New Research Identifies the Key Causes of Aging

Dr. Jeremy Walston, Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of the study

I just read an interesting new study identifying the biggest causes of aging. The authors gathered a panel of leading experts on health and aging and asked them what the biggest risk factors are for failing health as the years go by. Here’s what they found:

Experts identified 13 factors predisposing to or clinically manifesting AACD [accelerated aging and cellular decline]. Among these, chronic diseases, obesity, and unfavorable genetic background were considered as the most important.

Early detection of accelerated aging and cellular decline (AACD): A
consensus statement

None of the risk factors will shock you, but seeing all the key risks laid out in order of importance can really help guide our decision making:

One risk stood out above all:

smoking was consistently viewed as the most prominent risk factor

So if you’re smoking, definitely consider quitting! I recently shared how I put down the cigarettes 6 years ago. Hopefully my experience can help.

These risks mostly boil down to either what you put into your body or what you do with your body. Here’s how I try to mitigate these risks:

  • Sleeping 8-9 hours a night
  • Exercising at least 4 times a week, in addition to walking at least 4 miles every day
  • Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and avoiding too many processed foods
  • Meditating most days, generally for 10-20 minutes

Although I did, incongruously, read this article while eating some potato chips, so there’s room for improvement! 🙂 Have a great weekend everyone!

We Added 2 New Vaccines To Our Arsenal in One Day!

Johnson & Johnson CEO Alex Gorsky.

In difficult times such as these, we have to celebrate our wins. We had two big ones today: both the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax vaccines were found to be effective against COVID. J&J was 66% effective and Novavax 89% effective.

The FDA should approve both ASAP. Indeed, the FDA is considering authorizing the Novavax vaccine based on data from overseas. J&J is likely to be authorized in February. Since many are dying each day, each day of delay is very costly.

Both were less effective against the variant from South Africa, with Novavax below 50% efficacy there. But Novavax is working on a new formulation to counter that variant.

We face a constrained supply of vaccines, so any effective ones we can add to our toolkit are a huge win!

Photo: “File:Alex Gorsky at World Economic Forum.jpg” by World Economic Forum is licensed under CC BY 3.0

A Professional Investor Explains GameStop in a Few Text Messages

This morning, my friend Bill* texted me asking if I knew anything about what’s going on with GameStop, whose share price has skyrocketed recently. I may have told him a bit more than he wanted to know! But I thought this text thread might be useful to others too, so I published it below:

This type of trade is too speculative for me, but I do find it interesting. The link to the post explaining the suspension in GameStop trading is here.

P.S. Since I use Signal for text messaging, I can’t take screenshots, so I recreated this conversation using this interesting tool.

*Not his real name

What Does the Pandemic Mean for Real Estate Investments?

A health and economic crisis is scaring nearly everyone right now, including investors. Stocks recovered in record time, but what about investments in real estate? Are they doomed, or is the bad news perhaps a bit overblown?

I invest in real estate through Fundrise, which allows me to spread my money across many projects nationwide. I prefer this to the concentration risk I would face in, for example, owning an apartment building in New York City, where a recent rent law change has substantially reduced the value of buildings.

But regardless of how diversified you are, the pandemic is impacting all aspects of life…and business. So I set out today to gain more understanding of how these changes would affect my real estate investments.

The national picture for apartments, which is most of what Fundrise owns, is surprisingly good. Vacancy rates in major markets including Dallas, Los Angeles and Washington DC, all areas where Fundrise has many buildings, are not all that elevated. This squares with my returns in Fundrise, which were over 7% in 2020 despite just about the worst market conditions imaginable.

Indeed, despite the strong and sustained lockdown measures in LA, its vacancy rate is comparable to that of Dallas, an area that locked down a lot less. Dallas, LA and DC all have a vacancy rate around 5%. Only LA is materially above its Q1 2019 vacancy rate, and keep in mind that LA has had a serious housing crisis for many years.

Of these three markets, LA definitely concerns me the most, with higher unemployment. But prices have held up so far.

So, what’s the upshot? National unemployment is up but still not extremely high, and the higher end apartments Fundrise tends to own are less likely to be occupied by those in leisure/hospitality, who may struggle to pay their rent right now. Add that to the fact that more vaccines are being deployed daily, bringing the beginning of the end of this health crisis.

So, I see the outlook for residential real estate investments as fairly bright, all things considered. To sell now in the face of slight weakness and a coming end to the pandemic simply wouldn’t make sense.

I intend to sit tight.

Note: If you decide to invest in Fundrise, you can use this link to get your management fees waived for 90 days. With their 1% management fee, this could save you $250 on a $100,000 account. I will also get a fee waiver for 90-365 days, depending on what type of account you open.

Photo: “Boarded up & masked – 10th Avenue, New York City” by Andreas Komodromos is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

A COVID Vaccine is Being Manufactured in Baltimore Now. But the Government Won’t Let You Have It.

