TIME

Being Bilingual Keeps You Sharper As You Get Older

Picking up a second language, even later in life, can have benefits for the brain

People who speak more than one language tend to score higher on memory and other cognitive function tests as they get older, but researchers haven’t been able to credit bilingualism as the definitive reason for their sharper intellects. It wasn’t clear, for example, whether people who spoke multiple languages have higher childhood intelligence, or whether they share some other characteristics, such as higher education overall, that could explain their higher scores.

Now, scientists think they can say with more certainty that speaking a second language may indeed help to improve memory and other intellectual skills later in life. Working with a unique population of 853 people born in 1936 who were tested and followed until 2008-2010, when they were in their 70s, researchers found that those who picked up a second language, whether during childhood or as adults, were more likely to score higher on general intelligence, reading and verbal abilities than those who spoke one language their entire lives. Because the participants, all of whom were born and lived near Edinburgh, Scotland, took aptitude tests when they were 11, the investigators could see that the effect held true even after they accounted for the volunteers’ starting levels of intelligence.

Reporting in the Annals of Neurology, they say that those who began with higher intellect scores did show more benefit from being bilingual, but the improvements were significant for all of the participants. That’s because, the authors suspect, learning a second language activates neurons in the frontal or executive functions of the brain that are generally responsible for skills such as reasoning, planning and organizing information.

Even more encouraging, not all of the bilingual people were necessarily fluent in their second language. All they needed was enough vocabulary and grammar skills in order to communicate on a basic level. So it’s never too late to learn another language – and you’ll be sharper for it later in life.

TIME Infectious Disease

Here’s What’s Lurking In the Pool Water

Heading to the pool? It turns out that people aren’t the only ones who find that cool water inviting when the temperatures soar.

Microbes, including bacteria that live on our skin and in our noses, get dropped into the pool whenever we take a dip. Not all of them make us sick, and chlorine can kill germs, but sometimes it takes days for that to happen. And if your pool smells like chemicals, that’s not a sign that it’s clean. In fact, the stronger the odor, the harder the chlorine is working to eliminate things like urine, sweat, dirt, poop and other things that swimmers trail in.

Here’s a handy (and slightly scary) rundown of the bugs and other things that every swimmer brings into the pool, from the Centers for Disease Control. Their advice? Take a dip and enjoy your swim. But shower before you jump in. And don’t drink the water.

 

14_247050-B_Healthy Swimming final

TIME Weight loss

Good News! You Weigh Less Than You Think

96210904
Dkal Inc.—Getty Images

Call it the clothing effect, or the clothing discount – we all do it. We make allowances for the fact our clothes are probably pretty heavy

As swim suit season gets underway, more of us are probably stepping on the scale and squinting at the number that flashes back at us. Then, we do some quick mental math and adjust for the fact that we’re wearing jeans, maybe a robe, and oh, yes, that heavy sweater. So, minus 5lbs?

It turns out that scientists have actually done a real study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, to figure out how many pounds we should be subtracting for what we wear. Led by a team at University of North Dakota (because it gets really cold there, and they’re probably pretty bundled up when they step on a scale), not only did they set up an experiment to weigh people, both clothed and nearly nude, at various times of the year, they also wanted to answer the critical question of whether weighing yourself in the winter gives you more leeway to do this kind of math than in the summer, when we tend to wear less.

It turns out that, as with so many things, men and women are different when it comes to how much our clothes weigh. Men, it seems, prefer to swathe themselves in heavier garments while women tend to adorn themselves more lightly. Men can lop off nearly 2.5 lbs to account for their clothing while women can only subtract around 2. And this holds true, unfortunately, no matter what the weather outside.

So no more making allowances for that thick wool sweater. Now you know exactly how much your clothes weigh.

TIME Cancer

Some Chemotherapy Is More Toxic Than Others

Chemotherapy
Getty Images

Chemotherapy is a necessary evil for most breast cancer patients, but some are worse than others when it comes to side effects

Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center compared six breast cancer chemotherapy regimens to determine which caused more toxic side effects by requiring the patients to be hospitalized for infections, fever, dehydration or low blood counts.

