Newness Factor Weighs in on Brain

Perry’s Ice Cream changed its wrapping from the standard brick shape to the two-piece “square round” package, was the new look enough for you to make the purchase?

Humans may be wired to seek out new experiences, according to a study published Wednesday in the online edition of the journal Neuron.Or did Kraft’s addition of a flip-top cap to its salad dressings steer you away from your usual brand?

If so, you’re not alone.

Humans may be wired to seek out new experiences, according to a study published Wednesday in the online edition of the journal Neuron.

The allure of novelty may be enough to make us look beyond our old favorites, “even in a situation where we don’t have any good reason to expect something to be better than before,” says Bianca Wittmann, lead author of the study and postdoctoral researcher at University College London.

In the study, researchers allowed 15 adults to select from a series of four black-and-white pictures. Each image was assigned a probability that selecting it would result in a monetary reward — one British pound. The participants were familiar with some but not all of the images.

People took a gamble when picking the pictures. After seeing the pictures multiple times, though, they could figure out which ones gave them the highest probability of cashing in.

As a twist, researchers periodically swapped pictures out, often replacing them with an unfamiliar image.

“What we found is that people preferentially go for the ones they’ve never seen before,” Wittmann says. Rather than stick with the familiar — a picture for which they’ve already figured out the probability of getting money — they’d rather take their chance on a new picture.

“[This study] helps make sense of the fact that novel situations are not neutral to us. We tend to like them,” says Dr. David Spiegel, professor and associate chair of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Male Menopause: Reality or Myth?

For women of a certain age, menopause is a fact of life. But this middle-age change no longer looks so feminine.

More men are arriving in doctors’ offices complaining of sexual dysfunction, weight gain, fatigue, depression and other unpleasant, but potentially vague, symptoms. In some of these men, a blood test reveals low testosterone levels. And there has been a corresponding uptick in testosterone prescriptions, one approach to treating low male hormone levels.

For these patients, doctors like Robert Brannigan in Chicago may give testosterone replacement a trial run to treat symptoms which, he said, can have a profound effect on a patient.

“It helps many, many of these individuals to have overall improved quality of life. It not only affects them, but very often their partners and their intimate relationships,” said Brannigan, an attending physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an associate professor of urology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Male menopause, as it has been dubbed, is controversial. First there’s the name, which experts dislike because it draws an inaccurate parallel with the female experience. (The accurate term for men is late-onset hygonadism.) What’s more, the disorder itself is not universally accepted, with some saying there is weak evidence for a link between symptoms and decreased hormone levels, and questioning whether benefits outweigh the risk and unknowns of testosterone prescriptions.

“I think the question that arises is how much of this is related to hormones and how much of it is the facts of life that we experience as we age,” said Dr. Thomas Walsh, an assistant professor and director of male reproductive and sexual medicine at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine in Seattle. Walsh, a urologist, prescribes testosterone after what he describes as “heavy informed consent.” [7 Ways the Mind and Body Change With Age]

“There is still a lot of controversy, and I don’t think we have all the answers yet. You have to take the data at hand and apply it to the individual,” he said.

Up to four million men may have low testosterone, with most caused by age-related declines. However, only a minority receive treatment, according to Walsh. That number of men affected is expected to rise.

The female misnomer

‘Male menopause’ may grab attention, but experts dislike the term, because it glosses over the significant differences between the hormonal changes men and women experience as they age.

“Nobody doubts female menopause, and nobody doubts the mechanism by which it happens, that’s not the case for male menopause,” said Dr. Ike Iheanacho, editor of the journal Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin, which in June published a review on using testosterone to treat so-called male menopause. “That epithet is unhelpful, because it deters people from doing what we [have] done, which is look at the evidence.”

The review, which reflected the journal’s opinion, found weak causal evidence that age-related hormone declines cause symptoms in men, a lack of long-term data, and at best, mixed results for short-term treatment.