The AstraZeneca COVID vaccine is being manufactured today at a plant in Baltimore. This vaccine has been show to be between 62% and 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID.

But despite those excellent results in trials in the UK, Brazil, India and South Africa, the US government plans to wait until an American trial is finished in April. This as 4,000 of our fellow citizens die daily.

We should do what the UK and other nations have done, rely on the data we have, and get this vaccine approved immediately. I propose we follow the counsel of economist Alex Tabarrok:

“The AZ vaccine should be given an EUA immediately and made available in pharmacies for anyone who wants it while continuing to prioritize Moderna and Pfizer for the elderly and essential workers.”

Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution

I just wrote my Congressman and Senators to urge them to push for immediate FDA approval of this life saving medication, and I humbly request you do the same! Frankly, I am very frustrated with this situation. Maybe you are too!

If you like, you can use the text I used, below. You can find your Congressman’s contact info here and your Senator’s contact info here.

Dear X,

The AstraZeneca COVID vaccine is approved in the UK and other countries and has shown efficacy of 62-90%. With over 4,000 of our fellow Americans dying daily, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to push the FDA to authorize this lifesaving medication immediately.

Thank you for all the good work you do!

Sincerely,

X

How Planned Parenthood Is Providing Critical Care…Even in a Pandemic

Providing critical medical care to patients who sometimes have very few resources, all in the face of enormous political opposition, is challenging at the best of times. The pandemic has made it even harder. But Planned Parenthood is adjusting rapidly to make sure that people who need help get it.

I just got off a Planned Parenthood Federation of America Leadership Briefing call, and the steps they’ve taken to keep helping people in a difficult time really impressed me. Here are some of the great things they’re doing:

  • Reaching 25 million people online in 2020 with sex ed, counseling and telehealth
  • Using a new chat text program available in Spanish to provide counseling and information to those who may not be comfortable in English
  • Training staff nationwide how to provide sex ed online, as opposed to the usual in person offerings
  • Providing COVID vaccine safety information to patients. Many patients trust Planned Parenthood, so hearing from a trusted voice that the vaccines are safe can mean a lot!

I was also impressed that not only are they offering telehealth, they’re gathering data to measure how well it works. This data-driven approach tells you that donor dollars are in good hands.

I couldn’t helped but be incredibly impressed with the hard work of the PPFA staff under these most difficult of circumstances. If you want to support their work, you can donate here.

Bonus: One of the attendees mentioned that they worked at Pandia Health, a company I had never heard of. It is a startup in Sunnyvale, CA that provides birth control by mail on a convenient, subscription model. As an investor, I was intrigued. The Yelp reviews look impressive. I’m gathering more information.

Photo: “Rally to support Planned Parenthood” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Is Zoning Keeping Poor People Poor?

I recently subscribed to a newsletter from the journalist Matthew Yglesias that has turned out be outstanding. A message I received this morning really struck me. Yglesias argues that the best thing we can do for the poor, given that housing is their biggest expense, is to build housing like crazy:

This is diametrically opposed to the narrative we so often hear, that new development replaces the urban poor with, well, people like me. Yglesias’ argument makes sense in terms of basic supply and demand. New York is creating 3.9 jobs for each new housing unit. In San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the numbers are far worse, at over 6 jobs per new housing unit! (And sure enough, SF/Silicon Valley is more expensive than NY.) Unless the average household size is about 4 in the case of NYC or 6 in SF/Silicon Valley, this simply won’t work. There will be more workers who need apartments than there are apartments.

What happens then? You guessed it: your rent goes up. However, I was greatly encouraged by this tidbit:

Now, you’re on my territory! I’ve lived in Hudson County, NJ for about 6.5 years and love it here. And I did notice that we seem to build a lot more than New York does. But you know what they say: the plural of anecdote is not data.

The data is in! And it’s striking, especially since Brooklyn’s population is around 2.6 million and ours is under 700,000! Dividing Brooklyn’s roughly 2,559,903 residents by 9696 new permitted units gives us 264 residents per new apartment allowed to be built. In Hudson County, that ratio is approximately 672,391 residents divided by 8,238 units, or 82 residents/new unit.

We are building housing more than three times as fast as Brooklyn, our nearest competition!

So, is all of Hudson County a noisy construction site surrounded by snarled traffic? Hardly! There are countless parks, a beautiful waterfront walkway, and lively, pedestrian-friendly streets. It’s actually not so different from Brooklyn, except it’s cheaper and arguably safer, especially these days.

Yglesias’ argument also makes sense given an inside view into NYC development that I happen to have: my friend Tim* is a commercial real estate broker in New York City. He often works with owners of lower productivity industrial real estate in poorer parts of the city that were recently upzoned to allow apartments. A typical client might be the owner of a small factory that is not very profitable, who can do better selling his land to a developer who will build apartments. The factory can move somewhere cheaper nearby (hello, New Jersey!) and people can have places to live.

