Don’t acquire “McMansion syndrome” when looking for housing

McMansions are often held up as the exemplar of excessive consumption yet I have not seen this suggestion: you can get “McMansion syndrome.”

Here are four ways to minimize lifestyle inflation:

Housing. Housing is the biggest monthly expense for most of us. One way to minimize housing costs is to live in a smaller space. A smaller house in the same area almost always costs less than a bigger house. Fifty years ago, a family of five could live comfortably in a 1,700 square foot home. Why is the ideal home size so big these days? A smaller home will cost less to furnish, maintain, heat, and cool. If you can resist the McMansion syndrome, you can save a lot of money…

Is this a condition now? This reminds me of the 2001 book Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic which was based on two 1990s documentaries with the same word. “Affluenza” is clearly a play on “influenza” but I don’t think this term has really caught on. Perhaps “McMansion syndrome” would be catchier?

Sociologist explains that one type of mass hysteria is behind cases in upstate New York

A recent set of odd medical cases in one New York town has prompted news sources to look for explanations. One sociologist suggests the high school students are experiencing one type of mass hysteria:

Most doctors and experts believe that the students are suffering from mass sociogenic illness, also known as mass hysteria. In these cases, psychological symptoms manifest as physical conditions.

Sociologist Robert Bartholomew, author of several books on mass hysteria including The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, explained to Discovery News that “there are two main types of contagious conversion disorder. The most common in Western countries is triggered by extreme, sudden stress; usually a bad smell. Symptoms typically include dizziness, headaches, fainting and over-breathing, and resolve within about a day.”

In contrast, Bartholomew said, “The LeRoy students are experiencing the rarer, more serious type affecting muscle motor function and commonly involves twitching, shaking, facial tics, difficulty communicating and trance states. Symptoms appear slowly over weeks or months under exposure to longstanding stress, and typically take weeks or months to subside.”

Mass hysteria cases are more common than people realize and have been reported all over the world for centuries.

Read the rest of the story for four more interesting stories of mass hysteria. These sorts of stories pop up every once in a while: a few people claim to be ill from smelling something but authorities can’t find any issue.

I’ve seen Bartholomew quoted in a few news stories about this mystery illness. I would be interested to hear how he thinks you can defuse this situation; how do you stop mass hysteria? Is it best to focus on reducing the stress of the people experiencing the illness or is it better to split up the group of those experiencing the illness to try to limit the “mass” part of the condition?

Also, do we have any studies of what takes place within a community that is experiencing this as opposed to studying the situations afterward? What is it like for the other students and their families in this high school?

Third, what kind of stress sets this off?

Fourth, is there something about the social networks between those who are ill that matter or the particular institutional setting that people are in (i.e., close quarters for long hours)?

Debating the merits of using the word “cancer”

Many would say that they know what cancer is. But medical experts suggest it is not so clear and perhaps the term “cancer” is not the best description for every situation that might usually be labelled with this term.

Though it is impossible to say whether the treatment was necessary in this case, one thing is growing increasingly clear to many researchers: The word “cancer” is out of date, and all too often it can be unnecessarily frightening…

“The definition of cancer has changed,” said Dr. Robert Aronowitz, a professor of history and sociology of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

Many medical investigators now speak in terms of the probability that a tumor is deadly. And they talk of a newly recognized risk of cancer screening — overdiagnosis. Screening can find what are actually harmless, if abnormal-looking, clusters of cells.

But since it is not known for sure whether they will develop into fatal cancers, doctors tend to treat them with the same methods that they use to treat clearly invasive cancers. Screening is finding “cancers” that did not need to be found. So maybe “cancer” is not always the right word for them.

This is an interesting discussion to read about after having recently completed reading The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Several points are found in both works:

1. Our knowledge of cancer is constantly evolving. We don’t know as much about it as the public might think.

2. Different cancers present different issues, leading to some of the issue with the term cancer. Cancers don’t have a common cause or necessarily act in the same way.

3. Screening is a big issue. Who should get screened? Is it cost-effective?

One other issue that I don’t see discussed in this article or in the book: is part of the problem with the word “cancer” the connotations that this has for people? In his book, Mukherjee suggests that cancer is associated with a bleak prognosis. When patients hear this term, they know they are in for a very difficult fight. Would changing the use of the term shift some of this conversation away from the immediate fear involving cancer to a more medical term that requires more explanation and obscures the severity a bit? Is this also in even just a little way about public relations?

Your social network might lead to disease

A study of the passing of swine flu among a set of schoolchildren found that the disease was primarily spread through one’s social network:

A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.

Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…

The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.

The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.

Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.

This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.

If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?

Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…

The “friendship paradox” and the spread of disease

The social dimensions of diseases and medical conditions continue to draw research attention, particularly for those interested in mapping and understanding fast-spreading illnesses. A recent study, undertaken by a sociologist and medical geneticist/political scientist, explores how the flu spreads:

The persons at the center of a social network are exposed to diseases earlier than those at the margins states the paradox. Again, your friends are probably more popular than you are, and this “friendship paradox” may help predict the spread of infectious disease. However, Christakis and Fowler found that analyzing a social network and monitoring the health of members is an optimal way to predict a wave of influenza, detailed information simply doesn’t exist for most social groups, and producing it is time-consuming and expensive…

[Sociologist Nicholas] Christakis states: We think this may have significant implications for public health. Public health officials often track epidemics by following random samples of people or monitoring people after they get sick. But that approach only provides a snapshot of what’s currently happening. By simply asking members of the random group to name friends, and then tracking and comparing both groups, we can predict epidemics before they strike the population at large. This would allow an earlier, more vigorous, and more effective response.

This sounds like it has more promise than recently proposed techniques like monitoring Google searches or Twitter feeds.

Additionally, more and more research suggests that monitoring and analyzing social networks is critical for understanding the complex world. Rather than simply examining individuals, we now have some tools to map and model more complex social relationships.

How diseases become a social problem

NPR explores how certain diseases, such as cancer, particularly breast cancer, turn from a medical condition that no one talked about to a prominent social cause. Some of the factors, according to the article, that helped cancer become a visible concern:

[T]he women’s health movement, the rise of information technology and a shift in the medical culture itself away from a purely hierarchical system in which doctors were always assumed to know best…

A lot of illness-awareness promotion, though, stems from the way AIDS patients responded to the rise of that disease…The tropes developed with AIDS — clothing accessories such as ribbons, displays of commemorative quilts, marches on Washington — have all since been adopted by groups concerned with other conditions.

How certain issues (and not others) become social problems is often a fascinating tale. What one time period and culture sees as problematic is not an issue for the same culture in a later period – Prohibition would be a great example. There is often a complicated process that takes place by which the problem is brought to the attention of the public and then people become convinced it is a cause that requires their action.