In order, from the regimen that caused the most hospitalizations among 12,894 patients who were treated for early stage breast cancer, to the one that caused the fewest, the chemotherapies were:

  • Docetaxel and cyclophosphamide cycled every three weeks (TC)
  • Doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide cycled every three weeks (AC)
  • Docetaxel, doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide cycled every three weeks (TAC)
  • Doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide cycled every three weeks, followed or preceded by docetaxel cycled every three weeks (AC+T)
  • Doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide cycled every two weeks, followed or preceded by paclitaxel cycled every two weeks (ddAC+P)
  • Doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide cycled every three weeks followed or preceded by weekly paclitaxel (AC+wP)

The treatments are interchangeable, says the study’s lead author, Dr. Carlos Barcenas, from the department of Breast Medical Oncology at MD Anderson, so knowing which ones are associated with more toxicity may help some patients and doctors to choose more tolerable therapies. Other factors may also play a role; the TC regimen, for example, is linked to the most hospitalizations but that’s because it involves more intensive doses of chemotherapy in half the time – 12 weeks – of all of the other options, which are spread out over 24 weeks. For women who prefer to have their chemotherapy finished sooner, the higher risk of side effects may be worth the time savings.

Women with heart disease also have to use the TC regimen, since the others include a drug that is toxic to the heart.

The results, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, should help patients to be more informed about their chemotherapy options, says Barcenas, and prompt more research into ways that the right treatments can be matched to the right patients.

TIME

You’re Older Than You Think You Are

Thanks to your environment, you may actually be older than you think you are

As much as we try to fight it, we’re aging faster than we’d like, and we can blame our own bad habits for some of that. Researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) have developed a way to test for our molecular, or physiologic age, which, it turns out, may have little to do with the number that appears on our driver’s licenses.

This age reflects the various assaults on our bodies that come from things such as smoking, tanning, and stress, as well as exposure to ultraviolet light (every time we step outdoors). Led by senior author Dr. Norman Sharpless, director of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNC, the scientists developed a litmus test for how quickly a group of immune cells known as T cells aged. As cells near the end of their natural life, they start dividing more slowly and accumulate more DNA damage, and that triggers a certain gene to become more active. Using that gene’s activity as a signal of such cellular senescence, Sharpless and his team started to test how different factors affected this gene.

So far, they report in the journal Trends in Molecular Medicine, cigarette smoke and ultraviolent light drove both mouse and human cells to age faster. No surprise there. Chemotherapy drugs use to treat breast cancer also stressed the cells to wear out sooner.

More surprising, however, was that a high fat diet, which Sharpless assumed would also contribute to aging, didn’t make the mice get much older. “Why we got that unexpected answer is unclear—it may be that the mice are different enough from humans, or it may be that the dose [of the high fat diet] wasn’t sufficient,” he says.

The things he and his team tested have involved agents or behaviors that damage DNA. But Sharpless knows that’s not the only thing that turns young cells old. He’s also aware that cellular senescence isn’t the only marker of a person’s physiologic age. But it does provide a good way to put all of our favorite anti-aging remedies to the test—like green tea, exercise and that glass of red wine with dinner. He also hopes that it can be used to predict which cancer patients may experience faster aging from chemotherapy and guide them toward less damaging drugs.

You won’t be able to do that on your own, since harvesting T cells isn’t something that’s available in a DIY kit, but Sharpless has founded a company that is creating a more user-friendly (and commercial) way to track how quickly we are barreling toward our golden years.

TIME Heart Disease

Who Really Needs To Take a Statin?

111715848
Rosemary Calvert—Getty Images

Changes in the way doctors can prescribe the cholesterol-lowering drugs means millions of healthy people should now be taking the pills. But that may not be such a good idea

Since the first statin hit pharmacy shelves in 1987, the cholesterol-pills have quickly become a best-selling class of medications. So why is there such a pitched battle over making the potentially life-saving drugs available to more people?

There’s no question that statins can help prevent recurrent heart problems in people who already have heart disease, by lowering the risk of heart attack and stroke by up to 40%. That’s not in dispute, and heart experts routinely prescribe the drugs for anyone who has had a heart attack, angina or bypass surgery.

MORE: Statins Have Few Side Effects, But Should More People Be Taking Them?

With the medications’ success in this group, however, doctors are wondering whether more people—healthy people who are at high risk of heart disease—should be taking advantage of the drugs. So in 2013, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology took the unprecedented move of expanding the population who should consider a statin. Their recommendation extended the prescriptions to people with no history of a heart attack or other heart problems, but who had troubling signs that they might in the future – being older, carrying around extra pounds, smoking, having high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes. Under those criteria, millions more people were now eligible for a statin.

But as with all drugs, statins have side effects. And more heart experts are voicing concern that the benefits of statins in preventing the first signs of heart problems don’t outweigh the risks, which include everything from muscle weakness to possible memory issues and even an increased risk of diabetes. Even so, not all doctors agree on how to interpret the studies, as a recent controversy over an analysis that questioned the use of statins in this way and was published in the BMJ showed.

