Check up

    22 November 2014


    You’re still switched on while you sleep

    For years it has been thought that the brain is relatively inactive during sleep. However, research by scientists from Cambridge and Paris has discovered that the sleeping brain can carry out a variety of complex tasks, especially if they are automated.

    Doctors recorded the brain activity of people when they were awake, asking them to categorise spoken words into ‘animals’ and ‘objects’ by pressing different buttons. As the participants drifted off to sleep, they continued this word classification task, with the researchers tracking any changes in brain activity. Once they were fully asleep, the task was carried out again, using a different list of words. Despite brain activity slowing down, participants were still able to respond accurately, indicating that the mind is a lot more active than scientists previously believed.

    How men can delay high blood pressure

    Men who regularly exercise and have higher fitness levels than those who don’t could prevent the onset of high blood pressure associated with age, a new study has suggested.

    Around 30 per cent of people have high blood pressure which, if untreated, can lead to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.
    It is widely known that regular exercise can help keep problems such as heart disease at bay. But researchers at the University of South Carolina in Columbia wanted to investigate whether improved fitness levels in males delays the age ranges at which high blood pressure occurs.

    Over a 36-year period, researchers studied nearly 14,000 men, aged between 20 and 90, who did not suffer from hypertension, cardiovascular disease or cancer. Their fitness levels were measured by a strenuous cardiovascular treadmill exercise stress test. The results revealed that the onset of high blood pressure in males with low fitness levels occurred around the ages of 42 to 46, whereas in those with higher fitness levels, blood pressure didn’t show signs of increase until around ten years later, at the age of 54.
    The researchers suggested that to move out of the ‘low fitness’ category, men should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week.

    Crave junk food? Retrain your brain

    Good news for all those who struggle with sticking to diets. According to a study from scientists at Tufts University in Massachusetts, a person’s brain could be trained to like healthier foods.

    Some study participants were forced to follow a diet which contained high amounts of fibre and protein-based foods, but was low in carbohydrates, meaning they were eating healthily while remaining relatively full. It’s when a person starts to crave food that they tend to go for unhealthy options. The other participants did not follow this strict eating plan, allowing for comparison over the six-month investigation period.

    MRI scans taken at the beginning and end of the study showed significant changes in the part of the brain associated with reward among those following the strict diet plan, suggesting the brain can in fact be trained to like different kinds of food. When showed images of a variety of foods, their brains reacted most strongly in a positive way to pictures of healthy, low-calorie items following the six-month test period.


    Mothers-to-be must be first to fight flu

    Pregnant women are being reminded of the importance of having the flu vaccine this winter. As well as the benefits of avoiding infection for the mother, the jab also is also beneficial for the baby once born. Babies’ risk of hospitalisation for asthma, diabetes, a weak immune system or heart conditions decreases significantly compared with infants born to mothers who did not take advantage of the flu vaccine.

    Many studies into the benefits of flu vaccines have been carried out in the past, finding that women who receive the seasonal injection are less likely to give birth prematurely or have a baby with a birth defect than those who did not take advantage of the free jab. Researchers have also found that women who have the vaccine are less likely to experience a stillbirth.

    In addition, the injection is recommended because a woman’s immune system undergoes significant changes when she is carrying a child, putting her at an increased risk of contracting the flu virus.

    Fashionable or not, fur staves off asthma

    Animal fur is one of the oldest materials used by man. It may go in and out of fashion, but recent research suggests that our ancestors
    were on to something. The study showed that babies who slept on animal fur during their first three months were 79 per cent less likely to develop asthma by the age of six than children who had not been exposed to animal skin.

    The NHS estimates that around 5.4 million people in the UK are receiving treatment for asthma, with one in every 11 children living with the condition.

    Double mastectomy offers no guarantee

    The number of women undergoing a double mastectomy procedure for breast cancer is on the rise, but this could have no effect on mortality rates, recent research has suggested. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in the UK. Around 48,000 women are diagnosed in Britain every year. In eight out of ten cases, breast cancer affects women aged over 50, but younger women — and in rare cases, men — can also contract the disease.

    A double or bilateral mastectomy is a type of surgery that removes both breasts. The procedure has become increasingly common, so researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine in California set out to examine whether survival rates improved. The results showed that there was no difference in the risk of mortality for women who had undergone a double mastectomy and those who had breast-conserving therapy with radiation.

    However, a unilateral mastectomy was associated with a higher risk of mortality. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


    Go bananas to slash stroke risk

    Older women whose diets are high in potassium-rich foods could have a lower risk of stroke and a longer life than those who consume less potassium-rich food, a recent study suggests.

    Potassium helps the body to maintain a normal water balance between cells and fluids. This is also vital for muscle contraction. The study looked at the link between potassium consumption, blood pressure and stroke in post-menopausal women.

    The results showed that women who ate the most potassium-rich foods (more than 3.19 g per day) had a 16 per cent lower chance of experiencing a stroke as a result of a blood clot. Those who ate more potassium had a reduced mortality risk than those who ate less.