Monthly Archives: October 2018

KEEP YOUR PECKER UP!

Who says size does not matter? It seems that, contrary to public perception, size really does matter, especially when it comes to fertility, as a new study suggests. Men who are infertile are also less well endowed. Having a shorter appendage was more common in men who were struggling to conceive, than in those with other genital health problems. The research, to be presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine Conference in Colorado, is the first to link penile length with fertility.

It found that on average, men who were infertile were around one centimeter shorter than their fertile counterparts. Those without reproductive issues had an average length of 13.4 centimeters, while those in the infertile group were 12.5 centimeters.

Dr Austen Slade, from the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, who led the study, said healthy men should not begin to fret over their size and their chance of becoming a father. He said underlying conditions that caused infertility, such as hormonal issues or problems in the testes, may also lead to a shorter penile length. ‘This is the first study to identify an association between shorter penile length and male infertility,’ he said. ‘It’s possibly a manifestation of congenital or genetic factors that predispose one to infertility. For now, men with shorter penises don’t need to worry about their fertility.

The study looked at data on 815 men visiting a health clinic between 2014 and 2017. There were 219 men seeking help for infertility, and 596 seeking help for other conditions such as erectile dysfunction and testicular pain. The men were all measured using a standard test called ‘stretched penile length’ which estimates the length of a penis when erect.

When they took into account weight, race and age, those being treated for infertility were just below one centimeter shorter than those who were fertile. ‘One centimeter may not be a striking difference but there was a clear statistical difference. It remains to be determined if there is a different penile- length-cut-off that would predict more severe infertility,’ Dr Slade added.

Previous research has shown that physical problems with male genitals can affect fertility. Men with a condition called Cryptorchidism – where the testes do not descend properly – have poorer sperm production. This is because the testes are located too close to the body, allowing the sperm to become too hot. Men with small testes have also been found to produce less sperm.

Professor Sheena Lewis, an expert in reproduction from Queen’s University Belfast, said the study raised more questions than it answered. ‘Doctors would not want to measure this in clinic, so as a study the findings are not really clinically usable. This is a very novel idea but the study does not tell us what a normal penile length is. It does not say if the shorter penis found in the study is abnormal. More research is needed.’

But take heart men with short penises, as more research can perhaps prove that the whole caboodle could  turn out to be a false alarm.

BEWARE THE IDES OF OCTOBER

Astronomy is a fascinating subject that never fails to astound, especially to those who seek to know more about what goes on far beyond our ability to bridge the vast distances that separate the Earth from the vast number of objects we perceive in the sky. The Astronomer Royal has warned that Earth could be reduced to a dense mass measuring just 330 feet across if particle accelerators set off a catastrophic chain of events.

In his latest book, On the Future Prospects for Humanity, Professor Lord Martin Rees outlines the existential threats facing the planet which include climate change, nuclear war and artificial intelligence. In a chapter addressing whether mankind is doomed, he argues that scientists carrying out experiments that smash atoms together into quarks could theoretically destroy humanity.

‘Maybe a Black Hole could form and then suck in everything around it,’ he writes. ‘The second scary possibility is that the quarks would reassemble themselves into compressed objects called strangelets. That in itself would be harmless. However, under some hypothesis a strangelet could convert anything else it encounters into a new form of matter, transforming the entire Earth into a hyperdense sphere about 100 meters across.

Professor Rees said: ‘The third risk from particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider at Cern, was from a catastrophe that engulfs space itself. Some have speculated that the concentrated energy created when particles clash together could trigger a phase transition that ripped the fabric of space. This would be a cosmic calamity, not just a terrestrial one. Many of us are inclined to dismiss these risks as science fiction, but given the stakes they should not be ignored, even if deemed highly improbable.’

On the Future Prospects for Humanity will be published by Princeton University Press on October 24. I might be tempted to buy a copy, although I fear reading it may impinge on my sleep, which is already subject to unwanted disturbances.

MEN GET IT QUICKER?

Do men react faster than women? Apparently they do although their wives and partners may well say they spend so much time playing online games or sport on TV. Experiments have shown that men have faster reaction times than women. The results were surprising as men and women usually perform equally well in the battle of the sexes lab tests of mental ability.

Researchers say they had not expected to find a difference in the time needed to say whether black or white bars on a screen were moving to the left or to the right. While both sexes were good, requiring a tenth of a second or less, women took between 25 to 75 per cent longer than men to respond to usual signals.

Until now the only differences had been that women perform better in verbal ability tests, while men were usually stronger at spatial awareness tasks. However, the US researchers say that the faster perception of motion by males may not necessarily reflect better visual processing. They say similar performance enhancements in the tasks have been observed in people who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or depression, and in older individuals.

