2012 November 24 Saturday
Sad People Choose Short Term Over Long Term Rewards

Feeling sad? Try to cheer yourself up before making financial decisions.

Using data collected at the Harvard Decision Science Laboratory and the Center for Decision Sciences at Columbia, the authors found that subjects randomly assigned to view a video that induced sadness exhibited impatience and myopia, which were manifested in financial decisions that elicited higher gains in the short term, but lesser gains over the longer term. Thus, subjects in the sadness condition earned significantly less money than subjects in the neutral condition. They showed what is known as “present bias,” wherein decision makers want immediate gratification and so they ignore greater gains associated with waiting.

You will make better decisions of you are feeling neutral.

“Across three experiments, the median sad participant valued future rewards (i.e., those delayed by 3 months) 13% to 34% less than did the median neutral-state participant. These differences emerged even though real money was at stake and even though discount rates in the neutral condition were already high,” the authors reported.

Sadder but wiser? Not always.

“These experiments, combining methods from psychology and economics, revealed that the sadder person is not necessarily the wiser person when it comes to financial choices,” they concluded. “Instead, compared with neutral emotion, sadness — and not just any negative emotion — made people more myopic, and therefore willing to forgo greater future gains in return for instant gratification.”

We need to manage our emotional state to optimize our decision making.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 24 08:19 PM 
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Big Strides With Deep Learning Computer Systems

Want to improve human learning systems? That's so 20th century. Machine learning is all the rage.

But what is new in recent months is the growing speed and accuracy of deep-learning programs, often called artificial neural networks or just “neural nets” for their resemblance to the neural connections in the brain.

“There has been a number of stunning new results with deep-learning methods,” said Yann LeCun, a computer scientist at New York University who did pioneering research in handwriting recognition at Bell Laboratories. “The kind of jump we are seeing in the accuracy of these systems is very rare indeed.”

One of the most promising points in the article was about a deep learning system that a university team put together quickly to win a contest on how to discover promising drug candidates. While computer automation is on course to automate many more kinds of jobs the ability to speed up biomedical research holds the most promise to deliver big benefits for us all.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 24 05:23 PM 
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Gondolas Proposed For Austin Texas Mass Transit

A gondola system is much cheaper than light rail, less disruptive, and likely much faster to install.

It just so happened that McDaniel and Ficklin’s home city had just debated whether to install a little more than five miles of light rail at a cost of $550 million – around $100 million per mile.

“Putting in an aerial ropeway, we’re talking a fraction of that,” McDaniel said. “A gondola can be put in for $12 million a mile. It’s a fraction of the cost because you’re not looking at eminent domain or rights of way, and you’re not disrupting local businesses or cutting out vehicular traffic.”

Gondolas aren't just for skiers. Gondola projects are taking off, having recently been installed in Colombia, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Other gondola projects are underway around the world.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 24 04:48 PM 
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2012 November 23 Friday
RFID Tags To Track Elderly At Home

Australian computer scientists in Adelaide are electronically tagging and tracking movement of common household objects as a way to track what elderly people are doing. A computer system can track which objects are getting used and how those objects are moving around to flag developing health problems in the elderly.

University of Adelaide computer scientists are leading a project to develop novel sensor systems to help older people keep living independently and safely in their own homes.

The researchers are adapting radio-frequency identification (RFID) and sensor technologies to automatically identify and monitor human activity; to be able to determine if an individual's normal routine is being maintained so that timely assistance can be provided if it is needed.

A lot of elderly people live alone. So if they get into trouble (e.g. fall down unconscious or with an injury that prevents them from moving) there's noone there to detect that they need help. If the environment in their households can be automatically monitored for signs of sudden onset of an acute health problem then helpers can be sent to check on them. Or video cameras could be activated to see if they are alright or they could get a phone call.

No need for a person to wear electronic monitoring sensors if the house is one big sensor.

"We are trying to solve this by developing a system using a network of sensors attached to objects that the person is interacting with in the home; using software to interpret the collected data to tell us what someone is doing."

Home medical monitoring can and will go far beyond what RFID tags can accomplish. Imagine an electronic monitoring system built into your bed that monitors the gases in your breath, tracks your breathing and pulse, and studies your movements in bed. It could detect problems like sleep apnea or nervous disorders and diagnose a chronic illness in its early stages/

Once microfluidic devices become cheap enough and powerful enough we'll also have medical testing instrumentation build into our toilets and sinks. Our bodily fluids will be tested every time we use the bathroom and results uploaded to a medical diagnostics server. Those who want even more detailed continuous testing will wear medical instruments that can test the body all day and night.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 23 10:40 PM 
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2012 November 19 Monday
Improved Water Supplies In Africa Increase Poverty

In societies still stuck in the Malthusian trap lower death rates result in population growth that lowers living standards and forces migrations in cities. Lower fertility rates are desperately needed to end the cycle where all increased economic output goes to feed a growing population.

