You may have heard that learning another language is one method for preventing or at least postponing the onset of dementia. Dementia refers to the loss of cognitive abilities, and one of its most common forms is Alzheimer’s disease. At this time, the causes of the disease are not well understood, and consequently, there are no proven steps that people can take to prevent it. Nonetheless, some researchers have suggested that learning a foreign language might help delay the onset of dementia.
To explore this possibility more deeply, let’s look at some of the common misconceptions about dementia and the aging brain. First of all, dementia is not an inevitable part of the normal aging process. Most older adults do not develop Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. It is also important to remember that dementia is not the same thing as normal forgetfulness. At any age, we might experience difficulty finding the exact word we want or have trouble remembering the name of the person we just met. People with dementia have more serious problems, like feeling confused or getting lost in a familiar place. Think of it this way: If you forget where you parked your car at the mall, that’s normal; if you forget how to drive a car, that may be a signal that something more serious is going on.
The idea that dementia can be prevented is based on the comparison of the brain to a muscle. When people talk about the brain, they sometimes say things like “It is important to exercise your brain” or “To stay mentally fit, you have to give your brain a workout.” Although these are colorful analogies, in reality the brain is not a muscle. Unlike muscles, the brain is always active and works even during periods of rest and sleep. In addition, although some muscle cells have a lifespan of only a few days, brain cells last a lifetime. Not only that, but it has been shown that new brain cells are being created throughout one’s lifespan.
While it makes for a colorful analogy, comparing the brain to a muscle is inaccurate and misleading.
So, if the brain is not a muscle, can it still be exercised? Once again, researchers don’t know for sure. There are now many computer, online, and mobile device applications that claim to be able to “train your brain,” and they typically tap into a variety of cognitive abilities. However, research suggests that although this type of training may improve one’s abilities at the tasks themselves, they don’t seem to improve other abilities. In other words, practicing a letter-detection task will, over time, improve your letter-detection skills, but it will not necessarily enhance your other perceptual abilities. Basically, solving crossword puzzles will make you a better crossword puzzle solver.
The best evidence that foreign language learning confers cognitive benefits comes from research with those who are already bilingual. Bilingualism most commonly occurs when children are exposed to two languages, either in the home (mom speaks Dutch, dad speaks Spanish) or more formally in early schooling. But bilingualism certainly occurs in adulthood as well.
Bilingualism and multilingualism are actually more common than you might think. In fact, it has been estimated that there are fewer monolingual speakers in the world than bilinguals and multilinguals. Although in many countries most inhabitants share just one language (for example, Germany and Japan), other countries have several official languages. Switzerland, for example, has about the same population as New York City (about eight million people), and yet it has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh. Throughout large parts of Africa, Arabic, Swahili, French, and English are often known and used by individuals who speak a different, indigenous language in their home than they do in the marketplace. So bilingualism and multilingualism are pervasive worldwide. And with regard to cognitive abilities, the research on those who possess more than one language paints an encouraging picture.
For one thing, bilinguals outperform monolinguals on tests of selective attention and multitasking. Selective attention can be measured by what is called the “Stroop Test” in which individuals look at a list of color names written in different colors. The task is to name the colors that words are printed in, rather than say the word itself. (If you search for “Stroop Test” or “Stroop Effect” online, you can take this test yourself.) Because we read automatically, it can be difficult to ignore the word “blue,” and report that it is printed in green. Bilinguals perform better on the Stroop Test, as well as other measures of selective attention.
They also are better at multitasking. One explanation of this superiority is that speakers of two languages are continually inhibiting one of their languages, and this process of inhibition confers general cognitive benefits to other activities. In fact, bilingual individuals outperform their monolingual counterparts on a variety of cognitive measures, such as performing concept-formation tasks, following complex instructions, and switching to new instructions. For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that the advantages of being bilingual are not universal across all cognitive domains. Bilingual individuals have been shown to have smaller vocabularies and to take longer in retrieving words from memory when compared to monolinguals. In the long run, however, the cognitive and linguistic advantages of being bilingual far outweigh these two issues.
