Monday, December 22, 2008

Stress and Your Body - It's official: Men really are the weaker sex - Happiness is contagious - Too much commitment may be unhealthy for relationships - Cold sore virus could cause Alzheimer's - Venus, Jupiter, Moon Smile on Earth

Stress and Your Body
The effects of stress are wide-reaching

Stress and Your Body

SOURCE: American Psychological Association | PHOTO: iStockphoto | GRAPHIC: The Washington Post - January 23, 2007

It's official: Men really are the weaker sex

Evolution is being distorted by pollution, which damages genitals and the ability to father offspring, says new study. Geoffrey Lean reports

Sunday, 7 December 2008

The male gender is in danger, with incalculable consequences for both humans and wildlife, startling scientific research from around the world reveals.

The research – to be detailed tomorrow in the most comprehensive report yet published – shows that a host of common chemicals is feminising males of every class of vertebrate animals, from fish to mammals, including people.

Backed by some of the world's leading scientists, who say that it "waves a red flag" for humanity and shows that evolution itself is being disrupted, the report comes out at a particularly sensitive time for ministers. On Wednesday, Britain will lead opposition to proposed new European controls on pesticides, many of which have been found to have "gender-bending" effects.

It also follows hard on the heels of new American research which shows that baby boys born to women exposed to widespread chemicals in pregnancy are born with smaller penises and feminised genitals.

"This research shows that the basic male tool kit is under threat," says Gwynne Lyons, a former government adviser on the health effects of chemicals, who wrote the report.

Wildlife and people have been exposed to more than 100,000 new chemicals in recent years, and the European Commission has admitted that 99 per cent of them are not adequately regulated. There is not even proper safety information on 85 per cent of them.

Many have been identified as "endocrine disrupters" – or gender-benders – because they interfere with hormones. These include phthalates, used in food wrapping, cosmetics and baby powders among other applications; flame retardants in furniture and electrical goods; PCBs, a now banned group of substances still widespread in food and the environment; and many pesticides.

The report – published by the charity CHEMTrust and drawing on more than 250 scientific studies from around the world – concentrates mainly on wildlife, identifying effects in species ranging from the polar bears of the Arctic to the eland of the South African plains, and from whales in the depths of the oceans to high-flying falcons and eagles.

It concludes: "Males of species from each of the main classes of vertebrate animals (including bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals) have been affected by chemicals in the environment.

"Feminisation of the males of numerous vertebrate species is now a widespread occurrence. All vertebrates have similar sex hormone receptors, which have been conserved in evolution. Therefore, observations in one species may serve to highlight pollution issues of concern for other vertebrates, including humans."

Fish, it says, are particularly affected by pollutants as they are immersed in them when they swim in contaminated water, taking them in not just in their food but through their gills and skin. They were among the first to show widespread gender-bending effects.

Half the male fish in British lowland rivers have been found to be developing eggs in their testes; in some stretches all male roaches have been found to be changing sex in this way. Female hormones – largely from the contraceptive pills which pass unaltered through sewage treatment – are partly responsible, while more than three-quarters of sewage works have been found also to be discharging demasculinising man-made chemicals. Feminising effects have now been discovered in a host of freshwater fish species as far away as Japan and Benin, in Africa, and in sea fish in the North Sea, the Mediterranean, Osaka Bay in Japan and Puget Sound on the US west coast.

Research at the University of Florida earlier this year found that 40 per cent of the male cane toads – a species so indestructible that it has become a plague in Australia – had become hermaphrodites in a heavily farmed part of the state, with another 20 per cent undergoing lesser feminisation. A similar link between farming and sex changes in northern leopard frogs has been revealed by Canadian research, adding to suspicions that pesticides may be to blame.

Male alligators exposed to pesticides in Florida have suffered from lower testosterone and higher oestrogen levels, abnormal testes, smaller penises and reproductive failures. Male snapping turtles have been found with female characteristics in the same state and around the Great Lakes, where wildlife has been found to be contaminated with more than 400 different chemicals. Male herring gulls and peregrine falcons have produced the female protein used to make egg yolks, while bald eagles have had difficulty reproducing in areas highly contaminated with chemicals.

