Paint and Glue Fumes Mess With Your Brain For Decades

In the first long term look at how solvents affect the brain, researchers say some chemicals are linked to cognitive problems 30 years after exposure

We’re exposed to solvents all the time – they’re used in detergents, dry cleaning, paint, glue and furniture polishes – but how are they affecting our health? Most studies focus on relatively short term effects – a few years or so.

So Erika Sabbath, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health and her colleagues decided to take the long view. Taking advantage of data from France, they analyzed solvent exposure among retired electric utility workers at the national company, many of whom started working in their 20s. They correlated that information with results from a series of eight memory and thinking tests that the workers took on average 10 years after they retired.

MORE: Is Spring Cleaning a Health Risk?

“What was really surprising was that some people, whose last exposure was 30 year to 50 years before the assessment, were still exhibiting some cognitive difficulties after they had retired,” says Sabbath. “[Other] studies haven’t shown effects that persist this long.”

The team wasn’t able to pinpoint a specific level of danger that distinguished those with more cognitive problems from those with fewer. But they did find a strong pattern linking higher exposure, even decades prior, to worse outcomes on tests of memory, attention and processing speed compared to those with no or less exposure.

MORE: Children Exposed to More Brain-Harming Chemicals Than Ever Before

Even more concerning, says Sabbath is that her analysis found the first hints of deficits in brain functions that previous studies didn’t identify. Retirees with the highest and most recent level of exposure – in the last 12-30 years – had trouble remembering words they had heard verbally, and in retrieving information such as recalling as many animals as they could in a minute. “These people had cognitive problems even in areas that aren’t classically associated with solvents,” she says. “There was a spillover effect into other domains.”

The solvents measured in the study included chlorinated and petroleum solvents as well as benzene, all of which are used in plastics, rubbers, dyes and compounds like degreasers and paints.

Could the same long term effects be found in people who aren’t exposed in the same way that the utility workers were? The exposures in the study were lower than levels that the French and U.S. governments set for harm, but as the findings show, researchers are only just beginning to analyze, and understand how cumulative and long term the potentially dangerous effects of these chemicals may be. Sabbath hopes that the results alert regulatory agencies to the potential long term damage that solvents can have, but realizes that those changes are challenging to make. “The best possible outcome is that permissible exposure levels are reviewed,” she says. “But given the difficulty in changing regulations, especially with the gridlock in Washington, that could be a long term goal.”

In the meantime, how real is the risk for others who may work with solvents but not at the same level as utility workers? Are people who work at dry cleaners facing similar risk of years of brain damage? Or those who work at nail salons? Are painters at risk too? Because the study did not calculate doses of exposure, Sabbath says those questions can’t be answered yet. But there are ways that those concerned about solvents can modify their risk – by protecting themselves with masks and by making sure that they are in well-ventilated areas, as well as switching to products like paints and cleaners that don’t contain volatile organic compounds. “If it were my family member, I would encourage them to protect themselves based on this evidence,” she says.


Why The Doctor Might Be Wrong About The Good In Red Wine

The compound, which has been linked to longevity, lower risk of heart disease and cancer, may not be such a wonder agent after all

Sometimes, health experts make it easy for us. Drink moderate amounts of red wine! Eat grapes and chocolate! That’s a diet most of us can get behind. But exactly why these things are good for us can get lost in the headlines. Also confusing is the fact that just because a food contains a certain nutrient or antioxidant does not mean that nutrient is present in any therapeutic amount in a single serving of a food. Take resveratrol, a hyped antioxidant found in the skin of red grapes that has been called a fountain of youth. That’s great news for wine lovers, right?

Not so fast. Resveratrol is a polyphenol, part of the good-for-you family of antioxidants that fight cellular aging and tamp down inflammation. Antioxidants have been touted as critical allies in the body’s battle against aging and disease, and replenishing our supply of them with antioxidant-rich foods like wine, chocolate, nuts and berries has become standard nutritional advice. But can you really get these benefits from simply drinking red wine now and again? Researchers studying a group of 768 men and women in the Chianti region of Italy shows that wine as a source of resveratrol may not be such a help when it comes to avoiding heart disease, cancer and early death.

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Because few people in the Chianti region take supplements, the study’s lead author, Dr. Richard Semba of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine says the population provided a good way to study exactly what effect average amounts of resveratrol, found in a typical western diet, could have on health. “We expected to find at least something. But in regard to every single outcome, the results were negative,” he says of the findings published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Regardless of how much resveratrol, measured by its breakdown product in the urine, the participants had, their rates of heart disease, cancer, and early death were the same.