If the benefits of being bilingual spill over to other aspects of cognition, then we would expect to see a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in bilinguals than in monolinguals, or at least a later onset of Alzheimer’s for bilinguals. In fact, there is evidence to support this claim. The psychologist Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues obtained the histories of 184 individuals who had made use of a memory clinic in Toronto. For those who showed signs of dementia, the monolinguals in the sample had an average age at time of onset of 71.4 years. The bilinguals, in contrast, received their diagnosis at 75.5 years, on average. In a study of this sort, a difference of four years is highly significant, and could not be explained by other systematic differences between the two groups. For example, the monolinguals reported, on average, a year and a half more schooling than their bilingual counterparts, so the effect was clearly not due to formal education.
A separate study, conducted in India, found strikingly similar results: bilingual patients developed symptoms of dementia 4.5 years later than monolinguals, even after other potential factors, such as gender and occupation, were controlled for. In addition, researchers have reported other positive effects of bilingualism for cognitive abilities in later life, even when the person acquired the language in adulthood. Crucially, Bialystok suggested that the positive benefits of being bilingual only really accrued to those who used both languages all the time.
But as encouraging as these kinds of studies are, they still have not established exactly how or why differences between bilinguals and monolinguals exist. Because these studies looked back at the histories of people who were already bilingual, the results can only say that a difference between the two groups was found, but not why that difference occurred. Further research is needed to determine what caused the differences in age of onset between the two groups.
Other studies of successful aging suggest that being connected to one’s community and having plenty of social interaction is also important in forestalling the onset of dementia. Once again, however, the results are far less clear than the popular media might lead you to believe. Older individuals who lead active social lives are, almost by definition, healthier than their counterparts who rarely leave their homes or interact with others. So we can’t really say whether being socially active prevents the onset of dementia, or if people who don’t have dementia are more likely to be socially active.
But even if studying a foreign language is not a magical cure-all, there is one thing it will do: It will make you a better speaker of a foreign language. Doing that confers a whole host of advantages we do know about.
The second-worst Ebola outbreak in history has killed more than 1,500 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since it began last August. And on Wednesday, nearly a year after the outbreak began, and in the midst of renewed concerns over its spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a public-health emergency of international concern.
The decision is meant to spur a stronger response from the international community in hopes of ending the outbreak, which has proved difficult to contain due to a humanitarian crisis DRC, attacks on health care workers and rampant misinformation within the country. Concerns of further spread were reignited last month when infected individuals died in neighboring Uganda after traveling from the DRC. The disease’s presence was also recently confirmed in the DRC city of Goma, which is considered a transport hub and is near the Rwandan border.
“Now is the time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference Wednesday. “I stress this: The government of DRC is doing everything it can. They need the support of the international community.”
BREAKING NEWS: The #Ebola outbreak in #DRC constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, citing concerning geographical expansion of the virus: WHO Director-General, @DrTedros following the IHR Emergency Committee’s recommendation #alert
The declaration came at the recommendation of the International Health Regulations (IHR) Emergency Committee, which cited possible increased national and regional risks associated with the outbreak. At three prior meetings on the topic, the WHO declined to declare the outbreak an international public-health emergency.
While Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that he hopes countries continue to contribute funding to the response, the emergency declaration is meant as a call for strengthened and streamlined international effort to slow the outbreak, which has thus far infected more than 2,400 people. The IHR recommends that affected countries improve their preparedness for detecting and treating cases of Ebola, enhance screening and public education in key areas, minimize security threats and embrace the use of preventive tools such as vaccines.
The IHR does not, however, recommend that countries restrict travel or trade to the DRC, as “such measures are usually implemented out of fear and have no basis in science.” It also said screening at airports and other ports of entry outside the region is unnecessary.
The International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on #Ebola in #DRC provided the following public health advice:
Thus far, U.S. involvement in the Ebola outbreak has been fairly minimal, though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in June that it would activate an Emergency Operations Center in the DRC to help support outbreak response. The World Bank in May also pledged to release an additional $10 million from its Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility to help with response; the WHO has to-date received $6.5 million, officials said at the press conference Wednesday. (UNICEF has also received $13.5 million, they said.) Countries, including the U.K., have also recently promised financial contributions.
Ghebreyesus stressed that public-health funding must address not only existing outbreaks, but also the prevention of future ones.
“Financing should be for preparedness,” he said. “Financing should be to fix the roof before the rain comes.”