Here is that data, along with the latest studies from leading experts, about the side effects in question—which you should weigh if you haven’t had a heart event but are considering (or are already on) a statin:

1. Statins do not prevent early death or a first heart event.

In a review of statin data published in BMJ, lead author John Abramson of Harvard Medical School says that people who take statins to prevent a first heart event don’t lower their risk of dying from any cause, or from heart disease over 10 years.

Not only do statins not lower the risk of dying early, but they also don’t lower the chances of being hospitalized for a heart problem or other serious heart-related illness. The medication can lower—very slightly—the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. But that benefit is offset by the drugs’ side effects. “For people with a less than 20% risk of having a heart event in 10 years, which is the vast majority for whom the statins would be prescribed under the new guidelines, we are not seeing a net benefit,” Abramson says. The paper, however, included a misinterpretation of data from another study and estimated that 18% to 20% of statin users experienced side effects; the editors of the journal have since retracted that statement. While the overall conclusions of the review aren’t in question, the journal has asked an independent panel to take another look at the results.

What it means for now: There are better, more proven ways of lowering your risk of having a first heart attack or stroke. A healthy diet and exercise aren’t as easy to pick up as a prescription, but they are more effective

MORE: Should I Take a Statin? What You Need to Know About the New Cholesterol Guidelines

2. The Rx drugs may cause muscle weakness.

Statins are known to cause a range of muscle issues, from mild weakness to a rare but serious condition called rhabdomyolysis, in which muscle tissue disintegrates and releases the byproducts into the blood, where they can cause kidney damage. Most of the milder muscle complaints are reversible, and either go away or are reduced with lower doses or by switching to different statins. But, says Dr. Rita Redberg, a cardiologist at University of California San Francisco, “we don’t really know everything about these adverse events.” Some of her patients with muscle weaknesses continue to complain about their symptoms six months after stopping their statin, for example. And many studies that focus just on recording levels of an enzyme linked to muscle breakdown may miss the early signs of muscle problems, since many patients complain of not being able to finish their workouts or complete daily tasks well before their enzymes show signs of deterioration.

What it means for now: There’s still a lot that’s not known about how statins affect the muscles. For now, the risk of muscle problems, even mild ones, aren’t worth the small benefit for the heart.

3. Statins may increase diabetes risk in some people.

In a trial involving more than 17,000 people who were randomly assigned to take a statin or a placebo to prevent a first heart event, people without any risk factors for diabetes who took statins did not see an increased risk of developing diabetes compared to those taking placebo, but those at higher risk of diabetes did show a 28% higher risk of developing diabetes on the drug. The Women’s Health Initiative trial, which included more than 153,000 post-menopausal women, also found that the medications increased the risk of diabetes by 48%. Those results and other evidence were strong enough for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to add a warning on statin labels about increased blood sugar and diabetes risk linked to the cholesterol-lowering medications.

What it means for now: Because diabetes can increase heart disease risk, any increase in diabetes associated with statins likely negates the small benefit the drugs may provide in preventing first heart attacks

MORE: FDA Warns Statin Users of Memory Loss and Diabetes Risks

4. The drugs have been linked to cognitive problems.

This is an area that researchers are still investigating, but there are growing reports from statin users that the medications put them in a fog and contribute to memory loss. The FDA has a warning on statin drugs about potential memory loss, but a recent study involving patients followed from one year to 25 years on the drugs found that over the long term, statin-users showed lower levels of dementia. That may have to do with the fact that statins lower the burden of artery-clogging plaques, not just in the heart but in the brain as well.

What it means for now: Stay tuned; more studies are needed to fully understand how statins affect the brain, especially over decades of use.

Taken together, the data suggests that it’s risky to put healthy people on statins. So why did the leading heart experts recommend that these people take them? For one, says Abramson, studies that these groups looked at detailing the side effects of the drugs may be underestimating them; he notes that most doctors don’t ask patients about specific side effects, but rely on patients to report them, and many people don’t, simply because they don’t think a few aches and pains, for example, are related to their heart medication.

MORE: Experimental Cholesterol-Lowering Drug Shows Promise

Second, says Redberg, some of the data on drugs that agencies like the FDA rely on may be skewed to underestimate side effects. Companies often have “run-in’ periods in which they give a candidate group of volunteers their drug for a few weeks and eliminate those with serious side effects. “Of course the event rate [of side effects] is going to be lower because they didn’t allow anyone who complained of adverse effects to stay in the trial,” she says.

