TIME E-Cigarettes

Snuff and E-Cigs Are Not Harmless, Say Scientists

New research casts doubt on nicotine's safety—even if you aren't smoking

New research from the American Heart Association journal Circulation shows that patients who stopped using smokeless tobacco after a heart attack had improved life expectancy—similar to that of people who quit smoking. The finding offers new information about the dangers of smokeless tobacco, the risks of which are not as well understood as cigarettes’.

“That was a big surprise for us,” said Dr. Gabriel Arefalk, lead researcher and a cardiologist at Uppsala University Hospital in Uppsala, Sweden. “For smoking, it has been known for decades now that people benefit from discontinuation, especially after having suffered a heart attack, but for snus we had no idea what to expect.”

The researchers reviewed data on 2,474 heart attack survivors under 75 in Sweden who used snus (oral snuff) from 2005 to 2009. About 675 quit. During the two years of follow-up, 69 of those who continued using snus died, compared with only 14 quitters. Based on this data, researchers determined that those who quit snus had almost half the mortality risk of those who didn’t quit, which is similar to the benefit of smoking cessation, according to a release from the American Heart Association

Dr. Arefalk, who is also a clinician, said the researchers wanted to study the problem because they didn’t know what to tell patients about the risks of using snus after a heart attack. He cautioned that the study was small and far from enough to determine a causal relationship, but added “It’s the best evidence we’ve got so far, so from our perspective at our clinic, [the advice to patients] is probably that you should discontinue all kinds of tobacco,” if you’ve had a heart attack, Dr. Arefalk told TIME.

The study is one more piece of evidence that ads to our understanding that smokeless tobacco carries its own risk. Though the study was about snus, it has implications for other kinds of nicotine delivery systems, including e-cigarettes.

The FDA is currently taking comment from experts over the next few weeks as the agency tries to determine the best rules to regulate the nascent e-cig industry, which is approaching nearly $2 billion in U.S. annual sales. And though there isn’t yet enough information or scientific research to back this up, common sense says that e-cigs, which do not burn and contain fewer chemicals than regular tobacco cigarettes, must be better for a smoker’s health. Yet, some cardiologists, as TIME learned, are reluctant to see electronic cigarettes as harm-reduction tools.

For starters, nicotine is not a benign substance, especially when it comes to cardiovascular health. As Dr. Steven Nissen, Department Chair of Cardiovascular Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, put it, nicotine has “profound effects on the heart.” The highly addictive drug can lead to surges in heart rate, constriction in the blood vessels, and spikes in blood pressure—the very effects that heart medications are designed to counteract.

“To come up with new diabolically clever way to addict Americans to nicotine is a terrible idea,” says Dr. Nissen. “[E-cigarette companies] are pitching very hard that they can make smoking safer. [But] nicotine is an addictive drug, no matter if you smoke it or ‘aerosolize’ it. Why you would want to addict another generation to nicotine is beyond me. Public health suggests we should fight electronic cigarettes the same way we fought tobacco.”

Another concern, beyond the possible impact of nicotine, are concerns about small, potentially toxic, particles and what they can do to the sensitive cardiovascular system, says Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and spokesperson on electronic cigarettes for the American Heart Association.

Dr. Bhatnagar is studying the toxic effects of e-cig vapor on mice. Like all doctors, he is careful to point out that we don’t know enough about these devices. But he says that wishful thinking about harm reduction could be especially problematic when it comes to cardiovascular health. The risk of cardiovascular disease for a person who smokes only 2-3 cigarettes a day is already 80 percent of the risk to a pack-a-day smoke. “Very low levels of smoke are very dangerous for cardiovascular tissues. Cancer is more linear—you have to smoke a large amount for a very long period of time to get lung cancer,” he says. “But reducing harmful levels is not going to mitigate the cardiovascular risk. That is why we are greatly concerned about e-cigarettes when it comes to the high sensitivity of cardiovascular tissues to a low level of these pollutants.”

Electronic cigarette manufacturers and their customers often point to the low levels of particles in electronic cigarette smoke as compared to the appropriate levels of air pollution determined by agencies like OSHA. But, Dr. Bhatnagar says, these claims can be misleading because the thresholds take into account the necessity of polluting the air to some degree—they aren’t an endorsement of a safe level of pollution. From a cardiovascular perspective, he says: “There is no threshold, there is no level of these particles that you can say is safe.”