After some promising early indicators, preliminary federal data suggest the number of Americans who died from drug overdoses finally fell in 2018, after years of significant increases.
Provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics predicted that 68,500 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2018, compared to about 72,000 the year before. That translates to an approximately 5% reduction in overdose deaths nationwide—a small but significant step toward curbing the deadly effects of the nation’s substance abuse crisis.
Opioids, as in years past, were the drugs most likely to be involved in fatal overdoses, but opioid deaths declined slightly, from about 49,000 in 2017 to a predicted 47,600 in 2018. (About 32,000 of the 2018 deaths involved potent synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which has in recent years become an increasingly common driver of drug deaths.)
Though the data aren’t final, the estimates are a refreshing change from years of sizable increases in fatal drug overdoses. Between 1999 and 2017, the number of annual drug overdose deaths in the U.S. ballooned from nearly 17,000 to more than 72,000, according to federal data.
The 2018 estimate of 68,500 deaths still represents a significant increase over the number of fatal drug overdoses recorded two decades ago. But the downturn from 2017, however modest, suggests that efforts to improve the availability and efficacy of substance use treatment—and to prevent addiction in the first place—may be beginning to show results.
The data do show some causes for concern, however—namely that deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants like methamphetamine and MDMA actually rose slightly from 2017 to 2018. Cocaine was involved in a predicted 15,700 overdoses in 2018, up from about 15,000 in 2017, while psychostimulants were involved in a predicted 13,000 deaths in 2018, up from about 10,800 in 2017.
Recent years have ushered in a wellness movement that emphasizes body positivity and holistic health over thinness and crash diets. But new federal data suggest that messaging hasn’t fully changed behavior yet. In fact, the report shows that more American teenagers are trying to lose weight than in years past.
From 2013 to 2016, almost 38% of American adolescents ages 16 to 19 said they had tried to lose weight during the past year, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics. That’s up from about a quarter of adolescents who said the same a decade ago, according to previous research.
Rising childhood and adolescent obesity rates likely play a part in the increase, especially since the NCHS data showed that more than three-quarters of adolescents with obesity tried to lose weight. But weight-loss attempts outpaced increases in adolescent obesity, according to CDC data. Obesity rates among adolescents ages 12 to 19 climbed from 18.4% to almost 21% from 2009-2010 to 2015-2016.
Far more girls than boys reported trying to lose weight in the latest report: around 45%, compared to 30% of boys. Hispanic teenagers of both genders were more likely to say they had tried to lose weight compared to black, white and Asian youths.
Dr. Sarah Armstrong, an associate professor of pediatrics who researches adolescent obesity at the Duke University School of Medicine, says the increase suggests that despite cultural efforts to de-emphasize weight loss in favor of overall wellness, “there has really not been a shift in the social stigma and weight bias against people who are heavy,” Armstrong says. “Teenagers experience this, maybe even more so than adults, because they are still developing their image of self.” A study published July 16 in Obesity Science and Practice supports that theory, finding that younger people, and especially those who began struggling with their weight early in life, were more likely than others to internalize weight bias and stigma, which can damage health and self-esteem.
When teenagers try to lose weight, they mostly rely on traditional tactics, the NCHS data show. More than 83% said they had exercised in hopes of losing weight, followed by about 50% each who said they had consumed more water and less food.
But, Armstrong points out, the continuing rise in youth obesity rates suggests “the increased efforts to lose weight is not translating to weight loss. It should be a clear signal to all of us that we need to think about the systems and environmental-level drivers of obesity, and recognize that individuals won’t solve the problem alone.” Meaningful reductions in adolescent obesity will likely require better physical activity and nutrition programs at schools, more moderate use of technology, and substantive efforts from the food industry to improve nutrition and food quality, Armstrong says.
In addition, Armstrong cautions that even seemingly healthy behaviors, like working out and cutting back on calories, can quickly spiral into unhealthy territory, especially for teenagers. Eating disorders are thought to be most common among adolescents, and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that doctors and families avoid focusing on weight issues in teenagers, because doing so can promote disordered eating.
“An increased focus on being healthy is a good thing,” Armstrong says. “But what we know, particularly in teenagers, is that their focus on weight and particularly weight loss tends to be in an unhealthy way. A focus on trying to be healthier and get to a healthier weight is important, but I worry about the methods.”
Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore public health commissioner who was the first physician to helm Planned Parenthood in roughly 50 years, abruptly announced Tuesday that she is leaving the organization due to “philosophical differences” with its leadership.
“As a physician and public health leader, I came to Planned Parenthood to lead a national health care organization that provides essential primary and preventive care to millions of underserved women and families, and to advocate for a broad range of policies that affect our patients’ health,” Wen wrote in a statement posted on Twitter. “I believe the best way to protect abortion care is to be clear that it is not a political issue but a health care one, and that we can expand support for reproductive rights by finding common ground with the large majority of Americans who understand reproductive health care as the fundamental health care that it is.”
Wen added that she is leaving “because the new Board Chairs and I have philosophical differences over the direction and future of Planned Parenthood.” She said in a separate, earlier tweet that the board ended her employment at a “secret meeting” in the midst of “good faith negotiations” over her departure.
But a source familiar with the matter disputed that account, saying Wen was aware of the meeting—in which the board voted unanimously to terminate her employment—though she was not present. The source also said Wen and Planned Parenthood had been in discussions over leadership issues for six of the roughly eight months she served as president.
Wen also posted a letter addressed to her Planned Parenthood colleagues, in which she wrote that the board wanted to focus on political advocacy—in contrast, apparently, to her priority on abortion as a health care issue. “With the landscape changing dramatically in the last several months and the right to safe, legal abortion care under attack like never before, I understand the shift in the Board’s prioritization,” she wrote.
To all my colleagues at Planned Parenthood, the tens of thousands of dedicated people who are on the frontlines every day, providing life-saving, life-transforming care and fighting to protect access to that care: you are my heroes. Thank you for what you do. pic.twitter.com/6N4RMiTQAG
Effective immediately, Alexis McGill Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood board chair, will take over as acting president and CEO, Planned Parenthood announced in a statement.
“I am proud to step in to serve as Acting President and facilitate a smooth leadership transition in this critical moment for Planned Parenthood and the patients and communities we serve,” Johnson said in the statement. “I thank Dr. Wen for her service and her commitment to patients.”
Wen, who succeeded Cecile Richards as Planned Parenthood’s president and CEO last fall, came to the organization at a particularly tumultuous time in its history. Planned Parenthood has been among the most vocal challengers to a string of legislative efforts to restrict abortion access in various U.S. states. It recently filed a lawsuit that sought to block a Georgia law that would ban abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, and has done the same in Alabama, which is set to enact a near-total ban on abortions.
The organization has also been embroiled in a messy legal dispute in Missouri, where state health officials have declined to renew Planned Parenthood’s license to provide abortion care. Emergency measures have preserved abortion access there for now, but without the necessary permissions, Missouri could become the only state in the U.S. without a legal abortion provider.
People all across the U.S. have been sweating through heat waves this summer, and new research suggests they should get used to it.
Over the next century, climate change will likely make extreme heat conditions—and their concordant health risks—much more frequent in nearly every part of the U.S., according to a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Communications. By the end of the century, it says, parts of the Gulf Coast states could experience more than 120 days per year that feel like they top 100°F.
The study was conducted by researchers from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a nonprofit that uses science to address large-scale problems such as climate change and sustainability. The study was also funded in part by UCS, and in part by a number of other foundations that support environmental protection work. The UCS researchers used historical temperature and humidity data and a range of different climate projection models to calculate the number of days expected to meet National Weather Service thresholds for potentially dangerous heat moving forward.
The National Weather Service uses a measure called “maximum heat index“—which takes into account both air temperature and humidity to calculate how hot it truly feels outside—to warn people of extreme heat. The group typically issues a “heat advisory” when a maximum heat index is expected to hit at least 100°F for two or more days, and an “excessive heat warning” when it will hit at least 105°F for two or more days. At these levels, prolonged heat exposure can lead to health risks including dehydration, worsening of chronic conditions, and heat stroke, especially for children and the elderly.
While the hottest parts of the U.S. already experience plenty of Heat Index 100 (HI100) days per year, they’re infrequent or virtually non-existent in cooler regions; Heat Index 105 (HI105) days are even more rare. But according to the study’s projections, that won’t be the case for long.
