TIME Research

Why You’re Less Likely to Die in a Car Than Ever Before

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Heavy automobile traffic on the Harbor Freeway is viewed at sunset on Jan. 27, 2012 in Los Angeles. George Rose—Getty Images

'Motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past'

The chances of dying in a car crash in a new vehicle have declined dramatically in recent years to their lowest point ever, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Improvements to vehicle safety technology since the mid-1980s saved 7,700 lives in the United States in 2012 alone, the study found.

“There’s all the bad news about recalls, which make it sound like vehicles are getting less safe,” says IIHS president Adrian Lund. “What these results show is that motor vehicles are safer than they ever have been in the past. This is a huge reduction of people dying as occupants of motor vehicles in crashes.”

The study, which looked at data on deaths in 2011 model year vehicles, found that no one died in nine vehicle models. The death rate per million registered vehicle years, a number that represents how many people died per the number of years a car is registered to be on the road, declined to 28 for 2011 model cars. That rate was 87 for cars made a decade earlier, Lund says.

The report attributed much of that improvement to changes in technology. Electronic stability control, for instance, has been incorporated into many vehicles and prevented deaths when vehicles roll over. The effect of the technology has been particularly noticeable in SUVs. Once among the most dangerous cars on the road, many SUVs are now among the safest vehicles. Six of the nine vehicles without a death were SUVs.

Lund says he anticipates that car safety will improve along with the introduction of new technology in the near future, but he also acknowledges that movements by governments and regulators to cut down on traffic deaths have the potential to reduce traffic deaths dramatically. In particular, Vision Zero—a movement adopted by various cities and countries aimed at eliminating such deaths—has the potential to save lives, he says.

“If we’re really going to get to zero, then we’re really going to need action on a lot of fronts,” he says. “We don’t have to wait just for vehicle technology to achieve Vision Zero.”

Nonetheless, Lund notes that car manufacturers are “closing in on their target” of making their cars free of death and serious injury.

The nine models that were fatality-free were Audi A4 (four-wheel drive), Honda Odyssey, Kia Sorento (two-wheel drive), the Lexus RX 350 (four-wheel drive), Mercedes-Benz GL-Class (four-wheel drive), Subaru Legacy (four-wheel drive), Toyota Highlander hybrid (four-wheel drive), Toyota Sequoia (four-wheel drive) and Volvo XC90 (four-wheel drive).

Three cars had more more than 100 deaths per million registered vehicle years: Kia Rio, Nissan Versa sedan and Hyundai Accent.

TIME Research

Most Americans and Scientists Tend to Disagree, Survey Finds

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And that's not a good thing, scientists say

Regular Americans and their scientist counterparts think much differently about science-related issues, according to a new pair of surveys.

The Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, asked 5,750 American citizens and scientists their opinions on a series of scientific topics. They found striking gaps between the two groups, particularly on issues related to biomedical science.

Food is a major source of friction for the both camps. A full 57% of Americans think that consuming genetically modified foods is unsafe, but 88% of scientists say GMO foods are safe to eat. Pesticide use is another contentious issue: 68% of scientists think it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, while only 28% of lay Americans agree.

When it comes to using animals in research, 89% of scientists give the practice the green light, but only 47% of Americans are ok with it—and 50% of Americans are against the use of animals in research. Non-scientist Americans were also far less likely to believe in evolution than scientists.

On eight of the 13 topics, researchers saw at least a 20-percentage point gap in opinion between Americans and scientists. That’s a troubling statistic, scientists say. According to the survey, 84% of them believe the public’s lack of knowledge about the field is a major problem.

Scientists and non-scientists agree on at least one topic, however: neither group thinks that science, technology, engineering and math education in American elementary and high schools is performing well enough when compared to programs across the globe.

