Processed Foods and Cancer

Eating “ultra-processed” foods—including packaged breads, snacks, baked goods, instant soups, chicken nuggets, and frozen meatballs—could increase your risk for developing cancer, new research suggests. A team of scientists at France’s Université Sorbonne Paris Cité analyzed the dietary records of nearly 105,000 adults. After tracking cancer diagnoses among the group over the course of five years, they found that every 10 percent increase in the consumption of ultra-processed foods was associated with a 12 percent increase in cancer risk. Ultra-processed foods are loaded with sugar and fat, and have fewer vitamins and less fiber than fresh foods. They also contain additives, including nitrates and artificial flavors, colors, emulsifiers, and sweeteners. Certain types of plastic packaging could also contaminate processed foods with potentially harmful chemicals. The study’s authors caution that larger-scale studies are needed, reports, but say their findings “suggest that the rapidly increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods may drive an increasing (Read More)

Understanding ‘Superagers’

Scientists believe they are finally starting to unravel the secrets of so-called -superagers—senior citizens who live beyond 80 but have the mental sharpness of people decades younger. In one study, at Northwestern University, researchers who examined the brains of 10 superagers found heightened levels of Von Economo neurons, brain cells linked to social processing and awareness. Their brains had up to five times more of these cells than a typical octogenarian’s—more, even, than an average young adult’s, reports The team also found that superagers, who they estimate account for about 5 percent of people 80 or older, are more likely to be extroverts, less likely to be neurotic, and tend to have relatively active and engaged lifestyles. A separate study, at the University of California, Irvine, examined the significance of amyloid, a protein that can lead to plaques linked to Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers found that some superagers had these (Read More)

Alcohol-Related Dementia

Heavy drinking takes an irreversible, long-term toll on the brain, increasing the risk for all forms of dementia, a new study suggests. Researchers analyzed the medical records of more than 1 million adults diagnosed with dementia from 2008 to 2013. They found that the strongest predictor for the condition was hospitalization for an alcohol-related health issue, particularly among those younger than 65, and that nearly 60 percent of early-onset dementia cases were associated with alcohol-related brain damage. Alcohol is toxic to brain cells and contributes to chronic conditions that reduce blood flow to the brain. The World Health Organization defines heavy drinking as four or more drinks a day for men, three or more for women. “Some people look at their drinking habits and say, ‘Oh, it’s not so bad,’ or, ‘A lot of people drink this much,’” lead author Jürgen Rehm, from the University of Toronto, tells “And yes, (Read More)

The Power of Touch

The simple act of holding hands with a loving partner can significantly reduce physical pain, a new study suggests. Researchers asked 22 heterosexual couples who had been together for at least a year to under go brain scans as they participated in different scenarios. The women either sat holding hands with their partners, sat nearby but did not touch them, or were in a different room. The scenarios were then repeated, but this time the women were subjected to mild pain. Overall, the women found that holding hands reduced the intensity of their pain by an average of 34 percent. The brain scans showed that when the couples held hands, their brain waves became synchronized—and that this “coupling” effect was even greater when the women were in pain. The researchers speculate that supportive touch could help people feel understood, which may trigger pain-reducing reward systems in the brain. “We have (Read More)

Can’t Sleep? Write a to-do List

If you’re kept awake at night by worries about an upcoming work project, unpaid bills, or unfinished errands, a new study has a simple tip to help you fall asleep: Write a to-do list. Scientists at Baylor University made that discovery after asking 57 students to spend a night in a sleep lab free of smartphones and other distractions. Five minutes before a strictly enforced 10:30 p.m. bedtime, half of the volunteers wrote a list of things they needed to do over the next few days and the other half listed tasks they’d already completed. Researchers monitored the participants’ brain activity overnight and found that those who wrote a to-do list dozed off nine minutes faster on average – an effect similar to that of some pharmaceutical sleeping aids. “Throughout the day, we have all these things cycling through our head,” lead author Michael Scullin tells “There’s something about (Read More)

People, Not Rats, Spread Plague

Humanity owes rats an apology. Historians have long argued that fleas carried by rats were responsible for the Black Death, the devastating plague that killed a third of Europe’s population – some 25 million people – between 1347 and 1351. But a new study suggests that the disease was in fact spread by human-borne parasites, said Plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, and when an infected flea bites a human, the bacteria can congregate in lymph nodes and cause them to swell into the gruesome blackened “buboes” that give the bubonic plague its name. In every outbreak since the late 19th century, rats and other rodents have helped spread the disease. But scientists at University of Oslo suspected that the 14th-century Black Death killed too many people too fast for rats to have been its main transmitters. Researchers used computers to model three different transmission methods: by fleas (Read More)

Saunas’ Heart Benefits

A good sweat in the sauna may be as beneficial for your heart as moderate exercise. That’s the finding of a new study from Finland, which investigated the effects of a 30-minute sauna session on 102 middle aged adults with at least one risk factor associated with heart disease, such as high blood pressure, obesity, or high cholesterol. When participants stepped out of a 160-degree dry-heat sauna, their blood pressure had dropped by an average of seven points and their arteries gained elasticity, reports Their heart rates had also risen, from an average of 65 beats per minute before the sauna to 81 beats after. “At the moment, we can say that sauna use is recommended, and it seems that more is beneficial,” says study co-author Tanjaniina Laukkanen. The positive effects of saunas are likely linked to heat exposure, which can widen blood vessels and improve blood flow. Sweating also (Read More)

The Spice That Boosts Memory

An active compound found in the Indian spice turmeric could help improve memory and ease depression among those with age-related mental decline, new research suggests. Scientists at UCLA gathered 40 volunteers between 50 and 90 years old, all with some memory complaints but none with dementia. Each person was randomly assigned to take either a supplement of curcumin or a placebo pill twice a day for 18 months; over that period they were given memory tests, mood questionnaires, and brain scans to detect the clumps of plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The results were striking: Those taking curcumin saw a 28 percent improvement in their memory function, compared with a slight decline for those in the placebo group. They also had better mood scores and less plaque buildup in two brain regions responsible for memory, decision making, and emotion. “Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain,” study leader (Read More)

Don’t Stop When You Retire

A sunny and stress-free retirement has long been part of the American Dream. But a new study suggests that once people ditch the daily grind, their brain function takes a dramatic nosedive, reports The Daily Telegraph (U.K.). Researchers from University College London and King’s College London monitored the brain function of about 3,400 British civil servants over 30 years, a period covering both the later part of their careers and the first 14 years of their retirement. The cognitive tests showed that the workers’ verbal memory declined 38 percent faster once they retired—a change that affected even high-ranking employees who used to have mentally challenging jobs. The researchers stress that staying mentally active and socially engaged during retirement helps protect against cognitive decline. Cary Cooper, an expert in organizational psychology from Manchester Business School in England, says that rather than just doing Sudoku or crosswords, seniors should try their hand at something (Read More)

Migraines and Heart Trouble

Suffering from migraines could be a portent of serious heart problems, a major new study suggest. Using the Danish National Patient Registry, researchers identified 51,032 people with migraines—71 percent of them women—and 510,320 people who were migraine free. The participants were, on average, 35 years old at the start of the study, and so their overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease was small. But during the 19-year study, researchers found that people with migraines were 49 percent more likely to have a heart attack, 59 percent more likely to develop a blood clot in their veins, and 25 percent more likely to have an irregular heartbeat. They had nearly double the risk of stroke. The risks were all higher in the first year following a migraine diagnosis. “We now have accumulating evidence that migraine is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” study lead author Kasper Adelborg told The New York Times. There (Read More)