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Health & Science

Depressed? Blame the heavens; How Mom’s diet affects a baby’s sex; Life expectancy falling; A near-death experience; Liars give themselves away

Depressed? Blame the heavens
Scientists have long laughed at astrology’s underlying premise—that celestial events can influence human emotions and behavior. But a series of new studies has produced evidence that at least one kind of astronomical event—solar flares—may, in fact, affect human beings. Periodically, the sun erupts with large storms that hurl waves of electromagnetically charged particles into space, altering Earth’s own magnetic field. Several recent studies have found a connection between changes in that magnetic field and depression and suicide rates. One of those studies found that suicide rates in a Russian city closely matched patterns of geomagnetic activity, and a South African study found a similar correlation between solar flare-ups and clinical depression. In 1994, a British study noticed that rates of hospital admissions for depression rose by more than 36 percent just after geomagnetic storms. The pineal gland, which regulates melatonin production and circadian rhythms, is known to be sensitive to magnetic fields, psychiatrist Kelly Posner tells New Scientist. It appears that alterations in the field disrupt our internal body clocks, making the release of mood hormones more erratic—leading to depression. While the findings may seem surprising, the brains of other creatures are known to respond to magnetic fields: Birds, sea turtles, and other animals migrate and navigate based on these fields, which they somehow can sense.

How Mom’s diet affects a baby’s sex
Women who have healthful diets are more likely to have sons, says a new study. British researchers analyzed the eating habits of 720 pregnant women and found that those who ate a bowl of breakfast cereal every morning were 87 percent more likely to have conceived a boy than were women who reported having just one bowl per week. Breakfast cereal, study author Fiona Mathews tells the Associated Press, is a marker for good general nutrition, so women who eat it daily probably are sensible eaters. A healthful diet seems to produce an advantage within a woman’s womb for sperm and embryos that carry the Y chromosome, while a nutrient-poor body is more hospitable to female embryos. It’s unclear why, but it may be simply because boy babies are larger and require more calories to thrive.

Life expectancy falling
For the first time in almost a century, life expectancy is falling for some Americans. People who live in the nation’s poorer counties are dying at an earlier age than they were just a few years ago. While wealthier Americans are living longer because of advances in medicine, the poor—especially poor women—are shortening their lives with obesity, smoking, and other unhealthy habits. When they get sick, the poor often do not have access to high-quality medical care. In poverty-stricken southwestern Virginia, for example, lung cancer, diabetes, and kidney failure have driven the life expectancy five years lower than what it was in 1983. And the trend isn’t going to end there, study author Christopher Murray tells The Washington Post. “I think this is a harbinger. This is not going to be isolated to this set of counties.” The U.S. already lags much of the developed world in life expectancy, ranking 41st —between Bosnia and Albania.

A near-death experience
The human race nearly joined the dinosaurs in extinction about 70,000 years ago. Our brush with extinction, say researchers, is “written in our DNA.” By tracking changes in mitochondrial DNA, passed down through maternal lineages, researchers working on a worldwide genealogical project were able to see that the human population was on the verge of extinction tens of thousands of years ago, when a severe, prolonged drought in Africa forced small communities of humans to scatter to find resources. At one point, the total number of humans left on the planet may have dwindled to just 2,000. Humanity hung on, and rebounded during the Stone Age. Today, all 6.6 billion people on Earth bear genetic markers that reveal us all as descendants of the 2,000 hardy survivors of the near-extinction era. It was “truly an epic drama,” project director Spencer Wells tells the Associated Press. “Tiny bands of early humans, forced apart by harsh environmental conditions, coming back from the brink to reunite and populate the world.”

Liars give themselves away
Even the most skilled liar gives himself away, revealing his true thoughts in brief expressions on his face, says a new study. Canadian researchers closely analyzed the filmed responses of adults to a wide variety of emotion-producing scenes, and found that people who tried to hide their true feelings betrayed themselves through “microexpressions.” These expressions, lasting as little as one-twenty-fifth of a second, showed hints of fear, disgust, and other emotions that the liar was attempting to conceal. “Unlike body language, you can’t monitor or completely control what’s going on in your face,” researcher Stephen Porter tells Sciencedaily.com. His team is now studying videotapes of 60 liars from high-profile murder cases, in hopes of providing police and security officials with a detailed guide to detecting deception.

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