September 30, 2007

Workaholics, macaques, and grandmas: summer research roundup

Monkeys, like moms, use “baby talk”

Anyone who has ever engaged in a game of peek-a-boo knows well the language researchers call “motherese” or “baby talk.” Dario Maestripieri, associate professor in comparative human development, examined instances of the “high-pitched and musical form of speech” by non-human primates in a study published this summer detailing the use of specialized sounds used to communicate with infants.

Maestripieri, recent U of C Ph.D. graduate Jessica Whitham, and the University of Puerto Rico’s Melissa Gerald studied rhesus macaques on an island off Puerto Rico. They found that female macaques increase the frequency of grunts and a specific vocalization called a “girney” when infants are present.

The team determined that the calls were not meant to convey specific information, but rather to attract the babies’ attention, to encourage their behavior, and to assure the mother that the vocalizing macaque means no harm to her child.

Unlike humans, the female rhesus macaques did not use the vocalizations with their own infants, just those of other monkeys.

Study tackles taboo topic of elderly sex

Getting old doesn’t mean you quit getting down. In the most comprehensive survey of senior sex habits ever, Stacy Tessler Lindau and Edward Laumann of the U of C—along with four other co-authors—found that 73 percent of people aged 57–64 reported engaging in sexual activity, defined as vaginal intercourse, oral sex, or masturbation, in the previous year. Even a quarter of older adults in their late 70s and early 80s are sexually active.

Myriad issues may get in the way: About half of sexually active seniors reported at least one sexual problem. The most frequent stop-ups included lack of desire, vaginal dryness, and the inability to climax for women; 37 percent of men reported erectile difficulties.

The researchers also found that, across the board, older women had less sex than older men.

Despite these numbers, only 38 percent of men and 22 percent of women reported talking with a physician about sex since age 50. Tessler Lindau hopes the study will spur more discussion on the topic and bring senior sex out of the shadows.

Americans, especially older ones, happy at work

Recent grads unhappy with their jobs aren’t alone, a new U of C study says. Although 86 percent of Americans say they’re satisfied with their jobs, that number varies dramatically with age. The younger you are, the less likely it is that you will enjoy your job: Only 42 percent of workers under age 29 reported being “very satisfied,” but that number jumps to 71 percent for those 65 and older.

Tom W. Smith, the report’s author and director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Center, explained in a press release that most people over 65 who work do it not because they have to, but because they love their jobs.

Many other factors also affected job satisfaction. Blacks and Hispanics are less satisfied than other races, while workers living in the south and central U.S. tend to be happier than their coastal counterparts.

Workers with more prestigious jobs and higher incomes also tended to be more satisfied. A mere 35 percent of workers in the least prestigious 10 percent of jobs—such as unskilled manual labor—were very satisfied, but that number was 57 percent for those in the top 10 percent of jobs.

McDonald’s could be real value meal for cancer patients

In response to a Dartmouth study showing that subjects who took the breast cancer pill lapatinib (brand name Tykerb) with food increased the drug’s absorption, U of C oncologists Mark Ratain and Ezra Cohen suggested cancer patients could save thousands of dollars by eating the right foods.

The Dartmouth study found that 325 percent more lapatinib is absorbed and able to be used by the body if the pill is taken with high-fat foods versus on an empty stomach.

Ratain estimates that with such a high-fat diet, doctors could one day prescribe 40 percent or less of the current 1,250-mg dose. Add a glass of grapefruit juice, and that number could fall to 20 percent.

Tykerb currently costs $2,900 per month, but Ratain and Cohen suggest that with the right foods, patients (and insurance companies) could save $1,740 a month or more, minus the cost of food.

Researchers are hopeful that lower doses of the drug could also alleviate one of lapatinib’s major side effects—diarrhea likely caused by unabsorbed excess drug.

Religion teaches to help the poor, but doctors don’t follow

Being more religious makes doctors slightly less likely to work with underserved patients, according to a study from assistant professor of medicine Dr. Farr Curlin and colleagues at the U of C and Yale.

Researchers used an “intrinsic religiosity” survey and studied the frequency with which doctors attend religious services. They determined that only 31 percent of physicians described as more religious worked with poor and other underserved patients, while 35 percent of those who were atheist, agnostic, or had no religion did.

Whether they were religious or not, doctors who said they were very “spiritual” were twice as likely to practice for the underserved. In a press release, Curlin said that this phenomenon can be traced back to a “divergence between religion and spirituality” among some Christians about a century ago.

Curlin also said that while these findings should be taken with a grain of salt, medical school admissions boards may want to disregard applicants’ religious views and “professed sense of calling to medicine” if their goal is to find more doctors for the poor.