Scientists at Cardiff University have found that the brains of male starlings who ate worms contaminated by female hormones at a sewage works in south-west England were subtly changed so that they sang at greater length and with increased virtuosity.

Even more ominously for humanity, mammals have also been found to be widely affected.

Two-thirds of male Sitka black-tailed deer in Alaska have been found to have undescended testes and deformed antler growth, and roughly the same proportion of white-tailed deer in Montana were discovered to have genital abnormalities.

In South Africa, eland have been revealed to have damaged testicles while being contaminated by high levels of gender-bender chemicals, and striped mice from one polluted nature reserved were discovered to be producing no sperm at all.

At the other end of the world, hermaphrodite polar bears – with penises and vaginas – have been discovered and gender-benders have been found to reduce sperm counts and penis lengths in those that remained male. Many of the small, endangered populations of Florida panthers have been found to have abnormal sperm.

Other research has revealed otters from polluted areas with smaller testicles and mink exposed to PCBs with shorter penises. Beluga whales in Canada's St Lawrence estuary and killer whales off its north-west coast – two of the wildlife populations most contaminated by PCBs – are reproducing poorly, as are exposed porpoises, seals and dolphins.

Scientists warned yesterday that the mass of evidence added up to a grave warning for both wildlife and humans. Professor Charles Tyler, an expert on endocrine disrupters at the University of Exeter, says that the evidence in the report "set off alarm bells". Whole wildlife populations could be at risk, he said, because their gene pool would be reduced, making them less able to withstand disease and putting them at risk from hazards such as global warming.

Dr Pete Myers, chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences, one of the world's foremost authorities on gender-bender chemicals, added: "We have thrown 100, 000 chemicals against a finely balanced hormone system, so it's not surprising that we are seeing some serious results. It is leading to the most rapid pace of evolution in the history of the world.

Professor Lou Gillette of Florida University, one of the most respected academics in the field, warned that the report waved "a large red flag" at humanity. He said: "If we are seeing problems in wildlife, we can be concerned that something similar is happening to a proportion of human males"

Indeed, new research at the University of Rochester in New York state shows that boys born to mothers with raised levels of phthalates were more likely to have smaller penises and undescended testicles. They also had a shorter distance between their anus and genitalia, a classic sign of feminisation. And a study at Rotterdam's Erasmus University showed that boys whose mothers had been exposed to PCBs grew up wanting to play with dolls and tea sets rather than with traditionally male toys.

Communities heavily polluted with gender-benders in Canada, Russia and Italy have given birth to twice as many girls than boys, which may offer a clue to the reason for a mysterious shift in sex ratios worldwide. Normally 106 boys are born for every 100 girls, but the ratio is slipping. It is calculated that 250,000 babies who would have been boys have been born as girls instead in the US and Japan alone.

And sperm counts are dropping precipitously. Studies in more than 20 countries have shown that they have dropped from 150 million per millilitre of sperm fluid to 60 million over 50 years. (Hamsters produce nearly three times as much, at 160 million.) Professor Nil Basu of Michigan University says that this adds up to "pretty compelling evidence for effects in humans".

But Britain has long sought to water down EU attempts to control gender-bender chemicals and has been leading opposition to a new regulation that would ban pesticides shown to have endocrine-disrupting effects. Almost all the other European countries back it, but ministers – backed by their counterparts from Ireland and Romania – are intent on continuing their resistance at a crucial meeting on Wednesday. They say the regulation would cause a collapse of agriculture in the UK, but environmentalists retort that this is nonsense because the regulation has get-out clauses that could be used by British farmers.

Happiness is contagious, research finds
A study of the relationships of nearly 5,000 people tracked for decades in the Framingham Heart Study shows that good cheer spreads through social networks of nearby family, friends and neighbors.
By Karen Kaplan
December 5, 2008
They say misery loves company, but the same may be even more true of happiness.
In a study published online today by the British Medical Journal, scientists from Harvard University and UC San Diego showed that happiness spreads readily through social networks of family members, friends and neighbors.
Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor's sister's friend can give you a 5.6% boost.

"Your emotional state depends not just on actions and choices that you make, but also on actions and choices of other people, many of which you don't even know," said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and medical sociologist at Harvard who co-wrote the study.

