Tag Archives: children

Violent trauma makes children show signs of brain and genetic aging

Experiencing violence and abuse in early life can lead to faster aging later in life, both mentally and physically.

Image via Pixabay.

A new study from the American Psychological Association explains that experiencing trauma associated with violence early on impacts the way our bodies age throughout our lives. The researchers note this process happens in three indicators of biological aging: onset of puberty, the cellular aging process, and brain development.

Hard start

“Exposure to adversity in childhood is a powerful predictor of health outcomes later in life — not only mental health outcomes like depression and anxiety, but also physical health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer,” said Katie McLaughlin, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Harvard University and senior author of the study.

“Experiencing violence can make the body age more quickly at a biological level, which may help to explain that connection.”

It’s not the first time researchers are looking into the link between a hard childhood and the speed of aging. However, they looked at several indicators of biological aging and different types of adversity together (such as violence, neglect, poverty, abuse. They found a link, but due to their structure, we couldn’t exactly tell what was causing what.

To get a clearer idea of what’s happening, the team performed a meta-analysis of over 80 studies (more than 116,000 participants in total) and teased apart threat-related adversity, such as abuse and violence, and deprivation-related adversity, such as neglect or poverty.

Children who experienced threat-related trauma were more likely to enter puberty early, the team explains, and show signs of accelerated cellular aging. One of the most telling signs of this latter type of aging was shortened telomeres, which are protective caps placed on the ends of DNA strands to keep them from breaking down. Children who experienced poverty or neglect, meanwhile, didn’t show early signs of aging.

The team then also looked at a further 25 studies (over 3,250 participants in total) to see how adversity in early life impacted later brain development. They did find it was associated with reduced cortical thickness, which is a sign of aging. Our cortices house most of our brain’s processing power and virtually all its higher functions, and are known to degrade as we get older.

However, the team did find that the exact type of adversity we experience as kids leads to thinning in a different area of the cortex. Trauma and violence affected the ventromedial prefrontal cortex in particular, which is involved in social and emotional processing. Deprivation was more often associated with thinning in the frontoparietal, default mode, and visual networks (involved in processing sensory information and other cognitive tasks).

As to why this process takes place, McLaughlin believed that maturing earlier could help ensure your survival in a violent, threat-filled environment. Alternatively, reaching puberty more early in such a setting would allow more people to possibly procreate. So they do have their uses — but in the modern world, they can lead to health complications later in life.

All of the studies worked with children and adolescents under age 18.

“The fact that we see such consistent evidence for faster aging at such a young age suggests that the biological mechanisms that contribute to health disparities are set in motion very early in life. This means that efforts to prevent these health disparities must also begin during childhood,” McLaughlin said.

The next step for the team is to investigate whether treatments aimed at children who have experienced trauma can help prevent or slow down this pattern of early aging.

The paper “Biological Aging in Childhood and Adolescence Following Experiences of Threat and Deprivation: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” has been published in the journal Psychological Bulletin.

A third of the world’s children are exposed to lead, report shows

Around one in every three children are exposed to dangerous concentrations of lead, with the vast majority living in poor countries, according to new research, which has warned about long-term health damage.

Credit Flickr

The Toxic Truth report published by UNICEF said that around 800 million children and young people under the age of 19 are likely to have levels of lead at or above 5 micrograms per decilitre (5μg/dl) in their blood.

There’s no safe level of exposure to lead, according to the World Health Organization, as even at low concentrations it acts as a dangerous toxin. But levels above 5μg/dl are considered by the US Centers for Disease Control as a cause for action.

“This is an absolutely shocking figure,” Nicholas Rees, a policy specialist at Unicef and author of the report, told The Guardian. “We have known for so long about the toxic nature of lead, but we have not known how widespread it is, and how many children are affected.”

Lead is a potent neurotoxin and high exposure to it can kill, while lower levels can cause symptoms that lead to lower IQ scores, shortened attention spans and even violent and criminal behavior later in life. Children can even be born prematurely when exposed to lower levels in the womb.

Children under the age of 5 years are at the greatest risk of suffering lifelong neurological, cognitive and physical damage and even death from lead poisoning. Older children and adults, as well, suffer severe consequences from prolonged exposure to lead in food, water and the air they breathe, including kidney damage and cardiovascular disease.

The role of lead

Richard Fuller of Pure Earth, an NGO that collaborated with Unicef on the report, told The Guardian that people were less aware of the damage caused by lead, after campaigns to remove the toxin from many common uses in developed countries decades ago. “We did a terrific job of taking lead out of petrol but the use of lead has plateaued after falling in the 1970s and 80s,” he said.

Scientists now have more extensive knowledge of the damage caused by lead even at low concentrations than they did previously. For example, the US used to consider levels above 10μg/dl a cause for concern, but changed this to 5μg/dl in 2012 as more evidence became available.

One of the most concerning sources of lead exposure is the unsound recycling of used lead-acid batteries, most of which are found in cars, trucks and other vehicles. Recycling activities are often conducted in informal, unlicensed, and frequently illegal open-air operations close to homes and schools.

Lead is recyclable. It can be reused safely and cleanly through practices consistent with the circular economy and closed-loop supply chain principles, as is the case in countries with appropriate environmental regulations and monitoring. However, many countries lack sufficient formal recycling infrastructure and capacity.