They believe processes in the brain that down-regulate neural activity are disruptive in these conditions and may also be weaker in males. Study co-author Professor Scott Murray of the University of Washington said: ‘We were very surprised. There is very little evidence for sex differences in low-level visual processing, especially differences as large as these we found in our studies.’

In their findings, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers say they hope further studies will help them discover the underlying differences in the brain that may help explain the discrepancy between the sexes.

Interesting so far, but not conclusive… We must wait for further studies to get to the bottom of a noticeable discrepancy before we come to any final judgement.

KEEP ON TRUCKING….

Exercise is a necessity we are told if we seek to maintain a healthy body, but now apparently all we have to do is just two minutes of high intensity workout, which is as good at improving health as half-an-hour of less strenuous exercise, a study suggests.

Scientists found short bursts of activity had greater benefits for the body’s energy-producing cells, which help keep conditions including obesity at bay and stave off ageing. The researchers studied a group of eight young adults as they did exercise bike sessions of varying intensity.

In the first session, they did 30 minutes of continuous exercise at 50.5% of their peak effort. A second session, consisted of five 4-minute bursts at 75% peak effort, each separated by a minute’s rest. Finally, they did four bursts of 30 seconds at maximum effort, each separated by 4.5 minutes of recovery.

The researchers looked then at the effects on the mitochondria – the energy producing powerhouses of the cells – in the high muscles of the participants. They found the four quick bursts of 30 second’s activity – totalling just 2 minutes of intense effort – produced the best results.

Study leader Mark Trewin of Victoria University in Australia, said: ‘This suggests exercise may be prescribed according to individual preferences while still conferring beneficial metabolic adaptations. There are important implications for improving our understanding of how exercise can be used to enhance metabolic health in the general population.’

The results echo those of an earlier study which found 10 minutes of intense cycling was as good for heart health as 45 minutes of moderate pedalling. Current NHS guidelines advise adults to do at least 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity or, alternatively, 75 minutes of vigorous activity in addition to strength exercises.

This study gives hope to those of us who find excessive exercises hard to implement.

IT’S BEST TO STAY WARM

Despite the fact that Neanderthal Man has long been stereotyped as a club-wielding brute, they may have been wiped out by cold weather. A study analyzing the European climate 40,000 years ago found two periods of freezing weather which coincided with the disappearance of Neanderthal stone tools from caves. This provides evidence that Neanderthal populations fell during cold weather as the woodland they lived in was destroyed and the animals they hunted for meat died. Humans could adapt, thanks to our more varied diet of fish and plants. The findings back up the theory that it may have been the climate that finally killed off our closest cousins.

Scientists, led by the University of Cologne, analyzed stalagmites from East Central Europe and found annual temperatures plummeted to – 2 c. (28 f.) during two freezing periods, 40,000 – 44,000 years ago. Professor Michael Staubwasser, who led the study, said: ‘Modern humans now were simply better able to adapt to the change from woodland to grassland. The Neanderthals did not have the skills they needed to survive.’

This theory is very plausible since the Neanderthals in that period, given their gruelling environment, were ill-developed brain wise to protect themselves against the vagaries of a hard nature.

BUT IT’S A LONG, LONG WHILE FROM MAY TO DECEMBER…

It is painful how old age is likely to change the mode of one’s life to a degree that often causes embarrassment as memories play unexpected tricks, especially as regards the names of people who are normally familiar to them. Now we are told that for people of a certain age, the cryptic crossword may be just about to get easier. Over 70s can expect to be at the top of their game for remembering things when the autumn equinox comes at the end of the month.

The effect is like being almost five year’s younger a study has found, and appears to last from late September to early October. Scientists made the discovery after finding that memory and problem-solving skills change throughout the year. The study, led by researchers at the University of Toronto, involved more than 3,300 older people taking extensive memory tests. It found performance peaked in late summer and early autumn before slowly declining and hitting rock bottom in late winter and spring.

Levels of genes and proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease followed the same pattern. The bad news for the over 70s is that their memory may be at its worst in late March and early April – when they are almost a third more likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, according to the study.

In some cases, this could cause older people to be misdiagnosed with memory problems only to the see the issues reversed by autumn. Researchers suggest the cold and the dark may make people live more unhealthily during winter, affecting the brain and causing thinking skills to decline.

Dr Andrew Lim, the study’s lead author said: ‘Our suspicion is that changes in seasons, in light, temperature and social schedules, may see people getting less physical activity, eating more poorly or changing sleeping patterns. This may affect the way genes and proteins are expressed in the brain, causing the difference of how someone’s memory works. Vitamin D may also be important.’

Participants, who had an average age of 77, were given a series of memory tests and the performance was compared across the seasons of the year. Results changed most for working memory, involving recall of strings of numbers and executive function, which entailed decoded symbols linked to numbers. Adults both with and without dementia showed the same memory patterns throughout the year.

