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TEDMED 2015 Highlights

Updated: 8/14/21 6:00 amPublished: 12/3/15

By Ava Runge

Twitter summary: #TEDMED2015 speakers on food policy, data science, mindfulness, food deserts, and more

TEDMED, the health and medicine edition of the world-famous TED conference, recently hosted its annual TEDMED event, where thought leaders gathered to share their innovative ideas, cutting-edge research, and inspiring stories on everything health-related. The engaging talks were chockfull of insights on topics ranging from food policy to new frontiers in genetic testing. As a nonprofit organization, we had the very cool opportunity to receive free access to stream the event live and learn from 46 amazing speakers. Read below for our top four highlights of the TEDMED event, focusing on topics in diabetes, nutrition, and wellness.

1. US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy highlighted the importance of prioritizing “happiness” to improve public health. In a very moving talk, he emphasized that happiness alone can lower levels of stress hormones, lead to better heart rates, lower blood pressure levels, and even strengthen immune systems. Discussing his personal experiences as a doctor, Dr. Murthy pointed out that while he cared for a wide range of illnesses, the most common condition he saw in patients was “unhappiness.” He highlighted many tools for combatting unhappiness such as gratitude exercises, meditation, physical activity, and social connectivity, emphasizing that such simple and low-cost actions can have dramatic impacts. Specifically, Dr. Murthy shared the story of a meditation program at San Francisco’s Visitation Valley Middle School that led to reductions in suspension rates and teacher absenteeism, as well as remarkable improvements in students’ academic performance. He concluded with a stirring call to action to “create happiness in our own lives” and also to “create happiness for others,” stressing that sometimes, complex problems can be alleviated with simple solutions.

2. Mr. Doug Rauch delivered a talk on the journey that led him to create a low-cost, healthy supermarket in a Boston-area “food desert.” Mr. Rauch shared that as the former president of Trader Joe’s, he knew better than most how much food gets wasted in grocery stores due to products being past their “best by” or “sell by” date, despite being perfectly good food. He also recognized that the food system in America is designed to make calories cheap and nutrition expensive, forcing people dealing with food insecurity to eat high-fat, sugar-dense foods. He thus set out to combat these dual problems of food waste and food insecurity and founded Daily Table, a market-based nonprofit that receives excess food donations from growers, manufacturers and grocers and sells them at one-third of the market price to cover operating expenses. In addition to selling groceries, the store sells “grab-n-go,” “ready-to-eat” food – which account for about half of their sales – in recognition that busy families often turn to fast food due to its convenience. By making healthy options just as easy and inexpensive as fast food, Daily Table is providing a viable, nutritious alternative in a “food desert.”

3. Dr. Judson Brewer shared research from his lab at the University of Massachusetts on how acts of mindfulness can help tackle behaviors that lead to addiction and chronic disease. He first explained how cycles of “trigger, behavior, and reward” drive habits such as cigarette smoking and the consumption of sugary foods when stressed. He presented results from a study in which participants were told to focus on “being curious” while smoking. In the study, focusing on “being curious” led participants to break the “spell of smoking” and form new, healthier habits. Dr. Brewer highlighted that curiosity allows for improved cognitive control and decreased feelings of self-judgment and fear. According to Dr. Brewer, one study even found that this form of mindfulness therapy was twice as effective as the gold standard of therapy for smoking cessation (the American Lung Association’s “Freedom from Smoking” program). This research could similarly be applied to unhealthy eating behaviors, which can contribute to the development of type 2 diabetes. Dr. Brewer’s lab is currently testing apps and mindfulness-based programs to help people develop healthier patterns and overcome addiction.  Some useful mindfulness resources we’ve found include:

  • Buddhify: App available for Apple devices ($4.99) and Android ($2.99). Includes 80 guided soundtracks chosen based on one of 16 environments you are in (e.g., “At work,” “Before bed,” “Can’t sleep”, “Walking,” etc.).

  • Calm: Free app available for Apple devices and Android, as well as a website. Both guided and unguided soundtrack options that help calm you down.

  • Headspace: Free app available for Apple devices and Android. A more structured approach to mindfulness with a community of users.

  • Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana: A highly informative how-to book on the basics of mindfulness, with over a quarter of a million copies sold.

  • Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman: It’s a story rather than a how-to-guide that serves as a strong reminder about the value of a mindful life.

4. Dr. Russ Altman, a data scientist and doctor at Stanford, discussed how his lab used data to study how interactions of certain medications can lead to high blood sugar. He shared results from studies his lab conducted to determine the occurrence of high blood sugar in people using both Paroxetine (a common antidepressant) and Pravastatin (a common cholesterol-lowering medication). When analyzing pooled hospital data from Stanford, Harvard, and Vanderbilt, his team found that approximately 80% of people on both medications had an average increase in blood sugar of 20 mg/dl. Notably, people with diabetes taking both Paroxetine and Pravastatin showed an average blood glucose increase of 60 mg/dl (!).

Dr. Altman also highlighted a related study in which his team used search engine data (i.e., Google) to find the frequency of “diabetes words” used in the same search entry as both Paroxetine and Pravastatin. They found that about 10% of people who searched for both drugs also performed searches on phrases associated with high blood sugar symptoms, compared to only 4-5% of people who searched for only one of the drugs. Since the study’s publication, the FDA has set up social media surveillance problems to look at Twitter feeds, Facebook feeds, and search logs to see if drugs are causing problems either individually or together. 

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