My one bone to pick with Yglesias’ otherwise excellent article is:

I think a lot of sensible people have different opinions on that one!

Check out Yglesias’s website here. Tons of great reporting of the sort we don’t see enough of!

If you enjoyed this post, please share it on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, or e-mail it to a friend, using the buttons below! This helps people find the blog. 🙂

*Not his real name

Photo: “MichaelPremo_MsWard-4364” by michaelpremo is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

I Just Went to a Lecture at the World’s Premier Genomics Institute. Here’s What I Learned.

This little guy has superpowers.

I just attended a fascinating talk from the Broad Institute at MIT on how the genomes of other species relate to our DNA as humans. Drs. Elinor Karlsson and Diane Genereux of the Broad Institute are intensively studying other mammals, working to uncover the genetic basis of their superpowers.

For example, the thirteen lined ground squirrel can hibernate, the teeth of the North American beaver include iron and are thus nearly indestructible, and the Jamaican fruit bat can eat all the sweets it wants without diabetes. What if we humans could do those things?

Any such applications are a long ways away, if ever, but learning about these incredible animals was definitely interesting.

Karlsson and her colleagues have sequenced the genomes of 240 species. Some spots on those genomes change little if at all, indicating they probably have a crucial function that can’t be changed. Others change faster than the normal rate of mutations, indicating a survival advantage to mutations in that area.

The researchers also noted that in the 100 million years since all mammals shared a common ancestor, every possible genetic mutation has been tried, given the base rate of random mutations. So, if we don’t see a mutation in living mammals, it probably was tried and failed. Dr. Karlsson likened this to nature’s clinical trial, an excellent analogy.

This genomic research is likely to have more and more applications because the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped from $2.7 billion for the first one to under $1,000 now. The Broad Institute sequences one every 10 minutes.

This is an explosion of data similar to the development of the internet. It took years, but companies like Google came along and harnessed that data, with profound effects on society. I anticipate enormous advances will come from this research in the future.

If you want to watch the lecture in its entirety, it should be up on the Broad’s YouTube channel soon. And to register for future lectures like this, check out the Science for All Seasons website here.

Thanks to Drs. Karlsson and Genereux, moderator Tom Ulrich, and the Broad Institute for this awesome talk!

Gyms Don’t Drive COVID Transmission…So Where Is Everyone?

After I finished a workout last night, I found myself chatting with the gym’s owner for the first time. He told me that some classes would be cancelled this week, due to both a lack of instructors and students. He hoped that it would be just this week. He also said business was down over 80%. This despite having taken countless precautions, including temperature screening, distancing and masking.

The data we have indicates that COVID transmission in gyms is very rare. In New York state, just 0.06% of cases could be traced to a gym. To put that in perspective, private gatherings in homes led to 74% of traceable cases. Further data from the UK and the University of Oregon Consulting Group also indicates minimal transmission in gyms.

And it stands to reason to me that cases that did originate in gyms would be dramatically easier to trace than those that originated in most other settings. Gyms have a list of members and sign-in sheets. Restaurants, bars, or private gatherings generally don’t. So my intuition tells me that if anything, the case fraction attributable to gyms is probably an overestimate, although I cannot prove that.

We should also bear in mind that every time we work out, we get healthier. Even if you do contract COVID, from whatever source, you’ll be in a far better position if your baseline level of health is higher.

And yet people aren’t showing up at my gym like they used to. Why is that? I think the cause is a reasonable fear coupled with a lack of specific information. So, please share this info with whoever you can!

I hope to see a smile on the owner’s face and full sign-up sheets soon!

“Woman Exercising – Credit to https://bestpicko.com/” by Bestpicko is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Has Zimbabwe Found the Solution to the Mental Health Crisis?

Many people have experienced worsening mental health since the COVID pandemic began. Many others struggled even before. But I came across an interesting article today about a very innovative program in Zimbabwe that just might have the solution. It’s called the Friendship Bench:

This is a community-based psychological treatment programme delivered by over 700 trained community grandmothers in over 100 communities in Zimbabwe.

In a country with just 13 psychiatrists for a population of 16 million, this model has helped expand mental health outreach.

It has taken years to build the Friendship Bench model and show that through talk therapy, trained grandmothers can treat depression, anxiety and alleviate suicidal thoughts across communities in Zimbabwe and beyond.

We tend to assume that only professionals can provide talk therapy, but Zimbabwe’s experience argues otherwise. Zimbabwe has few resources and so it was forced to innovate, but we could benefit from their discovery.

Such a program is all the more feasible in the US or other wealthy countries, with our broad access to the internet and smartphones.

P.S. This is by no means the first time major innovations have come from Zimbabwe. Lyft was originally called Zimride (Zimbabwe Ride) and was inspired by ridesharing systems there.