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Health Capsules: Dec. 6

Shoppers, beware of ‘10 Worst Toys’

What do a wooden xylophone, a soft, pink baby doll and a colorful fidget spinner have in common? Particular brands of these toys recently were listed among the “10 Worst Toys of 2017” by the consumer watchdog group World Against Toys Causing Harm, Inc. [W.A.T.C.H.]. The annual list, which coincides with the kickoff of the holiday shopping season as well as National Safe Toys and Gifts Month in December, provides details regarding why these and other potentially unsafe toys should be kept out of the hands of children.

Every three minutes, a child is treated in a U.S. emergency room for a toy-related injury, according to the Boston-based group. Statistics from the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed a 40 percent increase in toy-related injuries between 1990 and 2011, and 72 children died as a result of toy-related accidents between 2010 and 2015. W.A.T.C.H. was founded more than 40 years ago to address the ongoing need for stringent oversight of the toy industry, and to urge continued vigilance by parents and caregivers regarding potentially hazardous toys.

Because consumers are expected to do more than half of their holiday shopping online this year, W.A.T.C.H. emphasized the impact of online purchasing on toy safety at its November press conference. Although internet shoppers may believe that toys already deemed to be unsafe have been pulled from the market, this is not necessarily the case. Regulations and safety protocols governing internet sales often are nonexistent or inadequate, and consumer-to-consumer secondhand sales are poorly monitored, if at all. For example, one of the W.A.T.C.H. “10 Worst Toys” this year, Hallmark’s itty bittys® baby plush stacking toy, can be purchased from several online sources even after the toy’s recall in August due to a potential choking hazard.

Although parents have a right to expect that toys they give to their children are safe, hazardous toys remain a major problem due to poor design and manufacturing practices, along with failure to market a toy only for use by a particular age group, according to W.A.T.C.H. Toys with hidden dangers such as small parts, strings, projectiles, toxic substances, rigid materials, and inaccurate warnings and labels continue to reach far too many children’s toy boxes each year, the group maintains. Its central message for consumers is that while there are dangerous toys being sold in retail stores and online, awareness of those safety hazards can save lives. For a slideshow presentation of this year’s W.A.T.C.H. 10 Worst Toys list, visit toysafety.org/portfolio-items/toy-7-2017/.

Counting holiday calories? Don’t forget the cocktails

Sometimes it’s not just the cookies, cakes and other treats that can blow your diet during the holidays – often it’s the beer, wine or festive cocktails sipped at holiday parties that may do the most damage. Many of these beverages are loaded with calories, fat and sugar that can add unwanted pounds no matter how carefully you are eating.

To burn off the calories in one hot buttered rum drink, for example, a 150-pound woman would have to walk briskly for approximately 90 minutes or head out for a 4-mile run, according to the website nutritionaction.com. Following are the average calorie counts in a few popular holiday party drinks – along with the approximate amount of exercise that a 150-pound woman would have to undertake to burn them off:

• Beer [Bud Light]: 110 calories = 15 minutes of easy jogging

• Champagne [5 ounces]: 122 calories = 30 minutes of water aerobics

• Red or white wine [5 ounces]: 125 calories = 35 minutes of strength training

• Spiced cider with rum [one cup]: 150 calories = 45 minutes of active housework

• Peppermint Mojito [6 ounces]: 180 calories = 30 minutes of Pilates

• Martini [3 ounces]: 196 calories = 25 minutes using a rowing machine

• White Russian [16 ounces]: 355 calories = 30 minutes of jumping rope

• Eggnog [one cup]: 390 calories = 35 minutes of kickboxing

• Hot buttered rum [16 ounces]: 418 calories = running 4 miles at a moderate pace

• Mudslide [8 ounces]: 590 calories = 45-minute spin class

Are ‘bromances’ the new relationship of choice for guys?

The rise of the “bromance,” which Merriam-Webster now officially defines as “a close nonsexual friendship between men,” has been a hot topic over the past few years. Researchers say that shifting societal views have led to a major decrease in homophobia; that, coupled with mens’ shared interests and more widespread acceptance of male emotionality, has increasingly led young men to pursue these relationships, which they describe as far deeper than traditional male friendships.

However, mens’ bromances also may be damaging their relationships with women. A small British study conducted at the University of Winchester recently found that young men often find their bromances more emotionally fulfilling than their romantic relationships with women, a development that its authors suggest could negatively affect male-female relations.