Even under relatively conservative modeling conditions, the country-wide number of HI100 days could double, and the number of HI105 days could triple, by the middle of this century, the paper says. While the Southeast and Southern Plains regions look likely to bear the brunt of this heat, only high-altitude areas in the Western U.S. would dodge these heat waves completely
If the U.S. doesn’t make substantive progress toward reducing drivers of climate change, such as greenhouse-gas emissions, heat waves will be a near-constant part of life in many parts of the country by the end of the 21st century, the paper predicts. HI100 days could quadruple nationwide and HI105 days could increase eight-fold, the authors write.
That means parts of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida could experience up to 120 HI100 days per year, and southern parts of Texas and Florida could deal with up to 150 HI105 days per year, the authors caution. Even states in the Pacific Northwest and Northern New England could see up to 10 HI105 days per year. (See how your area is expected to fare here.)
While state- and federal-level policies meant to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are key to curbing the effects of climate change, there are also changes individuals can make. Cutting back on food waste and choosing sustainable food sources can make a large impact in the U.S., as can walking, biking or taking public transportation instead of driving whenever possible.
In 2014, I sat on the National Security Council and helped lead the United States’ Ebola response. At the time, I thought the Ebola outbreak was the most terrifying public health emergency that I would ever witness in my lifetime. It turns out that I was wrong.
The challenges of this outbreak are unprecedented: poor infrastructure, distrust in health workers and lack of access to basic medical care. A big enough barrier on their own, together they make containing this outbreak in the DRC harder and more complex than the last outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Years of interethnic violence has created an atmosphere in the DRC where mistrust of authority is rife. In a recent survey, 25 percent of Congolese respondents said that Ebola wasn’t even real. This lack of trust, along with the ongoing turbulence, has led to attacks against health care workers and clinics which has endangered the entire emergency response.
Make no mistake: Nothing about beating Ebola, or any global health epidemic for that matter, is easy. That’s why the current U.S. administration and the international community would be wise to learn from the mistakes and successes of the last outbreak.
My biggest regret from the last Ebola response is that the world didn’t scale up earlier and faster. The 2014 crisis was unlike anything we had seen before and it exposed how ill-prepared America and the world were to respond to infectious disease threats.
But when America did lead, the rest of the world followed. The United States rallied technical experts and leaders from governments all over the world to launch a coordinated response to the Ebola crisis in Western Africa. Together, we leveraged American investments to yield new commitments from others and reminded the world that when there’s a moral imperative to act on global health, we will.
As someone who has helped fight this ugly disease before, my experience compels me to speak out to Republicans, Democrats and anyone who is in a position of influence about the steps we can take to help control this outbreak. Right now, we’re watching a crisis turn into a catastrophe. We have the tools to defeat Ebola. What we’re missing is the political will. The time to start caring about Ebola isn’t when it reaches the shores of the United States or Europe, it’s now.
If we allow this inferno to engulf more communities and spread to more countries, we will not have Africa, the World Health Organization, or others to scapegoat. All we will need to assign blame is a mirror.
Listening to music while you work “significantly impairs” creativity. That was the conclusion of a study published earlier this year in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology that examined the effect of different types of background music on creative problem solving.
For the study, UK researchers presented people with a series of word puzzles designed to measure creativity and “insight-based” processes. The study participants completed the puzzles either in a quiet space or in one with music playing in the background. Whether that music was familiar or unfamiliar, vocal or strictly instrumental, people’s scores on average fell on the creativity test compared to their scores in the quiet condition. “The findings challenge the view that background music enhances creativity,” the study authors wrote.
But don’t pitch your headphones or desk speaker just yet. More research on music and creativity has found that, depending on the kind of creative task a person is grappling with, certain types of music may be helpful.
A 2017 study in the journal PLOS ONE found that listening to “happy” music—defined as classical tunes that were upbeat and stimulating—helped people perform better on tasks that involved “divergent” thinking, which is a core component of creativity. Divergent thinking involves “making unexpected combinations, recognizing links among remote associates, or transforming information into unexpected forms,” the authors of that study wrote. Basically, divergent thinking is coming up with new, outside-the-box ideas or strategies.