For now: Smokers—and snuffers, and e-cig smokers—beware.

TIME Cancer

The Government’s Super Scary New Anti-Smoking Campaign

CDC

The CDC releases its next set of graphic ads to encourage smokers to kick the habit for good—or else

The newest phase of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) graphic campaign to persuade America’s 42 million smokers to quit—”Tips from Former Smokers”—launches today, and it’s heart wrenching.

Since 2012, the campaign has featured real former smokers dealing with serious health problems spawned by their addiction, and this round is bound to make smokers and non-smokers alike squirm. It’s an especially graphic campaign from the CDC’s tobacco office, which has not shied away from bold, conversation-starting efforts to curb smoking.

Here’s an example: Shawn provides tips on how to live with a hole in your neck. Amanda, meanwhile, smoked during pregnancy and gave birth to her baby two months early.

Here are the newest ads, which the CDC provided early to TIME:

Amanda, a 30-year-old who smoked while pregnant. Her 3 lb daughter spent weeks in an incubator.

Brett, 49, who lost most of his teeth to gum disease by age 42. He takes out most of his teeth on camera.

Rose, 59, whose lung cancer resulted in surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

Shawn, 50, who breathes through the opening in his throat due to smoking-related throat cancer.

Brian, 45, whose smoking and HIV led to clogged blood vessels and resulted in a stroke.

Felicita, 54, who lost all of her teeth to gum disease by age 50.

Terrie, who died of cancer last September at age 53

Previously released ads ran earlier this year in February, and a CDC spokesperson told TIME that the “effort had immediate and strong impact.” During the last set of the ads’ nine-week run, they generated over 100,000 additional calls to the CDC’s quit line, 800-QUIT-NOW. On average, the CDC says weekly quitline calls were up 80% while the ads were on the air compared to the week before they began running. Preliminary estimates show there were nearly 650,000 unique visitors to the the agency’s website during those nine weeks.

The ads will be placed on cable TV, on radio, in print, on billboards, and in movie theater and online starting July 7. The CDC is also launching a social media campaign to support its tradition-media plays.

Of course, considering tobacco is a $100 billion market, and the industry continues to spend billions every year, the campaign is a drop in the pond. But it certainly stands out.

If you want to quit smoking, you can call l 1-800-QUIT-NOW or visit www.cdc.gov/tips.

TIME Food

Eat More Gluten: The Diet Fad Must Die

Yum, right? Well, eat up!
Yum, right? Well, eat up! Getty Images

For more than 93% of the world, gluten is perfectly fine. But marketers don't mind a bit if we all think otherwise

If you’ve got a hankering to make some money, now might be a good time to trademark a brand name for gluten-free salt. If they’re all taken, try gluten-free sugar or gluten-free water. And if they’re gone too, well, there’s still gluten-free shoes.

What’s that? None of those things had gluten to begin with? Well neither did Chobani yogurt or Green Giant vegetables or a whole lot of other foods that have nothing at all to do with wheat or rye or barley—where gluten lives—yet shout about that fact all the same in order to catch a ride on the no-gluten train before the latest nonsensical health fad pulls completely out of the station.

Gluten is to this decade what carbohydrates were to the last one and fat was to the ’80s and ’90s: the bête noir, the bad boy, the cause of all that ails you—and the elimination of which can heal you. As has been clear for a long time, and as the Wall Street Journal reports today in a splendid and about-time piece, a whole lot of that is flat-out hooey, a result of trendiness, smart marketing, Internet gossip and too many people who know too little about nutrition saying too many silly things.

Gluten is not entirely without blame in this, and for some people it comes by its nasty rep rightly. Celiac disease—an immune reaction to gluten that damages the small intestine—is a very real thing, affecting between two and three million Americans. Gluten ataxia is a scarier condition that attacks the brain, leading to problems in gait and muscular control. I’ve seen that up close, in a now-8-year-old nephew who exhibited terrifying symptoms at age 2 and today must avoid foods that contain wheat, barley and rye, as well as any pots or utensils that have come in contact with them, at least until he is done growing and his brain is through developing. Another 18 million Americans may have some lesser forms of gluten sensitivity that cause intestinal discomfort but no damage.

