In Brief:

In Brief

November 11, 2005

Heart health

Potbelly: Overall, not a good shape

Well-toned hips and a trim waist -- not just the pounds you carry -- appear to be one of the best protections against heart attacks, according to a study of thousands of people in different countries.

Researchers reported in The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, that a hip-to-waist ratio is a better predictor of the risk of heart attack for a variety of ethnic groups than body-mass index, the current standard.

The risk of heart attack rose progressively as the ratio of waist size increased in proportion to hip circumference, researchers found. The 20 percent of the survey who had the highest ratio were 2.5 times more at risk than the 20 percent with the lowest ratio.

Based on weight and height, the body-mass index takes no notice of where fat is or how muscular a person is, said Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine at McMaster University and co-author of the study. An athlete and a couch potato could have similar BMI scores, he noted.

Previous research has shown that having a potbelly is a better predictor of heart trouble than weight, but most of those studies focused on Europeans or North Americans. The Interheart study used data from 27,098 people in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.


Fast food

Fat: You know it when you sense it

What makes french fries so enticing? New research shows that the allure of greasy treats may come from a sensor in your taste buds that tunes in to fat.

Both animals and humans show a preference for fatty foods. But given that our taste buds are known to detect only five tastes -- salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami, which is linked to the taste of meat and cheese -- scientists have wondered how we detect fatty foods. Now Philippe Besnard and colleagues in Dijon, France, report in the Journal of Clinical Investigation that a protein found in the taste buds of rodents may be the elusive fat sensor. When the protein comes in contact with fat on the tongue, it triggers release of stomach juices. Mice missing this protein don't show the typical preference for fatty foods. Humans also have this protein, although it's not known if it's found on the tongue.

Scientists say the finding might shed light on some forms of obesity.

"It's possible that some people have a genetically determined preference for fat if they have higher levels of this protein in their taste buds," said Nada Abumrad, a Washington University in St. Louis chemist who wrote a commentary on the findings.



Tree nut problems can be outgrown

For years, scientists have thought that allergies to tree nuts lasted for life. But a new study by the Johns Hopkins Children's Center shows that 9 percent of children allergic to almonds, pecans, cashews and other tree nuts outgrow their allergy over time, including those who have had a severe reaction to them.

The study, reported in this month's Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, also found that doctors can use blood levels of the tree nut antibody as an accurate guideline in estimating the likelihood that a child has outgrown the allergy.

In the United States, 1 percent to 2 percent of the population is allergic either to peanuts, which are legumes, or tree nuts, such as almonds, pecans, walnuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pine nuts, pistachios and macadamias, the scientists said.

Hopkins researchers previously reported that up to 20 percent of children outgrow peanut allergy and recommended that doctors periodically retest their patients. The current study recommends the same kind of re-evaluation for children allergic to tree nuts.



Knock, knock ... she'll get the joke

Women seem more likely than men to enjoy a good joke, mainly because they don't always expect it to be funny, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Stanford University researchers asked participants to rank how funny they found cartoons to be while magnetic imaging technology monitored their brain functioning. Women were more likely to activate the reward section of their brains if they thought a cartoon was funny, while this region in men's brains showed low levels of activity.

"Females may expect the reward less, resulting in a large reward prediction error when the `punch line' arrives," the study's authors wrote. Women seem to be able to discern items that aren't funny more quickly than men, who expect rewards from both types of stimuli.


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