Health & Science

Living longer by going hungry; It pays to be tall; Back from ‘Mars’; What ‘meow’ really means; #$%! the pain

Living longer by going hungry

If we eat a lot less, will we live longer? It works for monkeys, says The New York Times. After studying a group of rhesus monkeys for 20 years, scientists found that those that were fed one-third less food aged more slowly than their peers, which were allowed to eat as much as they wanted. The calorie-restricted monkeys also showed less deterioration of muscle and brain matter, conditions that typically come with aging, and appeared to be on course to live up to 20 percent longer than the norm. For humans, that might mean extending life spans by seven to 15 years. “We were frankly blown away by these findings,” says lead researcher Richard Weindruch, of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. The results dovetail with other research indicating that caloric restriction can extend the lives of mice, dogs, yeast, fruit flies, and worms. A leaner diet is thought to trigger certain genes that evolved to protect the body in environments in which food is scarce. Translating the diet into human terms won’t be easy, as few people can maintain a healthful diet of 30 percent fewer calories, Weindruch says. “There is a fine line between a low enough level of calories but still enough to provide adequate nutrition.’’

It pays to be tall

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Tall people get more respect. The latest evidence for the prevalence of height bias comes from Australia, where researchers found that for men an additional 2 inches of height brings an extra $1,000 in annual income. (The “height premium” for Australian women is slightly lower, while for men in the U.S. and the U.K. it’s slightly higher.) Theories abound to explain the financial benefits of height. Being tall may bolster self-confidence, leading to more success. Or, says Arianne Cohen, author of the recently published The Tall Book, tall people may start to act like leaders early on, because other kids relate to them as older peers. “They’re not nicer,” she tells American Public Media’s radio program Marketplace. “They’re not prettier. They’re not anything else. But they’ve sort of gotten a halo in society at this point.”

Back from ‘Mars’

Could a crew on a mission to Mars stay sane during the months of confinement? Six volunteers who just spent 105 days locked together in a mock space capsule say yes, but that it wouldn’t be easy. The six were part of the Mars-500 Project, an international study that seeks to understand the strains that space farers might experience during a real trip to Mars, which would last more than 500 days. They were exiled from the outside world in cramped living quarters at the Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow, with no means of communication other than with the study’s controllers. They spent their days conducting experiments, lifting weights, and reclining on leather chairs. Aleksei Baranov, the mission physician, tells the Associated Press that life in the capsule was “depressing” and “monotonous’’ and marked by occasional tension among the volunteers. Still, the mission went more smoothly than had the institute’s previous one, in 1999, which included a bloody fistfight when a male cosmonaut made a pass at a female colleague.

What ‘meow’ really means

Cats are known to be manipulative, and a new study of their purring confirms just how clever they can be. Karen McComb, an animal-communication researcher at the University of Sussex in the U.K., analyzed the purrs of house cats as they begged their owners for food. She found that when cats were hungry, they altered their purring so that it was eerily similar to the cry of an infant. When McComb played back these cat cries to human listeners, people found them almost impossible to ignore. The mixture of frequencies in the sounds “subliminally triggers a sense of urgency,” McComb tells She suspects that this human-like vocalization is natural to cats, but that they learn to exaggerate it to get what they want from us.

#$%! the pain

If you hit your finger with a hammer, go ahead and let loose with that string of expletives. It actually will make you feel better. “I would advise people, if they hurt themselves, to swear,’’ Richard Stephens, a psychology professor at Keele University in the U.K., tells Scientific American. Stephens became interested in the function of profanity after hearing an earful of it from his wife while she was in labor, and wondered if it served some practical purpose. In one experiment he conducted, participants who were encouraged to curse freely were able to keep their hands in ice-cold water for 40 percent longer than those asked to utter words of the type they’d use to describe a table. Afterward, they also reported feeling less pain than their more polite counterparts. Cursing seems to elevate the heart rate and may, by raising aggression levels, trigger the flight-or-fight response. Previous research shows that this response temporarily mutes the sensation of pain, so that we can respond quickly to a threat. The most popular swear words for people in pain, Stephens found, are f---, s---, and the two B-words.

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