Today’s Headlines: Breast Cancer, Vaccines and Walnuts

One version of a gene may protect Latinas from breast cancer. The average woman has about a 1 in 7 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her life, but that number drops to 1 in 10 if you’re a Latina. A new study has found that “a genetic trait protects many women of Latin American descent from breast cancer” and that the “single difference in the human genome makes Latinas who inherit it about 40% less likely to develop breast cancer.” If a woman inherits two copies of the protective version, her risk drops by 80%. “Women who carry the genetic variant have breast tissue that appears less dense on mammograms. High-density breast tissue is a known risk factor for breast cancer. The hereditary quirk appears to have originated in indigenous American peoples in South America, and it doesn’t appear equally in all Hispanic women. As many as 20% of Latinas in California are likely to have at least one copy of the variant, significantly lowering their risk of breast cancer, while about 10% of Puerto Rican women are likely to have inherited it, the researchers said.” (WSJ)

Vaccines don’t cause multiple sclerosis. Some anti-vaccine advocates had said in the past that vaccines could lead to multiple sclerosis (MS), but the studies had been small and gave conflicting evidence. “Scientists looked at about 4,700 people who received vaccines against hepatitis B (Hep B) and the human papillomavirus (HPV), and found no long-term risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS) or similar nervous-system diseases.” The authors think the small association in past research may be due to a triggering effect of infections. “The vaccine, like an infection, may accelerate the disease’s progression in patients who already have MS or other neurodegenerative autoimmune diseases. It may be that after vaccinations, patients move more quickly from the ‘subclinical’ stage of the disease, when no outward symptoms are seen, to a stage with visible symptoms.” In other words, the past association was probably just an unhappy coincidence. (Fox)

Walnuts may help delay Alzheimer’s disease. Nuts have shown their health benefits over and over and a new study out this week provides just one more reason to eat them. “Researchers at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities said experiments with Alzheimer’s-susceptible mice found that subjects that consumed walnuts showed significant improvement in their learning skills and memory compared with mice without them in their diet.” Learning and memory weren’t the only beneficiaries. “The study also found improvement in motor skills and reduction in anxiety. The mice in the experiment consumed an amount of walnuts that would be the equivalent for humans of eating about 1 to 1.5 ounces of walnuts a day.” The study comes after findings that walnut extract was helpful in reducing damage caused by brain proteins involved in Alzheimer’s. This study moved on to see whether that translated to whole walnuts. (Washington Post)

Aging Positively Leads to Mental and Physical Gains

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The media loves to plaster the virtues of youth in magazines, TV shows and billboards whenever it gets the chance. On the flip side, old age is often viewed negatively, and old people are often depicted as being slow, less intelligent, frail and often unable to care for themselves. In spite of all this cultural negativity, a new study has found that subtle positive messaging can lead to a healthier outlook on getting older and that those new attitudes can translate into benefits for the body as well as the mind. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Unsaturated Fats, Ovarian Cancer and Weight Loss

Eating unsaturated fats balances weight gain. Gaining a few pounds may not seem like a big deal, but your body responds to the weight with resistance to insulin (a precursor of diabetes) and decreased blood vessel function. New research out this week has found that “unsaturated fats in the diet improved cholesterol levels despite the extra calories and subsequent weight gain.” A group of study participants increased their calories with muffins made with either saturated or unsaturated fats. “After seven weeks, each group had gained between two and three percent of their body weight, about 3.5 pounds (1.5 kilos) each, and waist girth increased by about one percent, but blood pressure did not change significantly.” When researchers looked at their blood, “the unsaturated oil group had lower cholesterol and lipid levels at the end of the study than they had at the beginning of the study. For the saturated oil group, cholesterol went up. Both groups showed signs of increased insulin resistance.” It seems that keeping your diet high in these fats is another way to protect yourself from the side effects of weight gain. (Reuters)

Researchers develop new tool for predicting ovarian cancer. Ovarian cancer can be a tricky disease to detect. Its late discovery often means that it’s far more deadly than it might have been had it been found earlier. A group of researchers found a way to aggregate key data to determine how likely a finding in a woman’s abdomen is to be a cyst or a cancer. “The metric uses a combination of patient information, blood test results and ultrasound scans to predict the malignancy, type and stage of the cancer.” The tool isn’t just important for staging cancer: “It’s very important to get the pre-operative diagnosis right. If it isn’t right, the patient might have a more extensive operation than they need, for example having an ovary removed unnecessarily. That ovary removal could be a critical issue for young women in terms of fertility.” Earlier detection and better operations could shift women towards earlier stage cancer, where survival is 90%. (BBC)