So, crunch the numbers and what do we get? Perhaps 1% of Americans definitely need to be gluten-free and another 5.7% ought to be careful. As for the other 93.3% of us. Break out the Parker House rolls.

But that’s not how things are working out. It’s not clear just when talking heads and bloggers caught the gluten fever, but once they started buzzing about how avoiding the stuff can help you lose weight, fight infertility, overcome fatigue, treat diabetes and—again and always—reduce the symptoms of autism, there was no going back. The website Glutenfree.com offers tips on “Preparing Your Gluten-Free Kitchen,” “Going Gluten-Free For the New Year” and, for nutritionists, “Empowering Clients in Their Gluten-Free Lifestyles.” There’s also “The Gluten-Free Guide for Guys,” because…well, who knows why.

But here’s one reason, at least for marketers: gluten-free is big money. As the Journal reports, U.S. sales of products carrying the gluten free label jumped from $11.5 billion to $23 billion in just the past four years. General Mills alone has added 600 such products to its inventory since 2008, when it first marketed its gluten-free line of Chex cereals. But while the manufacturers are getting rich on the craze, consumers might be getting sick. Not only will gluten-free products do you no good if you’re not gluten-sensitive, taking out the offending ingredient requires replacing it with something else for texture or taste. A whole range of products, including spaghetti, pancake mix and potato chips, therefore have less fiber and protein and more sugar and sodium in their gluten-free formulation than in their supposedly less healthy one.

As a representative of the Center for Science in the Public Interest told the Journal: “The gluten-free fad has actually undermined people’s health because now there are gluten-free varieties of all that junk food. Whether your doughnut is gluten-free or not, it’s still a doughnut.”

The anti-gluties will surely tell you they feel better, fitter, more energetic, that their withdrawn child has suddenly blossomed and that their man—following the Guide For Guys—is healthier and happier. But the placebo effect—even the placebo effect by proxy, seeming to see better health in someone else—is a very real thing. Most of the time, however, it has nothing to do with the perceived cause.

Food fads are nothing new, and they do run their course. Eventually, the gluten-free cookbooks will wind up in the same river of pop detritus as the no-carb wines and the fat-free cookies and the crock pots and fondue sets and woks everyone in America seemed to buy at once in 1988 and stopped using sometime around 1989. When that happens, the people with celiac or gluten ataxia or genuine gluten sensitivity will still have to wrestle with their illnesses, while everyone else returns happily to their baguettes—searching for the next big thing to exorcise.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Don’t Blame Fat: Sources for Further Reading on the Healthy-Diet Debate

More to read about the changing American diet

The debate over saturated fat—and fat in general—is of interest to anyone looking to eat a healthier diet, as the tremendous response to TIME’s recent cover story has underscored. For readers interested in diving more deeply into the topic, here are some sources for more information.

—Gary Taubes’s 2008 book Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health, as well as his 2002 New York Times Magazine cover story “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie” and his new project, the Nutrition Science Initiative

—Dr. Robert Lustig’s 2012 book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity and Diabetes and the Gary Taubes feature about sugar, “Is Sugar Toxic,” from 2011

—Jonny Bowden and Dr. Stephen Sinatra’s 2012 book The Great Cholesterol Myth: Why Lowering Your Cholesterol Won’t Prevent Heart Disease—and the Statin-Free Plan That Will

—Dr. William Davis’s 2011 book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health

—Journalist Nina Teicholz’s 2014 book The Big Fat Surprise: Why Butter, Meat and Cheese Belong in a Healthy Diet

—The 2014 documentary Fed Up, from executive producers Laurie David and Katie Couric, which we wrote about here

—Michael Moss’s 2013 book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

—Former FDA commissioner Dr. David A. Kessler’s book The End of Overating, from 2010

TIME magazine’s 1961 cover on Ancel Keys, the architect of the anti-fat fight movement; our famous 1984 cover on the danger of cholesterol; a 2002 cover on what makes us fat; a 2006 cover about fat-free fat, and a 2006 cover exonerating eggs

