Voting and Your Health

Tomorrow, as Americans cast their vote they hold not only the fate of Obama, Romney and the US in their hands, they are also influencing their own health. Research shows that stepping into that polling booth can have both subtle and profound effects on our health and behavior.

While campaigns can be physically taxing for the candidates, it turns out that your average voter can be stressed out by elections too. According to scientists from the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University in Israel levels of the human stress hormone – cortisol, increases just before casting a vote. This unexpected physical and emotional reaction could even influence a voter’s last-minute decision.

But don’t let that keep you away from the polls. There are positives as well. Performing a civic duty such as voting promotes community involvement, which in turn has been shown to promote psychological and physical health.

Voting can also have positive and negative effects on sexual health.  Coming up short in a hard-fought election would be disappointing to any candidate. A study from Duke University and the University of Michigan, showed that it’s not only the candidate that suffers a defeat. Male supporters of the losing party may also experience a significant drop in testosterone levels immediately after the announcement of the vote outcome. Interestingly, female supporters did not experience a similar change in hormonal levels, nor did those who backed the victor.

However,in both the 2004 and 2008 elections, states that backed winning candidates showed an increase in the number of Google search requests for sexually explicit content.

And if casting your vote involves a car journey, be sure to wear your seat belt.  According to researchers from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and Stanford University, fatal car crashes are 18% more likely on Election Day than any other.  The average presidential election leads to around 24 traffic deaths. Reasons for this trend, include emotions, driving unfamiliar routes, and the potential mobilization of unfit drivers.

And even if you make it safely to the polls and back your health troubles aren’t over.  A 2010, study published in the Social Science Quarterly examined suicide rates following state elections. Researchers found that when a majority of a state’s electorate picked a winner, the state’s suicide rate decreased. At the same time, when a majority picks a loser, the state’s suicide rate also decreases.

So, however you decide to vote tomorrow – take care!

Finding the Perfect Genes?

Despite a plethora of the “Men Are From Mars…” type of self-help books, many people still think that the differences between men and women are unfathomable. Others think of the differences in terms of broad stereotypes, i.e. women are more nurturing and men are more aggressive.

So it was with great interest that we read some new research that could drastically alter the way we think about what drives us to be who we are.  It turns out that male or female behaviors are regulated by very specific genes that can be turned on and off at will.

The research, which was conducted by scientists at the University of California, San Francisco, aimed to locate those genes that are influenced by the sex hormones- testosterone and estrogen– and that dictate male and female behaviors.

The research team, led by Dr. Nirao Shah, managed to locate 16 genes that were expressed differently in male and female mice and showed that the different expressions were regulated by the sex hormones. They found that they could isolate parts of classic male and female behaviors and pinpoint them as being governed by their own particular genes. They also noticed that each gene regulates a few components of a behavior without affecting other aspects of male and female behavior.

In other words, by flipping the switch, they could turn off a mouse’s sex drive, willingness to spend time with their young, and even their desire to pick fights while leaving every other behavioral element unaffected.

Imagine how crazy it would be if we could do that in humans.

Don’t like that your boyfriend gets into fights or that your girlfriend has “yet another headache?”  Simple…just flip the switch!

Fortunately, there are more serious applications of this research. Understanding the genes that drive male and female behavior could, for example, guide researchers to locate which genes are involved in diseases such as autism, which affects four times as many males as it does females.

As good as all that sounds, there is something a bit unnerving about contemplating your genes as a collection of switches that govern your behaviors. On some level it would be a dream to be able to turn behaviors off and on at will. While it would revolutionize the way we interact, it could also change our conception of what makes us who we are. Fortunately, manipulating them is a complicated process. So it looks like we’ll have to wait a while before we start popping pills to fine tune ourselves.

That’s a relief, because for most of us, managing the hormones we already have is a big enough job!