A strong hand grip could indicate a healthy heart

Hand grip strength could be an indicator of cardiovascular health and heart structure, according to a new study.

Typically, hand grip strength is used to measure muscular strength, but researchers from the Queen Mary University of London wanted to explore the little-studied correlation between handgrip and heart health.

Previous research has found that hand grip strength is associated with cardiovascular incidents, but until now that link has not been thoroughly investigated.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, show that better hand grip strength illustrates certain healthy cardiac functions and could mean a reduced risk of cardiovascular incidents.

For the study, the researchers collected and analyzed cardiovascular magnetic resonance images and measured the hand grip strength of 5,065 participants.

A statistical model was then created so the researchers could account for potential factors that would influence the study such as demographics, how physically active the participants were, and other known cardiac risk factors.

After analyzing the measurements and images, the researchers found that the participants with a stronger hand grip had lower heart mass and pumped more blood per heartbeat than those with decreased hand grip strength.

The more blood per heartbeat means that for those participants, the heart is not suffering from remodeling which can occur with high blood pressure or after a heart attack.

The results show that a stronger hand grip could be indicative of a healthy heart and reduced risk of cardiovascular issues.

“Our study of over 4,600 people shows that better handgrip strength is associated with having a healthier heart structure and function,” said Steffen Petersen, a leader of the research.

The researchers also note that future research should investigate this connection in depth as measuring hand-grip strength would be an easy way for medical professionals to measure heart health.

“Handgrip strength is an inexpensive, reproducible and easy to implement the measure, and could become an important method for identifying those at a high risk of heart disease and preventing major life-changing events, such as heart attacks,” said Peterson.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Social isolation poses a growing health risk for seniors

More than 8 million people over the age of 50 in the United States are socially isolated.

Social isolation occurs when someone no longer has the traditional support of a network of friends, family, and community. These seniors often describe themselves as invisible to society, especially when cloistered in apartments or rural areas.

A collection of research published in the new issue of the Public Policy and Aging Report presented by the Gerontological Society of America (GSA) reveals how social isolation poses a major health risk and outlines several promising new innovations to combat this problem.

According to the new research, social isolation can be as harmful to a person’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Social isolation has been linked to higher blood pressure, an increased susceptibility to flu, a greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease, and an earlier onset of dementia.

“As we age, social connections can be an important contributor to our well-being,” said James Appleby, an executive director and CEO of the GSA. “Now through our Public Policy & Aging Report, I am proud that GSA is adding momentum to research in this topic area — ultimately leading to new evidence-based insights that can be translated into sound policy and practice.”

Appleby and the GSA offer some innovative new plans for dealing with the problem of social isolation, some of which are already currently underway.

One of the new ventures discussed in the report is a collaboration with the USC Center for Body Computing that will provide free Lyft rides to appointments in order to study whether or not this improves health and well-being in older adults.

Another proposed plan is testing out interactive devices with built-in speech-recognition that would give reminders of community information.

These studies and ventures are not just innovative, but according to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of the authors in the new issue, they are also a vital part of helping seniors live longer, more fulfilling lives.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Many large cities depend on evaporation for their water supply

Researchers at Colorado State University have found that most of the world’s largest cities depend on evaporation from surrounding regions for more than 33 percent of their water supply. In dry years, these cities depend even more on surface water.

The researchers determined that the following cities are the most dependent on moisture recycling: Karachi, Pakistan, Shanghai, Wuhan, and Chongqing. The experts also identified the cities which are the least dependent on moisture recycling including Cairo, Paris, Sao Paulo, and Chicago.

“A lot of these cities have complex and significant management processes for water resources and supplies,” said study co-author Pat Keys.

“Cities like Chicago have experienced water stress in the past, but they are well-buffered by water management. On the other hand, many megacities are not able to buffer themselves from fluctuations in climate and seasonal weather patterns, such as Lagos in Nigeria, or Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.”

When water evaporates from the land and rises up into the atmosphere, the moisture is transported by the wind and falls as precipitation in a nearby region.