 

TIME Infectious Disease

Ebola Outbreak Beyond Our Control, Doctors Without Borders Says

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières staff carrying the body of a person killed by viral hemorrhagic fever at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Gueckedou on April 1, 2014.
Doctors Without Borders staff carrying the body of a person killed by viral hemorrhagic fever at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Gueckedou on April 1, 2014. Seyllou—AFP/Getty Images

The medical group treating Ebola patients in Africa says it can't keep up with emerging cases

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical organization treating Ebola patients in West Africa, says it has reached the limit of what the group can do to fight the worsening outbreak there.

In a statement released Monday, the organization said it is the only group treating people infected with the disease in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. “We have reached our limits. Despite the human resources and equipment deployed by MSF in the three affected countries, we are no longer able to send teams to the new outbreak sites,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations, in a statement.

Since the outbreak started in March in Guinea, MSF says it has treated 470 patients (215 of them confirmed cases) related to Ebola. The group has 300 international and national staff working in West Africa and has sent more than 40 tons of equipment and supplies. But with new cases emerging in new places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, the organization says it cannot keep up. Earlier, the group said the outbreak is “out of control.”

Since the disease emerged earlier this year, there have been over 520 cases and 330 deaths. Ebola is a very infectious hemorrhagic fever that has up to a 90% fatality rate. In April, Guinea’s Health Ministry said deaths from Ebola slowed and that the outbreak was close to being brought under control. But the World Health Organization reported earlier this month that in Guinea alone, there were 37 new cases and 21 new deaths between May 29 and June 1, 2014.

MSF said more groups need to help quell public anxiety over the disease, and that people are distrusting health facilities and not heeding warnings about funeral rituals that put them at risk. “Civil society and political and religious authorities are failing to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic, with few prominent figures spreading messages promoting the fight against the disease,” the organization said. In the statement, Janssens says the WHO and neighboring countries need to provide resources necessary for an epidemic.

The WHO has not released a response to the MSF statement but says it is working with local governments and is planning a regional meeting in Ghana on July 2, the Associated Press reports. The WHO does not currently recommend any restrictions to travel or trade in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Nestlé Is Developing an Instant-Nutrient Food Machine

The 'Iron Man' device could work like Nespresso

Pretty soon, treating your Vitamin D deficiency could be as simple as firing up your espresso machine. Or so Nestlé hopes.

The research arm of the Swiss food and beverage company, Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences (NIHS), is hard at work on a program called “Iron Man” that aims to measure nutritional deficiencies in group’s or individual’s diets and produce tailor-made remedies. These might take the form of powder similar to instant coffee capsules, like those used in Nestlé’s popular Nespresso machines. Running low on zinc? Press a few buttons for the cure, and you might get to slurp it down with a double latte.

The exact form and function of the machine is yet to be determined, NIHS director Ed Baetge tells Bloomberg, and will take years to develop. A huge obstacle is in getting consumers information about their complete nutrition profile to assess which nutrients they’re lacking; at present, such tests run into the hundreds of dollars. Nestlé wants to bring that cost way down into an affordable range.

The current limit in regulation around supplements might help such a product get to market without much fuss. But there’s been significant questioning in the scientific community as to the value of such supplements—how much do they really help, and are supplements an efficient way of delivering nutrients when compared with food? And could these supplements actually hurt us?

Without hard facts, it’s hard to know whether “Iron Man” would truly help consumers or simply spark another fad diet. By the time it’s ready for the market, perhaps research will show whether such a quick-fix is the cure for all maladies or part of the problem.

TIME social anxiety

This Is the Brain Circuit That Makes You Shy

Using a new light-based technique, scientists trace the nerve network that lights up when mammals meet

What do you do when you want to study something as complicated as what happens deep in the brain when two strangers meet? You develop a completely new way of tracking nerve connections, and then you test it in mice.

That’s what Dr. Karl Deisseroth, a professor of psychiatry and bioengineering at Stanford University, and his colleagues did. “We know social behavior is complicated, but to be able to delve into the brain of freely behaving mammals and to see the signal in real time predicting their social interaction was very exciting,” says Deisseroth, who published his results in the journal Cell.

