TIME medicine

How an Italian Boy Survived 42 Minutes Underwater

It’s unusual, but not impossible to survive that long while submerged

An Italian boy who fell into a canal in Milan is the latest “miracle” drowning survivor. The 14 year old was jumping off a bridge with friends into 6.5-foot water when he failed to come up. It took rescuers creating a human chain and 42 minutes before they could find him in the murky water and bring him back up; he had no pulse and was unconscious.

After a month in the hospital, where doctors attached him to a machine that took over for his lungs and heart to keep his body oxygenated, he woke, apparently alert and able to talk to his parents (and ask about his favorite professional soccer team).

But how did he survive underwater for nearly an hour?

MORE: How the Teen Stowaway Survived His Trans-Pacific Flight in a Wheel Well

Michael isn’t the first to recover from being underwater for so long; there’s a report of a person surviving after being submerged for an hour. Other young boys have recovered after going under in frigid lakes, ponds and oceans for anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes.

Experts say it’s no accident that most of the survivors are young; the automatic reflex to drop the heart rate and divert oxygen to the brain, especially in cold water, is more robust in younger children than in adults. Keeping the brain bathed in oxygen is critical; after about four minutes without oxygen, brain damage can occur.

And the colder the water, the more likely the brain is to be sustained in this way; frigid temperatures help the body divert its resources primarily to the brain. The canal into which Michael fell was about 59 degrees.

Doctors say there is no way to fully explain how the boy survived, much less how his brain remained relatively intact. But Michael’s case, and those of the other survivors, stress how important it is to administer emergency CPR as soon as possible after a drowning.

TIME medicine

Newer Birth Control Pills Raise the Risk of Blood Clots

A new study puts a number on the risk of developing potentially fatal blood clots after using the pill

Blood clots have been a known risk of oral contraceptives since the 1990s, but for most women, the chances seemed small enough to justify taking the Pill. Now, in a report published in The BMJ, scientists led by Yana Vinogradova, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, found that using the Pill was linked to anywhere from a two- to more than four-fold increased risk of developing clots compared to women who didn’t take oral contraceptives.

“Our study suggests that the newer contraceptives have a higher risk of [blood clots] than the older agents,” Vinogradova tells TIME in an email. Overall, the risk for women on the Pill was nearly three times that of women not taking the medication. The risk was highest for people taking Pills that contain newer types of the progestogen hormone, such as drospirenone, desogestrel, gestodene, and cyproterone, as compared to people taking the Pill with first-generation versions of the hormone (levonorgestrel and norethisterone).

The difference essentially boils down to the progesterone part of the drug; since the original pill was introduced in 1960, drug developers have tweaked the progesterone to lower side effects such as acne, headache, weight gain and breakthrough bleeding. But the price for those modifications may be more blood clots.

Even after Vinogradova and her team adjusted for the potential contributions of things like cancer, heart disease, varicose veins, arthritis, smoking and obesity on the risk of blood clots, the link between the newer contraceptives and increased risk remained strong.

“While [blood clots] are a relatively rare problem, they are serious and potentially avoidable with the appropriate drug choice,” says Vinogradova. “Doctors need to consider all health issues when prescribing contraceptives, selecting a drug type associated with the lowest risk for patients with particular susceptibilities.”

Whether that means that doctors should start with prescribing the older formulations first—as well non-hormonal birth control like the copper IUD—isn’t clear yet, since the newer forms have certain advantages, including the fact that they disturb the cholesterol system less, which may be important for diabetic women.

The blood clot risk, however, is something that doctors should consider when prescribing the Pill. And since there are different formulations available, Vinogradova says doctors should monitor their patients for any potential symptoms of poor circulation and switch to other formulations if needed.

TIME Cancer

How a Common Childhood Vaccine Helps Ward Off Cancer

It reduces the risk of childhood leukemia by 20%

Scientists now understand why a common childhood vaccine reduces the risk of leukemia.

Researchers previously knew that the vaccine against Haemophilus influenza type B, or HiB, reduces the risk of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. But now a new study published in Nature Immunology explains why this is the case.

Dr. Markus Müschen and his team on the study used a mouse model and found that recurring HiB infections, which can happen easily in children who have not been vaccinated, can cause certain enzymes to activate and push common precancerous blood cells into cancer. So, vaccines against HiB infections also protect children from this path to leukemia.

Müschen told the New York Times that the HiB vaccine, which is routinely given to children, has led to a 20% reduction in the risk for leukemia.

 

TIME medicine

Tylenol During Pregnancy Could Harm Male Babies, Study Shows

It reduces testosterone production in the womb

Taking too much Tylenol during pregnancy could reduce testosterone levels in male babies, according to a new study.

The study, published in Science Translational Medicine, found that prolonged use of acetaminophen, the drug in Tylenol, by a pregnant mother reduced production of testosterone in her unborn son.

The study used mice that carried grafts of human tissue. After one day of exposure to the drug there was no effect on testosterone production, but after seven days the amount of testosterone was down by 45 percent.

Limited testosterone in the womb is related to increased risk of infertility, testicular cancer and undescended testicles.

