TIME Autism

Pesticide Exposure During Pregnancy Strongly Linked to Autism

Prenatal exposure to commercial pest spraying can boost risk of autism by up to 60%

Autism cannot be attributed to any one risk factor—genes play a role, as does an expectant mom’s diet, some medications and exposure to environmental pollutants. While previous studies have connected autism to prenatal exposure to agricultural chemicals, it wasn’t clear whether other factors could account for the higher rates of autism among their children. A new study gets closer to the answer.

California laws require that commercial pesticide spraying be recorded. So Irva Hertz-Picciotto, professor of epidemiology at the Mind Institute at University of California, Davis, took advantage of the data showing where pesticides had been sprayed and matched it against pregnant women’s home addresses. About one-third of the mothers-to-be lived under a mile from at least one pesticide application during their pregnancy. If the pesticide was an organophosphate, a class of compounds that has largely been phased out of home bug and lawn sprays but remain in commercial applications, the women showed a 60% higher risk of having a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Living near a spraying of pyrethroids, which are commonly found in home insect sprays, just before conception or during the third trimester of pregnancy increased by up to two-fold the risk of both ASDs and developmental delays.

Insecticides are known to be toxic to nerves, and developing babies may be especially vulnerable, says Hertz-Picciotto, since their brains are just forming important brain structures and connections that can be disrupted by the chemicals. “Many pesticides operate through affecting the nervous system of lower organisms,” she says. “So they should be taken seriously, because they are by design neurotoxic. The question is at what dose.”

Still, while the study involved more than 1,000 participants, Hertz-Picciotto says it’s not definitive proof that pesticides cause autism. They adjusted for potential factors that could also contribute to higher risk of autism, such as parental age, mother’s health, and distance of the residences from freeways. But they did not have information on how many hours the pregnant women typically spent at home, or on whether they were actually at home during the sprayings. The scientists also did not have information on the mothers’ diets, which could introduce pesticide residue from foods, or their occupations, including whether their workplace exposures might have also played a role in their children’s autism risk.

The association does add to growing data that connects pesticide exposure to potential developmental problems in fetuses, however. The fact that the rates of autism were highest among women who lived closest to the pesticide applications, and lower among those who lived further away, suggests that the chemicals are worth studying further for what role, if any, they play in contributing to autism.


Here’s What You Need to Know About the Anthrax Accident

A microscopic picture of spores and vegetative cells of Bacillus anthracis which causes the disease anthrax.
A microscopic picture of spores and vegetative cells of Bacillus anthracis which causes the disease anthrax. Reuters

Researchers handling the deadly bacteria may have been exposed when the bugs were not deactivated properly

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday that 86 of its staff members in Atlanta are being monitored for possible anthrax exposure.

Scientists at the facility routinely study the bioterror agent, which is classified at “Biosafety Level 3,” meaning it can cause fatal infections and is transmitted easily by inhalation.

Bacillus anthracis occurs naturally in soil and can infect wild and domestic animals, who can transmit the bacteria to humans. In the U.S., livestock are routinely vaccinated against anthrax, which keeps the number of domestic outbreaks low. Once inside the body, anthrax produces toxins that can be fatal if left untreated. Because the spores are microscopic and can be mixed into powders or liquids and into the food supply, the biggest threat of anthrax infection may come from bioterrorists. In 2001, spores were sent in the mail to political leaders and members of media, and five of the 22 people who were exposed, including postal service workers, died.

The CDC’s Level 3 facility can only be accessed through a set of double, self-locking doors that prevent air from escaping the lab into the outside environment. All workers must wear gowns, gloves, protective eye equipment and, often, respirators. Any work with the bacteria is done under a “hood,” which protects workers with a clear shield. So how did the workers get exposed?

MORE: Anthrax: A Medical Guide

According to the CDC, proper procedures to “deactivate” the anthrax when leaving the lab were not followed. The workers handling anthrax were properly protected, but they passed the bacteria on to other labs that had lower safety requirements. Several days after the transfer, when the original plates of bacteria were thrown out, technicians noticed that anthrax was still growing on some of them. The building was closed and decontaminated, and officials continue to test air samples for presence of the bacteria.

“CDC believes that other CDC staff, family members and the general public are not at risk of exposure and do not need to take any protective action,” the agency said in a statement.

Intravenous antibiotics can counteract the bacteria, and antitoxins can neutralize the poison. The CDC staff who might have been exposed are currently taking antibiotics and being monitored for symptoms of infection.

CDC leadership is investigating the incident to determine why proper deactivation procedures for the anthrax were not followed.