Improving water supplies in rural African villages may have negative knock-on effects and contribute to increased poverty, new research published today [14 November] has found.

Rural development initiatives across the developing world are designed to improve community wellbeing and livelihoods but a study of Ethiopian villages by researchers at the Universities of Bristol and Addis Ababa in Africa has shown that this can lead to unforeseen consequences caused by an increase in the birth rate in the absence of family planning.

The study, published in PLOS ONE and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, also established that resulting population pressures encourage young adults to move to urban areas. Such urbanisation in less developed countries concentrates poverty in cities which already have stretched public services. Projections for Ethiopia, currently one of the least urbanised countries in the world, indicate that the proportion of people living in urban centres will double over the next 40 years, from 17 per cent in 2010 to 38 per cent in 2050.

Academics argue that the results of this study highlight the need for policy-makers to take into account this link between development projects and changes in demography, especially as over 90 per cent of urbanisation is taking place in the developing world.

The additional babies surviving to adulthood do not have enough farm land to farm. So out of desperation (really, gotta eat) they head to the cities looking for work. There is an upside to the urban migration: The economics of cities provide incentives for smaller families. If more rural dwellers moved to the cities fertility rates might go down.

Here is the paper.

Rural development initiatives across the developing world are designed to improve community well-being and livelihoods. However they may also have unforeseen consequences, in some cases placing further demands on stretched public services. In this paper we use data from a longitudinal study of five Ethiopian villages to investigate the impact of a recent rural development initiative, installing village-level water taps, on rural to urban migration of young adults. Our previous research has identified that tap stands dramatically reduced child mortality, but were also associated with increased fertility. We demonstrate that the installation of taps is associated with increased rural-urban migration of young adults (15–30 years) over a 15 year period (15.5% migrate out, n = 1912 from 1280 rural households). Young adults with access to this rural development intervention had three times the relative risk of migrating to urban centres compared to those without the development.

UC Davis economic historian Gregory Clark, in his book A Farewell To Alms, makes the case that in Africa, still stuck in the Malthusian Trap, technological advances just increase the number of poor. Until fertility rates in Africa plummet that will continue to be the case.

Prosperity, however, has not come to all societies. Material consumption in some countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, is now well below the preindustrial norm. Countries such as Malawi or Tanzania would be better off in material terms had they never had contact with the industrialized world and instead continued in their preindustrial state. Modern medicine, airplanes, gasoline, computers—the whole technological cornucopia of the past two hundred years—have succeeded there in producing among the lowest material living standards ever experienced. These African societies have remained trapped in the Malthusian era, where technological advances just produce more people, and living standards are driven down to subsistence. But modern medicine has reduced the material minimum required for subsistence to a level far below that of the Stone Age.

In medieval England living standards were twice as high as in Africa today. That's because death from disease limited population density in medieval England.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 19 09:16 PM 
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Injected Nose Cells Repair Damaged Dog Spinal Cords

Dogs paralyzed in their hind quarters regained the ability to move their back legs with nose cells. Go dogs go.

Scientists have reversed paralysis in dogs after injecting them with cells grown from the lining of their nose.

Click thru to watch Jasper the dachshund regain the ability to move his hind legs. Not perfect. But a big improvement.

Humans too some day.

The Cambridge University team is cautiously optimistic the technique could eventually have a role in the treatment of human patients.

We are going to become repairable. The sooner the better.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 19 09:16 PM 
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2012 November 18 Sunday
Bright Light At Night Elevates Stress Hormone

We've created unnatural environments that we are not evolutionarily adapted to. This causes us many problems including obesity, metabolic syndrome, and assorted addictions. Another item on the list: blue-shifted bright lights at night might be boosting depression, impairing learning, and increasing stress hormones in the blood.

For most of history, humans rose with the sun and slept when it set. Enter Thomas Edison, and with a flick of a switch, night became day, enabling us to work, play and post cat and kid photos on Facebook into the wee hours.

According to a new study of mice led by a Johns Hopkins biologist, however, this typical 21st- century scenario may come at a serious cost: When people routinely burn the midnight oil, they risk suffering depression and learning issues, and not only because of lack of sleep. The culprit could also be exposure to bright light at night from lamps, computers and even iPads.

