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Health & Science

Even doctors discriminate against the obese; Why Grandma should Google; What makes men miserly?; Bears prefer minivans; Cavemen on Mars

Even doctors discriminate against the obese The social bias against the obese is shared by a group that should know better—doctors. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore surveyed several dozen doctors about their attitudes toward the patients they had seen at a local clinics. It turned out that, on average, the more overweight the patients, the lower the physicians’ respect for them—an attitude that could get in the way of proper treatment. The research is consistent with earlier studies that found that many overweight patients feel they don’t receive equal care due to their girth; some avoid health-care visits altogether as a result. Many people—including, apparently, medical professionals—believe that obesity is a life choice, not an illness. “We have to start treating the patients not as weak-willed or basic ‘pigs,’” cardiologist William Walter O’Neill tells The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “but as people who have a disease that needs to be treated.”

Why Grandma should Google Using Google or other Internet search engines may help older people stave off dementia and cognitive decline, scientists say. UCLA researchers asked volunteers, ranging in age from 55 to 78, to spend an hour a day using Google to search for information about a range of subjects. Many had never used the Internet before. After two weeks, brain scans revealed increased blood flow in regions involved in decision-making and short-term memory. The results validate the notion that seeking out new ideas and interests helps to keep the brain stimulated and healthy. “Becoming involved in new things and keeping your brain active are all hallmarks of activities that would tend to preserve your cognitive skills,” neuroscientist Susan Bookheimer tells National Geographic News. “And these are all things that searching the Internet for new information really does.”What makes men miserly?Men may be hormonally inclined to be cheap, a new study suggests. Researchers at Whittier College in California devised a game to test how testosterone levels affect men’s generosity. Each male subject was asked to divide $10 with another man, in any percentage he wanted; the second player could accept the offer if it seemed fair. During the exercise, subjects were given a testosterone cream that doubled the level of the male hormone in their bloodstream. Researchers found that the hormone caused the men to reduce the amount of money they offered by an average of 27 percent, while the would-be recipients were less willing to accept a low offer. (Even without a testosterone boost, the men rarely offered to split the money 50–50.) “Our broad conclusion is that testosterone causes men essentially to be stingy,” neuro-economist Karen Redwine tells New Scientist. Researchers say that testosterone may block the action of oxy­tocin, a hormone sometimes called the “cuddle chemical,” which promotes intimacy and can make people act generously.

Bears prefer minivansIf you plan on taking the family to Yosemite National Park anytime soon, you might want to consider a mode of transportation other than the minivan. A recent study found that black bears, which have a keen sense of smell, have learned to view mini­vans as rolling cans full of food just begging to be peeled open. “They will pop open windows, peel open a door, rip out back seats,” biologist Stewart Breck tells the San Francisco Chronicle. “They can do a lot of damage.” Of the nearly 908 vehicles broken into by bears between 2001 and 2007, one-quarter were minivans, even though they accounted for less than one-tenth of all cars visiting the park. Bears are particularly hungry in late autumn, as they prepare for hibernation. They’ve learned that minivans offer better “fuel efficiency,” Breck says, because they are more likely to contain the foods they like, and are easier to break into. “The message we’re getting out is that if you are going to go to Yosemite, make sure your vehicle is clean.”

Cavemen on MarsIf humans ever manage to colonize Mars, they’ll need a place to live. A fancy new base station would be nice—but how about a cave? While scanning recent high-resolution photos of the Red Planet, scientists spotted tantalizing evidence of the existence of underground caves dozens of miles long and hundreds of feet wide. These “collapse depressions” look like long grooves and lie near an extinct volcano. Scientists believe they are old lava tubes—tunnels left behind after magma flowed to the surface. Japan’s Kaguya spacecraft recently photographed similar-looking features on the moon. “Caves can protect human explorers from a range of dangerous conditions that exist on Mars’ surface,” physicist Glen Cushing tells Livescience.com, including cosmic radiation, dust storms, and extreme temperatures. If the caves turn out to be habitable, future space explorers would not have to transport substantial shelters or build them on site. 

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