The research is part of a growing trend to measure well-being as a crucial component of public health. Scientists have documented that people who describe themselves as happy are likely to live longer, even if they have a chronic illness.

The new study "has serious implications for our understanding of the determinants of health and for the design of policies and interventions," wrote psychologist Andrew Steptoe of University College London and epidemiologist Ana Diez Roux of the University of Michigan in an accompanying editorial.

Christakis and UCSD political scientist James H. Fowler examined the relationships of nearly 5,000 people who were tracked for decades as part of the landmark Framingham Heart Study.

They discovered that happy people in geographic proximity were most effective in spreading their good cheer. They also found the happiest people were at the center of large social networks.

In many regards, they concluded, happiness is like a contagious disease.

"We know people who are most susceptible to HIV are people who have lots of partners," Fowler said. "This is the same thing."

This isn't the first evidence that emotions can spread like a virus. Studies have found that waiters who offer service with a smile are rewarded with bigger tips. On the flip side, having a mildly depressed roommate made college freshmen increasingly depressed themselves.

Fowler and Christakis thought they could document the spread of happiness more convincingly by studying the copious records of participants in the Framingham study, a massive effort launched by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in 1948 to find common causes of cardiovascular disease. Participants gave researchers the names of their parents, spouses, siblings, children and close friends, including many who were also study volunteers. That allowed the researchers to track multiple relationships for each participant out to several degrees of separation.

Fowler and Christakis focused on 4,739 people who were part of the second-generation cohort that joined the study in 1971, in part because many of them had parents and children in other cohorts. The researchers rounded out their networks by using home addresses to locate neighbors and employment information to identify co-workers. Altogether, they constructed a social network that included 12,067 study volunteers who were linked to each other through 53,228 ties.

In earlier studies of the network, Fowler and Christakis showed that obesity and smoking spread among groups of friends and relatives.

To assess happiness, the researchers relied on how much the volunteers said they agreed with four statements like "I was happy" and "I enjoyed life." The questions were asked three times between 1983 and 2003.

The results were striking:

A happy friend who lives within a half-mile makes you 42% more likely to be happy yourself. If that same friend lives two miles away, his impact drops to 22%. Happy friends who are more distant have no discernible impact, according to the study.

Similarly, happy siblings make you 14% more likely to be happy yourself, but only if they live within one mile. Happy spouses provide an 8% boost -- if they live under the same roof. Next-door neighbors who are happy make you 34% more likely to be happy too, but no other neighbors have an effect, even if they live on the same block.

"We suspect emotions spread through frequency of contact," Fowler said. As a result, he said, people who live too far away to be seen on a regular basis don't have much effect.

The one exception was co-workers, perhaps because something in the work environment prevented their happiness from spreading, the study found.

The research was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Shigehiro Oishi, a University of Virginia psychologist who studies the causes and consequences well-being, said the importance of geography was a profound finding.

"Although we are connected with friends and family members who live far away via cellphone and the Internet, these results indicate that there is nothing like a face-to-face interaction," Oishi said. "We are told to get connected by cellphone companies, but in order to get connected you really have to live close by and interact face to face."

Fowler and Christakis said they didn't know the mechanism by which happiness spreads. One possibility is that happy people spread their good fortune directly by being generous with their time and money. Evolution may have encouraged infectious happiness if it helped hominids and early humans enhance their social bonds so they could form successful groups, the researchers said.

UC Irvine sociologist Katherine Faust, who studies social networks, said the study might overstate the role of social ties in transmitting happiness. Many of the Framingham volunteers are the parents, siblings and children of other volunteers, and their propensity toward happiness could be grounded in their genes, she said.

But Richard Suzman, director of behavioral and social research at the National Institute on Aging, said Fowler's and Christakis' work was persuasive enough to force policymakers to rethink the importance of social ties when contemplating happiness or obesity or smoking.

"You can't just treat individuals; you have to treat networks or communities," he said.

Kaplan is a Times staff writer.

Too much commitment may be unhealthy for relationships, psychology professor says

Romantic relationships establish special bonds between partners. Oftentimes, passionate rapport leads to permanent partnerships, and ultimately, the start of families.