“We can only speculate why happy music stimulates divergent thinking,” says Simone Ritter, coauthor of the PLOS ONE study and an assistant professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. One theory put forward in her study is that the stimulating nature of lively music somehow energizes the brain in ways that promote a “flexible thinking style,” which leads to unconventional or innovative ideas.
There are other theories. Research has shown that listening to music can lower anxiety and improve mood, and these shifts could facilitate creative insights. “For breakthrough moments of creativity, positive mood is generally helpful,” says Mark Beeman, chair of psychology at Northwestern University and principal investigator at NU’s Creative Brain Lab. Meanwhile, if someone is anxious, “this [anxiety] tends to cause them to focus more, which is not helpful,” he says.
How could focusing on a creative problem be a bad thing? Beeman has spent two decades studying the brain and its creative processes, which he explores in his 2015 book The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. He explains that the process of creative problem solving tends to unfold in predictable stages.
The first stage, he says, involves studying a problem or dilemma, assessing the obvious solutions, and realizing that none of them works. “At this point, if you keep focusing too hard on a problem, that tends to make it more difficult for the brain to come up with different or novel ideas,” he says. He likens it to a dim star that disappears when you stare straight at it. “To see the star, you have to look at it out of the corner of your eye, and creative ideas may be like that too,” he says. “You need to take your focus off the strong, obvious ideas to avoid squashing the others.”
This is where music comes into play. Once a person has closely examined a problem and hit a roadblock, the next creative stage is one Beeman calls “incubation.” During this stage, “there’s some kind of continuing process in the mind where you’re still mulling the problem at an unconscious level,” he says. This incubation period often produces “aha!” insights or realizations—like when you can’t recall a word, but then it pops into your head later in the day, after you’ve thought you’d stopped thinking about it.
But not all activities foster incubation, Beeman says. “If you’re reading email or doing other demanding tasks, there aren’t enough background resources to do any work on the problem.”
Listening to music, on the other hand, may be just the kind of mild diversion that relaxes the brain’s focus while still allowing it to do its fruitful new-idea incubating, he says. And indeed, there’s evidence that listening to music can stimulate the brain’s default mode network, which is a collection of connected brain regions that research has linked to creative insight.
Beeman doesn’t dispute the results of the new study that found music impairs creative problem solving. He says music might not help people solve the type of verbal puzzle the study employed—which he himself helped design and validate years ago in an effort to better measure some aspects of creative thinking. This specific type of puzzle requires “multiple cognitive processes,” he says, some of which require “focused attention.” And all types of distraction—music included—may impair focused attention.
So if a person is in the midst of the first stage of creativity, the one that involves analyzing a problem and eliminating the obvious choices or solutions, background music probably isn’t helpful. “It’s either a distraction or you just block it out,” he says.
But if you’re stuck on a problem and you’re looking for creative inspiration, taking a break to listen to music or engage in idle “mind wandering” may allow the brain the freedom it needs to “dredge up” new ideas or insights, he says. He also cites research linking mind-wandering to creative inspiration.
In those cases, what type of music should you turn on? “I think that will vary a lot depending on the individual,” Beeman says. “For most, I think something that’s pleasant and familiar—not so novel that it’s distracting—would be helpful.”
Surgeons announced on Monday that they have separated conjoined twin sisters after multiple surgeries that took more than 50 hours to complete.
Two-year-old Safa and Marwa Ullah underwent three surgeries carried out between October 2018 and February this year at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, according to the Guardian.
The sisters, who hail from Charsadda in Pakistan, were born with their skulls and blood vessels joined together.
“We are extremely excited about the future,” Zainab Bibi, the girl’s mother, said according to the Guardian. Their father died of a heart attack before they were born.
Doctors used the latest technology to complete the procedures, including virtual reality to create exact replicas of the girls’ skulls, and 3D printing to create models to practice on, according to the Guardian.
The surgeries, which were paid for by a private donor, were not without complications. The Guardian reports that one of the twins suffered a stroke during one of the surgeries. In the final operation, doctors built the girls new skulls using their own bones.
“We are delighted we have been able to help Safa and Marwa and their family,” neurosurgeon Noor Ul Owase Jeelani and craniofacial surgeon Prof David Dunaway said in a statement, according to the Guardian.
Great Ormond Street Hospital posted a photo on Twitter of the twins leaving the facility on July 1.