For a woman, menopause marks the end of fertility and occurs when progesterone and estrogen, produced by the ovaries, drop off. Symptoms can last several years, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Hormonal changes in men are quite different. Testosterone levels can decrease by about 1 percent to 2 percent each year after about the age of 40. While menopause is a universal experience for women, testosterone does not decline in all men. Other factors besides aging, like obesity or injury, are associated with low testosterone.

For many years, long-term hormone replacement for women was considered protective for all kinds of ailments, until study results in 2002 revealed it increased risks of heart disease, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer, according to the NIH.

This history has implications for men with low hormones and symptoms, Walsh said. “You are seeing today far more caution on the part of clinicians and investigators.”

Questions

Two papers published in the July issue of the New England Journal of Medicine addressed the diagnosis of hypogonadism and its treatment.

In one study, researchers led by Frederick Wu of the University of Manchester used data from 3,369 European men to find correlations between testosterone levels and a battery of potential symptoms. As a result, they suggested that the presence of at least three measures of sexual dysfunction, including frequency of thoughts about sex and erectile function, in a man with a testosterone level below 11 nanomoles per liter could be used to define late-onset hypogonadism. (The study defined a decreased level as between 13 and 8 nanomoles per liter for total testosterone.) However, these symptoms were also widely reported by men who did not suffer from depressed hormone levels.

This causal relationship between hormone levels and symptoms is always a question, according to Dr. William Bremner, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, who wrote about that research in an editorial in the journal.

“In truth you don’t know that those are due to the testosterone until you give men testosterone and see whether those symptoms are improved,” he said.

Testosterone has been shown to increase muscle mass and strength, so a second study in the same journal issue set out to test how much testosterone supplementation was needed to increase mobility among men ages 65 or older with difficulty walking or climbing stairs. The authors, led by Shehzad Basaria of Boston University’s School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center, found evidence that testosterone did improve the men’s strength. However, the men taking testosterone also experienced an unusually high rate of cardiovascular problems.

The latter result is surprising, and may be due to chance, since previous studies have not shown a connection between testosterone and cardiovascular risk, Bremner said.

The Women’s Health Initiative Study, which revealed risks of hormone replacement therapy, followed a total of 161,808 women over 15 years. No long-term research like this has been conducted in men, but it is needed, Bremner said.

“There really are a large number of older men receiving testosterone and the numbers seem to be increasing and it’s not something that is going away,” he added.

On the rise

In roughly the past four years, Brannigan’s urology practice has seen an increase in patients he said are suffering from late-onset hypogonadism.

“Certainly, there is no question we are seeing more patients, and the question is, and I don’t think we know, is it due to increased public awareness or is it due to increased prevalence,” Brannigan said. Still, he estimates that 95 percent of cases are undiagnosed.

His office is not unique. With an aging, more at-risk population living in a post-Viagra era, when taboos on men’s sexual health issues like erectile dysfunction are lifting, the increase is expected to continue. Prescriptions appear headed up as well.

Between 2005 and 2009, testosterone prescriptions dispensed by pharmacies rose 65 percent in the United States, according to a LiveScience analysis of data from IMS Health, a heath-care information and consulting company.

There is also a lifestyle connection. Low testosterone is associated with obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome – a combination of disorders linked to diabetes and cardiovascular disease. All three are on the rise within the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control.

Non-stick Cookware May Boost Cholesterol

Exposure to chemicals used to make non-stick cookware and which are found in microwave popcorn may raise blood cholesterol levels in children, a study says.

Researchers led by Stephanie Frisbee of West Virginia University School of Medicine assessed blood lipid levels in 12,476 children and teens aged one to 18 years for the study published in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association.

The children who took part in the study were part of a health project that began after a lawsuit was settled in 2002 after perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was found in the water supply in the mid-Ohio River Valley.

To be part of the project, children had to have been exposed for at least a year to the contaminated drinking water.

For the study, believed to be the first to look at the link between perfluoroalkyl acids and serum lipids in youngsters, blood samples were taken from the children and teens in 2005 and 2006.

The average PFOA concentration in their blood was found to be 69.2 ng/mL and the average perfluorooctanesulfonate (PFOS) concentration was 22.7 ng/mL — both much higher than the national median.