“What you do on the land influences that whole branch of the water cycle,” said Keys. “If you plant a forest or cropland where there used to be a shrubland or desert, it probably won’t last without substantial irrigation. If you change the amount of water or change when it is evaporated and flows up into the atmosphere, that can have impacts for other places and people.”

The research team analyzed the sources of water for 29 major cities representing more than 450 million people across the globe. They used a moisture tracking model to estimate how much the cities depended on surface water, and found that 19 out of the 29 cities were significantly dependent on precipitation from local evaporation.

The study authors hope that the findings of this research will make people more aware, especially considering that most of the cities evaluated in the study will continue to grow in size.

“Cities and countries have limited resources,” said Keys. “If I were in one of those highly vulnerable cities, I’d want to look at this additional dimension of vulnerability for the water supply.”

“With climate change, and demographic and land use fluctuations, it is important to understand where vulnerabilities exist and have a full picture.”

The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Patrick W. Keys/Colorado State University

New building developments near wild lands increases fire risk

2017 was one of the costliest year on record for wildland fire suppression, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture.

New research has found that wildfires are increasing because more and more people are living in areas close to wild lands, and this flurry of development makes it difficult for both fire prevention and suppression.  

The study was led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in collaboration with researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Haifa-Oranim in Israel and the Conservation Biology Institute in Oregon.

Published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the results show how new home developments near wild areas have increased since 1990 and this can be linked to an increase in wildfires.

The wildland-urban-interface (WUI) describes where homes and wild areas like forests meet.

The researchers collected and analyzed data from the United States Geological Survey National Land Cover Database and overlapped this with modified Census Data in order to track how much WUIs had increased over a 20 year period beginning in 1990.

WUIs in the U.S. increased rapidly over the years and the results showed that 9.5 percent, 190 million acres, of the continental U.S could be categorized as WUIs in 2010.

The more developed land there was near wild areas, the researchers also found an increase in invasive species, pollution, and disease.

“We’ve seen that many wildfires are caused by people living in close proximity to forests and wildlands,” said Volker Radeloff, the leader of the research. “And that when these fires are spreading, they are much harder to fight when people are living there, because lives are at risk, because properties have to be protected.”

The study is the first to link the increase in severe wildfires to the growth in urban areas near wildlands, and the researchers caution against further development in these areas.

The research team instead urges that land management take precedent in order to limit the risks of fires in WUIs.

“So there’s a lot that can be done. And I think what our data shows on the development side, and others have shown on the climate change side, we better start doing it or otherwise we will have news like what we had last fall again and again,” said Radeloff, referring to the fires that swept through Northern California in 2017.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

People who actively pursue happiness often feel limited by time

Researchers have found that the pursuit of happiness tends to backfire when too much emphasis is placed on it. People who strive to feel happy often feel like there are not enough hours in the day, and ironically end up feeling discouraged and unhappy.

Aekyoung Kim of Rutgers University and Sam Maglio of the University of Toronto Scarborough conducted a series of investigations to analyze how our perception of time is influence by both the pursuit of happiness and the state of being happy.

One group of study participants was given a set of tasks that presented happiness as a goal that must be pursued. These individuals were either instructed to compile a list of things that would make them feel happier or were asked to try and force themselves to feel happy while watching a boring film about building bridges.

Another group of participants was presented with tasks which made it seem that they had already accomplished happiness. These individuals were instructed to either write down all of the things that made them happy or to watch a slapstick comedy.

After completing the tasks, participants in both groups reported on how much free time they felt like they had.

The study revealed that the active pursuit of happiness caused the first group of people to think of their time as being scarce. The second group of individuals, who were in the mindset that they had already achieved happiness, reported having more free time.

“Time seems to vanish amid the pursuit of happiness, but only when seen as a goal requiring continued pursuit,” explained the study authors. “This finding adds depth to the growing body of work suggesting that the pursuit of happiness can ironically undermine well-being.”

The researchers said that, while the findings indicate that a desire for happiness can impair positive emotions, this does not necessarily have to be the case. If someone believes they have already achieved happiness to some degree, they are left with the time to appreciate this happiness.

“By encouraging people to worry less about pursuing happiness as a never-ending goal, successful interventions might just end up giving them more time and, in turn, more happiness,” wrote the researchers.

