TIME Research

An Increasing Number of Young Children Are Being Exposed to Marijuana, Study Shows

More than 75% of cases involve children under the age of 3

More children under 6 across the U.S. are being exposed to marijuana, according to a study released on Monday.

The study, conducted by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics, showed a 147.5% increase in marijuana exposure among children younger than 6 years old between 2006 and 2013. That rate spiked by 610% over the same period in states where marijuana was legalized for medicinal purposes before 2000.

Although the total number of reported cases — 1,969 children between 2000 and 2013 — is not large, the researchers say the rapid escalation in the rate of exposure is a cause for concern. More than 75% of the children who were exposed to marijuana were under 3 years old. They ingested it in the form brownies, cookies and other foods containing the drug.

“Any state considering marijuana legalization needs to include child protection in its laws from the very beginning,” Gary Smith, senior author of the study and director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s, told Science Daily.

His co-author Henry Spiller says the high instances of marijuana ingestion are most likely due to the popularity of marijuana-laced food.

“Very young children explore their environments by putting items in their mouths, and foods such as brownies and cookies are attractive,” he said.

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

This Is the Healthiest Month to Be Born In, According to Science

A new study identified 55 diseases associated with birth month

Read an interview with the study’s author.

Your birthday may be more important than you think when it comes your health.

Scientists at Columbia University used an algorithm to identify “significant associations” between the time a year a person is born and 55 diseases, including ADHD, asthma and heart disease. The new study, which was published in the Journal of American Medical Informatics Association, concludes that people born in May have the lowest overall risk for disease, while people born in October have the highest.

Though previous research had explored the connection between disease risk and birth season, this study confirmed 39 associations as well as laid out 16 new ones. Researchers looked at more than 1,600 diseases and 1.7 million patients treated in New York between 1985 and 2013 to identify the months most associated with asthma (October and July babies), ADHD (November babies, matching a Swedish study), and nine kinds of heart disease. They plan to replicate the study in other locations, to better identify the environmental factors contributing to such disparities.

“It’s important not to get overly nervous about these results because even though we found significant associations the overall disease risk is not that great,” said Nicholas Tatonetti, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “The risk related to birth month is relatively minor when compared to more influential variables like diet and exercise.”

For more on the study, read an interview with Columbia’s Tatonetti here.

TIME Research

Air Pollution Linked to Increased Mortality Even Below EPA Limits: Study

Smoke is released into the sky at an oil refinery in Wilmington
Bret Hartman—Reuters Smoke is released into the sky at a refinery in Wilmington, Calif., on March 24, 2012

You knew air pollution was unhealthy, but you didn't know it was this unhealthy

That death rates among people over 65 are higher in zip codes with more fine-particulate air pollution, as a new study from Harvard School of Public Health suggests, may not come as a surprise. But that harmful effects from that pollution were observed in areas with less than a third of the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standard may be both startling, and a concern, for many.

The study, which was published online in Environmental Health Perspectives on June 3, used satellite data to measure temperature and particle levels in every zip code in New England, Science Daily reports. This technique allowed researchers to include data even from areas far from pre-existing monitoring stations and to look both at short-term and annual average exposure. That information was then cross-referenced with health data from all New England Medicare patients — some 2.4 million people — between 2003 and 2008.

The results indicate that exposure to air pollution on both the short- and long-term was significantly associated with higher death rates even in zip codes where measurements fell below EPA standards, a trend suggesting that, as with toxins such as lead, there may be no safe level of exposure.

“Most of the country is either meeting the EPA standards now, or is expected to meet them in a few years as new power plant controls kick in,” said senior author Joel Schwartz, professor of environmental epidemiology at Harvard. “This study shows that it is not enough. We need to go after coal plants that still aren’t using scrubbers to clean their emissions, as well as other sources of particles like traffic and wood smoke.”

[Science Daily]

TIME Research

Sexual Violence Against Children Is a Worldwide Problem, Study Says

New surveys show many victims do not receive help

Sexual violence against children is a global problem — and few receive supportive services exist for its victims, according to recent data released from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday.