MORE: A Drug to Live Longer? Yes! (But Only If You’re a Fat Mouse)

That doesn’t mean resveratrol is a poor antioxidant. Nor does it debunk the role that antioxidants can have in improving health. Previous studies, mostly in animals but some involving people, have linked higher levels of resveratrol to longevity and lower risk of heart disease. And other studies of antioxidants found in carotenoids, for example, also documented an association between average levels of carotenoids consumed in the diet and a lower risk of heart disease and cancer (more may not necessarily be better, however, since studies also showed that supplements and high doses of carotenoids did not significantly lower risk of these diseases).

All of which shows that no single food, or compound, can be expected to solve our health problems. “I don’t think the study casts any negative light on red wine or chocolate,” says Semba. “What it really says is that food is much more complex, and wine is much more complex than trying to attribute health effects to a single thing such as resveratrol.” So enjoy the wine and chocolate, as long as you’re not consuming them solely to meet your resveratrol quota.



The Genes Responsible for Deadly Prostate Cancer Discovered

“These two genes individually don’t do anything, or very little, but only when they are co-active do they produce aggressive forms of the disease,” says the director of Columbia University's Genome Center

Treating prostate cancer has always been trickier than most patients anticipate. Unlike other cancers, most prostate tumors are slow-growing and emerge late in life, so the majority of men affected are more likely to die of other causes than their cancer. For up to 15% of cases, however, the disease can be fast-moving and life-threatening, and because doctors don’t have good ways of separating these aggressive cases from the less dangerous ones, many physicians and patients prefer to err on the side of over-treatment. Recent changes to prostate screening recommendations advising men not to get routine blood tests that can signal the disease have made matters more confusing for men worried about the disease.

That may soon change, thanks to a test that can pick out the slow-growing cancers from the faster-growing ones. Researchers at Columbia University report in the journal Cancer Cell that they have identified two genes that are likely driving the most aggressive cases of prostate cancer. Other scientists had linked the genes, FOXM1 and CENPF, to cancer, but none had connected them to prostate growths. And more importantly, none had figured out that the two genes’ cancer-causing effects only occurred if they are turned on at the same time.

MORE: Genetic Test Can Predict Most Aggressive Cases of Prostate Cancer

Co-senior investigators Cory Abate-Shen of Columbia University Medical Center and Andrea Califano, director of Columbia’s Genome Center, found that both genes had to be active in order for the prostate cancers to progress. Having over-expression of either gene wasn’t sufficient to drive the prostate cancer to spread or grow more quickly. “These two genes individually don’t do anything, or very little, but only when they are co-active do they produce aggressive forms of the disease,” says Califano. It’s not clear yet what makes the genes more active, but there are ways to control their expression and avoid the cancer-causing pathway, he says.

The genes, which are identified from a biopsy of prostate tumor tissue, could help doctors and patients triage the more dangerous forms of prostate cancer from the indolent ones. That means that men with suspicious growths could get a biopsy before deciding on treatments, much in the way that many women diagnosed with breast cancer do. If both genes are turned on and highly active, then they would be advised to get immediate treatment such as surgery, radiation or tumor-targeting drugs, or some combination of these. If neither gene, or only one is active, then doctors might recommend less intensive therapy while they monitored the tumors. Having the biological back-up that suggests that the inactive genes are less likely to cause aggressive cancer could help many patients feel more comfortable with such a watchful waiting approach.

A test to distinguish prostate cancers is already in the works; in 2013, Califano, Abate-Shen and their colleagues identified three genes that were associated with slower-growing tumors that likely did not need immediate treatment. They are in discussions with companies to develop a commercial test to put those genes together with the two newly isolated one associated with aggressive growth that could guide more targeted, and cost-effective, treatment of prostate cancer.


Exercise Snacking: How to Make 1 Minute of Exercise Work Like 30 Minutes

Zia Soleil—Getty Images

Less is more when it comes to keeping blood sugar in check with exercise, but it’s all about when you schedule those workouts

Think of exercise the same way you think of food, and break it up into snack-sized sessions rather than marathon ones. That’s the message of the latest study published in the journal Diabetologia, which showed that parsing physical activity into short bouts of intense exercise is better than working out once a day. If snacking throughout the day is one way to keep your weight in check (as long as you don’t go overboard and stick to healthy ones), why not exercise snack too?