TIME fitness

Here’s How Kids Can Get Better Grades

It’s not the brain but the heart that may matter more when it comes to excelling at school

Just like other organs, the brain needs to be used regularly to be at its best. And new research suggests physical exercise is correlated with improved mental functions, too.

Researchers in Spain followed more than 2,000 children aged 6 to 18 for three years and looked at how physical fitness, motor skills and muscle strength related to academic performance. Fitness levels were assessed based on how efficiently people’s hearts and lungs respond during exercise—and when they compared the students’ fitness to their grades in math and language classes, as well as their overall GPA, the researchers found that the more fit kids had higher grades.

The scientists say theirs is the first study to look at the independent role that fitness can have on academic performance, and suggests that efforts to improve students’ grades may include not just intellectual but physical programs as well. Other studies have linked strong heart and lung function, for example, to better blood flow in the brain, which can help cognitive functions. Other benefits include the release of nerve growth factors that keep neural connections healthy and functioning properly.

“Promoting physical activity that involves aerobic exercise and motor tasks during the school years … may be important not only for health, but also for successful academic development,” the authors write in the Journal of Pediatrics. Another reason to keep gym class in school.


80% of People Think Alzheimer’s Is A Normal Part of Aging

Confusion around the neurodegenerative disease

Despite estimates that more than one billion people will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease by 2050, many around the world still don’t understand the disease.

In a survey of more than 6000 people from 12 countries, the Alzheimer’s Association says nearly a quarter of responders list Alzheimer’s disease as the condition they most fear getting, behind cancer. Yet in some countries, including India, China and Saudi Arabia, more than 80% believe that the neurodegenerative condition is a normal part of aging, and not an abnormal state of the brain in which plaques of proteins build up and break down nerve connections. At the same time, nearly 40% of people believed that only those with a family history of the disease could be affected.

And while the disease is often associated with symptoms of memory loss and cognitive decline, it can eventually affect physical functions as well and be fatal in those affected. “Alzheimer’s disease knows no bounds,” Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association said in a written statement about the survey. “Anyone with a brain is at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, so everyone with a brain should join the fight against it.”

TIME Depression

No, Antidepressants During Pregnancy Don’t Harm Babies’ Hearts

Silhouette of Pregnancy
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The latest study finds no significant increase in heart malformations in babies whose moms used antidepressants during pregnancy

That should reassure the 8% to 13% of women who take antidepressants while expecting. Concerns about the risks of the drugs, primarily selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), on the developing fetus prompted the Food and Drug Administration in 2005 to add warnings about the risk of heart defects in babies born to moms taking antidepressants. While studies have shown up to a three-fold increase risk in some congenital heart abnormalities associated with antidepressants, doctors couldn’t be entirely sure the higher risk wasn’t due purely to chance. Now, the New England Journal of Medicine reports that may indeed be the case, thank to the work of Krista Huybrechts, in the division of pharmacoepidemiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and her colleagues.

In their analysis involving 949,504 pregnant women, 64,389 of whom used antidepressants during the first trimester, the rate of heart defects in newborns was similar between the groups. “Based on our study, there is no evidence to support a substantial increased risk of cardiac malformations overall,” she says.

She and her team specifically focused on adjusting for potential confounding factors that could explain the heart malformations, such as age, how many children the women had had, diabetes, hypertension and use of psychotropic medications. Even after accounting for these effects, they found no strong association between antidepressant use and heart defects.

While the findings should be reassuring for expectant mothers who take antidepressants, Huybrechts says that “heart defects are one factor in a whole range of potential risks” associated with the drugs. Some studies hint, for example, that the medications may contribute to hypertension in newborns, as well as other adverse health conditions. “The study provides quite solid evidence of the low risk in terms of cardiac malformations, but the treatment decision should consider the whole range of other potential adverse outcomes,” Huybrechts says. “[Decisions also need to consider] potential risk of not treating women who are severely depressed and required pharmacologic interventions. It’s one piece of the puzzle but definitely not the whole answer.”


FDA Wants to Limit Your Salt Intake. Is That a Good Thing?

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There’s a lot of confusion about salt – do we eat too much? Is eating too little salt bad for you? Are some people more sensitive to its unhealthy effects? How much is enough? Here’s what you need to know

On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) caused a stir when the agency announced it wants to limit the amount of salt Americans eat from processed foods. They cited studies linking too much sodium to high blood pressure and therefore a higher risk of heart disease, stroke and kidney problems. But conflicting reports from leading experts in recent years make the agency’s job tougher—and leave consumers wondering who’s right.

