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Dispatches : Science

The Rise of Lyme Disease

Now that the polar vortex has (hopefully) been banished for the year, you're probably chomping at the bit to get back out to your favorite hiking trail—likely with your canine adventure companion in tow. But fresh research about Lyme disease suggests you should think twice before throwing Fido in the back of your truck.

In Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2014 State of Pet Health Report, researchers found that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21 percent since 2009. The report, which based its results on medical data from more than 2.3 million dogs, found that in 2013, one in every 130 dogs carried the disease-causing bacteria.

"Because it’s been a long winter, especially in many areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, the natural thing for everyone to do is to go outside and enjoy the wonderful weather," says Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a veterinary research associate at Banfield. "Although it's fabulous to be outside with your dog, you need to be conscious of the dangers that are lurking out there."

Those dangers vary depending on which state you live in. Take New England, where Lyme disease rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. In New Hampshire—the state with the most reported cases of Lyme disease—one in every 15 dogs examined was infected. Compare that to the Pacific Northwest, where just one in every 1,000 dogs carried the bacteria.  

Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded. The white-tailed deer populations that ticks feast upon—and that primarily occupy states east of the Rocky Mountains—have also grown since then, says Lefebvre.

"Ticks like to feed off of these deer, so the more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher the chance that those ticks are infected," Lefebvre says. "And the more infected ticks there are, the higher the chance of dogs getting bitten by them."

Climate may also have played a role in the Lyme disease boom. Simply put, ticks like warmer weather. Short, mild winters like the one two years ago translate to longer tick seasons. 

"Any mammal, whether dog, raccoon, or cat, that travels through those environments is potential target for hungry ticks," says Banfield’s Regional Medical Director Amy Bowman. "Ticks don't jump, leap, or fly. They merely climb plant life and release onto the potential host. What can you do to break that cycle? You have to prevent ticks from attaching and feeding on your pet."

But before you decide to lock your four-legged friend in the kennel, take a second to reconsider. Just because your dog is carrying the bacteria doesn’t mean he’ll show any of the disease’s symptoms. And while others can have life-threatening kidney failure, there are a few simple precautions you can take to keep your pup healthy.

With that in mind, Bowman provided some tips to keep your pup safe, identify signs of Lyme disease, and treat the ailment.

Medication and Gadgets

You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? Bowman suggests a chemical method, like the popular parasiticide Advantix, or a flea and tick collar. Both are available at most pet stores and animal clinics.

Grooming

After any outdoor adventure, remember to check your dogs for ticks. "Ticks need to feed on your pet for about 24 hours," says Bowman. "So when you get back from your activity, groom your pet for ticks. That greatly decreases exposure."

Know the Symptoms

The incubation period and symptoms of Lyme disease in canines vary drastically. However, if your dog exhibits lameness, limping, fever, lethargy, joint soreness, or joint inflammation, it might have Lyme disease and you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible.  

Don't Ignore Your Vet

"The best thing you can do to know whether or not your dog is positive for the bacteria is to have it tested regularly for exposure to Lyme disease," Bowman says. "That is usually done in conjunction with your pet's annual heartworm test. We often pick up Lyme disease in pets who have never shown symptoms." These tests are simple, requiring only a drop of blood, and will help detect other potentially harmful diseases in your dog.

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The Science Behind the Existentially Minded Runner

You may doubt the numbers, but according to neuroscientist and philosopher Deepak Chopra, you have 60 to 80 thousand thoughts running through your mind every single day. That’s somewhere between 42 and 56 thoughts a minute. Which means that a half-hour run gives you at least 1,260 opportunities to think about whatever you want to. Talk about mind power.

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are running-appropriate: “If I tuck my hips in like Pre, I can run as fast as Pre.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are worth millions: “What if the next special-edition Oreo were s’more-flavored? Hell, yes.”

Sometimes when we run, our thoughts are freaking existential: “Expecting the unexpected is impossible. It can’t be unexpected if you’re expecting it.”

Having thoughts is one thing, but controlling them is another. “It’s common for thoughts to bounce around,” says Jim Taylor, a sports psychologist and mental-training consultant for U.S. Olympic teams and USA Triathlon. “You go from ‘What am I doing out here?’ to ‘Hey, I’m working hard, I’m reaching my goals, I’m doing this!’” Taylor says that the key to keeping your mind on your run is to successfully manage what’s going on in there. Just as with running, this takes training. “You have to learn to master positive thinking,” Taylor explains. “That’s where it gets hard. It’s a skill you have to work at.”

When you do master your mind, you also maximize your fitness level. “You may have the physical ability to run a certain pace or distance, but if you aren’t in the right state of mind, then, mentally, you won’t be able to do it,” says Taylor.

