Health & Science
Leafy greens and dementia
Dark, leafy greens rich in lutein, folate, beta carotene, and other valuable nutrients could help slow age-related mental decline and ward off dementia, new research suggests. Scientists at Rush University and Tufts University analyzed the dietary habits and monitored the brain function of 960 older people, with an average age of 81, for about five years. They found that the participants who reported eating at least one daily serving of kale, spinach, or another leafy green vegetable had the brain function of someone 11 years younger, reports the Los Angeles Times. “It’s almost unbelievable,” says senior author Martha Morris. “Eating these leafy greens was independently associated with slower cognitive decline. That tells you this single food group contains so many nutrients, it could be brain-protective.” Scientists speculate that the nutrients in leafy greens could help protect against stress and inflammation, as well as chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which take a long-term toll on the brain.
Birth-control gel for men
A large new trial scheduled to begin this year could finally lead to a reliable, noninvasive contraceptive for men. The study, which is funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), will test the effectiveness of a topical gel in preventing pregnancy among roughly 400 couples from six different countries. The gel contains a synthetic testosterone and progestin, and is applied to the upper arms and shoulders daily. Once absorbed into the bloodstream, the progestin blocks sperm production for up to 72 hours by lowering natural testosterone levels. The synthetic testosterone is designed to restore the body’s hormonal balance without triggering sperm production or severe mood swings—a flaw that hampered previously tested male contraceptives. More extensive studies will be needed before the gel can be considered for approval by the Food and Drug Administration. But researchers say men who have been forced to rely on condoms or to opt for a more permanent birth control solution are eager for an alternative. “Men have told us they are more than willing to do this,” the NICHD’s Min Lee tells Time.com. “There’s definitely a lot of enthusiasm.”
Huge prehistoric penguins
Giant, human-size penguins once waddled the Earth’s surface, paleontologists have discovered. Fossils found on New Zealand’s South Island suggest the flightless bird weighed about 220 pounds and had a body length of almost 6 feet—2 feet taller than the emperor penguin, the largest species in existence today. Named Kumimanu biceae, the ancient species isn’t the oldest or tallest on record. But its discovery sheds new light on the evolution of these animals from flying birds to adept swimmers with flipper-like wings. The giant penguin differed from its modern relatives in several respects: It probably had brown feathers, not black and white; it was less rotund; and it had a longer beak that it used to spear fish. Giant penguins likely had few predators after the demise of dinosaurs and large sea reptiles in the previous era, but the rise of marine mammals such as whales and seals may have contributed to its extinction about 20 million years ago. Researchers now hope they can unearth even older fossils. “What would be cool,” lead author Gerald Mayr tells The New York Times, “would be to have a flying ancestor of penguins.”
Health scare of the week
Severe flu season
Cases of the flu are already on the rise across the U.S., and health officials warn the worst is yet to come, reports NBCNews.com. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that symptoms associated with the seasonal virus are currently widespread in 36 states across the country. Lab tests have shown that the dominant virus in circulation is the H3N2 influenza strain, which tends to cause more severe illness than other strains. And new research has shown that the main process for manufacturing the flu vaccine triggers mutations in H3N2 that render the antibody stimulant less effective. “The mutation just happened to be in a very bad spot on the virus to make it essentially be a mismatch for the vaccine,” explains Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. This combination of factors doesn’t bode well for the flu season in the coming months; the vaccine may prevent only about 10 percent of infections. But health officials are still urging Americans to get a flu shot, arguing that some protection is better than none.