Health & Science
The superbug-fighting weed
An invasive shrub known as the Brazilian peppertree could be a new weapon in the fight against antibiotic-resistant superbugs, reports WashingtonPost.com. A relative of poison ivy indigenous to South America, the Brazilian peppertree is the scourge of homeowners across the southern U.S., Florida in particular. But traditional healers in the Amazon have been using its bright red berries to treat skin infections for centuries, and researchers from the University of Iowa and Emory University believe the plant may contain a substance that effectively neutralizes methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). The team infected mice with the bacteria and treated some of them with Brazilian peppertree extract. While the untreated mice developed skin lesions, those who were given the plant compound did not. “It essentially disarms the MRSA bacteria, preventing it from excreting the toxins it uses as weapons to damage tissues,” explains Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotanist at Emory. “The body’s normal immune system then stands a better chance of healing a wound.” The findings could lead to new ways of controlling antibiotic resistance and treating MRSA infections, which claimed 11,000 lives in the U.S. in 2011.
Firstborns are smartest
Here’s one to fuel sibling rivalries: New research suggests the order in which brothers and sisters are born may influence their relative intelligence. Researchers at the Universities of Edinburgh and Sydney analyzed data on roughly 5,000 American children, who were followed from pregnancy until age 14. They found that firstborns consistently outperformed their younger siblings on IQ tests—including for reading, matching letters, and picture vocabulary— and that the disparities began just 12 months after birth. The team speculates that this advantage may be traced back to the extra attention doting parents give to their first child. “First-time parents tend to want to do everything right and generally have a greater awareness of their interactions with and investments in the firstborn,” the study’s co-author, Jee-Yeon Lehmann, tells Today.com. With each additional child that parents have, Lehmann explains, they tend to have less time and energy to devote to activities they perceive as nonessential, such as reading, arts and crafts, and playing musical instruments. Another factor could be that first-time mothers are less likely to drink, smoke, or take part in other risky behaviors during pregnancy.
Diet key to weight loss
Exercise has many proven health benefits, but those who dutifully log miles on the treadmill in the hopes of shedding stubborn pounds may want to reconsider their approach to weight loss. In a new study, researchers at Loyola University in Chicago found that healthy eating habits appear to be more important than exercise for long-term weight control, reports LiveScience.com. The team analyzed the physical activity and weight fluctuations of roughly 2,000 adults from the U.S., Ghana, Jamaica, South Africa, and the Seychelles. In each of the five countries, many of those who did 2½ hours of moderate weekly exercise actually put on more pounds over two years than their more sedentary peers. The most likely explanation for this? Exercise tends to boost appetite, meaning active people eat more than they otherwise would. The findings suggest that physical activity alone is “not enough to prevent weight gain,” says lead author Lara Dugas. “What we really need to look at is what people are eating.”
Health scare of the week Snowstorms and heart attacks
Big snowstorms may increase a man’s risk for a fatal heart attack, reports Reuters.com. Canadian researchers examined records on about 130,000 hospital admissions in Quebec during the winters between 1981 and 2014, and compared them with weather reports over the same period. They found that men were up to 16 percent more likely to have a heart attack—and as much as 34 percent more likely to die from one—after a big snowstorm. The longer the storm and the more snow that fell, the greater their risk. Since there wasn’t a similar uptick for women, the researchers speculate that the connection is probably linked to shoveling out snow. “It may be that men shovel more than women, particularly after heavy snowfalls,” says study author Nathalie Auger, from the University of Montreal. “It is also possible that men put more effort into shoveling and have a tendency to overdo it.” Frigid temperatures combined with the physical exertion required for shoveling can be dangerous, the study warns—particularly for those who are out of shape or who have preexisting heart conditions.
Pollution in the world’s deepest waters
In a sign that even the most remote and inaccessible places on Earth are not immune to human activity, high levels of toxic pollution have been discovered in the deepest waters on the planet. British researchers used robotic submarines to retrieve small crustaceans from the Mariana Trench, in the Western Pacific, and the Kermadec Trench, north of New Zealand, both of which are more than 6_miles deep. When they analyzed these hardy critters, they found they were contaminated with levels of toxic chemicals up to 50 times higher than those in species that survive in China’s most heavily polluted rivers. The contaminants were persistent organic pollutants, or POPs— industrial chemicals that can take decades to break down. Many POPs, including one that was discovered in every sample taken for the study, have been outlawed since the late 1970s because of their links to cancer. The study’s lead author, Alan Jamieson from Newcastle University, says it wasn’t a surprise to find the chemicals in the deepest parts of the ocean—once the toxic particles reach the sea, currents and gravity disperse them rapidly. But he says the “sky-high” level of contamination was unexpected and worrisome.
“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact,” he tells The Guardian (U.K.). “Our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth.”
Pick of the week’s cartoons
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