“We would advise that pregnant women should follow current guidance that the painkiller be taken at the lowest effective dose for the shortest possible time,” said Rod Mitchell, one of the authors of the study from the University of Edinburgh.

Acetaminophen drugs like Tylenol or Panadol are the most common medicine for managing pain or fevers during pregnancy.

TIME public health

80% of Sunscreens Don’t Really Work or Have ‘Worrisome’ Ingredients: Report

Here's how to find one that works

Summer is around the corner, and when it comes to sunscreen, it’s important to know how to stay covered.

Yet new research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology shows that many Americans aren’t protecting their skin as much as they should. Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) asked people how often they use sunscreen when out in the sun for over an hour and only 14% of men said they regularly slathered on sunscreen. Women, at 30%, were twice as diligent about putting on sunscreen—while men were more likely than women to report never using sunscreen.

The problem isn’t only compliance. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its 2015 sunscreen guide on Tuesday, which reviewed more than 1,700 SPF products like sunscreens, lip balms and moisturizers. The researchers discovered that 80% of the products offer “inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone and vitamin A,” they say. Oxybenzone is a chemical that can disrupt the hormone system, and some evidence suggests—though not definitively—that adding vitamin A to the skin could heighten sun sensitivity.

The report points to Neutrogena as the brand most at fault for promising sun protection without delivering. The EWG says that Neutrogena claims its baby sunscreens provide “special protection from the sun and irritating chemicals” and is labeled “hypoallergenic,” but it contains a preservative called methylisothiazolinone that has been deemed unsafe for use in leave-on products by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. The company also boasts of high SPF levels like SPF 70 or SPF 100+, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says there’s only notable protection up to SPF 50, the report adds. Neutrogena did not respond to requests for comment by publication time.

In the new report, EWG also provides a Hall of Shame of products that don’t deliver on their sun protection promises, as well as a database for users to search how protective their particular sun products are—and find one that works.

To stay protected this summer, the researchers suggest, use sunscreens with broad spectrum SPF of 15 or higher, limit time in the sun, wear clothing to cover exposed skin and re-slather your sunscreen every couple hours.

TIME medicine

Rare Identical Triplets, 2 Conjoined, Born in Texas

sylvia-hernandez-roel torres-triplets-conjoined
Corpus Christi Medical Center

The parents called the girls a miracle sent from God

A rare set of identical female triplets—including two conjoined at the pelvis— have been born at a south Texas hospital.

Corpus Christi Medical Center said the three baby girls—Catalina, Ximena and Scarlett—were delivered Saturday by C-Section one day shy of 34 weeks. All weighed 4 pounds, 11 ounces and were currently breathing without the assistance of a respirator, the hospital said.

Parents Sylvia Hernandez and Roel Torrez called the girls a miracle sent from God.

“God chose us to take care of these babies,” Torrez said in a statement released by the hospital. “We put our faith in God’s hands first and everything will be alright…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME medicine

How Human Bones Have Changed—For the Worse

A new study investigates why modern humans have lighter bones than our ancestors

We’re definitely heavier than we’ve ever been — about two-thirds of adults are now overweight or obese — but our bones aren’t as strong as those of our forebears. In fact, they’re not even as strong as the bones of our closest living relatives, the chimps.

What caused this thinning of modern man’s skeleton? We could blame our shift from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to a more sedentary way of life, and the ensuing change in our diet. Or we could place the blame on modernization, pointing the finger at buggies, cars, planes, trains and other technological advances for keeping us off our feet and less mobile.

MORE: Milk Might Not Save Your Bones, Study Says

A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may provide some answers. Researchers led by Christopher Ruff, professor in the center for functional anatomy and evolution at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and his colleagues decided to find out which force was responsible for driving the lightening of our bones. Using bone samples from 1,842 people collected from all over Europe from the Paleolithic period (11,000 to 33,000 years ago) to the 20th century, they found that the biggest shift in bone strength came with the move from a hunter-gatherer way of living to an agricultural one. The move to more settled and permanent living arrangements had a dramatic effect on changes in the human skeleton. Since that time, the bones of Homo sapiens have remained relatively similar.

Ruff’s team looked at the long bones in the legs and arms, and used arm strength as a control. Any changes in mobility would be more likely reflected in the leg bones, specifically in their front-to-back bending strength. These are the parts of the legs that would show the most adaptation to walking, running and any forces provided by movement. During the Mesolithic era, 10,000 years ago, homo sapiens gradually began settling in villages and adopting a more sedentary lifestyle, and leg bones reflect this change with a decline in strength. The side-to-side strength of the leg bones changed little in this time. Arm bones also didn’t change much in strength, suggesting that it wasn’t something like diet driving the decline, but the lack of mobility that was likely responsible for the lightening of the bones.

This drop in bone strength in the lower limbs remained constant throughout the Iron Age and the Roman era, he says, and into the 20th century. That implies that urbanization, and the domestication of horses for transport and the invention of the car had little effect on the bone strength of modern man — certainly not as much as the shift to an agricultural way of life. “It was really becoming settled and living in villages and towns and agriculture that really had the primary effect on bones,” says Cullum.