The FDA is proposing a voluntary guideline to lower the amount of sodium food manufacturers add to their products (this is pursuing a mandatory lowering of trans fats by manufacturers and in restaurants). While some companies are on board with the idea—Wal-Mart says it will reduce sodium in some of its foods by 25% in the coming year, ConAgra reports it has already cut sodium by 20% in some of its products, and Subway restaurants have dropped sodium by 30%—some experts don’t believe the voluntary changes will have much effect.

“I applaud the FDA for wanting to put out voluntary guidelines for the food industry to lower salt,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic. “But I don’t think the consumer will see an effect. If sales are fine with a product and remain fine with a higher sodium content, and more sodium increases shelf life and increases taste, then it’s a slippery slope for a food manufacturer to start lowering sodium.” Compared to the mandatory trans fat reductions, she says, which require companies to find other substitutes for the trans fats while maintaining the food’s integrity and taste, the incentive to do so with voluntary measures may simply be too weak to contribute to a measurable difference.

MORE: Study: Salt Accelerates Aging in Overweight Teens

According to federal health officials, Americans eat about 3,300 mg of sodium a day, 75% of which comes from prepared, processed or restaurant food. The latest dietary guidelines recommend that most adults consume about 2300mg daily—which is about a teaspoon, but that’s hard to measure when it’s coming in a packaged food or a meal prepared by someone else. That advice is based on studies that show that people who eat more sodium have a greater risk of developing high blood pressure, which can contribute to heart disease, stroke and kidney problems.

But health experts admit that there is nothing magic about the 2,300 mg threshold, and that there isn’t direct evidence that lowering sodium to that level can lead to fewer deaths from heart disease. “Studies show a clear relationship between sodium reduction and [lower] blood pressure, even below 2,300mg,” says Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, professor of medicine and epidemiology at University of California San Francisco, and member of an Institute of Medicine panel that issued a 2013 report on Sodium Intake in Populations. “Unfortunately none of those studies followed people long enough to really look at heart attack and strokes and deaths from heart disease.” Other studies have, however, connected higher blood pressure to these outcomes.

There also isn’t strong evidence that certain groups of people, including African-Americans, who are at higher risk of adverse health effects from hypertension, those older than 51 years and people with diabetes or kidney problems, benefit from dropping their sodium intake to no more than 1,500mg of sodium daily, but the 2013 IOM report didn’t find strong scientific support for that advice.

Confusing matters even more is the fact that some people are more sensitive to the effects of salt on blood pressure than others. So some have argued that advice to lower salt intake shouldn’t apply to everyone, but only those who might be adversely affected. To that, Kirkpatrick says everyone is affected by too much sodium in their diet. “Regardless if you are salt sensitive or not, salt is not something you have in excess for general health. You just don’t need it in such high amounts,” she says.

MORE: New Dietary Guidelines: Cut Salt and Sugar, Eat More Fish

Is there such a thing as too little sale? There the studies from Italy suggesting that eating too little sodium can increase risk of heart problems. But the participants included those with heart failure, and experts say the patients may not have accurately reported their daily salt intake. “There still is no good data suggesting an adverse effect of reducing sodium intake,” says Alice Lichtenstein, professor of nutrition, science and policy at Tufts University.

All of which means that lowering sodium is still a worthwhile goal—though the FDA’s voluntary guidelines may not help you get there.

Kirkpatrick advises her patients to go even lower, and shoot for the 1500mg mark, rather than the 2300mg target. “If you give people a limit, chances are that that they will stick to that limit, or go higher,” she says. “That’s human behavior.”

The good news, at least for the salt-craving American public, is that salty is a taste that is acquired. “If we gradually lower the amount of salt we eat, our taste receptors will get down regulated, says Bibbins-Domingo. “And that happens relatively quickly, in six weeks. If we can get food companies to lower the amount of sodium they use, we will start to crave salty foods less.” And maybe see health benefits from that as well.

TIME world cup 2014

Analyzing John Brooks’ Dream About Scoring The Winning Goal

APTOPIX Brazil Soccer WCup Ghana US
United States' John Brooks celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the group G World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil on June 16, 2014. Ricardo Mazalan—AP

Two days ago, US soccer player John Brooks dreamed about the game-winning he goal he made. Here’s what science says about that

Wouldn’t it be nice if our dreams were like a crystal ball that foretold our future? That every night as we slumbered, we’d learn if we’re going to get a raise, or win the lottery, or, if you’re like soccer player John Brooks, find out you will use your head to score a last-minute goal in a World Cup game?