The researchers conducted extensive interviews with 30 undergraduate straight men at the university, and found that nearly all of them [28 participants] felt it was easier for them to overcome conflicts and express their emotions in their bromances than in their romances with women. They also felt less judged by their close male friends than by their girlfriends.

In general, the participants said that a bromance offers them increased emotional stability, easier emotional disclosure, more social satisfaction and improved conflict resolution compared to the emotional lives they shared with girlfriends.

“Young heterosexual men are now able to confide in each other and develop and maintain deep emotional friendships based on intimacy and on the expression of once-taboo emotional sentimentality,” said Stefan Robinson, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “There are, however, significant and worrying results here for women. These men perceived women to be the primary regulators of their behavior, and this caused disdain for them as a whole in some instances.”

The researchers suggest that the rise in bromances can be considered a progressive development in the relations between men, but that progress may come at a cost; for example, they suggested that increasing bromances could challenge traditional living arrangements between men and women. The study appeared in Men and Masculinities.

‘Baby talk’ is universal language of learning

No matter what language a mother is speaking, she instinctively alters her voice in a unique way when talking to her young infant, according to new research conducted at Princeton University and published in Current Biology.

When interacting with their babies, mothers switch into a special mode of speaking known as “motherese” or “baby talk,” an exaggerated and somewhat musical form of speech. While it may sound silly to other adults, research has shown that baby talk plays an important role in babies’ language learning, by highlighting language structure in an engaging way to help babies recognize syllables and sentences.

In the new study, researchers at Princeton have identified another unique feature of the way mothers talk to their babies: They shift the timbre of their voices in a specific way, which holds true regardless of a mother’s native language.

“Timbre is best defined as the unique quality of a sound,” explained Elise Piazza, a postdoctoral research associate at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute and the study’s leader. “We use timbre, the tone color or unique quality of a sound, all the time to distinguish people, animals and instruments. [For example,] Barry White’s silky voice sounds different from Tom Waits’ gravelly one – even if they’re both singing the same note.”

The researchers recorded 12 English-speaking mothers while they played with and read to their infants, who were between seven and 12 months old. They also recorded the same mothers while they spoke to another adult. After measuring the timbre of each mother’s voice to create a unique  vocal “fingerprint,” the researchers found that a computer could reliably tell the difference between infant- and adult-directed speech – even based on a single second of speech data.

They then recruited another group of 12 mothers who spoke nine different languages, including Spanish, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, German, French, Hebrew, Mandarin and Cantonese. Again, they found that the timbre change observed in the English-speaking mothers was highly consistent when mothers spoke to their babies in all of these languages as well.

The researchers said their next step is to explore in more detail how the mothers’ timbre shift helps infants in learning language. They theorized that the mothers’ unique timbre fingerprint could help babies learn to differentiate and direct their attention to their own mother’s voice from the time they are born. They also added that while this study was done in mothers only to keep the vocal pitches more consistent, it is likely the results will apply to fathers, too.

 ‘Mindless’ snacking leads to overeating

Thinking of food as a snack rather than a meal – and eating standing up instead of seated at a table – both lead to overeating, according to a new study recently published in the journal Appetite.

Researchers from the University of Surrey in the U.K. reached those conclusions by conducting a unique experiment. They presented 80 participants with a pasta dish, which some were told was a snack and others a meal. The “snacks” were served in plastic containers with plastic forks, and eaten either seated or standing up. The “meals” were presented on ceramic plates with metal forks, and were all eaten seated at a table. After they were finished eating, the participants were asked to take part in an additional taste test of several snack foods, which included animal crackers, cheese snacks and M&Ms.

The researchers found that those who had eaten the pasta labeled as a snack ate more at the taste test than when it had been labeled as a meal. They also found that those who ate their snack standing up consumed a full 50 percent more overall, and 100 percent more M&Ms, than did those who had eaten the pasta while sitting at a table. They attributed this result to a combination of factors, and theorized that when snacking, people generally are distracted and may not be fully conscious of how much they are eating.  Jane Ogden, a professor of health psychology at the university, explained, “With our lives getting busier, increasing numbers of people are eating on the go and consuming foods that are labeled as ‘snacks’ to sustain them. What we have found is that those who are consuming snacks are more likely to overeat as they may not realize or even remember what they have eaten.”

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