Brain researchers have long known that certain chemicals known as neurotransmitters soar or drop depending on what we’re doing and how we feel. Based on these observations, drug companies have developed an armada of medications aimed at mimicking these changes to treat everything from depression, hyperactivity and even social anxiety or shyness. But there’s a difference between observing hormone levels rising or falling and identifying a specific circuit — among the millions that occur in the brain — responsible for how we feel and whether we are friendly at a first meeting, say, or a little more reserved. Studying those circuits has been challenging because scientists simply couldn’t get real-time information about which nerves were firing, and where, when certain behaviors, such as a meet and greet, occurred.

(MORE: The Upside of Being an Introvert (and Why Extroverts Are Overrated))

Deisseroth solved that problem. Using optogenetics and fiber photometry, he was able to tag specific nerves in the brain with light-receptor molecules and connect them to ultra-thin fibers that were tied to a switch. Flip the switch on, and the cells were stimulated; turn it off and they quieted down.

Deisseroth and his team hooked up their show to cells that operated on the brain chemical dopamine. When they turned the system on, the cells would release dopamine, and when that happened, the mice showed more interest in investigating newcomers dropped into their cage — they sniffed, they explored and they engaged. When the dopamine activation was turned off, however, the mice made little effort to acknowledge or investigate the intruder.

(MORE: Study: Nearly 1 in 8 Shy Teens May Have Social Phobia)

While manipulating the social interactions of mice is fascinating in itself, Deisseroth sees his findings as being potentially helpful in treating mental illnesses. The fact that he was able to isolate a single circuit that affected something as complex as social behavior suggests that manipulation of deep brain circuits might be a promising way to treat, or modulate behavior in people as well. What if, for example, it became possible to dampen the social aversion that affects some children with autism? If they could interact with people more comfortably, it might be possible to modulate the other symptoms of their developmental disorder. Or what if hyperactivity could be dialed down? Or depression’s darkest moods lightened in the same way?

Deisseroth stresses that we’re far from even speculating how such therapies might be used, but the possibility that deep brain circuits might be tapped to affect behavior is promising. In the meantime, says Deisseroth, “We know these things are complex. The brain is so mysterious, and psychiatry is so mysterious, so our job for a long time will be to deepen understanding of these complex circuits. If that’s the only thing that comes out of this, that would still be great.”

TIME Sex

Can Sex Really Dampen Athletic Performance?

SOCCER: JUN 06 Portugal v Mexico
The Mexican wall waits for a free kick from Portugal's Nani (17) during an international friendly before the 2014 World Cup, Foxborough, Mass., June 6, 2014. Fred Kfoury III—Icon SMI/Corbis

Many teams at the World Cup are abstaining from sex. Does science back up their abstinence?

Several teams participating in this year’s World Cup have team-wide bans on having sex before games, because coaches believe it could interfere with performance.

“There will be no sex in Brazil,” Safet Susic, the coach of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national soccer team told reporters. “I am not interested what the other coaches do. This is not a holiday trip, we are there to play football at the World Cup.”

Abstinence is not a phenomenon reserved for the World Cup; several Olympic teams have taken temporary vows of celibacy during the games (though that has not stopped Olympic villages from running out of thousands of condoms). It’s even reported that boxer Muhammad Ali refused to have sex six weeks before a match.

However, there’s a lack of evidence proving sex makes people worse—or better—at sports. “It’s often talked about, but it has not been shown to be true,” says sports medicine physician Dr. Jordan Metzel. “There are lots of factors that could account for how a player performs.” For instance, doing the deed can take time away from getting enough shuteye, and getting enough sleep is non-negotiable for peak performance. (French players are allowed to have sex, but “not all night,” the team’s former doctor told 20Minutes.fr) The authors of a 2000 study note that former New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said: “It’s not the sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”

There have been few studies looking specifically at sex and athletic performance but results were inconclusive. For example, a mid-90s study looked at the effects of sex on measures like aerobic power and oxygen pulse among 11 men running on treadmills. The men were tested twice, once having sex 12 hours before and once without sex. Putting aside the fact that it was a very small sample size with limited testing, the data came back showing the results from both experiments were no different.