Dr Lim said: ‘This study has implications for clinicians as we could advise people to get more exercise, eat better or take Vitamin D at certain times of the year to boost memory.’ The study was published in the Journal Plus Medicine.

Anyway, it certainly proves that the dilemma of old age is something hard to explain. I personally think activity in all its form is the key to keep the brain in reasonable condition as long as we possibly can.

THE LAND OF NOD

I never realized that lack of sleep in old age becomes a problem hard to overcome. A study suggests that it can easily turn you into a grumpy social leper who shuns human contact. Luckily I haven’t reached that stage as yet, when sleep deprivation activates brain areas that make you find other people threatening, according to a recent finding. It also dampens down brain regions that promote being sociable. Sleep-deprived people not only feel worse but induce feelings of loneliness in other people looking at them; but just getting one good night’s sleep made people in the experiment feel outgoing and confident again.

A study by the University of California, Berkeley, enrolled 18 healthy adults to a sleep laboratory and prevented them getting any sleep on one night. Psychological tests showed that the sleep deprived wanted to avoid close human contact. When asked how they felt afterwards, participants rated themselves as feeling significantly more lonely. Not only did the volunteers feel more sociable, they made other people looking at them more lonely and socially unattractive.

Study author Mathew Walker said: ‘We humans are a social species yet sleep-deprivation can turn us into social lepers.’ He added: ‘The less sleep you get the less you want to socially interact. In turn, other people perceive you are more socially repulsive, further increasing the grave social isolation impact of sleep loss. That vicious cycle may be a significant contribution factor to the public health crisis that is loneliness.’

Humans are often found to want to help or nurture other vulnerable members of their group. But the authors say this response does not kick in when we are tired. To test how sociable the sleep-deprived volunteers felt, they viewed video clips of individuals with neutral expressions walking towards them. When the person on the video got too close, they pushed a button to stop the playback, recording how close they allowed the person to get.
Sleep-deprived participants kept the approaching person at a significantly greater distance away – between 18% and 60% further back – than when they had been well rested.

Volunteers also had their brain scanned as they watched the video clips. In exhausted brains, researchers found heightened activity in a circuit called the near-space network. This is activated when the brain perceives human threats. In contrast, another circuit that encourages social interaction was shut down by sleep-deprivation, worsening the problem.

The researchers also looked at whether just one night of good or bad sleep could influence one’s sense of loneliness the next day. They found that the amount of sleep a person gets on any given night accurately predicted how lonely and unsociable they could feel. But Dr Walker stressed: ‘On a positive note, just one night of good sleep makes you feel outgoing…’

How very true! I personally feel exhausted and unsociable when I’ve had a bad night. Sleep-deprivation is certainly a curse that makes one’s life turn into a hellish struggle, hard to cope with.

TAKE THE MEDICINE…

Flu jabs currently in use were ineffective for the vast majority of patients, officials have admitted. Only 15 per cent who were given this year’s vaccine were fully protected against the virus. For over-65s – the group most at risk from flu – the figures were worse, with just 10 per cent protected. But Public Health England (PHE) urged patients to get this winter’s flu jab as it is still the best defence against the illness.

This year’s flu outbreak was the worst in seven years and A & E departments and GP surgeries were inundated with patients. At the height of the crisis in January, NHS bosses cancelled all not urgent procedures for four weeks to free up hospital beds. The reason the jab failed to work was because it was developed in March 2017 – eight months before the flu season begins in November. Scientists have to predict which strains of the flu virus will be in circulation in the Northern Hemisphere countries the following winter, based on what’s happening in the Southern Hemisphere. But they don’t always get it right. And a supposed flu strain emerged known as B Yamagata, and became one of the most dominant. Most of the vaccines provided by the NHS for 2017/18 offered no protection against this strain. On top of this, the other strain which scientists correctly predict would be in circulation and was liable to mutate. This means the virus’s characteristics were different and it didn’t respond to the vaccine.

To improve protection rates the NHS will be giving patients a stronger vaccine this autumn. Dr Paul Cosford, Director for Health Protection and Medical Director at PHE, said: ‘Vaccine effectiveness varies year on year and the flu virus changes and it is difficult to predict. This upcoming season we are recommending that all those under 65 have the quadrivalent flu vaccine which protects against most of the main B strains and the two main flu A subtypes. We are also making a new booster vaccine available for all adults aged 65 and over in order to improve the immune response. Vaccines are the best defence we have against the flu and not only protect people who have received the vaccine but also those around them. We encourage everyone eligible to take up the offer of the vaccine this winter. The 2017/18 vaccine was far less effective than the 2016/17 jab which still only protected against 40 per cent of patients. Despite the variability, health officials strongly encourage all at risk patients to get the jab each autumn. People who are eligible include the over 65s, pregnant women, children aged 4 and under and anyone with a long term health condition.’