The trial was small but provides some encouraging ways to make exercise more efficient. And who doesn’t want to learn how to stay trim by trimming the time spent at the gym?

MORE: Even Brief Exercise Can Improve Memory In Older Adults

All of the participants were just beginning to show signs of insulin resistance, one of the first steps toward diabetes, in which the body’s insulin starts to lose the battle in breaking down sugar from the diet. On three different days, each was asked to exercise in three different ways before eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, and their blood sugar was measured after each meal on the day they exercised and the following day. Spikes in blood sugar are normal after meals, but sustained peaks mean the body isn’t dispatching the sugar as quickly as it should; the result could be obesity and diabetes.

Exercise snacking before eating — or exercising for just one minute at an intense enough level to push their hearts to 90% of their maximum beating rates — dropped blood sugar among the men and women after breakfast and dinner by more than a single session of 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (in which the heart reached 60% of its maximum beating rate). Even more encouraging, their blood sugar remained lower for at least 24 hours.

MORE: Extreme Workouts: When Exercise Does More Harm than Good

The idea of breaking up exercise makes sense; recent studies showed, for example, that even people who meet the recommended daily 30 minutes of moderate physical activity still spend most of the remaining minutes of the day relatively inactive. And intense activity, especially before meals, may be key to kicking the body’s fat- and sugar-burning mechanisms into functioning at their best.

The research does leave some questions unanswered, including how cumulative the effect of the short sessions are, whether the same effect holds for people who aren’t yet insulin resistant, and why the exercise snacks didn’t work as well before lunch. But the possibility that packaging exercise into smaller, and better timed sessions is certainly appealing, and will be the subject or more studies to come. Here’s hoping that intense, one minute exercise sessions are the wave of the future.


7 Not-So-Sweet Lessons About Sugar

Couric targets sugar and the companies responsible for the sweet foods and drinks that have contributed to the obesity epidemic – and wants schools and children to take action

Think you know how to live a healthy life? Fed Up, a comprehensive, 98-minute investigation into how sugar became so prevalent in everything we eat and drink, might make you think again. Co-produced by Katie Couric and Laurie David, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, the film explores how not just food manufacturers, but law makers and physicians have allowed sugar to infiltrate almost everything we put in our bodies. The film, which will be released in theaters in select cities on May 9, will also be sent to schools around the country, along with a viewing guide for teachers and students. Here are seven lessons Couric and her team hope people will remember after seeing the documentary.

1. Why there is a difference between eating an orange and drinking orange juice when it comes to the amount of sugar your body sees
Eating sugar-containing foods along with fiber can slow down the body’s sponging up of the sweet stuff; overwhelming the body with sugar makes it turn more of it into fat.

2. The war on fat only made us fatter
When food makers took out fat in foods like cookies and snacks, they added in sugar.

3. Yogurt contains as much sugar as some candy
Food makers know that we tend to buy sweeter things, and they’re adding sugar in almost everything, including presumably healthy foods like yogurt.

4. Sugar is sugar is sugar
High fructose corn syrup, raw sugar, cane sugar – the body treats them all the same, turning most of it into fat. High fructose corn syrup and sugar, says Dr. Robert Lustig, professor of pediatrics at University of California San Francisco, are “both equally bad.”

5. Starches are sugars in disguise
White bread, white rice, potatoes and cereals turn into sugar in your body. “You can eat a bowl of corn flakes with no added sugar, or you can eat a bowl or sugar with no added corn flakes; they might taste different but below the neck, they’re metabolically the same,” says. Dr. David Ludwig, a professor at Harvard Medical School.

6. Follow the money
Soda and food manufacturers often fund studies on nutrition, as well as pay doctors, so not all scientific-sounding studies or experts may be objective.

7. The fox is guarding the henhouse
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for overseeing and subsidizing the agricultural industry – which supplies the nation with corn, meat and poultry – and with issuing nutritional guidelines that are used in schools and government food programs. Conflict, anyone?

The film comes with a challenge – to give up sugar for 10 days to see how ubiquitous it is in your lives. In schools, the filmmakers hope students and parents will convince principals and school boards to provide healthier, sugar-free meals in cafeterias. Getting fed up, they say, is just the start.