When losing weight, it doesn’t matter how fast you do it. You might have heard that losing weight gradually helps you keep off the pounds, but a new study out this week has found that slow or fast, it doesn’t make much of a difference. “Despite its austerity, the extreme diet worked better for more people than the gradual diet, according to the study. Among the volunteers who made it to the end of the weight-loss portion of the study, 81% of those on the rapid plan lost at least 12.5% of their body weight. For volunteers on the gradual diet, only 62% achieved the same goal.” Despite the weight loss, gradual dieters saw better improvements in hip and waist circumference. The researchers then followed up three years later to see whether participants had regained the weight. “The net result after more than three years: Those who followed the gradual diet ended up losing 0.44 pounds more, on average, than those who followed the rapid diet.” (LA Times)

How Breakfast Changes Your Brain

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People tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to breakfast: those who eat it and those who don’t. While some in the latter camp staunchly deny the need for breakfast, others may skip it for lack of time or energy to make it or to save a few calories. A new study out this week has found that skipping breakfast is a bad way to save calories since doing so may increase your cravings for food later in the day. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Smelling Skin, Typing and Poop Pills

Smell is sensed by more than your nose. While the nose has long been thought to be the main receptor for molecules wafting through the air, it turns out other organs may be doing some sniffing. “Over the last decade or so, scientists have discovered that odor receptors are not solely confined to the nose, but found throughout body where they play a pivotal role in a host of physiological functions.” Now researchers have found that skin is highly sensitive to smells in the air. “More than 15 of the olfactory receptors that exist in the nose are also found in human skin cells. Not only that, but exposing one of these receptors (colorfully named OR2AT4) to a synthetic sandalwood odor known as Sandalore sets off a cascade of molecular signals that appears to induce healing in injured tissue.” Skin abrasions bathed in the scent of Sandalore healed 30% faster than those without the smell, which the researchers say “could lead to cosmetic products for aging skin and to new treatments to promote recovery after physical trauma.” (NYT)

Typing on that touch screen may be hurting your shoulders. We all love our digital devices, but the changes in daily activities they’ve brought may not all be for the better. A study has found that typing on a tablet keyboard for long periods of time could cause chronic shoulder issues. “The small study found touch screen, or virtual, keyboards, which lack a feedback mechanism indicating a key has been pressed, require less typing force and finger-muscle activity than conventional keyboards. But tablet users must keep their fingers hovering above the keyboard to avoid accidentally activating the keys. That can lead to prolonged static loading in the shoulders, a form of muscle exertion caused by not moving.” In having to hold one’s hands floating above the keyboard, the forearms seemed to do less work, but shoulders end up doing more. Over time, that could lead to shoulder issues. (Fox)

Fecal transplants work well when taken as pill. The emergence of antibiotic resistance brought the blight of C. difficile infection to hospitals. The nasty bug infects the colon of some recently treated with antibiotics whose immune systems don’t work as well as they normally should. The infection can be deadly. Treatment with antibiotics has proven difficult, but researchers have shown that giving a poop enema from a healthy donor can have a 90-100% success rate when all else fails. “In a study published Saturday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers report that the same success rate can be reached by processing the healthy excrement into capsules and administering the pills by mouth.” The researchers concentrated the mixture normally given by enema into a pill that’s taken frozen. “A single treatment requires a gulp-worthy 30 pills—15 on the first day and 15 on the second. In a trial of 20 patients, it brought normal bowel health and function to 18—which is the same rate of success seen in more invasive methods.” (Washington Post)

New Research Approach May Confirm Hypothesized Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease

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Despite the fact that millions of Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, little is known about what causes affected individuals to descend into dementia. Two proteins called tau and beta-amyloid were thought to be involved because they were found in widespread clumps and tangles in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, but not in those same patterns in those who didn’t have the disease. Unfortunately, it was difficult to tell whether these proteins were the culprits or if they were merely bystanders. Researchers hadn’t developed the techniques to know if they were causing death of neurons in a person’s brain directly or if they indicated a problem elsewhere, somewhat like a traffic jam shows that a car accident is somewhere up ahead. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Sandwiches, Intense Experiences and Epidurals

Sandwich eaters consume more sodium and calories. Nothing beats the versatility of the sandwich, a food concept that has spawned thousands of variations. But according to a new study, the popularity of the sandwich may be doing some health damage. “On any given day, nearly half of American adults eat at least one sandwich, which accounts for one-fifth of the recommended daily sodium intake. Depending on the person, sandwiches can contribute 30 to 46 percent of daily sodium intake recommendations [of 2,300mg per day].” That’s concerning because salt contributes to high blood pressure, which in turn can lead to heart disease and stroke. But salt wasn’t the only culprit. “Researchers also found that those who ate a sandwich consumed about 300 more calories than those who did not.” Fortunately, the sandwich’s versatility may also be its salvation. The researchers point out that they key to removing sodium and calories are to pick healthy ingredients to slot between those slices of bread. (Fox)