PFOA and PFOS are part of the family of manmade compounds called perfluoroalkyl acids, which humans are exposed to through everything from dust to food packaging to microwave popcorn and non-stick pots and pans.

Among 12- to 19-year-old study participants who had drunk water from the contaminated supply for at least a year, PFOA concentrations were found to be substantially higher than those found nationally in kids — 29.3 ng/mL for the study group and 3.9 ng/mL for the others.

Kids with higher PFOA levels had higher total cholesterol — the most common measurement of blood cholesterol — as well as increased levels of LDL or “bad” cholesterol.

Higher levels of PFOS, meanwhile, were associated with increased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and HDL, or “good,” cholesterol.

“PFOA and PFOS specifically, and possibly perfluoroalkyl acids as a general class, appear to be associated with serum lipids, and the association seems to exist at levels of PFOA and PFOS exposure that are in the range characterized by nationally representative studies,” the authors of the study said.

High blood cholesterol is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease and stroke.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming more than 600,000 lives a year, and stroke is the third-biggest, killing 136,000 people a year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Total cholesterol levels should be less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL), according to the American Heart Association.

The study found an average difference of 8.5 mg/dL in total cholesterol levels between the one-fifth of participants with the highest and the fifth with the lowest PFOS levels.

Up to now, few studies have been conducted into the effects of long-term exposure to perfluoroalkyl acids and how they might affect health and development in humans, and the authors of the study called for more research into exposure to the family of chemicals.

Medical Programs Missing Millions of Kids

An estimated five million uninsured children in the United States were eligible for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) but were not enrolled in either plan, according to a new report.

The study published on Friday in the journal “Health Affairs” recommended policy reforms and broader efforts to get uninsured children into government medical programs, including the use of income tax data for automatic enrollment.

An estimated 7.3 million children were uninsured on an average day in 2008 and 65 percent of them were eligible for Medicaid of CHIP coverage, the report said.

President Barack Obama, who signed landmark healthcare reforms into law in March, has made providing health care to all Americans a top priority of his administration.

Thirty-nine percent (1.8) million of eligible uninsured children live in just three states — California, Texas and Florida, the report by the Washington-based Urban Institute Health Policy Center said. Sixty-one percent (2.9 million) of uninsured children live in 10 states, the report said.

“This new data will help us to focus our efforts and our grant funding where they are most needed,” U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement. “We now have a much better sense of where most uninsured children live, and which communities may need more help.”

Medicaid is the joint state-federal health plan for the poor, disabled and elderly. CHIP provides low-cost coverage for children in families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but cannot afford private health insurance coverage.

“No child should have to skip a doctor’s appointment or go without the medicine they need because their family can’t pay,” Sebelius said, challenging state and local officials to “find and enroll those five million kids.”

Drying Hands Best Using Towels, Not Dryer

The best way to dry hands after washing is using paper towels or using a dryer that doesn’t require rubbing hands together, researchers in Britain say.

Dr. Anna Snelling of the University of Bradford says not drying hands thoroughly after washing can increase the spread of bacteria. Using a conventional electric hand dryer — and rubbing one’s hands together — may contribute to the spread of bacteria.

Snelling and colleagues examined different ways of hand drying — paper towels, traditional hand dryers, which rely on evaporation, and a new model of hand dryer that rapidly strips water off the hands using high velocity air jets — and their effect on bacteria transfer from hands to other surfaces.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, finds the most effective way of keeping bacterial counts low, when drying hands, was using paper towels. But if using an electric dryer — the model that rapidly stripped the moisture off the hands was best for reducing transfer of bacteria to other surfaces.

“Good hand hygiene should include drying hands thoroughly and not just washing,” Snelling says in a statement.

Multivitamin Doesn’t Affect Colon Cancer

Taking multivitamins does not appear to be beneficial to patients during and after post-surgical chemotherapy for stage III colon cancer, U.S. researchers find.