Last night, the soccer player scored a goal in the 86th minute, which was an unlikely turn of events because he was not a starting player—in fact, he’s a back-up defender, and defenders hardly ever get substituted. When asked about the goal, he said he dreamed it—even the part about it being after the 80-minute mark and using his head to get the ball in the goal.

Of course his dream was not literally “predictive” but it begs the question: Can dreams prime us for success in waking life?

Dreams a combination of what we have already experienced and the things that occupy our minds during the day, says Antonio Zadra, professor of psychology at University of Montreal who studies dreams. “People have dreams related to their current concerns and preoccupations,” says Zadra. “In all of these players’ cases, [playing in the World Cup] is an ongoing drive, so it’s not surprising that it impinges on their dreams.” And Brooks, like any good player, would likely want to prove his prowess on the field, making it likely that would show up in his dreams. And it makes sense that he dreamed of making the goal in the 80th minute, late in the game, since he isn’t part of the starting lineup.

MORE: United States Beats Ghana 2-1 in Team’s Opening Group G Game at World Cup.

Still, says Zadra, dreams can be self-fulfilling. Similar to the way that visualization works, Zadra says that having positive dreams can feed into real-life outcomes. “During REM sleep, all the areas of the brain responsible for controlling motor behavior are activated as if you were awake,” he says. “If you are dreaming of skiing or scoring a goal or playing the piano, your brain is actually commanding all the motor areas as if you were awake.” Part of the brain stem inhibits the actual movement so you don’t hurt yourself while you sleep, but as far as your brain is concerned, you “live” whatever you dream.

“If Brooks dreamed that he scored the goal, all of that feeds into his instinctive reactions, and it’s one more positive thing going into the instinctive and instantaneous decisions that he makes on the pitch.”

Of course, the flip side is that negative experiences in dreamland can have make you feel less confident and potentially less capable in waking life. So while it’s not exactly “scientific, “what your first coach and your parents always told you is probably good advice: think positive, and good things will happen. Maybe.

TIME E-Cigarettes

10 New E-Cig Brands Hit the Market Every Month

A series of studies shows just how prevalent e-cigarettes are, and what that means for smokers, non-smokers and would-be smokers alike

In the most comprehensive look at e-cigarettes to date, from how they are used to how they are marketed and where they are sold, researchers are surprised by how quickly the devices have taken hold worldwide.

In nine studies published in the journal Tobacco Control by the State and Community Tobacco Control Research Initiative (SCTC), scientists looked at where e-cigarettes are sold, the status of state laws regulating e-cig sales and use, and how taxes and pricing may affect the popularity of the devices, among other topics.

MORE: 5 Sketchy Things We Still Don’t Know About E-Cigarettes

When it comes to e-cig marketing, researchers found that about 10.5 new brands appear online every month, touting 242 novel flavors. “The most surprising thing was how quickly they became available across the country,” says Frank Chaloupka, a professor economics at University of Illinois and a co-author of the study. “A few years ago, they were hardly available anywhere, and by 2012, they were available in about a third of the stores we were going into.”

He and his colleagues found that at least initially, e-cigs were targeted in areas with weaker tobacco regulations, including areas with lower taxes and more lenient smoking policies in public places. E-cig makers, says Chaloupka, likely focused their early marketing strategies in areas with the greatest density of smokers.

MORE: Industry Is Winning the E-Cig Regulation Battle

That may be shifting, however, as the latest data suggests that e-cigarettes are now marketed more heavily in higher income communities, and less so in lower income neighborhoods, which traditionally have higher proportions of smokers. That may be because e-cig manufacturers are promoting claims that their products are safer than traditional cigarettes and are also hoping to capture those who may turn to their devices to help them quit smoking. “Groups that are more likely to switch to e-cigarettes in the long run are more interested in the health benefits, and tend to be more highly educated and have higher incomes” says Chaloupka.

That’s supported by evidence from some of the other studies in the series; scientists led by researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health conducted the largest study of e-cig use in Europe and found that the bulk of users were young smokers who had tried to kick the habit in the past year. These smokers were twice as likely to try e-cigs as smokers who hadn’t tried to quit.

