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Health & Science

When 100 years old is normal; Menu calorie counts: No effect; Flu medicine is for the birds; Making hard things look easier

When 100 years old is normalChildren born since 2000 have a good chance of being alive in 2100. A new Danish study finds that if current health trends continue, more than half of all babies born in industrialized countries since the year 2000 will live to the age of 100. In the U.S., life expectancy for kids born today is likely to rise to 104. “I guess it’s good news for individuals and a challenge for societies,” epidemiologist Kaare Christensen tells ABCNews.com. The data, drawn from more than 30 countries, shows that life expectancy has been steadily rising, with the odds of a person living past age 80 doubling since 1950. “If life expectancy were approaching a limit,’’ Christensen says, “some deceleration of progress would probably occur.’’ But the line is still heading upward. In the early 20th century, longevity rose thanks mostly to a reduction in infant mortality rates. Since then, and especially since the 1970s, the boost has come from medical advancements in treating the elderly. People are living longer, and with fewer disabilities, than ever, and in coming decades, medical advances such as stem-cell therapy are likely to postpone deaths from heart disease, cancer, and other chronic illnesses. The bad news is that societies with tens of millions of people in their 80s and 90s will face unprecedented demands on their health-care and retirement systems, and new economic and social challenges, as older employees wait ever longer to retire, Christensen says. On the other hand, he points out, “I don’t hear any concerns among the elderly that they are living too long.”

Menu calorie counts: No effectPublic calorie-counting is all the rage. New York City now requires fast-food outlets to post calorie counts to help customers make smart choices; other cities have followed suit, and the U.S. Senate is considering making calorie-posting mandatory across the nation. But does warning people away from fattening food work? Researchers interviewed restaurant patrons in New York and Newark, N.J.—mostly in poorer neighborhoods, where obesity and diabetes are chronic—and collected their receipts before and after the labeling laws went into effect. Roughly half the customers said they’d read the calorie labels; of those, one quarter said they’d purchased lower-calorie meals as a result. But the receipts told another story: On average, patrons consumed no fewer calories than they had prior to the labeling laws; in New York they actually consumed slightly more. “Labels are not enough” to change behavior, study author Brian Elbel tells The New York Times. New York health officials say the results are premature, and are commissioning a much wider study of their own.

Flu medicine is for the birdsAs flu season shifts into high gear, health officials expect to make record use of Tamiflu, a drug that helps fight the influenza virus and reduce symptoms in those who get sick. But after taking the medication, researchers have found, people excrete it in their urine, and most of it winds up in the environment, where it could well fuel future, drug-resistant flu outbreaks. Last winter, chemists sampled water downstream from three sewage plants in Kyoto, Japan, and found that levels of the active ingredient in Tamiflu rose and fell during the flu season, in direct concert with the local use of Tamiflu. Levels of the drug found in the water are “high enough to lead to antiviral resistance in waterfowl,” study author Gopal Ghosh tells Science News. Ducks, a prime carrier of avian flu strains, especially enjoy the warm outflow from treatment plants during the winter. A separate study found that sewage plants filter out “zero percent” of Tamiflu.

Making hard things look easierAthletes often report that when they’re in “the zone,’’ the baseball they’re trying to hit appears to slow down, or that the basket they’re shooting at looks bigger. Now there’s scientific research to back up that perception. Psychologist Jessica Witt of Purdue University asked two dozen non-football athletes to kick a field goal from a relatively easy distance; the kickers were also asked to estimate the size of the goal posts before and after each of their 10 attempts. Witt found that the more successful kickers perceived the goal posts to be 22 percent larger and easier to reach than those who mostly missed. But here’s the twist: It wasn’t that the successful kickers saw the goal posts as larger to begin with, but afterward. Success biased the kickers’ perception of the difficulty of their task. “We scale the world to our abilities,” Witt tells Livescience.com. “Before you kicked, you really didn’t know what your abilities were going to be.’’ So when the ball flew through the uprights, she said, the amateur kickers concluded: Hey, those goal posts aren’t so hard to reach. In other studies, Witt has found that softball players with higher batting averages perceive the ball as bigger, and golfers who score higher see the hole as larger.

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