It is always worth taking the flu jab despite its limited effectiveness. The aged in particular need the immunity the jab provides, notwithstanding anything else.

DAVID BOWIE WAS RIGHT!

Is it possible that a liquid lake found on Mars suggests alien life is there right now? With red sands blanketing its surface, Mars looks as dry as the Sahara. But it seems the Red planet has some blue after all.

Scientists have discovered a giant lake beneath Mars’s frozen surface – the first evidence that there is liquid water there now, and not just billions of years ago. The lake, which is up to 12 miles wide, also raises the probability there really is life on Mars right now. While the planet is minus 60 degrees centigrade on its surface, salts may have lowered the freezing point of the water to the point it can flow. The glacial lake discovered by using radar on the Mars Express spacecraft creates the same conditions by which single-celled organisms live on Earth.

Professor Robert Orosei, who led the discovery from the University of Bologna, said: ‘This is the place on Mars where you have something that most resembles a habitat, a place where life could subsist. This is not a place where fish would swim but there are terrestrial organisms that can survive and thrive in fact, in similar environments. Experts said the lake would be a key target for future human Mars’ missions.’ Dr Matt Balme of the Open University, said: ‘Maybe this could even be the trigger for an ambitious new Mars mission to drill into this buried water pocket.’

It’s more than 30 years since scientists suggested there could be water beneath Mars’s polar ice caps but while vast channels on Mars are thought to have been carved by water, clear evidence that liquid water still exists was confined to a few droplets on the Phoenix Lander. It took three years for an international team to find the lake, thought to be twelve miles wide and a minimum of three feet deep. Water, just under a mile below the surface, was located in the Southern icecap.

While the lake’s temperature is likely to be minus 10c to minus 70c, the radar shows up dissolved salts likely to have lowered its freezing point to allow it to flow. Billions of years ago, Mars is thought to have had oceans and rivers. Primitive life may have evolved only to be destroyed when Mars lost most of its atmosphere and became a frozen desert.

The findings in Journal Science suggest life could still exist, with scientists hoping that in future a robot will prove it by drilling through the ice.

What an amazing discovery that would be. It will prove that our knowledge of the entire universe is still minimal but hopefully will in time unravel mysteries currently unimaginable by the human mind.

WE ARE WHAT WE EAT

In the last three years I seem to have deserted meat in favour of fish, but even then I eat much less than ever before. A very small breakfast and a reasonable lunch are all I can take. In the evening at 6pm, perhaps a boiled egg occasionally and some fruit or alternatively an avocado pear with one slice of dark bread.
Researchers now say that eating a high-protein diet containing a lot of meat has been linked with an increased risk of heart failure in middle-aged men. Exact reasons are not known, but the scientists suggested that eating greater amounts of protein can result in high blood pressure. Men with high-protein diets such as body-builders are at the most risk, they said.

Only proteins from fish and eggs were not associated with the problem. Lead author Jyrki Virtanen, of the University of Eastern Finland, said: ‘As many people seem to take the health benefits of high-protein diets for granted it is important to make clear the possible risks and benefits of these diets. Earlier studies had linked diets high in protein – especially from animal sources – with increased risk of type-2 diabetes and even death.’

Heart failure is a serious long term condition with no cure. It means the heart is unable to pump blood around the body properly, causing breathlessness and chronic fatigue. The failure is often caused by fats clogging up arteries, high blood pressure and conditions affecting heart muscles known as cardiomyopathy.

The study – in the AmericanHeart Association Journal, Circulation: Heart Failure – followed 2,441 men aged 42 to 60, for 22 years. Researchers recorded their daily protein intake and 334 heart failure diagnoses. Around 70 per cent of the protein consumed was from animal sources and 27.7 per cent from plant sources and any other higher intakes of protein from most dietary sources were associated with slightly higher risks.

The scientists compared men who ate the most protein with those who ate the least. They found risk of heart failure was 33 per cent higher for all sources of protein, 43 per cent for animal protein, 49 per cent for diary protein and 17 per cent higher for plant protein.

Study author Heli Virtanen said: ‘Despite the popularity of high protein diets there is little research about how they might impact men’s heart failure risks. As this is one of the first studies reporting of the association between dietary protein and heart failure rates, more research is needed before we know whether moderating protein intakes may be beneficial in the prevention of heart failure.’

The researchers said with no cure preventing heart failure through diet, however, lifestyle is vital. The American Heart Association recommends one that includes a variety of fruit and vegetables, wholegrains, low fat diary, poultry, fish, beans, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts – and limited sweets, sugar, sweetened drinks and red meat.

In the absence of further studies, I would naturally deduce that eating in moderation and a variety of healthy foods was perhaps the safest bet so far.