ICYMI: How you became right- or left-handed, an apple a day and more in health news

March 3, 2017 Mike Francis

It’s time for our weekly roundup of health news. Here’s what caught our eye, aroused our curiosity or tickled our fancy. Let’s plunge in.

Your amazing brain

Stop us if you’ve heard this one: A medial prefrontal cortex walks into a bar and spots a new lobe nursing a drink. “Come here often?” the cortex asks. “No,” says the lobe. “I’m just a temporal lobe.” Oh, c’mon. It’s funny. If you want to know why, you might take a look at a University of Southern California study about how comedic creativity plays out in regions of the brain. Spoiler alert: It turns out that independent funniness ratings are associated with greater early activation in the brain’s temporal regions and striatum.

You and your treatment

How can patients take a greater role in medical decisions that affect their health? A raft of recent studies has shown the value of empowering patients. A study published in the journal Health Affairs examines the experience over 10 years at Massachusetts General Hospital, where more than 900 clinicians and staff members received training in “shared decision making.” And a 2014 review in Cochrane Reviews said the use of “decision aids” such as pamphlets, videos and online tools helped patients better understand their options, have more accurate expectations and participate fully in medical decision making. The bottom line for patients and their families: Ask questions. Before you give your OK to a procedure or a course of treatment, make sure you understand what it is and how it will help.

Health and wellness

There’s something to the old aphorism about eating an apple a day. A study published in the journal Thorax found that men who regularly eat fruits and vegetables reduce their risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive disease that makes it hard to breathe. In fact, each serving of fruit and vegetables reduces risk, researchers said. It’s the antioxidants in such foods that are helping protect the lungs from damage, they said.

Millennials are experiencing a startling rise in colorectal cancer, according to a review of almost 500,000 cases published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. In the wording of the authors, age-specific colorectal cancer risk for young people “has escalated back to the level of those born circa 1890.” Researchers speculate that the sharp rise can be attributed to excess body fat, which can result from eating a lot of processed meats and other unhealthy foods, drinking alcohol, smoking and not getting enough exercise. The authors said it’s important for people to recognize the rising risk of colorectal and be screened earlier.


Here’s one reason the opioid epidemic is such a fiendishly difficult problem to solve: Many of the people being treated for misuse of opioids still receive them under prescription, according to research published in the journal Addiction. Experts say it can take months or even years to recover from an addiction to opioids, which include heroin and prescription painkillers. But the survey of more than 38,000 people found that 43 percent of them filled a prescription for an opioid drug while they were being treated for opioid abuse. The federal department of Health and Human Services has declared the United States is “in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic,” with overdoses killing more than 28,000 people in 2014. More than half those deaths involved prescription opioids.

The health care economy

As Americans age and retire, their spending patterns change. And one of the biggest shifts involves spending on health care. Gad Levanon, chief economist for North America at the Conference Board, said health care spending will grow 15 percent over the next decade because of demographic trends. Health care spending is concentrated among the oldest households and includes the cost of prescriptions, hospitalizations and nursing care.

Your amazing spinal cord

The brain, wondrous as it is, doesn’t determine whether you’re right-handed or left-handed. That early decision appears to originate in the spinal cord, according to European researchers. They studied the way genes were expressed in the spinal cord of unborn babies between the eighth and 12th weeks of pregnancy and found asymmetric preferences that early, even before the spinal cord is connected to the brain’s motor cortex.

Environmental hazards

Health care providers are being advised to watch for sicknesses in children who may have eaten hand sanitizer. The widely available gels, which consist of 60 percent to 90 percent ethanol or isopropyl alcohol, “are often combined with scents that might be appealing to young children,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 70,000 reports of ingestion by children aged 12 and younger were recorded by the U.S. National Poison Data System between 2011 and 2014, the CDC said. The agency says adults should keep the sanitizers out of reach of children.

Even if you’ve never said it aloud, you’ve probably wondered: How much urine is in this swimming pool? There’s a study for that. In a study published by Environmental Science & Technology Letters, Canadian researchers found urine in 250 samples from 31 pools and tubs in two Canadian cities. While urine is sterile, they note, it reacts with chlorine to form potentially toxic chemical compounds. Researchers say their results highlight the need to monitor and control water quality. To that we add this: Don’t pee in the pool.

Do you have something to say about these or other developments in the world of health and wellness? Do you have something you’d like us to write about? Let us know in the comments below.

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