The study, published online ahead of print issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, finds multivitamin use did not appear to have any beneficial effect on patients’ outcomes but did not have a detrimental effect.

First author Dr. Kimmie Ng, a gastrointestinal oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, says despite conflicting evidence on the efficacy of multivitamins to reduce cancer risk and death, studies suggest approximately 30 percent of Americans take multivitamins — but among cancer survivors, between 26 percent and 77 percent report using multivitamins.

“With such a high proportion of cancer patients utilizing multivitamin supplements in the belief that it will help them fight their cancer, we felt it was important to really examine the data to see what impact multivitamins had on cancer recurrence and survival,” Ng says in a statement.

The researchers asked 1,038 patients to complete a survey. Nearly half responded they used multivitamins during chemotherapy. Of the 810 cancer-free patients who completed the survey six months after chemotherapy, more than half reported multivitamin use.

Therapy Helpful in Addressing Loneliness

Cognitive-behavioral therapy was effective in addressing negative thoughts linked to loneliness — a risk factor for heart disease — U.S. researchers say.

John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, says researchers recently characterized the negative influence of loneliness upon blood pressure, sleep quality, dementia and other health measures. The findings suggest loneliness is a health risk factor, similar to obesity or smoking.

The study, published online in Personality and Social Psychology Review, says changing how a person perceives and thinks about others was the most effective intervention for loneliness.

“People are becoming more isolated, and this health problem is likely to grow,” Cacioppo says in a statement. “If we know that loneliness is involved in health problems, the next question is what we can do to mitigate it.”

The researchers conducted a meta-analysis on loneliness interventions that involved four categories — improving social skills, increasing social support, creating opportunities for social interaction and addressing social cognition.

“Effective interventions are not so much about providing others with whom people can interact, providing social support, or teaching social skills as they are about changing how people who feel lonely perceive, think about, and act toward other people,” Cacioppo says.

Starting Periods Early Tied to Greater Asthma Risk

Women who start menstruating early may be at increased risk of asthma and poor lung function, new research shows.

Having one’s first period at age 10 or earlier nearly doubled asthma risk, Dr. Ferenc Macsali of the University of Bergen in Norway and his colleagues found.

“One might want to be alert regarding the potential increased asthma risk in girls with early menarche; programs focusing on … smoking prevention in adolescents might include early menarche as an indicator of increased risk for impaired respiratory health,” they conclude in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Women in the developed world are menstruating earlier, Macsali and his team note, with the average age at menarche-the medical term for a girl’s first period-now occurring before age 13, on average, compared with 16 to 17 a century ago.

Early menarche has been tied to a number of health risks, they add, including heart disease and breast cancer.

Because hormones appear to play a role in asthma and lung function (for example, asthma risk is higher in boys than girls before puberty, but the reverse is true after puberty), the researchers investigated whether the age when a woman began menstruating had any association with her asthma risk and respiratory function in adulthood. They looked at 3,354 women 27 to 57 years old participating in a Europe-wide study of respiratory health.

Results of two key tests of lung function-forced expiratory volume in one second, meaning the amount a person can exhale after a deep breath in a second, and forced vital capacity, the total volume of air one can exhale after a deep breath-were worse for women who started menstruating at age 10 or earlier compared to women who had their first period at 13, the researchers found.

The women whose periods started early were also nearly three times as likely to report having at least three symptoms of asthma (such as wheezing, shortness of breath, and being woken up by a cough) along with bronchial hyperresponsiveness — an exaggerated response to inhaling substances that cause the airways to constrict, which is a key symptom of asthma.

There are several factors that could be involved in the menarche-lung function relationship, Macsali and his colleagues say. For example, girls who menstruate earlier tend to be shorter, while taller people tend to have better lung function.

That relationship between body size and lung function may originate with events during fetal development that could also influence later growth and onset of puberty, they add.

Overweight and obesity also have been linked to earlier puberty, and may promote inflammation, a key factor in asthma.

Based on their findings, the researchers conclude that hormonal and metabolic factors may indeed be involved in women’s respiratory health.

