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Health & Science

A direct peek at another world; When frozen beats fresh; Music makes kids smarter; Emasculated by ‘hot’ babes; Should everyone take statins?

A direct peek at another worldFor the first time, astronomers have taken a photograph of a planet circling another star. The photos show a tiny white speck in orbit around a star called Fomalhaut, about 25 light-years from our solar system, which in astronomical terms is just around the corner. Astronomers suspected Fomalhaut might have planets, and trained the Hubble Space Telescope’s camera on it. They detected a massive planet about three times the size of Jupiter, encircled by a dust ring. The Hubble camera is equipped with a coronagraph that blocks out the light of the host star, allowing astronomers to view the much fainter planet, which gives off 1 billion times less light. “It’s kind of like if driving into the sun and suddenly you flip down your visor, you can see the road easier,” University of California astronomer Paul Kalas tells Space.com. So far, scientists have identified about 300 extrasolar planets; until now, they had to infer their presence mainly by detecting an unseen world’s gravitational tug on its host star, which produces minute wobbles in its position in the sky. The next generation of space telescopes may be able to photograph even fainter objects around other suns—including a small, blue planet similar to Earth.

When frozen beats freshIn everyday life, fresh is usually better than frozen. But for infertile couples attempting to conceive, new research shows, frozen embryos have a higher likelihood of producing healthy babies than embryos implanted directly after conception. In a comparison of 4,796 frozen-embryo and 10,992 fresh-embryo implantations, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that the fresh embryos were 50 percent more likely than the frozen ones to be born with low birth weight, 10 percent more likely to be premature, and 15 percent more likely to die before birth. Separate Finnish and Australian studies found similar results. “It kind of defies logic to a certain extent,” fertility expert Dr. Allan Pacey tells BBCnews.com. Researchers theorize that freezing weeds out less healthy embryos, which do not survive that process, leaving a hardier group for implantation.  Music makes kids smarterPlaying a musical instrument can significantly improve your kid’s test scores. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and several other institutions have found that three or more years of musical training in childhood can boost both verbal and nonverbal reasoning skills. The study compared 41 kids who were studying piano or string instruments with 18 kids who had had no musical training. They found that playing an instrument boosted verbal scores by 15 percent, and nonverbal scores by 10 percent. The longer the training, the higher the scores. It makes sense that thinking musically would bolster other thought processes, study author Ellen Winner tells Livescience.com. “Music involves grasping patterns, and the nonverbal reasoning task involves grasping patterns.”  Emasculated by ‘hot’ babesIt’s well established that the images of impossibly thin and beautiful models in magazines can make perfectly normal young women feel fat and ugly. Now a new study says that the sexy female bodies in the pages of “lad” magazines like Maxim and FHM are just as depressing for men as they are for women. Whereas women react to the (often airbrushed) photos by judging themselves harshly against the cultural ideal, men respond by concluding they lack what it takes to woo the objects of their desire. “Men make the inference that in order to be sexual and romantic with women of the caliber they see in Maxim magazine, they also need to be attractive,” says lead researcher Jennifer Aubrey of the University of Missouri. That leads them to examine their own bodies and conclude that they aren’t big, strong, or handsome enough. Pictures of hot women, the study found, were more disturbing to a guy’s body image than were pictures of men with rippling abs and bulging biceps. 

Should everyone take statins?Only people with high cholesterol are currently prescribed cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins, but a new study suggests that nearly everyone could benefit from them. In the study, researchers administered statins to about half a group of 17,000 middle-aged people who had no history of heart disease or elevated cholesterol. But the study subjects did have high levels of C-reactive protein, a blood protein that indicates inflammation of the arteries. Statins, sold under the brand names Lipitor, Zocor, and Crestor, appear to reduce artery inflammation in addition to lowering cholesterol. After half the participants began taking statins, their rates of heart attack were cut in half, stroke risk was slashed by 50 percent, and the risk of death dropped 20 percent. Such results indicate that statins really are the “miracle” drugs they’re made out to be, says Dr. Elizabeth Nabel of the Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. “These are findings that are really going to impact the practice of cardiology in the country,” she tells The New York Times. Prescribing statins to all adults could add $9 billion a year to health-care costs, health experts say, but it could prevent 50,000 heart attacks, strokes, and deaths every year.

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