TIME Mental Health/Psychology

Income Matters Most to People in This Age Group

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Money may mean the most in midlife

Can money buy you happiness? It might depend on your stage of life, finds a new study in the journal Psychology and Aging. The link between life satisfaction and income is strongest in 30-50 year-olds, while it’s only weakly correlated in older people and young adults, the study shows.

Researchers looked at life satisfaction survey data from more than 40,000 people in Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, taken over the course of many years. The results were consistent in all three regions.

People in the middle of their lives likely value income because of increased financial responsibilities, including the need to support a family, the study authors say. Young adults may place less value on income because of support from their parents, and older people are more likely to have resources outside of income like retirement savings, they explain.

Other research has suggested that money doesn’t do anything to make people happy, and, if it does, its influence is fairly subtle. But this study suggests that looking at the aggregate data without teasing out different age groups won’t necessarily provide the most relevant view.

“Our findings suggest that if money does buy happiness, it does so to different degrees for different people,” the study says.

TIME Research

IBM Thinks it Can Make Your Food Safer: Will it Work?

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IBM plans to sequence the microbiomes of food ingredients to prevent outbreaks earlier

Our food system is by no means bulletproof when it comes to pathogens. In just the past year, the United States saw major outbreaks of listeria in caramel apples and salmonella in nut butters, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 48 million Americans suffer from some kind of food-borne diseases annually. Meanwhile, food-borne illness results in $9 billion in medical costs and another $75 billion in contaminated food that’s recalled and tossed out every year. Regulatory agencies have acknowledged that more needs to be done.

One strategy comes from IBM, which announced on Thursday that it’s partnering with Mars on a project called the Sequencing the Food Supply Chain Consortium. Their goal, which will likely take at least three years to accomplish, is to sequence the makeup of various foods and then enter that information into a database. The thinking is that if they can establish, at the molecular level, what a given ingredient is supposed to look like, systems can be put into place to catch brewing problems before contaminated foods make it to your table.

“The hypothesis is that [this process] offers you a microscope into what’s happening in that [food] environment,” says Jeff Welser, vice president of IBM Research. “Any deviation from that might indicate there’s a problem.” IBM says it will take into account variations that could occur in ingredients based on where in the world the product is coming from, and what time of year it is.

“A key challenge for food safety experts today is that typically when they test food they only really have a chance of finding what they set out to look for,” says David Crean, global head of technical food safety development at Mars. “If they are testing for Salmonella, they won’t find Listeria.”

The process is highly time- and data-intensive, and not necessarily something companies will want to put their foods and ingredients through constantly, but IBM thinks the science could be developed into a simple test. “You ought to be able to do this when you’re doing normal testing during the day, like for E.coli. The goal is to find the markers that give you a safety-check barcode, if you will, and if you see a change then it lets you know we need to do further testing,” says Welser.

Within three to five years the consortium estimates it will have more companies involved as well as some version of the testing process available for commercial use. They plan to engage with regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) when it’s determined the process works well.

The FDA says it is prioritizing food safety, and in 2011 the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law by President Obama. The FDA says it’s the most sweeping reform of food safety laws in over 70 years and the goal is to shift focus from responding to contamination to prevention. The FDA is supportive of whole genome sequencing as a way to find bacteria in food.

“Overall this seems to be a great basic science project,” says Jonathan A. Eisen, a professor at University of California, Davis. “Personally I believe we need major efforts in characterizing the communities found in and on food, and that a full characterization of the microbes in the facilities where food is produced would be great. This is the first I have heard of a company planning to do this on a large scale.” Eisen is not involved in the consortium, but has researched the suite of microbes in food.

The concept is ambitious, but could be a new way to keep our foods safer than they are currently.

Read next: Most Americans and Scientists Tend to Disagree, Survey Finds

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME human behavior

Using Phonics Makes Learning to Read Easier, Says Study

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People are able to read better when their visual processing is more sensitive to auditory information

New research suggests that relying on phonics, a method of learning where an individual sounds out words, helps students to learn reading faster when compared with the whole-language technique, which hones in on visually memorizing word patterns.

In a study published in Brain & Language, scientists at the University of Buffalo utilized neuroimaging technology to suggest that phonological information is vital to helping an individual identify words while they’re being read. Moreover, individuals perform better at reading when they are more sensitive to auditory information.

“Better readers seem to have more of these neurons taking advantage of auditory information to help the visual word recognition system along,” says Chris McNorgan, an assistant professor of psychology who managed the study.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

People Think Expensive Drugs Work Better, Study Shows

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Even when there's nothing inside

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect: just believing in the healing power of a pill is sometimes enough to make a person feel better, even when there’s not medicine inside. Now, a new study shows that when people take a drug believing it’s more expensive than it actually is, they tend to think the drug is working—even when it’s just a placebo.

In a study published in the journal Neurology, researchers told 12 people with Parkinson’s disease that they were receiving two variations of the same drug, but one was more expensive than the other. They were told that the study was meant to assess whether the two drugs were in fact similar in efficacy, and that one drug was $100 while the other was $1,500. Instead, the researchers gave them all saline solution, with no effect at all.

Before getting the drugs, everyone completed tests of their motor skills and had brain imaging performed. When given the saline injection, the patients were told that they were either getting the cheap or expensive shot first.

Interestingly, those who were told they were getting the expensive shot first improved their motor skills by 28%. In one of the exams, their motor skills shot up seven points with the expensive drug, but only three points on the cheap drug. Afterward, when everyone was told what actually happened in the study, eight people told the researchers that they had greater expectations for the expensive drug and were surprised by the the improvements they felt just by believing it would work better.

It’s possible that the people in the study experienced so a great placebo effect because receiving a placebo has been shown to increase the release of dopamine in the brain, and dopamine also impacts movement.

Though the authors acknowledge that they had to deceive the people in their study to get the results, they say that findings like theirs could one day help improve the quality of life for people with Parkinson’s. “The potentially large benefit of placebo, with or without price manipulations, is waiting to be untapped for patients with Parkinson’s disease as well as those with other neurologic and medical diseases,” they write.

TIME Health Care

California Says E-Cigarettes a Health Risk

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Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Department of health advises Californians to stay away from e-cigs

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has come out against electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes), releasing a new report on Wednesday outlining their risks.

“E-cigarettes contain nicotine and other harmful chemicals, and the nicotine in them is as addictive as the nicotine in cigarettes,” CDPH director and state health officer Dr. Ron Chapman said in a statement about his report. “There is a lot of misinformation about e-cigarettes. That is why, as the state’s health officer, I am advising Californians to avoid the use of e-cigarettes and keep them away from children of all ages.”

The news comes as the California state legislature considers a ban on the devices in public places, as well as new measures against selling them to minors.

According to CDPH, e-cig use among Californians aged 18 to 29 has gone up from 2.3% in 2012 to 7.6% in 2013 and young adults in California are three times more like to use e-cigs than people over age 30. California poison centers are also seeing an increase in calls related to exposures to the liquids inside e-cigarettes. Calls increased from 19 in 2012 to 243 in 2014.

MORE: What to Know About the Science of E-Cigarettes

Nationwide, similar increases are being observed, with data from the 2013 National Youth Tobacco Survey showing that the percentage of middle school and high school students who have tried e-cigarettes doubled from 3.3% in 2011 to 6.8% in 2012.

The new report touches on the harm to brain development from exposure to nicotine during adolescence; dangerous chemicals found in some e-cigarette aerosol; and the fact that e-cigs are not FDA-approved devices for smoking cessation.

The report can be added to a growing amount of data on the risks and potential benefits of e-cigarettes. Earlier this month, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that e-cigarettes may be producing harmful chemicals known to cause cancer in humans.

You can read the full report, here.

TIME Research

The Science Behind Procrastination

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Learn the biological factors that cause procrastination—and how to defeat them

There’s no more elegant example of the cyclical self-torture of procrastination than the lyrics to a song from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Our hero has a book report due. He sings in a halting, panicky monotone:

“If I start writing now…when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking which is not good at all…I’ll get a fresh start tomorrow…and it’s not due till Wednesday…so I’ll…have all of Tuesday unless…something should happen…Why does this always happen…I should be outside playing…getting fresh air and sunshine…I work best under pressure and there’ll be lots of pressure if I…wait till tomorrow…I should start writing now but if I…start writing now when I’m not really rested…it could upset my thinking…which is not good at all.”

Ring a bell? It’s a monologue we all experience in some form, an agonizing internal conversation that fells the best of us. And that’s where things start to get interesting: Procrastination is so relatable, so universal, because the human brain, it turns out, iswired for it. Science explains Charlie Brown’s seesaw sensibility as a fight that is sparked between two parts of the mind when it’s faced with a distasteful activity: a battle of the limbic system (the unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center) and the prefrontal cortex (the internal “planner”). When the limbic system wins, and that’s pretty often, the result is putting off for tomorrow what could (and should) be done today.

Here’s a bit more scientific backup, so you can stop blaming yourself (or your parents, your birth sign, the weather) and start chalking up procrastination to biology. The limbic system, one of the oldest and most dominant portions of the brain, is on automatic. It tells you to, say, pull your hand away from a flame—and also to flee from unpleasant tasks. In other words, it directs you to opt for “immediate mood repair,” explains Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, and the author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle ($16, amazon.com).

The prefrontal cortex is a newer and weaker portion of the brain. It’s what allows you to integrate information and make decisions. “This is the part of the brain that really separates humans from animals, who are just controlled by stimulus,” says Pychyl. The prefrontal cortex, located immediately behind the forehead (where we tap when we’re trying to think, dammit, think), gets the job done. But there’s nothing automatic about its function. You must kick it into gear (“I have to sit down and write this book report!”). And the moment you’re not consciously engaged in a task, your limbic system takes over. You give in to what feels good—you procrastinate.

While understanding these mind games demystifies our habit of perpetually postponing stuff, it doesn’t cure the habit. The solution for procrastination is outsmarting it: You can trick yourself into productivity. How? Here are seven strategies for overcoming the Big P, devised with help from specialists in the field (yes, there’s a procrastination field). This tool kit of techniques will fix the fight between the just-do-it angel and the pleasure-hungry devil in your head. No need to pick just one tactic. Have them all in your arsenal so you’re ready to handle whatever obstacle your battling brain might toss in your path.

This article originally appeared on RealSimple.com.

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TIME public health

Even More Bad News For Young Football Players

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Former NFL players performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments

Professional football players who began playing tackle football before age 12 experienced more dramatic cognitive decline as adults than their counterparts who begin playing later in life, found a new study in the journal Neurology. Overall, former NFL players in the study performed below expectations for their age groups on cognitive assessments.

“As a society we need to question whether we should sanction and condone allowing our children at a young age to having their brains be jostled about inside their skulls hundreds of times per season,” says study author Robert A. Stern, a professor at Boston University.

The study tested 42 former NFL players who were experiencing brain function issues on their ability to remember a list of words, solve problems requiring mental flexibility and read and pronounce uncommon words. Athletes who began playing before age 12 performed significantly worse than their late-starting counterparts on all measures.

MORE: The Tragic Risks of American Football

The results challenge a common misconception that young people are likely fine if they aren’t experiencing full-blown concussions or dramatic injuries. Repeated hits sustained by children under 12, even if they’re not traumatic, may also affect the brain’s structure and function, the study suggests.

“For me, the biggest concern in long-term consequences is not concussion, but rather sub-concussive exposure,” says Stern. “We need to continue anything and everything possible to reduce the number of hits.”

Stern describes the findings as “robust” but noted the study’s limitations. For one, focusing solely on NFL players makes it impossible to generalize the findings to all athletes, or even all football players. Still, he says, the notion that tackle football poses the risk of brain damage just makes “logical sense.”

MORE: Football Head Impacts Can Cause Brain Changes Even Without Concussion

The study, released just days before the Super Bowl, adds to a growing body of evidence on the dangers of the sport, particularly for young people. A 2012 Virginia Tech study, for instance, tracked accelerometers in the helmets of youth football players ages 7 and 8 and found that the average player received 107 impacts throughout the course of the season, some at speeds equivalent to a car accident. Parents have responded to the mounting research by questioning whether their kids should play the sport at all. Between 2007 and 2013, the number of children ages 6 to 12 playing tackle football declined by more than 25%.

TIME Super Bowl

The Simple Way to Make Football Safer

Better materials could mean fewer concussions

Football is not a safe sport. Even though players wear lots of protective gear and helmets to protect their skulls, it doesn’t stop what many are calling a “concussion epidemic” among U.S. sports. But, one scientist is calling upon the community to develop new materials that could make helmets much safer.

A new study published Wednesday shows former NFL players who played tackle football before age 12 were more likely to have memory and thinking problems when they’re adults. But scientist Ainissa Ramirez, author of the book Newton’s Football: The Science Behind America’s Game, says it doesn’t have to be this way. If helmets were made with better materials, players’ brains could be better protected. “Helmet material is too stiff, it’s not able to absorb the force,” she says.

MORE: How a Digital Football Could Have Saved Us From Deflategate

Ramirez and her co-author Allen St. John decided to ask the question: Why don’t other animals who hit their heads often get concussions? First, they looked at the woodpecker. “What we learned that woodpeckers don’t get concussions because they have small brains which means they can handle bigger forces,” explains Ramirez. “You know this intuitively, if your cellphone drops off your desk or your laptop drops off your desk, you’re not going to be too worried about your cell phone but you’re going to be afraid for your laptop.”

Next they looked at rams, and made a promising discovery. “Rams and big horned sheep hit each other at 40 miles and hour, and seconds later they are coming back for more,” says Ramirez. “They have brains comparable to our own size. They can survive and not get concussions because of their horns.” Rams’ horns are made out of a polymer called keratin. Keratin is in our hair, our fingernails, in tortoise shells, and porcupine quills for example. Ramirez says it’s very stretchy, and for rams, it acts like a crumple zone for a car, but with the ability to recover.

“We need better materials [for helmets] and we can borrow from nature. Maybe we need a material that’s sort of like keratin,” says Ramirez.

It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve borrowed from nature. Velcro, for example, was created in the 1950s when George de Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer. After returning from a walk, he discovered his socks and his dog’s fur were covered in burs. Intrigued by how they worked, de Mestral looked at the burs under a microscope and discovered a bunch of little hooks, which became the inspiration for velcro.

Ramirez isn’t positive that keratin will for sure work as a helmet material, but she’s calling on the scientific community to try it out, or at least prioritize the search for better materials. Despite the fact that in 2013 the NFL launched a $10 million program to find better shock absorbent materials for helmets and other technologies to prevent concussions, there hasn’t been much of a race for finding the perfect material. One promising effort is from a team at UCLA that’s researching the use of a energy-absorbing microlattice material that could replace the foam in helmets.

You can watch a video of UCLA’s material below:

Ramirez says she thinks there are not many academics taking on helmet materials because the field isn’t “sexy.” “Scientists have egos like everyone else and if you’re sitting at the table working on helmet material, people think, ‘well what’s wrong with that person?’” says Ramirez. “It’s also hard to get an audience with the NFL. There are a lot of barriers.”

Still, the hope is that more priority and funding from the NFL and medical community will spur greater innovation for new helmet materials. We might see new technologies to prevent concussions in the near future, though not in time for the Super Bowl this weekend.

 

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