Study Finds Bariatric Surgery Lowers Gestational Diabetes Risk

Obese women who have weight loss surgery before they get pregnant are three times less likely to develop gestational diabetes and are also less likely to require a cesarean section, a new study finds.

Weight loss (bariatric) surgery limits the amount of food a person can consume or digest.

U.S. researchers compared rates of gestational diabetes and related outcomes such as cesarean delivery among 346 obese women who had bariatric surgery before pregnancy and 354 obese women who had bariatric surgery after delivery. Most of the women in the study had a gastric bypass operation, with some opting for an adjustable band procedure.

Rates of gestational diabetes were 8 percent for those who had the surgery before pregnancy and 27 percent for those who had the surgery after delivery. Rates of cesarean delivery were 28 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

Makary and colleagues noted that most of the women who underwent weight-loss surgery did not wait the recommended two years afterwards before delivering a baby.

The study appears in the August issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

“Despite a growing body of evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of bariatric surgery in reversing obesity-related complications, few candidates for the procedure are referred to a surgeon to discuss their options,” senior author Dr. Martin Makary, an associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a journal news release.

Like all operations, however, bariatric surgery is not without risk. Potential complications, for example, include blood clots, infection, respiratory arrest, gastrointestinal bleeding, and death, according to the American Society for Metabolic & Bariatric Surgery.

Smoking Could Harm Sperm, Study Finds

Two new studies provide evidence that smoking can harm sperm – both in smoking men who may become fathers, and in sons born to women who smoked during pregnancy.

The research also suggests that both men and women who hope to conceive should kick the habit.

“The results of the present study suggest a negative biological effect of smoking on spermatozoa DNA integrity,” said the lead author of one study, Dr. Mohamed E. Hammadeh, head of the assisted reproductive laboratory in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of the Saarland in Saar, Germany.

Research by Hammadeh and his colleagues showed that men who smoke heavily may experience fertility problems stemming from a drop in levels of a protein crucial to sperm development, as well as damage to sperm’s DNA.

Another study suggests that women who smoke early in their pregnancy may ultimately compromise their sons’ reproductive health.

Both studies are published in the Sept. 8 online issue of Human Reproduction.

In the first study, Hammadeh’s team compared sperm from 53 heavy smokers (more than 20 cigarettes a day) against that of 63 nonsmokers.

After three to four days of sexual abstinence, a single semen sample was taken from all study participants, to measure levels of two forms of a specific type of protein found in sperm, called protamines. According to the researchers, protamines are key players in sperm development, helping to spur on the process by which chromosomes are formed and packaged during cell division.

Hammadeh and colleagues found that in the smoking group, one form of protamine appeared at levels that were 14 percent below concentrations observed in the sperm of nonsmoking men. This was enough to constitute a form of “protamine deficiency” and, in turn, raise risks for infertility among the smokers.

What’s more, smoking-linked “oxidative stress” appeared tied to an increase in damage to sperm DNA, the team reported.

According to Hammadeh, past attempts to clarify the relationship between cigarette smoking and male infertility have had trouble identifying a molecular mechanism underlying any such link. So he believes the new finding should help convince male smokers struggling with infertility to kick the habit.

“Because of the fact that cigarette smoke contains mutagens and carcinogens, there have been concerns that smoking may have adverse effects on male reproduction,” Hammadeh noted. The new findings help bear that out, he said.

The second study was led by Dr. Claus Yding Andersen, a professor of human reproductive physiology at the University Hospital of Copenhagen in Denmark. It focused on the impact of maternal smoking during the first trimester of pregnancy upon the development of the male fetus.

In this case, the authors analyzed tissue from the testes of 24 embryos that had been aborted between 37 and 68 days following conception.

After classifying the prospective mothers according to smoking habits, the research team found that the number of so-called “germ cells” — cells that develop into sperm in males and eggs in females — were 55 percent lower in the testes of embryos obtained from women who smoked. This observation held regardless of the mother’s alcohol and coffee consumption habits.