"Basically, what we found is that chronic exposure to bright light -- even the kind of light you experience in your own living room at home or in the workplace at night if you are a shift worker -- elevates levels of a certain stress hormone in the body, which results in depression and lowers cognitive function," said Samer Hattar, a biology professor in the Johns Hopkins University's Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Of course, we might not be like mice in this regard. But the applicability of these results to humans seems very plausible.

Dr. Hattar says when we read at night we should use red-shifted light, not blue-shifted light.

Pay attention to Kelvin numbers when buying bulbs for evening use. Got a room you read in? Go for 2700K at most. I just checked a lot of light bulbs I've got in a closet and most do not have Kelvin numbers. Though some are at 2700K. Looking at an online light bulb site it appears CFL bulbs below 2700K are rare. But if you look for high pressure sodium bulbs you can find them in the 1900k to 2200K range.

Dr. Hattar also says go for less bright bulbs in the evening.

"I'm not saying we have to sit in complete darkness at night, but I do recommend that we should switch on fewer lamps, and stick to less-intense light bulbs: Basically, only use what you need to see. That won't likely be enough to activate those ipRGCs that affect mood," he advises.

What would be handy: A way to record 2 color settings on a PC and then shift between them depending on what you are doing. Go to red/black only for evening text reading.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 18 05:26 PM 
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Solar Power Threatening Grid Stability In Hawaii

Check out this LA Times article on problems with unreliable solar power in Hawaii. Solar power does not scale in the Hawaiian islands.

Hawaiian Electric Co. on Oahu, which oversees subsidiary utilities on Maui and the Big Island, has warned that the explosion of do-it-yourself solar could threaten parts of the power grid with the possibility of power fluctuations or sporadic blackouts as the power generated by homeowners — unpredictable and subject to sudden swings — exceeded output from power plants in some areas.

So rapid is the growth that Hawaiian Electric at one point proposed a moratorium on solar installations, a plan that met with immediate outrage and was quickly withdrawn.

Why so much solar in Hawaii? High electric power costs from utilities. Hawaii has the highest residential electric power rates in the United States, at over 37 cents per kwh. That's about 3 times the national average and over 4 times the cost of electric power in Washington state.

Each Hawaiian island has its own grid and it is small. Swings in demand from individual users count for more of the total demand than in larger areas. So when lots of people installed solar power to save money on their utility bills they created larger sources of swing in available power.

The gradual decline in the price of solar installations will eventually cause the same issue to arise in some of the US mainland states. Very sunny Arizona seems like the most likely first candidate or possibly southern California due to its higher electric power rates.

How to scale solar power? Dynamic pricing would help. But we really need cheaper storage too.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 18 10:50 AM 
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2012 November 17 Saturday
Wandering Planets Common In Space?

Some astronomers think they've found a planet unattached to a star wandering thru space 100 light years from Earth.

Astronomers using ESO's Very Large Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope have identified a body that is very probably a planet wandering through space without a parent star. This is the most exciting free-floating planet candidate so far and the closest such object to the Solar System at a distance of about 100 light-years. Its comparative proximity, and the absence of a bright star very close to it, has allowed the team to study its atmosphere in great detail. This object also gives astronomers a preview of the exoplanets that future instruments aim to image around stars other than the Sun.

Such worlds might be common.

These worlds could be common -- perhaps as numerous as normal stars [6]. If CFBDSIR2149 is not associated with the AB Doradus Moving Group it is trickier to be sure of its nature and properties, and it may instead be characterised as a small brown dwarf. Both scenarios represent important questions about how planets and stars form and behave.

What I wonder: Do any space-faring species use these planets as stopping places to get materials during long voyages between solar systems that have intelligent life? I'm reminded by Niven and Benford's new novel Bowl Of Heaven about the need to get resupply for propulsion and food during long interstellar voyages.

So how could a spaceship remove materials from such a planet? It might be several times the mass of Jupiter and also a few hundred degrees celsius.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 17 09:47 PM 
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Need For High Vitamin D Depends On Genetic Variants

Nutrigenomics research is starting to produce useful results.

The researchers found a SNP within the vitamin D receptor (VDR) gene that significantly modified associations of low serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration with major health outcomes of hip fracture, heart attack, cancer, and death over long-term follow-up. "Findings were observed within a large community-based study of older adults in the United States and were consistent in magnitude and direction across individual disease outcomes, and replicated in a meta-analysis of 3 large independent cohorts. An additional vitamin D receptor SNP significantly modified the low 25-hydroxyvitamin D-disease association in a meta-analysis that included results from the discovery and replication cohorts. The discovered SNPs, which are common in European populations, identified subsets of individuals for whom associations between low 25-hydroxyvitamin D concentration and disease outcomes were either strongly positive vs. null. These results suggest that individuals with specific 25-hydroxyvitamin D metabolism genotypes maybe particularly susceptible to, or protected from, the potential adverse health effects of low vitamin D."