Who Should and Who Shouldn’t Take Daily Aspirin

Photo Inc—Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

The agency says the over-the-counter drug isn’t safe to take if you’re healthy but want to prevent heart disease. So have all the doctors who recommended it been wrong?

Heart doctors around the country got a lot of phone calls from worried patients after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that taking low doses of aspirin every day to prevent a first heart event wasn’t safe for healthy people. Did something change? Was there new evidence that aspirin was harmful?

That’s understandable. With so much of the talk in medicine these days about prevention, millions of Americans take the so-called baby aspirin, believing that it will help them to hold off a heart attack or stroke. (Because aspirin is sold without a prescription, there’s no way to tell how many Americans are doing this, either on their own or at their doctors’ suggestion, but estimates say that number is around 40 million.)

It’s not as if the decision is completely irresponsible. Heart disease is the leading killer in the U.S., and has been for decades. There’s strong evidence that daily, low-dose aspirin can help people who have already had a heart attack or other heart event to prevent another one, so extending the drug’s benefits to those who might get into heart trouble, but haven’t yet, makes sense.

MORE: Will an Aspirin Prolong Your Life? It Depends.

“If you go back in time, there was one point where there was a recommendation that any patient with diabetes should consider having aspirin,” says Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a cardiologist at University of California Los Angeles. “But as the data have evolved and we have more trials, the guidelines have been updated and revised to try to balance the risks and benefits.”

Those risks are what the FDA considered when Bayer, maker of low dose aspirin, asked the agency to consider relabeling its product to include a recommendation for preventing heart attacks and strokes. But while aspirin is relatively safe, it does come with a cost – an increased risk of bleeding, both in the stomach and intestines, as well as in the brain. The FDA found that the evidence showing that otherwise healthy people who take aspirin could prevent a first heart attack is not as strong as that for avoiding recurrent heart problems, so when compared to the bleeding risk, FDA officials felt recommending the drug for healthy people wasn’t justified.

“I’ve been critical of the FDA at times, but they got this one right,” says Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation who has disagreed with some of the agency’s actions in the past, including its handling of the diabetes drug Avandia. “When you do the benefit-risk analysis, you realize that in primary prevention patients, the risks exceed the benefits, and some risks are really substantial, including stroke.”

MORE: Can Aspirin Help Ward Off Skin Cancer?

Nissen should know. In 2003, the last time that Bayer applied to the FDA to have aspirin approved for preventing first heart events, Nissen was part of the FDA committee that reviewed the available data. The group concluded then that the evidence wasn’t sufficient, and the FDA rejected Bayer’s request. “I’ve had people self-treat with aspirin and die of gastrointestinal bleeding,” says Nissen.

And making matters more confusing for patients is the fact that the American Heart Association (AHA), the nation’s leading group of heart experts, and the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force don’t exactly agree with the FDA’s conclusion. Their guidelines say that a certain group of people, at moderate risk of heart disease, could benefit from taking daily aspirin to prevent a first heart event – those whose risk of having a heart attack is greater than 1% per year because they smoke, have high cholesterol, uncontrolled blood pressure, diabetes, are overweight or any combination of these. “The evidence is a little stronger for people at moderate risk,” says Dr. Richard Becker, professor of medicine at University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and a spokesperson for the AHA.

MORE: After Avandia: Does the FDA Have a Drug Problem?

Becker says that the FDA may be taking a harder position because its decision affects how medications are labeled, and its evidence threshold may be higher. “The guidelines for the AHA, the American College of Cardiology and the European Society of Cardiology take information and craft guidance that puts people into categories of risk, and looks at where risks and benefits fall in favor of recommending aspirin,” he says. For some people at moderate risk, the benefits of taking aspirin may outweigh the risk, while for others it might not. That’s why the AHA isn’t against using aspirin for primary prevention, but advises people to consult with their doctors before doing so.

Becker says that more information about aspirin’s use in healthy people may be coming in the next year or so; large trials looking at whether daily low dose aspirin can help people to avoid not just having heart events but dying early from heart disease are currently ongoing. Those results may better help both the FDA to refine aspirin’s labeling as well as doctors in advising their patients about the drug.

Until then, all heart experts still agree that there’s only one group who should be taking an aspirin a day to protect their hearts – people who have already have a heart attack or stroke. For the rest of us, while it might seem like a proactive way to stay healthy, taking daily low-dose aspirin may end up doing more harm than good.