Four operations, 55 hours of operating time – and a fond farewell! After 9 months of care, the twins and their family left GOSH on 1 July. Safa and Marwa have a long road ahead – but we are hopeful they will be able to live active, happy lives! https://t.co/aKrOCMGu3q 👋💗 pic.twitter.com/pWd6PXcFyq
According to a University of Illinois at Chicago and Cook County Hospital study, twins joined at the head are found in only one in every 2.5 million births and account for just 2 to 6% of all conjoined twins.
Taking someone else’s advice, even when you ask for it, is difficult. Entire studies have been conducted just to understand the widespread phenomenon of “advice discounting.”
But even as we ignore the well-intentioned suggestions of our friends, families and therapists, many of us come back week after week to the advice columns published by a slew of print and digital media outlets. It’s hard to say exactly how many people read advice columns, but it’s clear that many have built devoted followings over the years. The workplace-focused “Ask a Manager,” for example, receives 2.4 million visits a year and 50 questions a day, writes Alison Green, the author behind that column for the past decade, writes in Vox. Several advice columnists, including Green and Ask Polly’s Heather Havrilesky, have parlayed their success into books.
It’s tempting to think the allure of these columns is rooted in schadenfreude. But Lori Gottlieb, the psychotherapist who writes the Atlantic’s “Dear Therapist” column, says the appeal stems from the fact that, though we all feel unique, our problems tend to be shared, at least to some degree.
“Readers might say to their friends, ‘I’m reading it because it’s voyeuristic and fun,'” Gottlieb says. “But I think that people are really reading it the same way they’re ‘asking for a friend.’ They really find pieces of their own lives in every single letter.”
Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge agrees that a love for advice columns is rooted in something deeper: a hardwired penchant for social connection. “We are looking to see what other people are going through, because it allows us, especially if we have problems, to not feel alone,” Rutledge says. “You might feel social support from the things they’re going through.”
That’s not a new phenomenon. Advice columns have been around for about 300 years, according to Vox, and back in 1988 more than half of Americans said they read at least one such column weekly. But the category has evolved to meet modern media consumption habits, appearing on platforms ranging from the New York Times to Reddit, which houses subreddits such as r/advice and r/relationship_advice that function as crowdsourced advice columns for the online masses.
The internet has played a big part in the recent expansion, simply by providing a platform and allowing a more diverse array of columnists to have a voice and build a following, Gottlieb says. Old-school columns like “Miss Manners” and “Dear Abby”—which are still syndicated by news outlets across the country—are now joined by the wide range of voices and backgrounds reflected in columns like the Outline’s no-holds-barred “Ask a Fuck Up,” Out’s LGBTQ-geared “¡Hola Papi!” and Dame magazine’s advice podcast “Sip on This,” which is hosted by a woman of color.
Advice columns also fit naturally into a society that’s comfortable sharing personal details and crowdsourcing life tips online and on social media, Gottlieb says. The advice column boom may also be a “symptom of the times,” Gottlieb says. Rates of mental health issues like depression and anxiety are hitting all-time highs, especially among younger generations, and social conventions around parenting, etiquette and relationships are changing rapidly, which could push people toward the guidance of advice columns. Throw in the fact that loneliness and social isolation are hitting epidemic levels in the U.S., and it’s no surprise that so many people are looking to strangers such as advice columnists for help—and taking solace in the fact that other people are struggling, too.
“But I also think that there’s a good side,” Gottlieb says of the trend. “Maybe we’re more open. Maybe we’re more willing to reach out. Maybe we value the quality of our emotional lives more.”
Even if readers don’t turn to advice columns expressly to solve their own problems, these pieces of writing can leave an imprint over time argues Rutledge. Direct advice can chafe against our desire for agency and self-sufficiency, but reading a column that’s ostensibly about someone else’s problems can leave valuable room for introspection, she says.
“It’s a little bit like horoscopes,” Rutledge says. “It’s advice that leaves enough space for us to insert our own story. You can take these things from a column and reimagine [them] in terms of your own life.”
Getting advice from the printed page, Gottlieb says, may also be easier to stomach than hearing it face-to-face, especially if it’s explicitly meant for someone else. “Having it written down allows people to reflect on it and re-read it,” Gottlieb says. “They can kind of let it marinate and go back to it.”