons abandoned treadmills fully in the early 20th century.

Wilde served his time using prison treadmills, but only managed to live three years beyond that. He died at 46.

PSA: Want to get into (or continue) running but hate winter (or summer) weather? Go ahead and sub in a few treadmill workouts for an outdoor run—but set the incline to at least 1% to mimic outdoor running. And don’t hold onto the handlebars. Turn down the speed instead.

Animal of the issue: Striped bass

I was recently in the great first state of Delaware (where I’m from), and I went for some lovely runs along the Christiana River* (named after a Swedish Queen way back in the 1600s when the Swedes tried to start New Sweden). Turns out the river is a major breeding ground for a fish I hold near and dear to my tummy: the striped bass, or rockfish.

Striped bass are some of the few fish that usually hang out in the salty ocean waters, but come to freshwater rivers to reproduce. They can live up to 30 years old, and play a key role in the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem because they eat basically everything (read: zooplankton, fish larvae, insects, worms, amphipods, Bay anchovy, spot, menhaden, herring, shad, white perch, and yellow perch). The only thing that eats these beefy boys and girls (besides us) are sharks and seals at sea.

We overfished striped bass for a while, but regulation as able to get it all under control by putting limits on fishing in the 80s and 90s. It’s a form of delayed gratification, if you think about it: Fewer fish now means we get to eat so many more later.

(Note that the Billy Mouth bass is actually a largemouth bass—not a striped one.)

*Turns out in 1937, the state of Delaware tried to change the river’s name to the Christina River. Although this is its official new name, everyone in Delaware still calls it the Christiana River—likely because the major hospital (Christiana Care) and mall (Christiana Mall) never got a nomenclature update.

A programming note.

Friend, the bad news is Scrap Facts is once again going dark for a bit. But the good—really, GREAT news if you ask me, is that it’s because I’m working on another amazing series. I’ll be back in March with more stories and more scrap facts. Stay curious in the meantime!

Stuff I learned from others:

The US Census Bureau starts its survey in Unalakleet, Alaska (why they chose to start there in January is beyond me). India’s first female rock band is strumming for equality. (H/T SCMP’s Lunar newsletter, it’s incredible.) There’s a key number the epidemiologists use to gauge how bad a pandemic will be; but no one’s great at figuring it out. Surgeons can use your big toe to replace your thumb if you’ve lost it—but it’s a 10 hour procedure. The average adult produces 320 pounds of poop annually. WeWork is ditching its free kegs. DC has a state dinosaur and an awesome group of Girl Scouts, but we still need statehood.

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