1. Archive

When roaches make you sick

Published Oct. 13, 2005

It begins innocently enough. You get into your pajamas, or whatever you sleep in, then brush your teeth and climb into bed. As you collapse into slumber, your toothbrush hangs in its holder, still damp and sweet.

Meanwhile, in a crack at the bottom of your bathroom baseboard, a creature of the night prepares to go about its business. The hideous thing, all legs and jaws and yuck, emerges from hiding and skitters across the floor. It whisks up the side of the vanity, slips in and out of the sink, pauses to touch the mirror with its antennae.

Then it does the thing that you prefer not to think about. It climbs up the wall and onto your toothbrush holder. It creeps out, stretches out over the edge, takes a good long sniff, and begins to eat from the bristles.

The next morning after breakfast when it's time to brush your teeth again? Ooooo . . . .

Believe it or not, it gets worse. Cockroaches, for all their ugliness and filth, are also believed to be one of the leading causes of allergy attacks. According to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 15-million people in the United States are allergic to cockroach droppings, secretions and remains.

"More than half of all adults and 75 percent of all children with allergies may be allergic to roaches," says Dr. Maude F. Christian-Meier, a research scientist who specializes in cockroaches. "And areas such as the Southeast have more problems than cooler, drier areas. Cockroaches prefer warmth and moisture. Symptoms vary from runny noses, to itching, to asthmatic-type reactions. Then you can have more serious reactions that can lead to shock."

Experts believe that people who live in cramped housing that is dirty and poorly ventilated are more likely to suffer from cockroach allergies. In other words, the more roaches per square inch, the worse it gets.

"It's quite a serious problem, especially for asthmatics," says Sarah Kaluzny of the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology. "And it can be difficult to get away from. With some people, because of their income and surroundings, they have no choice but to be exposed. If they are allergic as well as asthmatic, it can be a very difficult problem to fight."

So the next time your hayfever acts up, keep in mind that the cause of your runny nose may be skittering right before your weepy eyes.

"Cockroaches crawl everywhere, on anything," says Christian-Meier, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "They get into cereal, bread, any stored product that isn't well-sealed. Any exposed food. And a nice toothbrush with a little bit of sweet-tasting toothpaste is an attractive lure, too."

Add strength training

to your fitness program

Aerobics exercise is still considered the best foundation for a balanced fitness program. Cardiovascular training helps to improve overall health by controlling weight gain and by lowering the risks of heart disease and high blood pressure. It also helps to ward off osteoporosis and adult onset diabetes.

But, for both men and women, strength training (using free weights and machines) has risen to a solid No. 2 in the minds of many experts.

Steve Sokol, a world-class endurance athlete, certainly feels that way.

"From age 30 to 60, we lose as much as half of our muscle strength and mass," says Sokol, who has held several world records, including once doing 52,000 consecutive situps. "But if you train properly, you can retain all of that strength. In effect, you can cut your chronological age in half with proper training.

"After 60, there is a natural decline that is unavoidable," says Sokol, who is an exercise physiologist based in San Jose, Calif. "However, test subjects as old as 90 have retained as much as 50 percent of their (youthful) strength."

Sokol says that improving muscular stamina protects the body from injury, gives you more energy for daily activities and leads to a more attractive appearance.

"Strength training will also raise your metabolic rate," says Sokol, who once rode a bicycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles in the standing position the entire time. "Each pound of muscle burns 50 calories of food, so that your body will consume calories, not wear them. Also, people become more proud of their bodies.

"I believe in a balanced fitness, combining cardiovascular and strength training, along with proper stretching and good nutrition," adds Sokol, who was asthmatic as a child but who now competes in ultradistance marathons and triathlons. "Aerobics help to reduce body fat, regulate cholesterol levels and make your arteries bigger. But strength training is also important and should be included in your overall fitness program."

Cocaine's damaging effects on behavior are widely documented, but only recently has evidence existed of its physical dangers. Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston (a non-profit affiliate of Harvard Medical School) have shown that cocaine can restrict blood flow to the brain, causing changes that resemble the damage suffered by victims of stroke and Alzheimer's disease.

A three-dimensional, brain-imaging technique that combines a radioactive drug and X-ray photography has shown that known cocaine users have "dark places" in the parts of their brains that control learning and memory. (See photos, above.) These dark places indicate areas of reduced blood flow.

"We don't know if the damage is irreversible, but the message is that it's important to not get started on cocaine," says Dr. B. Leonard Holman, chairman of the Department of Radiology at Brigham. "The incidences of blood flow abnormalities (in cocaine users) are very high."

The images will be shown in a free video being distributed nationwide to middle schools for the fall 1991 semester. In the video, normal brain scans are contrasted with the scans of known cocaine users. The latter show large areas of decreased blood flow.

"There were people in our study who told us they only used cocaine on the weekends, and when we studied them, we found areas in the brains where blood flow was reduced," says Holman. "Areas of the brain connected to memory and learning were affected even in these patients.

"We don't have all the answers. But the potential for serious damage is there."