That’s not to suggest that lowering cholesterol isn’t an important part of reducing risk of heart disease. It is. It’s just that compared to other strategies that healthy people can take advantage of, popping a pill doesn’t provide that much benefit. “There are much more effective ways—diet, exercise, and not smoking— that can prevent heart disease and help you live longer that are much more worthwhile to focus on,” says Redberg.

TIME Heart Disease

Women Diabetics Have More Heart Problems Than Men

Female diabetics are at higher risk of developing heart disease than males with the disease, and here’s why

Scientists led by Dr. Sanne Peters at the University of Cambridge report that when it comes to how type 2 diabetes affects men and women, the sexes are not created equal. Peters’ colleagues conducted an extensive survey of data going back 50 years, to 1966, that involved more than 858,000 people. While the risk of heart disease among diabetics is well known, the comprehensive study confirms smaller studies that hinted at a difference in risk between the genders.

Even after accounting for the fact that women tend to develop heart disease at different rates than men, the researchers report in Diabetologia that women with diabetes were 44% more likely to develop heart problems than men with the disease. Historically, women aren’t treated for heart risk factors as well as men, partly because their symptoms are different – many women don’t experience the chest pains and shortness of breath that are a hallmark of a heart attack among men, for example. So women may actually have more advanced, untreated heart disease when they are diagnosed with diabetes than men when they are diagnosed.

That suggests that screening for prediabetes in women may help to lower rates of heart disease, and ensuring that their diabetes symptoms are treated may also close the gap between heart disease rates in men and women.

TIME Food & Drink

This Social Media Site Knows What Restaurants Will Make You Sick

New York health officials found cases of food poisoning on Yelp that weren’t reported to the health department

Restaurateurs, beware: People who eat at your joints are brutally honest on Yelp, reporting on bad service, undercooked food, and yes, even diarrhea and vomiting after dining.

So the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decided to take advantage of those reviews and see if they could find outbreaks of foodborne illness, which are a sign that restaurants aren’t up to sanitation codes. From 294,000 restaurant reviews between 20012 and 2013, 893 were pulled out for containing red flag words like “sick,” “vomit,” “diarrhea” or “food poisoning.” Of these, more than half fit the conditions of a potential foodborne illness, including the fact that more than one patron reported symptoms, the symptoms occurred within 10 hours of the meal, the affected didn’t share any other meals before becoming sick, and so forth.

MORE: Which Will Make You Sicker: Four Star V. Fast Food

Further investigation via phones calls and visits to the restaurants revealed three foodborne illness outbreaks affecting 16 people that were not reported to the health department. (In the study period, only 3% of the potential outbreaks identified by the analysis were actually reported.) In their report, published in the MMWR from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), investigators found violations in food handling at the three establishments that included workers not washing their hands before handling food, not storing food in the refrigerator, and the presence of mice and roaches.

As tempting as it may be for health departments to start scouring Yelp or other online reviews for health code violations, the investigators say the process isn’t ideal since not all reviewers can be contacted, and having the reports reviewed and coded for further investigation by outbreak specialists is very labor intensive. Still, it shows that online restaurant reviews can be a treasure trove of potentially helpful information, and possibly identify restaurants that may consistently have problems with hygiene. Not to mention those that have terrible service.

TIME

Global Action Needed In Fight Against Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria

128555475
George Mattei—Getty Images/Photo Researchers RM

In a commentary published in the journal Nature, experts called for a stronger global response in tackling antibiotic resistant bacteria. These pathogens, such as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) which cannot be treated with the most powerful drugs on the market, are now in every corner of the world and pose a significant health threat to humans. Experts want to create an independent body to oversee a coordinated international effort to develop new drugs and set targets to reduce antibiotic use.

We reported on the problem, as outlined by another study from the World Health Organization published in April:

In some countries, more than half of people infected with K. pneumonia bacteria won’t respond to carbapenems. A similar percentage of patients with E. coli infections won’t be helped by taking fluoroquinolone antibiotics.

The growth of drug-resistant strains of bacteria means infections are either harder or impossible to control, which could lead to quicker spread of diseases and higher death rates, especially among hospital patients. [...]

The WHO report highlights how individual decisions about prescribing antibiotics can have more widespread, even global consequences. “If I prescribe a heart medicine for a patient, that heart medicine is going to affect that patient,” says Dr. Martin Blaser, director of the human microbiome program at the New York University Langone Medical Center and author of Missing Microbes. “But if I prescribe an antibiotic, that antibiotic will affect the entire community to some degree. And the effect is cumulative.”