That doesn’t mean, however, that our bones can’t regain some semblance of their former robustness. Bone strength is dependent on use, and that’s evidence in tennis players and baseball pitchers, who show dramatically stronger bones in their swinging or pitching arms. “Bone still have the ability to respond to more force on them,” says Cullum. “It’s not like there has been some genetic change that we can’t do anything about that has lightened the bones.” But it does take consistent and weight-bearing exercise to spur bone strength — which might be worth the effort if it helps us avoid fractures and osteoporosis.

TIME Brain

Concussions Continue to Plague Retired NFL Players

A study shows that a concussion during their playing years may have lasting effects on NFL players’ memory years later

While there may be more questions than answers about how best to protect football players from the effects of concussions, there’s more data suggesting that the negative effects of head injuries can be long lasting.

In the latest report, one of the first to combine both anatomical screening of the brain with performance on standard memory and cognitive tests, researchers found that retired NFL players who suffered a concussion may continue to experience cognitive deficits many years later.

Munro Cullum, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and his colleagues report in JAMA Neurology that having a concussion, and in particular losing consciousness after a concussion, can have long-lasting effects on the brain. The team studied 28 former NFL players, all of whom had a history of concussion, who were compared to 21 matched volunteers who did not have a history of concussion. Eight of the retired players were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which meant they had some deficits in memory but weren’t prevented from living their daily lives by these changes, and they were compared to six participants with MCI who did not have a history of concussion.

MORE: How Concussions Can Lead to Poor Grades

Overall, the retired players performed worse on average on standard tests of memory than health controls, suggesting that their history of concussion affected their memory skills in some way. This was supported by imaging data of the hippocampus, the region in the brain responsible for coordinating memory. On average, the athletes showed smaller hippocampal volumes than the controls. (The scientists did not, however, collect data on the player’s hippocampal volume before the concussion, although the comparison to the non-athletes suggests that the concussions may have influenced shrinkage in this region.) The volumes of retired players who were knocked unconscious after a concussion were even smaller than those of healthy controls, and the same was true for the athletes with MCI when compared to non-athletes with MCI.

“We know that normal aging itself is associated with some declines in both hippocampal volume as well as memory function,” says Cullum, “but it seems that those declines are accentuated when there is a concussion, and when there is a concussion with loss of consciousness.”

MORE: Judge OKs 65-Year Deal Over NFL Concussions That Could Cost $1B

The findings don’t address another big question in the field, which is how best to treat people who have had a concussion. The data is conflicting on how much rest following a head injury is ideal; most experts recommend a day or two and then gradual return to normal activities, with a break if symptoms like headaches and dizziness return.

While Cullum says that most patients with concussions recover completely within weeks of the injury, football players may be at increased risk of longer lasting cognitive deficits because of their repeated exposure to the danger. And that risk increases if they lose consciousness following a concussion. Documenting concussions and any blacking out afterward is critical for helping future physicians to manage the care of someone with such head injuries, he says.

TIME medicine

Many Probiotics Contain Traces of Gluten, Study Says

TIME.com stock photos Health Pills
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

55% of the samples tested had gluten—sometimes even when labeled gluten-free

A new study reveals that many popular probiotics contain traces of gluten, which is worrying for people who may have allergies.

Researchers at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center analyzed 22 popular, high-selling probiotics and found that more than half of them (55%) contained gluten, according to research that will be presented on May 16 at Digestive and Disease Week in Washington DC.

“We see a lot of patients [with celiac] and we have a lot of patients who have it and don’t feel better,” says Dr. Peter Green, professor of medicine and director of the Celiac Disease Center. “We found previously that about 25% of celiac patients use supplements or non-traditional medical products, and probiotics were the largest and most frequently consumed. Those people [who used probiotics] had more symptoms compared to people who weren’t taking these supplements.”

Green says that data and the recent news revealing many supplements do not contain what they list on their labels prompted his team to look into the ingredients of probiotics. Using a detection technique called liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry, the researchers measured the quantity of gluten in the probiotics.

In general, for a product to be labeled “gluten-free,” the study authors note that gluten needs to be less than 20 parts per million. Their data show that most of the probiotics that contained gluten had less than that, but four brands contained more than the threshold. More than half of the probiotic brands tested by the researchers claimed to be gluten-free on their label.

Green says it’s unclear whether trace levels of gluten could be harmful for someone with celiac disease. “It hasn’t been very well studied how much gluten will cause symptoms,” he says. “But why is there any gluten in these products, and why aren’t these better regulated? People have great faith in natural products, and that’s why a lot of people eat probiotics. They should be studied and they should be regulated.”

If you have celiac disease, approach probiotics with caution, Green says. In addition to possible gluten contamination, we still don’t definitively know the benefits or harms of taking probiotics, he says. “Probiotics may turn out to be beneficial to individuals with different conditions, but to my mind, that has not be shown,” he says—and for someone with a gluten allergy, a probiotic with the ingredient could potentially be harmful.

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