Once you home in and focus, there’s a reason why that half-hour jaunt seems to produce cranial gems: It does. A study conducted by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia shows that exercise promotes memory function and information processing by speeding cell growth in the hippocampus, the memory and learning center of the brain. A running-induced increased heart rate pumps extra oxygen into your noggin’s lobes, also producing a drop in stress hormones. All of which means that that legendary, clear-headed runner’s high is the real thing. 

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Deciphering Lyme Disease

Though antibiotics can often clear up symptoms of Lyme disease within a few weeks, some patients experience severe symptoms like nervous system abnormalities, heart rhythm irregularities, and arthritis weeks or even months after infection. At this point, scientists don’t yet completely understand the exact cause of the longer-term symptoms, and they aren’t easy to treat.

But new research out of Johns Hopkins and Stanford University could lay the groundwork to help determine which Lyme disease patients develop post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), a little-understood and controversial disease.

To investigate, researchers at Hopkins set out to identify the biological “signatures” of particular immune system molecules called mediators; the idea was to determine which parts of the immune response are mobilized in reaction to the disease, particularly in the beginning, when patient symptoms are most acute.

After studying the levels of 65 different molecules, the team’s analysis found two different groups of Lyme disease patients in the early stages of infection: “mediator-high” and “mediator low.” Those in the high-mediator group exhibited more severe symptoms, higher rates of antibody production, and higher liver enzymes before treatment.

They also showed higher levels of three particular mediators, which returned to normal after treatment. Researchers found that patients in the mediator-low group seemed to have been unable to mount a strong immune response to the disease.

The levels of particular mediators and their receptors may be important biomarkers for Lyme disease that could be linked to individual symptoms.

“With this signature in hand we can begin to ask in larger numbers of patients if all or part of this signature stays elevated in some and if these can be related to PTLDS,” says Mark Soloski, senior author of the report and a professor of medicine at Hopkins.

“These biomarkers have the potential to provide insight into disease process but also may be of value in predicting who may develop PTLDS as well as suggest pathways that can be targeted for therapy.”

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Why a Downhill Runner Will Always Win Boston

As accomplished and legendary a U.S. marathoner as has ever competed, Frank Shorter (Olympic marathon gold medalist in 1972) never won Boston. In fact, he never even cracked the top three. On the other hand, the equally legendary Bill Rodgers won the Boston and New York City marathons four times but finished a disappointing 40th in the 1976 Montreal Olympic marathon. And since 2002, either a Kenyan or Ethiopian has won Boston—with Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai setting the course record of 2:03:02 in 2011. 

Some people make the grade in Boston—literally; others don’t.

“Bill Rodgers was made to run Boston because he’s a downhill runner,” says Shorter, 66. “And what Mutai has shown is that he, biomechanically, moves in a way that allows him to run downhill really well.”

Biomechanically, downhilling involves greater ground reaction forces and therefore induces more stress on the tissues of the leg; it also requires less metabolic energy. Meaning, “the energy required to support any speed is substantially reduced when running downhill,” says Peter Weyand, associate professor at Southern Methodist University’s Department of Applied Physiology and Wellness. Basically, figuring out a downhill pace that feels best for you is the best way to avoid wear and tear, and hence, fatigue.

Physiologically, the bigger you are, the harder you hit the ground. “Since the force at any running speed and incline is set by the body’s weight, gaining or losing weight will increase or decrease the forces on the ground and therefore also experienced by the tissues of the feet, joints and legs,” explains Weyand. “So, if all other factors are equal, being lighter would tend to lessen the pounding a runner sustains at any downhill running speed.”

One of the Boston’s biggest challenges is that its downhill sections come late in the race (the net drop from its start in Hopkinton to the finish is 400 feet), when the legs are more susceptible to stress-induced damage from all the prior miles. Weyand therefore hypothesizes that “the better downhill runners are more willing or able to absorb the pounding—or both.”

More willing and able because they train that way. “My training is very up and down all the time,” says Mutai, who feels it helps to have strong upper legs but whose training probably isn’t all that different from his Kenyan and Ethiopian peers. “So running on hills is normal for me.”

As it was for Rodgers, whose high school coach told him to lean forward and use his momentum when going downhill. “It’s also a time many runners assume is a recovery period—after an uphill—so strategically it can be a decisive move many runners do not want to follow,” says Rodgers, 66, who has always viewed racing as psychological as much as physical. “Breaking way is the name of the game if you’re competing, and in road racing, hills play a crucial role.”

Still, it’s not all psychological. As Weyand says, “The physics cannot be fooled—the ground forces involved are set by a runner’s body weight and speed. The faster one runs, the great the ground forces. The steeper the downhill, the greater the forces are at any speed.” 

Which is why Boston is so physically taxing. “Boston left my legs more sore than any other marathon course,” says Rodgers, who doesn’t see any particular body type as being better suited to hills than any other.

“There are so many grades and hills, but I saw them as key opportunities,” says Mutai, who won’t be running Boston this year. “Think of them in a positive light. As a chance to shift gears, and a time to run away from your competition.” 

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