“Because engaging in experiences and savoring the associated feelings requires more time compared with merely, for instance, buying material goods, feeling a lack of time also leads people to prefer material possessions rather than enjoying leisure experiences.”

According to the study authors, the way that people perceive their time availability can significantly influence the decisions they make and their overall sense of well-being. For this reason, the experts believe that it is important to understand when, why, and how individuals use their time in pursuit of happiness and other goals.

The study is published by Springer in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

A warmer Arctic leads to more brutal winters in the northeast

Today, New England is bracing for its third major winter storm in less than two weeks, battering the area with snow, dangerous winds, and power outages. This winter has been especially brutal for the northeast, which has seen bomb cyclones and record snowfall in parts of the region.

The cause of the extreme winter weather in the northeast region has now been linked to warming in the Arctic, according to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) were able to illustrate how Arctic warming contributes to major winter weather in the United States.

The Arctic is also undergoing extremes with record high temperatures and reports of melting sea ice. If Arctic warming extends into the stratosphere, it disrupts the polar vortex which in turn, causes severe winter weather in the northeast United States.

“Warm temperatures in the Arctic cause the jet stream to take these wild swings, and when it swings farther south, that causes cold air to reach farther south,” said Jennifer Francis, the study’s co-author. “These swings tend to hang around for awhile, so the weather we have in the eastern United States, whether it’s cold or warm, tends to stay with us longer.”

The researchers analyzed weather patterns and temperatures in the Arctic over the past several years.

The findings show that severe winter weather is two to four times more likely in the eastern United States, northern Europe, and Asia when the Arctic is displaying unusually warm temperatures.

Conversely, the researchers also discovered that extreme winter weather in the western United States is caused by colder than normal temperatures in the Arctic.

The study is yet another that shows the wildly disruptive and varied nature of climate change.

“Five of the past six winters have brought persistent cold to the eastern U.S. and warm, dry conditions to the West, while the Arctic has been off-the-charts warm,” said Francis. “Our study suggests that this is no coincidence. Exactly how much the Arctic contributed to the severity or persistence of the pattern is still hard to pin down, but it’s becoming very difficult to believe they are unrelated.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Some cities stay hotter at night due to their layout

Researchers at The National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) have investigated why it is hotter in some cities after the sun goes down compared to others. They found that more organized cities with straight and perpendicular streets trap more heat than those with less structure and organization.

When the air temperature is higher in the city than its surrounding rural areas, urban heat islands (UHIs) are created.

Around 80 percent of the urban population in the United States is affected by heat islands, which have a detrimental effect on health, worsen air pollution, intensify energy consumption, and generally lower the quality of life. The environmental and economic costs of UHIs are barely being offset by any current strategies.

The research team examined the major factors that drive warmer urban temperatures, such as the thermal mass of buildings. The experts wanted to gain insight into how much of the heat being absorbed during the day is being released or retained at night and why.

The researchers documented the footprints of buildings and the temperatures recorded in urban and rural areas over the course of several years. By studying more than 50 major cities, the research team was able to investigate the link between urban geometry and the effects of UHIs at night.

The study revealed that buildings release heat depending on their level of spatial organization. The experts demonstrated that a high level of urban organization, which is found in most North American cities, corresponds with more pronounced UHI effects and greater heat retention. The opposite is true for less organized cities, which release more heat at night.

The findings of the research could be used to explore new urban planning methods that could help to achieve optimal energy management.

The study is published in the journal Physical Review Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The Great Recession impacted public health and wellbeing

The Great Recession, which began in 2007 and lasted until 2010, will be remembered as a period of great economic turmoil for the United States. It was the longest-running recession since World War II, with many losing their jobs, homes, savings.

Now, a decade after the Recession first began, researchers are examining its effects beyond the financial sector and how it impacted the health and well-being of the American people.

While economists can show the full extent of how the stock market was affected by the mortgage crisis that peaked during the Great Recession, less is known about the physical and mental toll that the Recession took on Americans.

