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News Bytes of the Week—Is it healthier to be fit and fat—Or lazy and thin?

Cream slims thighs, cell phones up tumor risk, honey calms coughs, the oldest case of TB, power-packing Red Sea and more...

Is it healthier to be fit and fat—Or lazy and thin?

Are you a thin couch potato? Think that because you're slim, you don't have to work out? Wrong. A new study shows that you have a better shot of living longer if you're plump but fit rather than if you're normal weight (or a twig) but don't exercise. Researcher Xuemei Sui of the University of South Carolina in Columbia and colleagues tracked 2,603 adults age 60 and over (average age 64.4; 19.4 percent women) to determine how physical fitness and body fat affected their death rates over 12 years. They assessed fitness based on a treadmill exercise test and corpulence by a combo of body mass index (BMI), waist circumference and percentage of body fat. Those in the lowest fifth in terms of fitness (patients who fared poorly on the treadmill) had a death rate four times higher than participants ranked in the top fifth for fitness. "We observed that fit individuals who were obese had a lower risk of all-cause mortality than did unfit normal weight or lean, individuals," the authors report in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association. "It may be possible to reduce all-cause death rates among older adults, including those who are obese, by promoting regular physical activity, such as brisk walking for 30 minutes or more on most days of the week, which will keep most individuals out of the low-fitness category. Enhancing functional capacity also should allow older adults to achieve a healthy lifestyle and to enjoy longer life in better health." But lest you think that's an invitation to pile on the pounds—it's not. Both obesity and lack of exercise have been linked to higher death rates in middle-aged adults. Remember: obesity can up the risk of conditions such as high blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and stroke. The best bet, experts say: Eat right and exercise. [http://www.jama.com]

Cell phones may up tumor risk

Is your cell phone practically glued to your ear? Beware: New research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology says that regular mobile phone use may increase your risk of developing tumors. AFP reports that Israeli researchers found that frequent cell phone users—described as people who chatter on mobiles more than 22 hours a month—had a nearly 50 percent higher risk than others of developing a tumor on the parotid gland (the largest of the salivary glands on the side of the face just in front of the ear). The risk was even greater, AFP reports, if users always held the phone to the same ear, did not use hands-free devices or were in rural areas. The study included 402 benign and 58 malignant incident cases of parotid gland tumors diagnosed in Israel in patients 18 years of age or older from 2001 to 2003. "Analysis restricted to regular users or to conditions that may yield higher levels of exposure (like heavy use in rural areas) showed consistently elevated risks," said an abstract of the article obtained by AFP. (Agence France-Presse)

New study: Caffeine cream tones thighs

Ladies, listen up. A new study says that women who smoothed a salve containing a 7 percent caffeine solution on their thighs and hips twice a day for a month saw a slimming effect. Brazilian researchers from Federal University report in the Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology that more than 80 percent of the 99 study subjects had a reduction in the circumference of their upper and lower thighs after slathering on the cream; nearly 68 percent also reduced their hip measurements. Alas, it did not smooth out the ever-stubborn dimples of cellulite, the researchers said, noting that exercise is still the best route to toned thighs. (medicalnews@bos.blackwellpublishing.net)

Have a cough? Take some honey

Looks like your grandmother was right: If your child has a cough, try some honey to calm the hacking. A new study shows that a dollop of buckwheat honey at bedtime provided more relief than over-the-counter remedies or no treatment at all. Researchers from Penn State College of Medicine report in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that honey reduced the severity and frequency of nighttime coughs from upper respiratory infections better than dextromethorphan (DM), a cough suppressant found in many OTC cold meds. The news is particularly heartening to parents in the wake of recent recommendations by a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel that children younger than six years old should not be given elixirs containing DM, because of their lack of effectiveness and potential side effects. Honey—which has well established antioxidant and antimicrobal effects—has been used for centuries in some cultures to treat cold symptoms and wounds, and is considered to be safe for children over 12 months old. In the new research, researchers studied 105 kids between the ages of two and 18. On the first night, the children received no treatment; on the second, they were given either honey, artificial honey–flavored DM or no treatment at all about 30 minutes before hitting the sack. The results: honey won hands-down across the board for relief of symptoms and helping kids get a good night's rest. "Additional studies should certainly be considered, but we hope that medical professionals will consider the positive potential of honey as a treatment given the lack of proven efficacy, expense and potential for adverse effects associated with the use of DM," said lead study author Ian Paul, a pediatrician and associate professor of pediatrics. (Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine) [http://www.archpediatrics.com]

The oldest case of TB

Researchers have long suspected that tuberculosis only dated back a few thousand years, no time at all, evolutionarily speaking. But an international team of scientists from the U.S., Germany and Turkey report this week in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology that it found evidence of the disease in a 500,000-year-old hominid fossil unearthed in western Turkey. Prior to the discovery, paleontologists believed that the oldest cases of the ailment dated back several thousand years in mummies from Egypt and Peru. The research team, including John Kappelman, an anthropology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, believe the specimen of Homo erectusfound was a young male; they found small lesions characteristic of Leptomeningitis tuberculosa, a form of TB that attacks the meninges of the brain. The scientists said the finding strengthens the theory that dark-skinned people who migrate northward from low-latitude, tropical areas with stronger sunlight produce less vitamin D; deficiencies in this vitamin can weaken the bones and immune system, inviting TB and other diseases. People with darker skin produce less vitamin D, because melanin (skin pigment) blocks more of the sun's ultraviolet rays, which stimulate vitamin D production in the body. (University of Texas at Austin)