The new numbers show at least 25% of females and 10% of males report experiencing a form of sexual violence as a child. The results come from Violence Against Children Surveys that were conducted between 2007 and 2013 among men and women ages 18 to 24 in Swaziland, Tanzania, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Haiti and Cambodia. The findings are published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The surveys asked about childhood sexual violence experienced before individuals turned 18. Sexual violence was defined as unwanted touching, unwanted attempted sex, pressured or coerced sex and forced sex. Girls were more likely to be victims of completed acts of unwanted sex than boys.

Among the seven countries surveyed, Cambodia had the lowest rates of reported sexual violence against girls and boys, at 4.4% and 5.6% respectively. Swaziland had the highest rates of reported sexual violence against girls, at 37.6%. Zimbabwe had the second highest rate for girls at 32.5%. Haiti had the most similar rates among both genders.

The study authors report that high levels of sexual violence experienced in children — and low levels of support afterward — can cause a cascade of lifelong struggles, including unwanted pregnancy, depression and disease. “Experiencing trauma as a child can contribute to biologic changes, such as altered hormonal responses as well as mental illness, such as depression, or other psychological changes like poor social relations and low self-esteem, all of which elevate risk for developing chronic diseases,” the study authors write.

The research has limitations, including the possibility that recall might be imperfect among those surveyed and the fact that some people in the study may not have disclosed their experiences. Still, the researchers note that understanding the prevalence of sexual violence can help in the formation of interventions for various countries.

TIME beauty

This Is the Country Where People Are The Happiest With the Way They Look

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Getty Images

Mexicans, you're beautiful and you know it

Of all the peoples of the world, Mexicans are the happiest with their appearance.

Some 74% of Mexicans say they are “completely satisfied” or “fairly satisfied”with their appearance, according to a massive study by market research group GfK, which asked more than 27,000 people, aged 15 or over, in 22 countries around the world what they thought of themselves.

Turkey (71%) came in second, with Ukraine and Brazil in joint third place (both 65%). Also scoring highly are Spain (64%) and Germany and Argentina (both 62%), and the U.S. (60%).

But GfK’s wide-reaching survey also found out that many nationalities aren’t happy with their looks at all. The Japanese are the most unhappy, with 38% of Japanese people saying they are “not at all satisfied” or “not too satisfied,” followed by around 20% of British, Russians and South Koreans.

Perhaps breaking a few stereotypes, GfK found that teenagers are only marginally more self-critical than adults, with 16% of 15-19 year-olds being “not too satisfied” with their looks, compared to 13% for 20-59 year olds. Similarly, women were found to be only marginally more critical about themselves than men.

TIME Research

What If People With Autism Are Actually Hyperfunctional?

An unconventional theory for autism shows promise in a new study in rats

Most people who think about autism think of people who struggle or are inept in some ways, especially when it comes to social behaviors. But there’s growing evidence that the autistic brain may actually be more super-wired to detect and absorb cues from the outside world.

Now, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests that the brains of people with autism are actually hyperfunctional rather than stunted or impaired, and that if treated early in a very predictable environment, symptoms could diminish.

In 2007, researchers Kamila Markram, Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi developed an alternative theory for what autism is, called the “Intense World Syndrome.” They believe that autism is not some form of mental deficit, but that the brain is actually supercharged and hyperfunctional. This makes stimuli overwhelming to people with autism, causing them to socially and emotionally withdraw as a mode of self-protection.

In the new study, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), including Henry Markram and Kamila Markram, showed how autism might be treated following this theory.

The researchers took a group of rats and exposed them to a drug called valproate (VPA), which is a process commonly used to model autism in the rodents. The researchers then exposed the rats to three different environments. The first was a standard environment: a typical laboratory cage. The second was a unpredictable enriched environment, which had things like a running wheel, toys and places to hide. In this environment, the researchers would regularly clean the cages, change out the toys and reorganize the space. The third was a predictable enriched environment, which had stimuli like toys and a running wheel, but after every cleaning the cage remained the same and nothing was moved out of place.