Researchers from the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) Health Sciences wanted to thoroughly investigate the impacts the Recession had on cardiovascular health and stress.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the Recession adversely affected heart health and increased blood pressure and glucose levels among older homeowners and younger people in the workforce.

According to the researchers, previous studies that measured the impacts the Recession had on health were inconsistent in their results, and did not use well-known health biomarkers to measure health over a period spanning before and after the Recession.

For their research, the UCLA team collected data from 4,600 participants of the Multi-Ethnic Study of  Atherosclerosis (MESA) from 2000 to 2012.

The researchers measured blood pressure and glucose levels at different periods before, during, and after the Recession.

In order to fairly compare any changes in cardiovascular health, the researchers first projected normal changes in blood pressure and glucose levels without the added strain of the Recession in the age range of the participants from 45 to 84.

After analyzing and comparing the data to the projected non-Recession outcomes, the results showed that both blood pressure and glucose levels rose during the Recession.

People in the workforce and retired homeowners were particularly susceptible to an increased risk of cardiovascular issues.

The researchers suspect that the stress of possibly losing jobs or houses would have greatly affected both physical and mental health for the participants.

This new study shows that economic crises like the Great Recession can have an impact on physical and mental health.

The researchers hope the results will urge policymakers and healthcare providers to better prepare for periods of economic downturn in the future.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Reduced ability to maintain body temperature linked to obesity

Obesity is a major health issue in many developed countries around the world, and is a condition that often begins at an early age. It’s linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, among numerous other medical conditions. Much of the research around obesity involves determining the factors that may predispose an individual to being obese, and the potential ways in which this can be prevented and treated.

But new research published in JNeurosci has found that reduced ability to maintain body temperature in cold environments may contribute to the development of obesity in adulthood. Researchers from the University of Santiago de Compostela and Institute of Neuroscience/University Miguel Hernandez of Alicante (Spain) studied mice lacking the cold-sensing ion channel TRPM8. They found that these mice, when placed in a mildly cold environment, ate more food during the daytime – when mice are usually asleep.

The increased daytime eating began at an early age, and led to obesity and high blood sugar in adulthood, which could have been a result of reduced fat utilization. When compared to control mice, the TRPM8-deficient mice lost more heat in the cold, particularly during periods of fasting, as their body temperature dropped below 86 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is important, as energy from food is used to maintain constant body temperature through generating and conserving heat. In fact, almost half of the human energy budget that is spent during a sedentary life is used to maintain our body temperature.

These results show evidence for a never before seen link between thermal sensing systems, thermoregulation, and food intake. The researchers believe this discovery could lead to new ways of preventing and treating obesity.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

South Africans survived super volcano that could’ve ended humans

After the eruption of the super volcano Mount Toba in Indonesia around 74,000 years ago, plants and trees were struggling to survive under the drastic conditions of rapid climate change. Scientists have found evidence that early modern humans on the coast of South Africa were not only surviving, but thriving, after this catastrophic event.

In 1816, there was a year without summer. Experts believe that a volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia was to blame, as crops failed across North America and Eurasia and mass migrations occurred. The impact of volcanic activity at nearby Mount Toba, however, was around 100 times more intense.

The Toba eruption devastated some ecosystems more than others, and likely created areas called refugia, in which some human populations were more successful than others throughout the event. The blast at Mount Toba violently shot out fire, smoke, and microscopic pieces of glass that spread across the planet’s atmosphere like wildfire.

In the 1990s, scientists began arguing that this eruption of Mount Toba, the most powerful in the last two million years, caused a long-lived volcanic winter that may have caused humans to nearly become extinct.

Panagiotis Karkanas is the director of the Malcolm H. Wiener Laboratory for Archaeological Science at the American School of Classical Studies in Greece. He examined a single shard of glass from this explosion that was encased in resin and dated back 74,000 years. The shard had been recovered on the coast of South Africa.

“It was one shard particle out of millions of other mineral particles that I was investigating. But it was there, and it couldn’t be anything else,” said Karkanas.

The scientists found a distinct chemical signature that could be used to learn more about the massive eruption.

“Many previous studies have tried to test the hypothesis that Toba devastated human populations,” explained study co-author Curtis Marean. “But they have failed because they have been unable to present definitive evidence linking a human occupation to the exact moment of the event.”

