Lab Report: Health, Science and Medicine

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Martin Parr / Magnum

DIET

Chocolate for the Heart

Romantics know that a little bit of chocolate can warm the heart, and researchers are learning that the benefits of the sweet may not stop there. Studies have linked chocolate consumption with lower blood pressure, lower levels of bad cholesterol and reduced risk of stroke and heart attack. A new trial documents how much cocoa is enough to keep the heart healthy--and how much is too much.

A survey of 31,000 postmenopausal women in Sweden found that those who ate chocolate once or twice a week lowered their risk of heart failure by 32%. But more isn't better, say the authors, since women in the study who indulged in chocolate every day experienced the same heart-failure rate as those who ate a cocoa placebo.

The key to exploiting chocolate's benefits is to balance the health effects of flavonoids with the fats that make it such a calorie-dense food. Flavonoids, which are more prevalent in dark chocolate, can keep blood vessels flexible and reduce the clumping of platelets that block heart arteries, but the high fat content of chocolate can counteract those effects. A few treats a week, it seems, might be just right.

More teens are having trouble hearing, but those ubiquitous iPods may not be the only culprits. Over the past decade, 31% more teens showed some form of hearing loss but reported no increased exposure to noise from headphones. Diet and poverty may be affecting inner-ear function, say the authors of a new study. But even they are not ready to exonerate iPods just yet. Teens don't accurately report noise exposure and may not consider headphones a major source of such trouble.

MEDICINE

Rethinking Lou Gehrig's Disease

What if Lou Gehrig didn't have the disease that was named in his honor after he was diagnosed in 1939? That's the intriguing possibility a group of neurologists raised with a small study on degenerative nerve disorders like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), from which Gehrig reportedly suffered. There is still no definitive way to diagnose ALS, and the authors suggest it may be a catchall term for a range of related diseases that scientists are only now, using molecular techniques, able to distinguish from one another.

Working with a dozen autopsy brains and spinal cords, the researchers found that patients who had experienced traumatic brain injuries and were diagnosed with ALS harbored two proteins in their brain and spinal tissue that ALS patients who were trauma-free did not. Both groups had experienced similar symptoms of gradual muscle weakness and eventual paralysis. Identifying protein differences in patients as those symptoms develop may lead to more-precise therapies.

What are the odds Gehrig was misdiagnosed? There are several accounts of his having been hit on the head severely enough to lose consciousness. But his remains were cremated in 1941, so we'll never know for sure.

FROM THE LABS

Easing Chemo With Herbs

A recipe of four herbs used for nearly 2,000 years in China to treat intestinal disorders such as diarrhea and vomiting may also inhibit the toxic effects of chemotherapy, at least in mice. The herbal combination may lower the inflammatory side effects of chemo and even help suppress tumor activity.

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