The researchers found that rats exposed to VPA were more sensitive to their living environments compared to control rats. The VPA-exposed rats living in the predictable environment did not develop the same emotional behaviors like anxiety and fear that the VPA-exposed mice living in the unpredictable environment or the standard environment did. The researchers concluded that an unpredictable or impoverished environment exacerbates the autism-like symptoms in rats, but a very predictable environment can prevent these symptoms from developing.

Though the study is still preliminary and was done in rats and not humans, Kamila Markram says she thinks it does have implications for how children with autism might be treated in the future. “Many therapies do recognize that structure and predictability is important, but none of the approaches has put this at the center,” she says. “We say you have to put it at the center and you need to be addressing sensory overflow.”

MORE Temple Grandin: What’s Right With the Autistic Brain

In the ideal scenario, Markram says kids with autism could be diagnosed when they are very young and then raised in a very stable and predictable environment. “You would approach the child from the same direction, books are on the same shelf, toys are always in the same place,” she says.

Markam says that it’s also necessary to change the way people view the disorder as a whole. “It’s important to us that we move away from the autism as a deficit model. These children are hyperfunctional and they can’t bear their environment,” says Markan. “If you have that view, it changes the way you look at research. If you’re a parent, you’ll treat your child in a different way.”

TIME neuroscience

Game-Changing Discovery Links the Brain and the Immune System

New research could affect how we approach everything from Alzheimer's to autism

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have made a dazzling discovery, published this week in Nature: the brain is directly connected to the immune system by previously unknown vessels.

“The first time these guys showed me the basic result, I just said one sentence: ‘They’ll have to change the textbooks,'” Kevin Lee, chairman of the UVA Department of Neuroscience, told Science Daily. He added that the discovery “will fundamentally change the way people look at the central nervous system’s relationship with the immune system.”

The discovery of these new vessels has enormous implications for every neurological disease with an immune component, from Alzheimer’s to multiple sclerosis. It could open up entirely new avenues for research and treatment alike, all stemming from the kind of discovery that has become extraordinarily rare in the 21st century.

“I really did not believe there are structures in the body that we are not aware of. I thought the body was mapped,” said director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia Jonathan Kipnis, who worked on the research. “I thought that these discoveries ended somewhere around the middle of the last century. But apparently they have not.”

Read more at Science Daily

TIME medicine

Health Experts Reveal How Much Standing At Work You Should Actually Be Doing

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Hero Images—Getty Images/Hero Images

The UK has developed the first set of health recommendations about sitting down at work

By now, the advice from health experts is clear: we should all sit less. That’s different from their advice to exercise more, because recent research shows that even regular exercise may not make much of a difference if you spend the rest of the day planted on a chair.

Now, the UK government’s Public Health England and a community advocacy group, Active Working CIC, have combed through the data on sitting and developed the first set of recommendations to let people know exactly how much time they should spend standing each day.

MORE: Sitting Is Killing You

According to the recommendation, written by health experts and published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, people should aim to stand at least two hours a day during working hours. This doesn’t have to be all at once, but can be broken up into small periods of standing, pacing, fidgeting or walking—anything but sitting still.

It’s merely a recommendation, not a health mandate, the authors stress, and they don’t even suggest it as guidance that doctors should use to prescribe specific amounts of non-sitting behavior a day. But getting people to think about how much time they spend on their seats and how little time they spend on their feet is the point, the authors say. According to the data cited in the paper, an office worker spends up to 75% of his or her day sitting, and more than half of that comes in long episodes of nearly inert sedentariness lasting 30 minutes or more. Sedentary behavior is linked to a higher risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. “This is an initial guidance, which we do expect to have to evolve with time,” says John Buckley, from the Institute of Medicine at the University of Chester and lead author of the paper in a statement. “As we get more evidence we will hopefully gain more precision.”