Sharing experiences makes them more intense. It’s long been known that having other people at your birthday is more fun than celebrating alone. A new study out this week indicates that may apply to more than just yearly celebrations. “In the small study, subjects shared chocolate with someone they thought was another study participant. In each case, they were given two pieces of chocolate. One was eaten at the same time that the fake participant also ate a piece, while the other was eaten while the researcher pretended to work on another task. Even though the chocolate was actually from the same bar, subjects rated it as tastier and more enjoyable when someone else was eating it, too.” It turns out the effect isn’t limited to pleasurable experiences. “The researchers then performed the same test with bitter, unpleasant chocolate. Sure enough, they rated the pieces they ate with a partner as more disgusting than those they ate alone.” According to the authors, this shows just how heavily we’re influenced by the presence of people around us. (Washington Post)

Timing of epidural unimportant in the outcome of labor. For years, debate has smoldered about when a woman in labor should receive an epidural. Fear that giving it too early would lead to a C-section led many doctors to wait until late labor to give any pain meds, in spite of the discomfort many women experience during the interval. “But a new formal review of past studies, published by The Cochrane Library, found that length of labor and the need for surgical intervention did not differ between women who received epidurals during early or later stages of labor.” The study combined work done by previous researchers on a total of 16,000 women at all stages of labor. “There were no differences between the two groups in the need for C-sections or other interventions, such as forceps, during labor. There was also no difference in the length of the second or ‘pushing’ stage of labor between the two groups.” The authors conclude that there’s therefore no reason to wait to give anesthesia if a woman in early labor wants it. (Reuters)

Weight-Loss and Sports Supplements Found to Contain Unapproved Stimulant

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Recent studies have found that supplements and vitamins often contain additives that may not be listed on the bottle and in some cases may not contain the supplement at all. While those additives and fillers are often benign, new research has found that an unapproved stimulant has turned up in several weight-loss supplements. The concerning thing is not just that it’s unapproved but that it’s also extremely similar to another stimulant that’s banned by the FDA for causing heart problems, nervous system disorders and death. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Loud Noises, Dogs and “Natural Foods”

Loud noises predispose you to knee injuries. Ever been running down the street when a car horn makes you jump? It seems that those kinds of startling noises could make you more likely to injure your joints, in this case, the knee. Researchers placed 36 young men and women in a machine and asked them to resist while the machine bent their leg at the knee. Their muscles were monitored while this was happening. In half of the trials, a loud beep was sounded. “The beep induced a startle response that significantly increased muscle stiffness. As the startle response subsided, muscle activity and joint stiffness were significantly reduced as the knee continued to bend. The higher initial stiffness followed by markedly reduced stiffness likely reflects a disturbance in neuromuscular control that can lead to abnormal stresses on the joint and unintentional injury, the researchers said.” It seems running in tranquility is good for your physical as well as mental well-being. (Fox)

You love your dog like you love your children. Adopting a new pet can feel like adding a new member to the family. New research out this week has found that taking care of a new dog can feel the same as taking care of a new child. The researchers had a small group of women look at pictures of their children and pictures of their young children and their dogs along with pictures of unfamiliar babies and dogs. “There was a common network of brain regions involved in emotion, reward, affiliation, visual processing and social cognition when mothers viewed images of both their child and dog, but unfamiliar photos didn’t have the same effect.” There were some differences in the way the mothers responded. “An area of the brain vital to processing faces was activated more by a dog picture than a child’s face, while parts of the midbrain were more active in response to children. It may be that facial cues are more important in human-to-dog communication, given our lack of common language. And the midbrain areas could be vital in forming human-to-human pair bonds.” (Washington Post)

That “natural” food may not be what you thought. Do a little research into products that use the word “natural” on their packaging and you’ll find the definition is pretty loose, at least among food producers. Consumer Reports looked at a variety of “natural” products to see whether they used GMOs. “While foods labeled as ‘non-GMO,’ or ‘organic’ were found to be free of genetically modified corn and soy, virtually all of the foods labeled as ‘natural’ or not labeled with any claim related to GMO content contained substantial amounts of GMO ingredients,” Consumer Reports said. While that might seem surprising, there’s currently no legal definition for what “natural” has to mean, leaving food makers to their own devices when it comes to using the label. Many studies have demonstrated the safety of GMO crops, but “critics point to studies that show links to human and animal health problems and environmental damage. An international coalition of scientists has said there is a lack of consensus in the scientific community about the safety of genetically modified crops. Health effects aside, there are also questions as to whether they deliver on their promise of reducing pesticide use. (Reuters)

Being Curious Helps You Learn and Remember

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Whether it’s the answer to a trivia question or the punch line of a joke, we’ve all felt the anticipation of waiting for the unknown. In spite of the interest surrounding the origins of curiosity, what exactly is happening in the brain when a person feels curious has remained relatively mysterious. A new study published this week looked at how curiosity influences a person’s ability to learn and retain new information and provides new information about where in the brain curiosity might be coming from. Read more  »