Antibiotic Resistant Genes Are Everywhere, Even in Arctic Ice

Antibiotic resistant genes are found in soil, Arctic permafrost and deep in the oceans – even where there aren’t any antibiotics. That means that resistance could become an even bigger problem than scientists thought

If you follow the news you’re probably familiar with the ways humans have driven the microbes of the world to unite and become resistant to the antibiotic drugs developed against them. We prescribe antibiotics for every little infection, driving the bacteria to mutate in order to survive. Overuse of antibiotics to keep agricultural animals like cows and chickens healthy and plump just push the bugs to mutate faster. And adding antibacterial agents in things like hand soaps further favors the drug-resistant bugs, helping them to flourish.

MORE: The end of antibiotics?

But in a survey of 71 different environments, researchers led by Joseph Nesme, a graduate student in Environmental Microbial genomics at the University of Lyon in France, found that drug resistance isn’t just the product of man-made forces. Reporting in the journal Current Biology, they found antibiotic resistant genes are already present in locations like Arctic permafrost as well as in waste water and indoor air. The fact that the genes even appear in bugs located in remote locations suggests that they may develop even without antibiotics.

In fact, they may confer some other advantages to bacteria, such as helping them to communicate better, that may keep these around for centuries. “Many of the environmental data sets used in our study are not known to show any history of antibiotic exposure,” says Nesme. “There is no doubt that indeed these antibiotic resistant genes are predating antibiotic usage by humans. The real question is what is causing these genes to become problematic in some cases, and not in others.”

MORE: MEDICINE: The Killers All Around

Based on the study, Nesme suggests that in some cases, bringing different bacteria together that may ordinarily not come in contact may speed the growth of drug resistance. Manure from livestock, full of its own cocktail of microbes, for example, combined with the bacterial populations that populate soil could lead the bugs to swap genetic material, pushing antibiotic resistant genes to become more dominant.

The fact that antibiotic resistance exists only makes the concern about superbugs more urgent. But Nesme also sees a glass-half-full potential in his findings: The wide diversity of microbes that carry antibiotic resistance might also suggest that more powerful antibiotic compounds may also be lurking somewhere in the environment, deep in the oceans or buried in ice. “Yes, antibiotic resistance is everywhere, but that also means that there may be a similarly enormous proportion of antibiotic drugs still to be found,” he says. Let’s hope so.


The Hospitals Most Likely to Give You a C-Section, Ranked

The latest survey suggests that where women give birth might have a lot to do with whether they get a Cesarean, a big decision considering some data suggests C-sections may be linked to future health issues for the baby, like a higher risk of obesity or type 1 diabetes

There’s no denying that rates of C-sections have skyrocketed over the past few decades, owing to a combination of convenience for moms, who may want more control over when she delivers, to malpractice concerns, which may drive doctors toward the surgery rather than risk potential complications with more lengthy and unpredictable vaginal deliveries. Since 1970, C-sections rates have climbed from 5% to 33% in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

But it’s hard for expectant women to determine whether their hospital of choice is more or less likely to perform a C-section. Although state health departments collect this data, it’s not that easy to navigate. And increasingly, there’s evidence that many of Cesareans performed are not the last resort procedures to save mom or baby, as they were intended to be, but done on low-risk births. And there’s some data suggesting that C-sections may be linked to later health issues for the baby, including a higher risk of obesity and type 1 diabetes.

MORE: Who’s Too Posh to Push? High Cesarean Section Rates Aren’t Moms’ Fault

Consumer Reports pooled the data from public billing records from more than 1500 hospitals in 22 states and compiled the largest ranking of C-section data in the U.S. to date.

“The thing that was shocking was the variation in rates,” says Doris Peter, director of Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center. “We saw a low of 5% to a high of 57%, so the variation was enormous.”

The message from the data, she says, is that there weren’t any real patterns or characteristics that distinguished the hospitals with the higher C-section rates from those with the lowest. Even in the same city, hospitals four miles apart with similar patient populations could have widely different rates. That’s even after Peter and the Consumer Reports analysts accounted for factors such as the percentage of patients on Medicaid, the number of births, the number of neonatal intensive care units beds, and other potential confounders.

While the data could not determine if some hospitals had more patients with higher risk factors for C-section, such as heart problems or other chronic diseases, the fact that neighboring hospitals, presumably with similar patient populations, had different rates, showed that C-sections rates are likely dependent on the culture of the specific hospital.

To see how the hospital nearest you ranked, go to consumerreports.org.

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