One way to think of research into the relationship between nutritional needs, genetics, and health: The results tell us who can be irresponsible about their diets and lifestyles and how.

My guess is the results will likely to also be useful to identify undiagnosed food intolerances as well as information about optimal ratios between nutrients. The optimal ratios between protein, carbohydrates, and fats likely depend on as yet undiscovered genetic variants.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 17 06:09 PM 
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2012 November 11 Sunday
Efforts To Cut Electric Car Battery Costs

With the Nissan Leaf's battery cost at $12,000 per car blocking mass acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs) what are the prospects for cheaper batteries? Kevin Bullis of Technology Review looks at prospects for lower EV battery costs.

The cost for the Leaf battery could drop to under $4,000 by 2025, according to a recent study by McKinsey, just by increasing the scale of battery production, forcing down component costs through competition, and approximately doubling the energy density of batteries, which reduces materials costs.

He also looks at efforts by GM, Toyota, and others to achieve bigger cost reductions with incremental and more radical advances.

A recent JD Power survey of current and potential electric vehicle (EV) owners find that while early adopters were happy to buy EVs for environmental reasons the masses want lower costs and better driving range before they take the plunge.

According to the inaugural study, the top three reasons potential EV buyers reject this type of vehicle are price, vehicle size and reliability. Consumers also express concern about driving range and the availability of charging stations away from home.

"Current EV owners focus on the emotional benefits of owning an electric vehicle--which are having positive effect on the environment--but the way for manufacturers to take EVs to the masses and increase sales is to address the economic equation," said Neal Oddes, senior director of the green practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "There still is a disconnect between the reality of the cost of an EV and the cost savings that consumers want to achieve."

I do not see EVs like the Leaf or pluggable hybrids (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt taking off until battery costs come way down. Look at Europe where gasoline in many countries is $7 per gallon or more. EVs aren't taking off there. Conventional hybrids will become dominant years before EVs do.

Since I'm expecting higher oil prices the prospects for HEVs look good and I think we'll see a point where HEVs come to make up half the cars sold. The HEV battery volume will provide the revenues needed to fun even cheaper batteries and so we will get to EVs as a result of going thru a lengthy HEV period. Ford's shift to lithium ion batteries for the Fusion Hybrid indicates that HEV sales will provide the revenue needed for lithium ion battery advances and cost reductions.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 11 01:21 PM 
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2012 November 08 Thursday
Visible Aging Signs Indicate Higher Heart Attack Risk

More aging on the outside is associated with more aging on the inside.

In a Danish cohort study patients' risk of myocardial infarction grew by 35% if they had fatty eyelid deposits, 11% if they had earlobe creases, and 40% for men with crown top baldness, Anne Tybjaerg-Hansen, MD, reported at the American Heart Association meeting.

Speaking of aging on the inside: Telomere chromosome cap length is a marker for age. Telomeres shorten with age. Shorter telomeres are associated with lower survival for bladder cancer patients.

The study also revealed the combination of factors, longer telomeres and low levels of depressive symptoms, increased survival for bladder cancer patients by more than six-fold - 31.3 months vs 199.8 months. Those with short telomeres and high levels of depression had a three-fold risk of mortality.

What accounts for the difference? Does a younger immune system do a better job of battling cancer?

We need the ability to select cells out of our bodies that haven't suffered much aging damage, grow their telomeres, and then turn them into each of the cell types we need and put them back into the body.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 08 09:36 PM 
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More Mental Illness For People In Creative Professions

Swedish researchers have further confirmed the stereotype.

People in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population, there being a particularly salient connection between writing and schizophrenia. This according to researchers at Karolinska Institutet, whose large-scale Swedish registry study is the most comprehensive ever in its field.

1.2 million patients plus relatives and controls were used. A large fraction of the total Swedish population.

Are milder forms of mental illness helpful in coming up with creative ideas? Do altered states of mind enhance creative thinking? I'd like to see controls for IQ and other cognitive attributes. Scientists, for example, are smarter than the average person. Do some of the IQ-boosting genes cause more mental illness as a side effect?

By Randall Parker 2012 November 08 09:22 PM 
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2012 November 03 Saturday
Obsession With Righteousness A Normal Quality Of Human Minds

Among the couple of dozen books I'm currently reading interleaved (which I find a great way to make more connections between different pieces of information) is Jonathan Haidt's very interesting The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Just came across a great quote which sums up one of the problems with the human condition:

I want to show you an obsession with righteousness (leading inevitably to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition. It is a feature of evolutionary design, not a bug or error that crept into minds that would otherwise be objective and rational.