MORE: Here’s Why Bacteria Like E-Cigs

On the one hand, the quick penetration of e-cigs into nearly every retail outlet, from pharmacies to convenience stores, grocery stores and gas stations may help more smokers to try the devices and try to quit. On the other hand, the ubiquity of the devices, and the unsubstantiated claims about their safety over regular cigarettes, may lead younger smokers to try them and potentially serve as a gateway to tobacco-based cigarettes. “Just the fact that their availability increased so rapidly means that people, especially kids, may see them a lot more in the stores they go into, and perceive them as normative, and that could by contributing to the big increases in use that we are now seeing,” says Chaloupka. The percentage of teens who have ever tried e-cigarettes doubled from 3.3% in 2011 to nearly 7% in just one year, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Food and Drug Administration recently announced its intention to regulate e-cigarettes as tobacco products; although they don’t contain tobacco, the agency says the devices meet the “statutory definition of a tobacco product.” As such, the FDA wants to ban sales to minors, require health warnings and keep e-cigs out of vending machines. The proposal is up for public comment until July, and may take another year before they become enforceable. In the meantime, 34 states have laws addressing e-cigs, but primarily to prevent minors from buying them and to ensure they don’t violate existing smoke-free air laws.

MORE: The Future of Smoking

The safety of e-cigarettes isn’t clear yet, despite claims by some manufacturers that they are less dangerous than traditional cigarettes. While they don’t envelop smokers in the carcinogenic smoke emitted by burning tobacco, they do contain other compounds such as propylene glycol, which the FDA is still studying for its health effects.

TIME Cancer

Sitting Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer By Up to 66%

For a change, the cancer-promoter isn't something you eat or breathe, but something you do every day

By now we’re pretty familiar with the biggest cancer-triggers in our lives – processed meats, smoking, and tumor-causing pollutants in the air, to name a few. But it turns out there’s another hidden cancer contributor that occupies much of our daily lives: sitting.

In a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers report that people who spend more hours of the day sitting have up to a 66% higher risk of developing certain types of cancer than those who aren’t as sedentary.

MORE: Get Up! Sitting Less Can Add Years to Your Life

These results go beyond the advice by most health professionals for everyone to become more physically active. In reviewing 43 studies in which volunteers were asked about their daily activities and their cancer incidence, the investigators found that the link between sitting and cancer remained strong no matter how physically active the participants were. In other words, even people who worked out regularly but who spent more hours on the couch watching TV, for instance, showed higher rates of cancer than those who didn’t sit as much.

Sedentary behavior was associated with a 24% greater risk of developing colon cancer, a 32% higher risk of endometrial cancer, and a 21% increased risk of lung cancer. When the researchers delved deeper into different types of sedentary habits, they found that watching TV was linked to a 54% higher risk of colon cancer and a 66% greater risk of endometrial cancer. For every additional two hours that participants spent sitting during the day, their risk of colon cancer rose by 8%, and their risk of endometrial cancer went up by 10%. They didn’t find a link between sedentary behavior and other types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

The findings, says Dr. Graham Colditz, of Washington University School of Medicine, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study, highlight the difference between being physically active and being sedentary. It’s not enough to just be active—it’s also important to sit less. But most public health messages aren’t stressing the distinction. “People are not talking about sitting time in the same way as physical activity,” he says. “Guidelines say limit the time spent sitting without drilling into how long or what types of sitting they are talking about.”

MORE: Now There’s Another Reason Sitting Will Kill You

The difference is important, especially since the latest research suggests that sitting too much may have its own, independent harms on our health. A recent study, for example, found that people who got up and did light to moderate walking after lunch had lower blood sugar levels and less of a peak in blood sugar than people who didn’t get up after eating.

Part of sitting’s adverse effects, especially on endometrial cancer, which is strongly tied to obesity, may be through weight gain. Obesity can promote cancer-causing processes such as inflammation and may enhance certain hormones that are linked to tumor formation. Weight gain can also lead to lower levels of vitamin D, and that can contribute to higher risk of colon cancer.

The authors also point out that TV viewing in particular may be associated with higher rates of certain cancers since TV watchers tend to drink more sugared sodas and unhealthy, processed snack foods that can both contribute to obesity and increase exposure to potential food-based cancer-causing agents.

MORE: Watching TV: Even Worse for Kids Than You Think

Cutting back on sitting time may not be easy, however, since most office workers tend to sit at a desk in front of computers. But Colditz says there are ways to be less sedentary, either at home or at the office. Try to take breaks every couple of hours, to take a quick walk around the halls or to step outside (bathroom breaks don’t count). And not eating lunch at your desk can also be a way to schedule a physical break in your day. What you don’t want to do, he says, is to make a habit of sitting (in a car or bus or train) to work, sitting at your desk for most of the day, eating lunch at your desk (again, while sitting), and then finally getting up to go home, where you may spend several more hours sitting in front of a TV.

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