Another review of 31 studies on sex and athletics published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found weak evidence that having sex the night before competition affects performance. Exhaustion cannot be a great factor since most sexual intercourse burns only 25–50 calories—the equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs. The authors of that research conclude that it likely just depends on the person. Some may feel that sex helps them relieve anxiety, while for others it becomes a distraction.

There’s also the possibility that sex during major athletic events leads to distractions. Some teams, like Nigeria, only allow players to have sex with their wives. Perhaps it’s because the hook-up scene can becoming distracting. “There was a point where I had to be like OK, this is way too distracting. I deleted my [Tinder] account to focus on the Olympics,”American snowboarder Jamie Anderson told reporters.

However, no studies have looked at the psychological effects of having sex before a game and whether athletes believe sex helps or harms them, which may be more important. “In sports, people have all kinds of theories, even if it’s not medically substantiated. For instance: compression gear for speed and titanium necklaces for performance,” says Dr. Metzel. “We don’t have scientific evidence to back those claims, but if players think abstaining from sex helps them, it may give them a psychological edge.”

Many athletes have pre-game rituals, or lucky tokens, and some research has shown that these superstitions actually improve performance. So perhaps a team sex-ban technically isn’t doing much for performance on the field, but when it comes to getting in the right mindset, it’s not out of the question that it could make all the difference for some players.

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.

TIME Genetics

Basketball Star’s NBA Dreams Crushed by Marfan Syndrome Diagnosis

Baylor center Isaiah Austin shoots during the second half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional semifinal, in Anaheim, Calif. on March 27, 2014.
Baylor center Isaiah Austin shoots during the second half of an NCAA men's college basketball tournament regional semifinal, in Anaheim, Calif. on March 27, 2014. Jae C. Hong—AP

Isaiah Austin was diagnosed with Marfan syndrome. But what's that?

Former Baylor center Isaiah Austin’s hopes of playing in the NBA were dashed this weekend when he was diagnosed with a disorder called Marfan syndrome. A standard EKG during a routine exam for the NBA draft revealed an abnormality, and further genetic testing showed he has Marfan syndrome.

But what is that exactly?

Marfan syndrome is a genetic disorder that affects the connective tissues in the body, and can interfere with the functionality of the heart, eyes, blood vessels and skeleton. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s common for people with Marfan syndrome to be tall with disproportionately long arms, legs, fingers and toes. Austin is 7 ft. 1 in. tall.

The severity of the disease can differ from person to person, but if the heart and blood vessels are affected it can become a fatal disease. For example, aortic enlargement is a possible life threatening side effect and some players have died in the middle of a game due to the disease.

“They said I wouldn’t be able to play basketball anymore at a competitive level,” Austin told ESPN. “They found the gene in my blood sample. They told me that my arteries in my heart are enlarged and that if I overwork myself and push too hard that my heart could rupture. The draft is four days away, and I had a dream that my name was going to be called.”

According to the Marfan Foundation, around 1 in 5,000 people have Marfan syndrome across all races and ethnicities, though only about half of those with the disorder know they have it. The majority of people with the disease inherited it from a parent, since children of an individual with the disease have a 50% chance of getting the mutated gene that causes the disorder. About 25% of people will be the first to have the gene, meaning the disease can also be spurred by what’s called a spontaneous mutation.

It’s been rumored but not confirmed that Michael Phelps has Marfan syndrome, and in 1962, Cincinnati doctor Abraham Gordon was the first to propose that former president Abraham Lincoln suffered from the disease — just one of several theories to explain Abe’s lanky stature.

Treatment for Marfan syndrome usually includes taking medication to make sure blood pressure stays in check so that heart strain stays low. In some cases, heart, spine or eye surgery may be necessary.

“This is devastating news, but Isaiah has the best support system anyone could ask for, and he knows that all of Baylor Nation is behind him,” head coach Scott Drew said in a statement. “His health is the most important thing, and while it’s extremely sad that he won’t be able to play in the NBA, our hope is that he’ll return to Baylor to complete his degree and serve as a coach in our program.”

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