 

 

TIME Breast Cancer

70% of Mastectomies Aren’t Necessary. Here’s Why Women Have Them Anyway

79342535
Getty Images

Science says the treatment doesn’t lower risk of recurrence, but here’s why rates of the procedures continue to climb

In a new study published in JAMA Surgery, researchers say that 70% of women with breast cancer in one breast who decide to remove the other breast do so unnecessarily. In fact, only 10% of women diagnosed with breast cancer should consider such prophylactic mastectomy, say experts.

But that hasn’t kept rates of mastectomies from climbing. In the 1990s, about 1% of women diagnosed with breast cancer in one breast opted to have the other one removed; that percentage has jumped to 20% in recent years.

MORE: Angelina Jolie’s Double Mastectomy: It’s Not the Only Option

This increase is despite the fact that studies don’t show that removing an unaffected breast can lower a woman’s risk of recurrence or increase her chances of surviving the disease. That doesn’t change the fact that there are other reasons—perfectly understandable and deeply human ones—that may be guiding women’s choices. We spoke with leading experts and identified these four.

1. A fear of doing nothing

“Fear is absolutely driving the decision,” says Dr. Isabelle Bedrosian of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “I definitely understand that fear; we often hear, ‘I don’t want to deal with this ever again.’” And that’s reasonable, especially for women who go through the rigors of chemotherapy, and who are worried about surviving their disease so they can be there for their children and their families.

That fear, however, can overshadow reason. Bedrosian was not involved in the current study, but published a trial in 2010 in which she and her colleagues found that only a small and specific group of women diagnosed with breast cancer—those under age 50, with early stage disease that was negative for estrogen receptors—may benefit from having both breasts removed. These women enjoyed a nearly 5% improved chance of survival five years after diagnosis than those who did not have the unaffected breast removed. But as the current study found, this represented less than 10% of women with breast cancer.

MORE: The Angelina Effect

Studies also show that the chances of breast cancer recurring in the opposite breast are very, very small. In fact, breast cancer patients are more likely to develop recurrent tumors in other parts of the body—the liver, lungs, or the brain—than they are their other breast. Still, says Hawley, “There are probably other things caught up in the variable of worry, from not wanting to think about [cancer] anymore, to not wanting to regret anything in the future if something did happen.”

VIDEO: MRI: A New Tool to Detect Recurrent Breast Cancer

2. Early detection means too much information

Technology may also play a role in driving up rates of just-in-case surgery. More women are getting an MRI of the breast, both as a way to screen for breast cancer and to give doctors a better picture of the tumors. These images are refined enough to pick up the tiniest of lesions, including those that may not need treatment. But it’s hard for women to do nothing at all after learning they have a growth in their breast, even if they might be benign and not require treatment. In such moments, it’s likely that every instinct tells women to do something. “The feeling is to do everything possible, and doing everything possible means more surgery,” says Hawley.

3. The pink ribbon brigade

Breast cancer advocacy is a model of how to mobilize and educate the public about a disease. Rates of screening have gone up while death rates have come down (although it is still the leading cancer killer among U.S. women). The awareness about the disease and the push for better treatments, however, have magnified the obligation and responsibility behind every choice, from screening to diagnosis and treatment. And that’s especially true about the decision surrounding prophylactic surgery. “There is a hyper awareness surrounding prophylactic mastectomy, and many women are choosing it without a clear understanding of why,” says Bedrosian.

Coverage of celebrities’ decisions to proactively remove their breasts may also heighten the urgency of taking aggressive action for many women. “I don’t know of anyone publicly who has said they were diagnosed with breast cancer recently and chose to have lumpectomy with radiation,” says Hawley. (Good Morning American anchor Amy Robach, who does not carry the BRCA breast cancer genes which put women at higher risk of recurrence, still decided to have a double mastectomy.) “There is a feeling that doing everything you can is a way to take control. And just doing a lumpectomy and radiation may not be taking as much control as choosing a double mastectomy.”

MORE: Study: Double Mastectomy May Not Improve Survival

4. Not enough accurate information about options

Bedrosian admits that part of the reason women are choosing to proactively remove their breasts, even when they may not need to, has to do with the fact that doctors don’t have the best tools for helping patients make this decision. For the 10% of women at high risk of having recurrent breast cancer, the decision isn’t as challenging. But for the remaining 90%, many of whom may not have a genetic risk but have distant relatives with the disease, the decision becomes harder. “Communication is important to make sure that patients are informed about the medical facts,” says Bedrosian. “It’s important to make sure that our patients are making informed choices and not simply fear-driven choices.”

In the end, it’s a very personal—and complicated—decision, in which each of these factors, and many others, may take on varying degrees of importance.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46,102 other followers