Sometimes, however, one or both partners place too much emotional weight on their relationship. As a result, men or women may tend to evaluate their self-worth solely based on the outcomes of their romantic interactions. This is what psychologists term as relationship-contingent self-esteem (RCSE), and, according to University of Houston researcher Chip Knee, it's an unhealthy factor in romantic relationships.

"Individuals with high levels of RCSE are very committed to their relationships, but they also find themselves at risk to become devastated when something goes wrong -- even a relatively minor event," said Knee, UH assistant professor of psychology and director of the university's Interpersonal Relations and Motivation Research Group. "An overwhelming amount of the wrong kind of commitment can actually undermine a relationship."

Knee added that RCSE can trigger depression and anxieties during even the most minor or common relationship-based incidents, such as miscommunication, short spats over noncritical matters or a critique of one's personality or appearance.

It also factors into one or more partners developing manic, obsessive (or needy) behaviors with regard to love.

RCSE might place one at risk for serious mood changes after break-ups, divorce or threats to one's relationship. Identifying it during the early stages of a relationship can prevent such negative outcomes or help partners recognize that they are incompatible.

Knee and a group of researchers observed the impact of RCSE among heterosexual college students in a series of studies. Their findings were presented in the paper "Relationship-Contingent Self-Esteem - The Ups and Downs of Romantic Relationships," published in the flagship Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Cold sore virus could cause Alzheimer's

The virus that causes cold sores may be a major cause of Alzheimer's disease and existing drugs could be used to treat the degenerative condition, researchers have claimed.

By Laura Donnelly, Health Correspondent
Last Updated: 2:51PM GMT 06 Dec 2008

British scientists had already identified a link between the cold sore virus - known as herples simplex virus 1 (HSV1) - and Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, affecting more than 400,000 people in Britain.

Previous trials had found the virus was often present in the DNA of patients with Alzheimer's, but different theories have been posed about why this might be so. The new research, published in the Journal of Pathology, adds weight to the theory that HSV1 could be a major cause of Alzheimer's; it found that the virus was most often found within the protein plaques in the brain which are believed to be the disease's main cause.

Scientists from the University of Manchester said their early findings suggested the cold sore virus was present in 60 per cent of cases of Alzheimer's.

Although they were not able to prove that the virus had caused the disease, their study concluded that alternative explanations appeared unlikely.

Lead researcher Professor Ruth Itzhaki said the findings suggested drugs already used to tackle cold sores, could form the basis of treatment or preventative vaccines for Alzheimer's in future.

Drugs to treat cold sores, including Zovirax have been on the market for many years, and most are available over the counter.

Professor Ruth Itzhaki, who led the research, said: "One thing that is exciting about our research is that we already have drugs that have been used for a relatively long time against HSV1, which are cheap and well tolerated."

"If we are right, there is a good chance we could make progress quite quickly," she added.

The HSV1 virus affects about 80 per cent of adults, causing cold sores in 20-40 per cent those who have it. The findings do not indicate that most cold sore sufferers would develop Alzheimer's, the most common form of dementia, which affects one in three people by the time they die. If the link is proven, it would be one of several factors, some of which are genetic, which combine to cause the disease.

The next step for the scientists would be to test the theory in animal models. Prof Itzhaki said she believes the link could be proved within a year, if the group can obtain funding for this next stage of research, before testing antiviral drugs on patients in the early stages of the disease in clinical trials.

Venus, Jupiter, Moon Smile on Earth

December 2, 2008—The heavens smiled down on Earth Monday in a rare celestial trifecta of Venus, Jupiter, and the moon.

The planets aligned—an event known as a conjunction—Sunday night, and were joined by a thin sliver of moon on Monday.

(Related: "Sky Show December 1: Jupiter, Venus, Moon Make 'Frown'" [December 1, 2008].)

The rare planetary meeting was visible from all parts of the world, even from light-polluted cities such as Hong Kong and New York.

People in Asia witnessed a smiley face (above, photographed from Manila, Philippines), while skywatchers in the United States saw a frown.

The three brightest objects in the sky were so tightly gathered that one could eclipse them with a thumb, according to NASA's Web site.

The next visible Venus-Jupiter conjunction will be on the evening of March 14, 2012, but the two planets will appear farther apart in the sky.

—Christine Dell'Amore

Photograph by Bullit Marquez/AP
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