MORE: Sitting Can Increase Your Risk of Cancer By Up to 66%

Standing for at least two hours a day is just a first step; the recommendation encourages a standing goal of four working hours a day, roughly half of your working life. Even if you can’t leave your desk long enough to take a walk, trips to the break room or restroom count—as does anything that breaks up a long stretch of time in a chair.

Buckley and his group are already working on gathering more scientific data to refine the recommendation and help employers, workers and doctors get a better handle on how much non-sitting is needed to improve health. The researchers are studying a Virgin Media call center in Sheffield in the UK, where employees are given a choice of a sit-stand desk; the scientists hope to learn more about switching up working positions can impact health, as well as productivity and performance.

MORE: Sitting At Your Desk Is Killing You. Here’s What It Costs To Stop the Destruction

“This is so new, so we’re very excited about seeing whether some of our theories that we’re testing will become clearer,” he says. And hopefully by then, more of the world will be standing when they read the results.

TIME Research

Here’s How Revolting Your Contact Lenses Are

Contact lenses
Getty Images

People who wear contacts have eye bugs that more closely resemble skin than normal eyes

The magic clear disks that bring your world into focus may be doing some bad things to your eye bacteria, a new study suggests.

“The eye has a normal community of bacteria, expected to confer resistance to invaders,” says senior study investigator Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello, PhD, associate professor of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University School of Medicine. But inserting contact lenses seems to mess with that delicate balance, the researchers found.

They wanted to compare the colonies of bacteria living on the eyeballs of people who wear contact lenses to the eyes of those who don’t, so they recruited 20 people in the new research, presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology. They swabbed different parts of the eye, sequenced the bacteria and found major differences between lens-wearers and people who didn’t wear lenses. Bacteria inside the eyes of contacts-wearers looked more like the colonies of bacteria found on their skin than those normally found in eyes, compared to the normal bacteria of the lens-free group.

That might be because finger skin bacteria lingers on the lenses, which is then transferred to the eye’s surface, suggests Dominguez-Bello. Another possible explanation: the lenses may favor skin-like bacteria over the kind normally found in the eye.

Either way, it doesn’t look good for lens-wearers, who had enriched communities of pathogens that play key roles in conjunctivitis, keratitis and endophthalmitis—all inflammatory eye conditions, says Dominguez-Bello. Using contact lenses has been linked to eye diseases and infections and is considered a risk factor for keratitis.

The study is too small and preliminary to warrant eye-care changes, but Dominguez-Bello calls for more research on the eye microbiome, a bacteria-rich community overlooked in the growing microbiome research focused on the gut and skin. “Despite being important in ophthalmology, the eye microbiome has been largely neglected, and its functions remain unknown,” she says.

TIME Diet/Nutrition

Research on Mice Suggests We Could Be Better Off Eating More Healthy Carbs and Less Protein

Bread, Slices And Bread Knife
Getty Images

Bad news for the Paleo crowd

While calorie-restriction diets are known to have positive health benefits, a group of researchers in Australia has found that, in mice, a low-protein high-carbohydrate diet produces similar results regardless of caloric intake.

If the study bears out for humans, it could rehabilitate the image of carbohydrates, which has taken a battering in recent years, when the high-protein Atkins and Paleo diets have reigned supreme.

Scientists at the University of Sydney put mice on varying diets in terms of the proportion of carbohydrates, protein and total calories consumed. They found that, in terms of insulin, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, mice on unrestricted low-protein high-carb diets fared best.

“It still holds true that reducing food intake and body weight improves metabolic health and reduces the risk of diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and fatty liver disease,” said senior author Stephen Simpson of the University of Sydney. “However…it appears that including modest intakes of high-quality protein and plenty of healthy carbohydrates in the diet will be beneficial for health as we age.”

The next step, according to the scientists, will be to learn if specific types of proteins and carbohydrates make a difference in long-term health.

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