When the (matrimonial) fire dies, global warming heats up

Seems divorce not only hurts splitting couples but it also takes a toll on the environment. As if ending a marriage isn't punishing enough, now comes a new study that notes skyrocketing divorce rates have led to more households with fewer people, taking up more space and consuming more energy and water. "Not only the United States, but also other countries…are having more divorced households," said study co-author Jianguo "Jack" Liu, a researcher at Michigan State University. "The consequent increases in consumption of water and energy and using more space are being seen everywhere." The study compared married households with households that had been through marriage, divorce and remarriage. Among the findings, published in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA: In the U.S. alone in 2005 divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved had household size remained the same as that of married households; 38 million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting; between 1998 and 2002 there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in the U.S. and 11 other countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Mexico, Greece and South Africa, if divorced households had combined to have the same average size as that of married people. (The number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 percent to 95 percent greater than in married ones.) Also, the number of divorced households in these countries ranged from 40,000 in Costa Rica to almost 16 million in the U.S. around 2000. "People have been talking about how to protect the environment and combat climate change," Liu said, "but divorce is an overlooked factor that needs to be considered." Just in case untying the knot didn't make you feel guilty enough…. (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA) [http://www.pnas.org/]

Parting—Er, plugging the Red Sea for hydroelectric power

Researchers believe that damming the Red Sea could deliver as much as 50 gigawatts of power to the Middle East, alleviating growing energy demands in the region. There's a catch, though: Such a massive engineering project could potentially also damage the environment and displace people from their homes if, as predicted, the dam simultaneously lowered the Red Sea's level by about 6.5 feet (two meters) annually (eventually killing off food sources) while causing a slight rise in the levels of the surrounding oceans, Roelof Dirk Schuiling, a geochemical engineer with Utrecht University in the Netherlands, reports in the International Journal of Global Environmental Issues. A project as ambitious as plugging the Red Sea isn't viewed as an immediate fix, but there is a comparable project underway to dam the Strait of Hormuz at the entrance of the Persian Gulf to exploit the evaporative cycle and influx of seawater to generate vast quantities of hydroelectricity. Schuiling says that before the Red Sea is tapped for power, experts would have to weigh the pros (reducing greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on oil) and cons (the disruption to local marine life and increase in salinity of the remaining seawater as well as the impact on tourism and transportation). Ultimately, decision makers may nix such drastic change in the already politically volatile region, but that sure is a lot of energy. (The largest nuke plant in the U.S. has an output of just 3.2 gigawatts.)

Are you smarter than a chimp?

Don't count on it. Japanese researchers pit young chimps against human adults in short-term memory tests—and, lo and behold, monkey, um, ape beat man. "No one could imagine that chimpanzees—young chimpanzees at the age of five—have a better performance in a memory task than humans," researcher Tetsuro Matsuzawa of Kyoto University said in a statement. In one test, chimps taught to count from one to nine (in return for a peanut or other treat) competed with a dozen human volunteers in monitoring numbers that turned into squares on a computer screen. The goal was to touch all the squares in order of the numerals they replaced. Researchers report in Current Biology that the chimpanzees—although no more accurate—were quicker on the uptake than people. One chimp, Ayumu, was particularly swift—and was chosen to participate in a second test with nine college students. This time, five numbers flashed on the screen before they were replaced by squares. The contestants again had to touch the squares in proper sequence. When the numbers were displayed for about seven tenths of a second, Ayumu and the college students both scored correctly about 80 percent of the time. But when the figures flashed for just four tenths or two tenths of a second, the chimp trumped all, still hitting about 80 percent of the time, whereas his human challengers' success rate plummeted to 40 percent. This indicates that Ayumu was better at grasping many numerals at a glance, the researchers said. So what's the deal? Matsuzawa told the Associated Press that he thinks the chimps had the edge, because they were younger and, also, human ancestors lost much of this skill over time to free brain space for language ability. He noted that the young chimps' memory ability could be likened to "eidetic imagery" (photographic memory), a special ability to retain a detailed and accurate image of a complex scene or pattern found in some human children, but which, alas, fades with age. In fact, the young chimps also outperformed older chimps in the study. Good to know human primates weren't the only losers! [http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/12/03/chimp.memory.ap/index.html]

Computers are going to the dogs

Need help sorting those pictures for your photo album? You might want to ask Rover to lend a paw. In a recent study conducted at the University of Vienna in Austria and published online in Animal Cognition, four dogs were shown simultaneously photographs depicting either landscapes or canines and trained (read: rewarded with a yummy treat when successful) to select the pix of pups. After the training sessions, the dogs were placed in front of computer touch screens with other landscape and pooch photos and instructed to choose the latter. The pups consistently selected the doggie photographs, demonstrating an ability to transfer knowledge from their training. The canine computer users were later shown new dog pictures pasted onto familiar landscapes as well as new landscape snapshots sans the dogs—and asked to choose the photos with the animals, which they did. Researchers are not sure whether the dog "volunteers" felt a kinship with the hounds in the photos (recognizing them as members of the same species), but they say the tests pave the way for researchers to use this technology to compare the cognitive abilities of different species. Now if we could only teach dogs to walk themselves...

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