As well, embryonic levels of so-called “somatic cells” (those that go on to form other types of tissue) were 37 percent lower among those women who smoked.

In both the case of germ and somatic cells, drop-offs in levels appeared to be “dose-dependent,” meaning that the more the prospective mother smoked, the lower the number of cells grown by the embryo.

Based on these findings early in fetal growth, Anderson and his colleagues conclude that the apparent impact of smoking on cellular production might continue in male offspring carried to term. And that could mean a higher risk of impaired fertility in sons.

According to the Danish team, their earlier research involving female embryos also revealed “germ cell” reductions of about 40 percent for embryos taken from women who smoked during pregnancy. This suggests that maternal smoking in pregnancy may harm the reproductive health of both male and female offspring.

“Our results provide health care professionals who talk to women who are considering conceiving, or have conceived just recently, with a ‘here and now’ argument to convince them to stop smoking,” Anderson said. “Because the negative effect of smoking appears to take place right from conception and during the early days [of gestation], when the human embryo becomes differentiated into either a girl or a boy.”

Lack of Sleep May Be Linked to Childhood Obesity

Infants and preschoolers who don’t get enough sleep at night are at increased risk for later childhood obesity, a new study suggests.

The researchers also found that daytime naps are not an adequate substitute for lost nighttime sleep in terms of preventing obesity.

The study included 1,930 U.S. children, ages 1 month to 13 years, who were divided into two groups — younger (ages 1 month to 59 months) and older (ages 5 to 13 years). Data on the children was collected at the start of the study (baseline) in 1997 and again in 2002 (follow-up).

At the follow-up, 33 percent of the younger children and 36 percent of the older children were overweight or obese. Among the younger children, lack of sufficient nighttime sleep at baseline was associated with increased risk for later overweight or obesity.

Among the older children, the amount of sleep at baseline was not associated with weight at follow-up. However, a lack of nighttime sleep at follow-up was associated with increased risk of a shift from normal weight to overweight and from overweight to obesity, the study found.

The findings “suggest that there is a critical window prior to age 5 years when nighttime sleep may be important for subsequent obesity status,” wrote Janice F. Bell of the University of Washington in Seattle, and Frederick J. Zimmerman of the University of California, Los Angeles.

“Sleep duration is a modifiable risk factor with potentially important implications for obesity prevention and treatment,” the authors concluded. “Insufficient nighttime sleep among infants and preschool-aged children appears to be a lasting risk factor for subsequent obesity, while contemporaneous sleep appears to be important to weight status in adolescents. Napping had no effects on the development of obesity and is not a substitute for sufficient nighttime sleep,” they added.

Are Allergies Associated With Heart Disease?

Common allergies that bring on wheezing, sneezing and watery eyes could be next to join the list of factors linked to heart disease, suggests a large new study.

However, the researchers stress that the findings do not prove that allergies actually cause heart disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.

To look for ties between common allergic symptoms and heart disease, Dr. Jongoh Kim of Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and colleagues analyzed data on more than 8,600 adults aged 20 or older who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted between 1988 and 1994.

They found that common allergies and heart disease frequently paired up.

Eighteen percent of the adults reported wheezing and 46 percent suffered bouts of a stuffy nose or itchy and watery eyes — a combination of allergic symptoms known as rhinoconjunctivitis.

Heart disease was present in 6 percent of the adults overall. It was found in 13 percent of wheezing cases, 5 percent of rhinoconjunctivitis cases and 4 percent of people without any allergic symptoms.

After adjusting for other related factors, such as age and asthma, there was a 2.6-fold increased risk of heart disease with wheezing and a 40 percent increased risk with rhinoconjunctivitis, compared to no allergies. The association was mainly seen in women younger than age of 50.

Kim suggests that the intermittent inflammation that comes with allergies may lead to the thickening of artery walls, and eventually heart disease. It could also be that some people simply carry genes that are linked to the development of both allergies and heart disease, Kim added.

But given the nature of the study, the researchers are not yet able to say if allergies truly have a role to play in the development of heart disease.