While previous  studies have confirmed that extreme climate change was caused by the explosion at Mount Toba, this study is the first to provide evidence of how people were impacted. Along the food-rich coastline of southern Africa, people not only survived but actually thrived through this historic eruption.

Photorealistic 3D models were developed based on samples and fossils removed from the dig site of ancient humans on the South African coast. Erich Fisher is an associate research scientist with the Institute of Human Origins who constructed the digital models.

“These models tell us a lot about how people lived at the site and how their activities changed through time,” said Fisher. “What we found was that during and after the time of the Toba eruption people lived at the site continuously, and there was no evidence that it impacted their daily lives.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Your ability to empathize is partially determined by your genes

Empathy is what we use to relate to other people around us and respond to their feelings and emotions in the correct manner. It helps us to build and sustain relationships and share our emotional sides with each other. But now, a new study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry suggests that an individual’s ability to empathize is not only due to our upbringing and experience, but is also a result of our genes.

There are two parts to empathy: the ability to recognize another person’s thoughts and feelings (known as “cognitive empathy”) and the ability to respond with an appropriate emotion to someone else’s thoughts and feelings (known as “affective empathy”). Over a decade ago, researchers at the University of Cambridge developed the Empathy Quotient (EQ), which is a self-report measure of empathy that measures both parts.

Past studies have found that on average, women are slightly more empathetic than men, and that autistic people score lower on the EQ. Now, this Cambridge research group has teamed up with the genetics company 23andMe, along with a team of international scientists, to report the results of the largest genetic study of empathy ever. This study used information from over 46,000 23andMe customers, who all completed the EQ online and provided a saliva sample for genetic analysis.

Ultimately, the study had three major results. The first of these is that how empathetic we are is partly due to genetics. In fact, about 10% of this variation is a result of genetic factors. Secondly, the study confirmed that women are more empathetic than men, on average. Interestingly, this difference is not due to our DNA, as there were no differences in the genes that contribute to empathy in men and women. This result indicates that sex difference in empathy is a result of other biological factors, such as prenatal hormone influences, or non-biological factors such as socialization. Lastly, the study determined that genetic variants linked to lower empathy are also associated with a higher risk for autism.

This is an important step towards understanding the small but important role that genetics plays in empathy,” says Varun Warrier, a Cambridge PhD student and lead author of the study. “But keep in mind that only a tenth of individual differences in empathy in the population are due to genetics. It will be equally important to understand the non-genetic factors that explain the other 90%.”

Furthermore, while the study has shown that genes play a role in empathy, it didn’t determine the specific genes that are involved. The researchers plan to address this moving forward with additional studies, and use future findings to help us better understand the factors behind autism and other disabilities.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Childhood memories are lost as the brain restructures itself

Most of us can recall very few of our life experiences that occurred before the age of four or five, and researchers are now explaining why some of our earliest childhood memories become inaccessible.

“Childhood amnesia,” as Sigmund Freud called it, was previously thought to be an inability to remember anything before age seven. This theory did not hold up, however, as studies began to show that children as young as infants have memories that persist, even if they are short-lived.

In 2005, it was determined that five-year-olds can remember 80 percent of things that happened when they were three, yet only around half of this memory bank is retained by age 7.5.

Scientists have found that, in childhood, our brains can absorb a lot of information in a very short amount of time. The region of the brain that stores memories in the hippocampus, however, is still developing up until our early teens.

Most early childhood memories are lost during the adult brain development process as neurons are being continuously modified. Ultimately, our brain circuitry is lined with fatty tissues and memories become more long-term.

Patricia Bauer of Emory University is a leading expert on memory development. She explained that the long-term memories we set aside during childhood are the least stable recollections that we will store over the course of our lives.

Studies have shown that childhood memories are not completely wiped out, but events are often recollected inaccurately due to early restructuring within the brain.

“This is a phenomenon of long standing focus,” Bauer reported to Nautilus. “It demands our attention because it’s a paradox: Very young children show evidence of memory for events in their lives, yet as adults we have relatively few of these memories.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer