TIME Research

Study Finds Possible Association Between Autism and Air Pollution

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Research suggests that early exposure to air pollution may have wide-ranging negative effects

A new study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that exposure to fine particulate air pollution from pregnancy up and through the first two years of childhood may be linked with developing autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health conducted “a population-based, case-control study” of families living in southwestern Pennsylvania, which included children with and without ASD, reports Science Daily.

The research team was then able to estimate an individual’s exposure to specific categories of air pollution based on where their mothers lived before, during and after pregnancy.

“There is increasing and compelling evidence that points to associations between Pittsburgh’s poor air quality and health problems, especially those affecting our children and including issues such as autism spectrum disorder and asthma,” said Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, which funded the research project.

However, the members of the study stressed that their findings “reflect an association” but does not ultimately prove causality.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

This Is Why Long Commutes Can Actually Be Good for Your Mood

The 605 freeway is jammed with cars on a day when the mountains are visible in the distance, on November 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.
Melanie Stetson Freeman—AP The 605 freeway is jammed with cars on a day when the mountains are visible in the distance, on November 5, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.

Some people get wound up but others relish the space to think

While saddling people with a long commute is quite likely to put them in a cantankerous mood, a new study out of Australia has also found that some people actually look forward to their daily transit because it provides a bit of much-craved alone time.

Additionally, commuting can be a positive social experience; even though people generally don’t talk with each other, subtle body cues like smiles, frowns and glances help people feel more connected.

“Public transport can be an especially valuable space for being with other people. It can help prevent social isolation,” project author Dr. David Bissell told Australia National University.

But there is a flip side.

Long hours commuting can also cause distrust and depression, even altering how people interact with friends, family and colleagues, says the study.

A key takeaway from Bissell’s research is that stressful commutes directly, and negatively, impact people’s lives. The study cites examples like “tipping points where people change their route or mode of travel, or even move house.”

For the study, Dr. Bissell interviewed 53 commuters for whom commuting was a significant part of their life. He also interviewed 26 “stakeholders” like policymakers and transport advocates. He then went through two “week in the life” experiments in Australia.

“Hopefully it will be a bit of a wakeup call to employers in terms of managing this situation,” he said.

TIME Research

Rape Is Common Among Female College Freshmen, Study Shows

Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence in Seattle on May 30, 2014.
Alex Garland—Demotix/Corbis Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence in Seattle on May 30, 2014.

Sexual assaults and rape have reached "epidemic levels," researchers say

A new study of first-year women at a large private university in the Northeastern U.S. reveals that many freshman women have suffered some form of rape.

The study looked at 483 women (a relatively small study size) who were a representative sample of the freshman class and who volunteered to partake in the study. The women filled out questionnaires when they arrived on campus, at the end of their fall semester, at the end of their spring semester and at the end of the summer following their first year at college. The study was published Wednesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

Before entering college, about 18% of the women reported enduring a completed or attempted incapacitated rape (involving drugs or alcohol) since age 14, and 15% reported being victims of completed or attempted forcible rape. Over the study year, the researchers found that 9% of the women reported experiencing attempted or completed forcible rape and 15.4% reported attempted or completed incapacitated rape. Some of the women in the study reported more than one incident. At the end of the study, the lifetime experience of forcible rape was 21.7% among the women in the study, and 25.7% for incapacitated rape.

In general, rape involving drugs and alcohol was most common among the women in the study. The data also suggests that women who had already undergone a rape before entering college were more likely to report experiencing rape during their first year. “These findings are important not only for sexual assault prevention but for mental health promotion on campus as previous work has illustrated that multiple exposures to violence are strongly associated with poor mental health, including suicidality,” a corresponding editorial on the study reads. The study authors add that risky drinking behavior should be a target for prevention.

The researchers conclude that incapacitated and forcible sexual assaults and rape have reached “epidemic levels” among college women. The findings are among a small population of women, but underline that rape is not an altogether uncommon experience among young women. While it should be noted that the study looks at self-reported rapes and not clinically validated assaults, it’s also important to note that Department of Justice data suggests up to 80% of rapes and sexual assaults of female college students go unreported.

The study replicates findings in a number of other studies, which tend to find that close to 1 in 5 women in college are sexual-assault victims. But over the past year, there’s been a great deal of controversy about using the results from one study as a stand-in for a national average of college rape victims. This has been particularly true of the 1-in-5 number often cited by the White House, which comes from the 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study of two different colleges. This new study was much, much smaller — its value should be taken as one data point to build a broad picture of sexual assault on America’s campuses.

“These data make clear that prevention programs for both men and women in both high school and college are necessary,” the study authors write. “Programs may need to address trauma-related concerns for previously victimized women.”

TIME animals

Panda Poop Suggests They Shouldn’t Eat Their Favorite Food of Bamboo

A photo taken on April 1, 2014 shows the giant panda Hao Hao eating bamboo at Pairi Daiza animal park in Brugelette, Belgium.
Virginie Lefour—AFP/Getty Images A photo taken on April 1, 2014 shows the giant panda Hao Hao eating bamboo at Pairi Daiza animal park in Brugelette, Belgium.

After 14 hours of eating bamboo, only 17% is digested

Giant pandas may be reliant on a highly specialized diet of bamboo, but new research suggests they are not actually very good at digesting their favorite meal.

Scientists in China discovered that, unlike most herbivores, a panda’s gut bacteria has not evolved to match its diet and remains more akin its omnivorous bear cousins.

The team took 121 fecal samples from 45 giant pandas — 24 adults, 16 juveniles and five cubs — and compared these with data from a previous study, which included seven wild pandas. Both studies indicated that the bears do not have plant-degrading bacteria like Ruminococcaceae and Bacteroides.

“This result is unexpected and quite interesting, because it implies the giant panda’s gut microbiota may not have well adapted to its unique diet, and places pandas at an evolutionary dilemma,” said Xiaoyan Pang, a co-author of the study in a press release.

The scientists also discovered that gut bacteria in late Autumn is quite different from spring and summer — which they hypothesize may be a result of the lack of bamboo shoots in the fall.

Pandas spend up to 14 hours per day consuming bamboo but only digest about 17% of their meal.

China’s most famous animal evolved from a species that ate both meat and plants and began to consume almost exclusively bamboo around 2 million years ago.

TIME youth

Why Young People Don’t Want to Run For Office

TIME speaks with Jennifer Lawless, whose research on young Americans' political ambition is revealed in a new book

Will American politics face a brain drain? If current trends continue, it could soon.

Political science professors Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox asked more than 4,000 high school and college students if they would be interested in running for political office in America someday: 89% of them said “no.”

That finding is the crux of a new book based on their original research, Running From Office. In it, the authors argue that the dysfunction of Washington has turned the next generation off politics in historic fashion. Unless behaviors change, American University’s Lawless says, the country’s brightest stars are going to pursue just about anything but one of the 500,000 elected offices America needs filled each year.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of TIME’s interview with Lawless, in which she explains who’s to blame, what’s to be done and why she earnestly believes parents should be convincing their kids to become politicians.

It’s an old, old thing to lament the youth’s lack of interest in politics and a rancorous political climate. What is happening here that is new?

There are two dynamics. The first is that lamenting young people’s engagement has previously always stopped at their interest or their participation. [Researchers have] never actually considered whether they’re interested in running for office. The other is the young people that we’ve surveyed, who are high school and college students now, have grown up only amid the dysfunction that currently characterizes the political system. They have known nothing else. And this is really the first generation where that’s the case.

But is this a historic brand of dysfunction?

We know that polarization is stronger now than it’s been and it’s continued to increase. We know that effectiveness—if we measure that in legislative productivity—has been lower in the last several Congresses. And look at some of the high-profile examples of dysfunction that we’re not accustomed to seeing. The government shutdown is the most obvious one. Debates over raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. having its credit rating decreased. The constant worry over the course of the last year that there might be another government shutdown. That’s new to this generation. We saw dysfunction but not at the same level in the 1980s and 1990s.

Why do you think researchers haven’t looked at political ambition before?

I think there is this disconnect. Until we started doing the research, I didn’t know that the careers that young people identify as something they might be interested in during their teens often map onto what they’re going to do later in life … There was probably this sense that, ‘Well, it doesn’t matter. Young people are disengaged. They’re tuned out. When politics matters to them, they’ll care more.’ But what our data suggests that if they’re already writing this off now, there’s nothing to suggest that it’s going to come back onto their radar screen.

Do we have numbers from previous generations to compare the 89% statistic to?

We don’t know because polls of young people in previous generations generally don’t exist. We do, though, have data over time on young people’s interest in politics, whether they talk about politics with their families, whether they are talking about politics with their friends and whether they follow political news. We found that all of those things are predictors of whether you’re running for office. And the over-time data show declines on all of those indicators. Depending how you examine them, we see declines of 20% or 30%.

How long is this list of who or what is to blame for young people’s antipathy or apathy toward being in politics?

We’re not necessarily blaming young people. It’s that they live in an environment where they’re not particularly interested in politics because they find it argumentative and dysfunctional. But their parents agree. And their teachers agree. And the news media agree. So they get these constant reinforcing messages that this is not something that is fun or interesting or important or noble … The [other] set of players are the politicians themselves. They behave increasingly in unappealing ways and in ways that suggest that they’re not effective at their jobs.

Why should parents and teachers be pitching kids on politics when that’s not necessarily a message they believe in?

We think that letting young people know that this is a way that they can effect change—and that politics does not have to be the way they perceive it—is a message we want to send. At the end of the day, legislation is passed and policies are made by the government. And if you don’t have a seat at that table, even if you are highly effective in a behind-the-scenes kind of capacity, you’re not living up to the full potential of options you have. If people choose not to do that, that’s fine. But 13 to 17-year olds should not be writing that off as a future career option … If we had heard that 89% of young people said that under no circumstances would they ever become a lawyer or a doctor or a journalist or a teacher, there would probably be a national outcry.

What happens if kids don’t change their minds?

We have more than 500,000 elected offices in this country. … We’re not concerned that no one will run for them. We’re concerned that the candidates will be the type of people who aren’t interested in bringing about a better system.

What kind of people will still be attracted to political races, if not the best candidates?

The kind of people who are currently in office. People that actually do not think that government is a way to bring about positive change, people who are more interested in their own power than public policy, people that are antagonistic and confrontational and value partisanship over output.

When you’re talking to that jaded 16-year-old, how do you pitch them on this?

The first thing is to ask them what matters to them, and in almost every case what is most important to a high school student or a college student can be linked to a specific political issue. For high school students, it might be that they’re worried about whether they’re going to be able to afford college. For college students, it might be whether they’re worried about moving into their parents’ house when they graduate. For young women, it could be that they don’t have access to contraception.

So what should be done to remedy that situation?

We have a series of recommendations. One is linking political aptitude to the college admissions process, so people have to know something about current events and politics if they want to go to college. Another suggestion we have is some kind of national service program that would value political service. We’ve seen large programs like the Peace Corps, like Americorps, like Teach for America, where we have created incentives for young people to go out and improve communities. There’s no similar program for political service, which could create an incentive for young people to get involved in their communities as elected leaders.

How optimistic are you feeling right now about all the gridlock and bickering and disenchantment improving?

It’s funny because I’m an eternal pessimist but on this front, I believe in government. A lot. Maybe this is a little idealistic, but I think as people begin to realize that there are long term consequences to the dysfunction that we’re experiencing—that we might be turning off an entire generation or even discouraging adults right now who are well-qualified to run and lead—they’ll see there are opportunities for change.

TIME Research

Suicide Rate Is Up Among Young Black Children

New study reveals racial disparities in suicide rates among young children

While the suicide rate among young children has remained relatively stable, a new study shows that the number of black kids between the ages of 5 and 11 who commit suicide has almost doubled since 1993.

The research, published Tuesday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, shows that from 1993 to 2012, there were a total of 657 kids in the age group who killed themselves in the U.S.; 84% were boys and 16% were girls. Overall, the suicide rate was stable over the nearly 20-year period, yet the rate among black children significantly rose while the rate among white children dropped. Why black children were more likely to die by their own hand could not be determined in this study. The researchers say that the apparent racial disparity needs further investigation.

Study author Jeffrey Bridge, an epidemiologist at the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, told the New York Times that he was “shocked” by the results.

The findings are troubling, and the authors note in the study that historically, the rates of suicide among black children has been lower than the rate among white children. Suicide previously ranked as the 14th cause of death among black children ages 5 to 11 from 1993 to 1997, but it went up to the ninth cause of death in 2008 to 2012. For comparison, among white children, suicide was ranked as the 12th cause of death for the age group from 1993 to 1997 but it dropped to the 11th cause of death from 2008 to 2012.

“Although rates of suicide in adolescents aged 12 to 19 years are roughly 50 times higher than suicide rates in children aged 5 to 11 years, investment in upstream suicide prevention approaches that occur prior to the onset of suicidal behavior may have strong potential to reduce youth suicide rates,” the study authors write.

The researchers call for more studies to understand the trend, and to hopefully determine what interventions might be necessary.

TIME Obesity

More Than a Third of U.S. Adults Have Metabolic Syndrome

TIME.com stock photos Weight Loss Health Exercise Scale
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

35% of us are at greater risk for all kinds of diseases

Metabolic syndrome—a set of health conditions including high blood pressure and too much abdominal fat that increase risk for stroke and heart disease—now affects more than one in three U.S. adults, according to a new study in JAMA.

The study, which used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, found that the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in the U.S. increased from 32.9% in 2003-2004 to 34.7% in 2011-2012. It stayed steady between 2007-2008 and 2011-2012—a leveling off likely due to increased awareness about the risks of metabolic syndrome, the researchers write. Obesity prevalence, which is closely linked to the condition, has also stabilized, they note.

The prevalence of metabolic syndrome varied between people of different racial backgrounds. Hispanics had the highest prevalence of metabolic syndrome at 39%, followed by whites at 37.4% and blacks at 35.5%.

TIME Research

Why Moms Are Better at Baby Talk Than Dads

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Do dads baby talk to their little ones? Researchers recorded hours of audio of parents interacting with their toddlers to find out

Most mothers do it without thinking: cooing to their young children in a sing-songy, high pitched way that seems to help them connect better with their youngsters. But do fathers who spend time with their toddlers do the same?

MORE: Who’s Better at Baby Talk, Mom or Dad?

Mark VanDam, a professor in speech and hearing sciences at Washington State University, wanted to find out in his new study presented at the annual meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. While previous studies have looked at how moms and dads interact with their preschoolers, most of these have been in the rather artificial setting of a lab. So researchers led by VanDam strapped recording devices on both parents and their toddlers for an entire day in order to hear what parents were really saying to their children—and how they were saying it—in a more natural setting.

They found that mothers do indeed adopt “motherese” when addressing their preschoolers, but fathers did not—even those who spent more time with their children. In fact, the fathers talked to their young children in the same way they conversed with adults.

MORE: How to Improve a Baby’s Language Skills Before They Start to Talk

That may be because mothers vary their intonation more and tend to speak in a more infantile way in order to bond better with their toddlers, according to a theory proposed in the 1970s. Mothers are supposed to teach their children how to connect on a more intimate level, and speaking in a more melodic way introduces children to this way of communicating, the theory goes. Fathers, on the other hand, are the bridge for preschoolers to the outside world, and fathers’ more varied vocabulary and adult intonations help to familiarize them with this way of connecting with others. “The basic idea is that moms provide the link to the domestic, more intimate type of talk, while dads provide the link to the outside world,” says VanDam. “In that sense, moms and dads provide different kinds of experiences that give kids more comprehensive exposure to what kinds of language they need in the real world.”

In his present study, both parents lived full time with the child, and in some families, mothers worked outside of the home. VanDam is hoping to extend the study to look at single-parent families, as well as same-sex households, to see if the gender-specific ways of interacting with toddlers stay the same.

TIME Research

Preschoolers Aren’t Getting Enough Exercise, Study Says

Plenty of exercise is essential for a child's development and to prevent obesity

Even very young children in the U.S. are not active enough, says a new study.

Preschoolers only get about 48 minutes of exercise on average each day, according to a paper by the University of Washington and published in the journal Pediatrics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends kids get at least one hour of daily physical activity.

After documenting children’s daily activities in 10 preschools in the Seattle area over a period of 50 days, researchers found that they were only exercising 12% of the time. The rest of their day was spent napping (29%), eating or generally being inactive.

On average, the children were outside for just more than half an hour a day, the study found.

“It’s just not enough,” Pooja Tandon, lead author of the study and assistant professor at the University of Washington, told USA Today.

Getting plenty of exercise at a young age, she said, was essential for a child’s development and for preventing obesity, which has risen dramatically over the past 30 years. According to the CDC, nearly 18% of children ages six to 11 are obese, compared to 7% in 1980.

To get kids more active, some health experts advocate combining academic activities in the classroom with exercise.

Debbie Chang, vice president of Nemours Children’s Health System in Delaware, says even reading a book, such as The Wheels on the Bus, can become part of a child’s daily exercise as they can get up and moving by acting out the scenes.

[USA Today]

TIME Research

Too Much Salt May Delay the Onset of Puberty, Suggests Study

Think twice before allowing kids unlimited access to salty condiments

Consuming too much sodium may stunt the commencement of puberty in humans, leading to reduced fertility and higher stress levels in affected individuals.

A new study published by researchers from the University of Wyoming found that rats that consumed a sodium-rich diet had a “significant delay in reaching puberty” compared to fellow rodents that imbibed normal levels of salt, reports Science Daily.

“Current salt-loading in Western populations has the potential to drastically affect reproductive health, and warrants further attention,” said Dori Pitynski from the University of Wyoming.

But don’t give up on salt completely, researchers claim. According to the study, too little sodium may also delay the onset of puberty as well.

The World Health Organization says adults should “consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium, or 5 grams of salt” daily, according to revised guidelines published in 2013.

[Science Daily]

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