Much more study is needed to “clearly see” whether there is a cause and effect relationship, Kim said. “And even if there is a cause and effect, it is not clear whether treating allergic disease can reduce the risk,” Kim noted.

Dr. Carlos Iribarren, a research scientist at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California, who was not involved in the study, said: “Because common allergic symptoms are highly prevalent in asthma, these findings are consistent with prior research conducted at Kaiser Permanente showing a significant association between self-report of asthma and future risk of coronary disease, particularly among women.”

But he cautioned, in an email to Reuters Health, against jumping to any “premature conclusion, consumer-level advice or public health recommendation based on these findings.”

Iribarren also noted that study subjects with allergy (particularly wheezing) had a greater burden of heart disease risk factors (for example, smoking, obesity, high blood pressure), compared with allergy-free subjects. Therefore, “allergists, internists and cardiologists should be made aware of this link and intensify cardiovascular risk profile assessment and modification among patients presenting with allergy.”

Dr. Viola Vaccarino, of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, told Reuters Health that the current findings also fit with studies she and her colleagues have done, “finding of an association of chronic inflammatory conditions such as asthma and other allergic conditions with coronary disease in women but not in men.”

“Young women may have a stronger inflammatory response due to allergic conditions than men, perhaps due to estrogens,” explained Vaccarino, who was also not involved in the current study.

It’s also possible, she said, that “people with history of coronary heart disease are sicker with respiratory symptoms just because they have coronary heart disease and not vice-versa.”

“I really wouldn’t draw any strong message from this study,” said Vaccarino. “I would not alarm the public with the news that common allergic symptoms (other than asthma) increase the risk of coronary heart disease in women, based on this study.”

Men More Susceptible to Memory Decline

Men are more susceptible than women to memory problems in old age, according to a new study.

Mild cognitive impairment, a condition in which people have problems with memory or thinking beyond that explained by normal aging, can lead to Alzheimer’s disease. The new research, published Sept. 7 in the journal Neurology, found that mild cognitive impairment is 1.5 times more common in men than women.

“This is the first study conducted among community-dwelling persons to find a higher prevalence of MCI in men,” said study researcher Ronald Petersen, the director of Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Rochester, Minn. “If these results are confirmed in other studies, it may suggest that factors related to gender play a role in the disease. For example, men may experience cognitive decline earlier in life but more gradually, whereas women may transition from normal memory directly to dementia at a later age but more quickly.”

Another recent study revealed that reading and other brain exercises could delay cognitive decline, but once the outward signs of dementia hit, it seems to progress faster than if it hadn’t been postponed.

In the new study, Peterson and his colleagues interviewed 2,050 people ages 70 to 89 about their memory and their medical history. They also tested the participants on their memory and thinking skills.

Nearly 14 percent of those tested had mild cognitive impairment. Another 10 percent had dementia, a loss of cognitive function most often caused by Alzheimer’s disease. When split up by gender, 19 percent of men had mild cognitive impairment compared with 14 percent of women.

People in the study with low education levels and those who were never married had higher rates of mild cognitive impairment than those who were married or highly educated.

Besides uncovering a gender disparity in memory, Petersen said, the finding that almost a quarter of elderly people have memory problems or dementia highlights the need for new treatments.

Autistic Toddlers Prefer to Gaze at Geometric Patterns

When given the choice to gaze at geometric patterns or children dancing and playing, toddlers with autism spent more time looking at the patterns while typically developing toddlers preferred to look at other kids, a new study finds.

The finding could be another clue to helping doctors and parents spot the disorder early, when treatment can be most effective, experts said.

In the study, researchers showed 110 toddlers ages 14 months to 3.5 years old two video screens, each of which was simultaneously playing a one-minute video. One video was of “screensavers” that featured moving geometric shapes and patterns; the other video was of children dancing, jumping, smiling and playing.

About 37 of the children had either been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder or were later diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder; 22 of the children had another developmental delay, while 51 were developing in the usual way.