Our large scale societies are made possible by our righteous minds.

Our righteous minds made it possible for human beings - but no other animals - to produce large cooperative groups.

So moral motivations have great utility. For example, a society needs altrustic punishers who prevent free loading parasites from preying on others. However, we have the problem that our subconscious intuitive systems for moralizing can decide to punish people whose moral intuitions are different but who aren't parasites.

One manifestation of instinctive opposition to inequality is communism which resulted in tens of millions killed. But quite short of such an extreme moral enthusiasm people use their moral intuitions support policies which are themselves parasitic but justified on moral grounds as being a reaction to parasitism by others. But which policies are parasitic and also which business practices are parasitic? You can find countless vociferous intuitive debates on these questions. But the next time you are tempted to get into such a debate ask yourself if you are addicted to political partisanship.

My overall (heavily utilitarian) take on moral intuitions: we need more of the benefits of moral reasoning and less of the downsides. Can this be achieved with genetic tinkering on future generations to make human intuitions less error-prone?

We are moral rationalizers who deceive ourselves that we are reasonable.

To the question many people ask about politics — Why doesn’t the other side listen to reason? — Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided. The funniest and most painful illustrations are Haidt’s transcripts of interviews about bizarre scenarios. Is it wrong to have sex with a dead chicken? How about with your sister? Is it O.K. to defecate in a urinal? If your dog dies, why not eat it? Under interrogation, most subjects in psychology experiments agree these things are wrong. But none can explain why.

I am expecting genetic variants will be found that cause differing degrees of self-righteousness. I'd prefer to be surrounded by people with lower levels of self-righteousness and higher curiosity. Will the human race become more or less self-righteousness once offspring genetic engineering becomes possible?

One underlying problem is that our intuitions are very often wrong. We combine subconscious moral instincts with subconscious reasoning and then rationalize and delude ourselves into thinking we have rational beliefs about moral and political questions.

The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

Genetic engineering may eventually render one purpose of the incest taboo obsolete. Currently the incest taboo serves two necessary functions: A) reduces the incidence of two copies of recessive harmful mutations; B) reduces social bonds at the family level (less consanguineous marriage so that more loyalty can be given to higher levels of social units such as governments, businesses and voluntary organizations. But harmful mutations might become a thing of the past, thereby removing the value of that purpose for the incest taboo.

We will have plenty of motives to remove harmful mutations that make mating with close family members harmful to offspring. The genetic load of harmful mutations (which we all have) lower our potential functioning and in particular, genetic load probably lowers our intelligence (says Greg Cochran). This idea has begin to attract wider attention as others such as Kevin Mitchell start thinking the same thing. As a result, I expect future efforts to reduce genetic load in order to raise intelligence and improve general bodily and mental function. Go far enough into the future and harmful mutations shared between siblings will likely become very rare (at least among those who genetically engineer their children). So the genetic harm from brother-sister or parent-child mating will become avoidable.

I expect humans will tinker with the moral instincts of their offspring. One worry: a growing divergence in moral instincts between groups that choose different moral instincts for their children. Such a divergence could make the current left-right divide on moral questions small potatoes by comparison.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 03 09:02 AM 
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2012 November 01 Thursday
Too Much Alcohol Cuts Brain Neuron Formation

Drinking up to the legal driving limit will cut brain cell formation in the hippocampus.

Shors and Anderson worked with postdoctoral fellow Miriam Nokia from the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland to model moderate to heavy drinking in humans using rodents that reached a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent – the legal driving limit in the United States and many other countries – and found that brain cell production was affected negatively.

The researchers discovered that at this level of intoxication in rats – comparable to about 3-4 drinks for women and five drinks for men – the number of nerve cells in the hippocampus of the brain were reduced by nearly 40 percent compared to those in the abstinent group of rodents. The hippocampus is a part of the brain where the new neurons are made and is also known to be necessary for some types of new learning.

Keep your alcohol drinking down to a couple of drinks a day at most. Alcohol is a toxin. Treat it as such. Want beneficial chemicals from wine? Eat grapes. Throw in some berries and cherries for good measure.

Even if red wine delivers some health benefits it does not deliver them equally. The resveratrol found in red wine only helps if women taking it are not healthy.

Resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine thought to improve insulin sensitivity, reduce risk of heart disease and increase longevity, does not appear to offer these benefits in healthy women, new research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates.

By Randall Parker 2012 November 01 09:58 PM 
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