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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Survival of the Sickest

I've been listening to a book on my iPod for the last week called Survival of the Sickest by Dr. Sharon Moalem. The book is non-fiction and looks at why hereditary diseases continue to plague humans despite evolution supposedly weeding out the weak.

Moalem starts by talking about a disease called hemochromatosis. I'd never heard of it before, but it has to do with too much iron in the blood and that it stores itself in the organs, killing people by their mid-forties. Of course, me being me, I immediately wondered if I had it. I looked up the symptoms. I had like 2 out of 10. It gave me a few days worth of concern before I realized that fatigue might have more to do with the hours I keep than hemochromatosis. ;-)

The author takes us on a journey to reach the destination--this disease actually saved lives during the bubonic plague. Not only did it keep people alive long enough to reproduce, but what was life expectancy in the 1300's? About 35? These people were dead before the iron build up became a problem anyway. Of course, this was presented much more eloquently than I laid it out.

We also get a look at diabetes, cholesterol and aging. And he brought up something I'd never heard of before--epigenetics. It absolutely blew my mind and was a total wow moment for me. Epigenetics basically talks about how you can have genes that get turned on or off because of environmental factors. Studies into this have barely begun, but I really want to learn more about this.

I didn't check out any of the reviews before I started, but while people lament the weak jokes, the book received a lot of five and four stars. Maybe it's because I listened to the book rather than read it, but most of the jokes or attempt at jokes went right past me. Or maybe they went past me because I was so fascinated by the information.

Survival of the Sickest is written in a way that makes everything easy to understand and every chapter takes us on this incredible journey. We're not just treated to the bare facts about the disease, we hear stories that illuminate the discoveries surrounding the illness. For example, in the chapter about diabetes, we hear about ice wine and frogs among other things.

If you have the slightest interest in this type of information, I can recommend this book. It's written for the layman, so there's no need to worry that anything isn't understandable, but there's so much cool information presented that it made me wish I'd become a doctor. :-) I wanted to be in the lab researching things like epigenetics. It for sure interested me enough to wonder if I could ever use this information in a story? No ideas sprang to mind, but it did have me wishing they were.

It's a good read. My rating: 4.5 stars