While children viewed the videos, researchers used an “eye tracker” — a tiny infrared beam bounced off the lens of the toddlers’ eyes — to measure where the children focused their gaze.

About 40 percent of children who had been diagnosed with autism or who were later diagnosed with autism spent more than half of the time staring at the geometric patterns, while only one (less than 2 percent) of the typically developing toddlers preferred the geometric patterns.

About 9 percent of children with developmental delays preferred the geometric patterns.

All of the children who showed the strongest preference for the geometric pattern — that is, they gazed at it more than 69 percent of the time — had autism, according to the study.

“Only autistic babies looked at the geometric patterns more than 69 percent of the time. No normal babies did at all,” said lead study author Karen Pierce, an assistant professor of neuroscience at University of California, San Diego, and clinical research director at the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence. “It’s pretty clear that showing heightened interest in geometric patterns and repetitive moving objects is a risk factor for autism.”

The study is published online Sept. 6 in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by problems with social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and restricted interests and behaviors.

While many children are not diagnosed until after age 3, interest is growing in uncovering the early signs of the disorder so that children can receive treatment sooner, when it may be the most beneficial, said Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism & Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute.

She said it would be valuable to follow the 60 percent of autistic children who did not show a preference for the geometric patterns at the time of the study, to determine if later on they did, or if they continued to prefer the more social images.

Another question is whether early intervention would cause the autistic children to become more social, she added.

“It’s a really neat study, and the findings make a lot of sense,” Landa said. “Autism is heterogenous. Some with autism are aloof. Others with autism are social, but they are socially unusual in their behavior. There is still a lot more digging that needs to be done to understand the children in the autism spectrum disorder group that didn’t prefer the geometric patterns.”

While there is no one sign that’s a clear indicator of autism, parents may want to pay attention if they notice their toddlers fixated on things like spinning fans for long periods of time, or spinning the wheels of a toy car, or flicking the eyelids of a baby doll, or other repetitive behaviors, Pierce said.

The study also found that autistic children had fewer saccades, or eye movements, while looking at the geometric patterns than the normally developing children did while looking at the social images. “It was as if the patterns had a hypnotic effect,” Pierce said.

On the other hand, when looking at the social images, the autistic kids had more saccades than the normally developing or developmentally delayed toddlers.

The UCSD finding comes on the heels of another study, released Friday by Landa’s team at Kennedy Kreiger, that also looked at the early signs of autism. It found that infants at high risk of autism were less likely to spontaneously look at their parents than other infants.

In the study, Landa and her colleagues observed 25 six-month-old babies who had an autistic sibling and 25 infants with no family history of autism.

Infant siblings of children with autism are 25 times more likely to develop autism, according to the study in the September issue of the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Both sets of infants were equally likely to look at their parent when the parent tried to get their attention, Landa said.

But the babies at high risk of autism were less likely to look over at their parents when unprompted and spent more time fixated on toys or a joystick used in the experiment.

“This is about social initiation,” Landa said. “The baby siblings of children with autism looked less often and with less duration. It’s something parents should keep an eye on.”

Dopamine genes linked to lower grades

The brain chemical dopamine may negatively impact grades, Florida State University researchers suggest.

Kevin Beaver and colleagues linked a variant in a gene known as DAT1 — with marginally negative effects on English grades and no apparent effect on math, history or science. However, a variant in the DRD2 gene correlated with a markedly negative effect on grades in all four subjects. Single DRD4 variant students had significantly lower grades in English and math, but only marginally lower grades in history and science. As certain dopaminergic gene variants increased, grade point average decreased.

“For example, the GPA of a student with specific variants of three dopaminergic genes might be around 2.8, versus a GPA of around 3.3 without the variants,” lead author Beaver said in a statement. “That could mean the difference between being accepted into a college versus being rejected.”

Beaver suggests genetic liability for low GPA could be moderated by environmental conditions such as school structural characteristics, teacher performance or behavior of other students.

The study, published in Intelligence, was based on DNA and lifestyle data from a representative group of 2,500 U.S. middle- and high-school students tracked from 1994 to 2008 as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.