Another cause of lead poisoning is the use of lead compounds, such as lead oxide and lead chromate, as a food additive to make spices appear more vivid in color. The compounds are frequently used with paprika and to make turmeric appear bright yellow. This has been found to happen in India, Africa and Bangladesh.

The risk is also present in developed countries but from other sources, including lead paint, contaminated soil and old water pipes. In the US, for example, children living in poorer households and dilapidated accommodation have been found to be at higher risk from lead exposure, the report showed.

A six-step approach

Addressing lead pollution and exposure among children requires a coordinated and concerted six-pronged approach, according to the report.

  • Monitoring and reporting. Building capacity for blood lead level testing; strengthening the role of the health sector in prevention, diagnosis and management of childhood lead exposure and introducing blood lead level monitoring in the household survey.
  • Prevention and control measures. Preventing children’s exposure to high-risk sites; preventing pregnant women and children’s exposure to products that contain lead and ensuring that children, pregnant women and lactating mothers are receiving adequate health services and nutrition.
  • Management, treatment and remediation. Strengthening primary health care, including providing training for healthcare workers about how to identify, manage and treat lead exposure in children and pregnant women; providing children with improved nutrition and health services.
  • Public awareness and behavior change. Creating continual public education campaigns about the dangers and sources of lead exposure with direct appeals to parents and caregivers, schools, youth associations, community leaders and healthcare workers
  • Legislation and policy. Developing, implementing and enforcing environmental, health and safety standards for manufacturing and recycling of lead-acid batteries, e-waste and other substances that contain lead.
  • Global and regional action. Creating global standard units of measure to verify and track the results of pollution intervention on public health, the environment and local economies and creating international standards and norms around recycling and transportation of used lead-acid batteries.

Young kids might not be transmitting COVID-19 — though they can get it themselves

The role that children play in the COVID-19 pandemic has been unusual from the start. Children appear to be largely spared by the disease, to the point where the vast majority of them don’t even get the disease, and even across those who do, most don’t develop severe symptoms.

This brings up an interesting question: can schools be opened without increasing the risk of coronavirus spread?

Image credits: Piron Guillaume.

Children are not superspreaders

Since the first cases emerged from China, it was clear that SARS-CoV-2 was ‘not another respiratory virus’ — sure, it took a while for everyone to understand that it’s not another flu, but the evidence was clear from the beginning. SARS-CoV-2 was strange in many ways.

Take, for instance, the difference between children and young adults. It’s understandable that a disease hits the elderly and spares the young and healthy — but why is the situation so different between young kids and young adults? Do children not become infected in the first place, or do they simply brush it off without any symptoms? If children are indeed infected, can they pass the disease on? For how long?

All those questions are still up for answering, but we have learned quite a few things about this.

An interesting piece of data comes from the town of Vo, in Italy. The town, which numbers some 3,400 inhabitants, screened almost its entire population (86% of all adults). Surprisingly, no children under 10 years were found to be positive (compared to an overall rate of 2.6% for the total population) — even if their parents had the disease. Data from contact tracing in Japan also seems to suggest far lower infection rates for children, and a preprint study from China suggests the same thing: children were less likely to carry the disease than any other group.

It’s not that children can’t get the disease — but for some reason (which is far from clear at this point), they seem far less likely to do so. When it comes to transmitting the disease, children also seem to be quite fortunate.

A case study in the French Alps found that a child with COVID-19 didn’t transmit it to anyone else, despite exposure to over 100 children. In Australia, none of the 735 students and 128 staff contracted COVID-19 from nine infected children, despite close contact. It seems that if children do get the disease, they are most likely to get it from their adult family, and they rarely pass it on.

It’s still not clear exactly what role children play in the transmission of the disease, but they don’t appear to be super-spreaders, at the very least. The problem is, we won’t know for sure what’s going on until we have access to high-quality, cheap, and widespread immune tests — and that won’t happen for a while. In this time, we will still have to make decisions and find a way to live, somehow.

Considering all of this, two researchers at the University of Southampton advise the reopening of schools for young children, as it won’t be a significant risk in the grand scheme of things.

“Governments worldwide should allow all children back to school regardless of comorbidities. Detailed surveillance will be needed to confirm the safety of this approach, despite recent analysis demonstrating the ineffectiveness of school closures in the recent past.”

Iceland’s experience

Iceland’s experience in this pandemic is extremely valuable, especially as the country’s approach was almost unique in nature. Iceland’s declared plan is to eventually screen everyone in the country, and they’re making great progress in this direction — on a per capita basis, the small nation has the most tests in the world. Because it is so comprehensive (14% of the 360,000 population has so far been tested), Iceland’s data might also have significance for the rest of the world.

In a recently published article, Valtýr Stefánsson Thors, the President of the Icelandic Paediatric Society, described what the country has learned about the role of children in COVID-19.

Iceland has had no closure of primary schools nor day-care centers, although these facilities have been running on a limited power also due to staff issues. Nevertheless, there seemed to be no significant spread of the disease through schools. Furthermore, despite schools not closing down, Iceland has managed to essentially shut down its epidemic, suggesting

“Sooner than was anticipated, the epidemic has come to a halt (very few cases diagnosed per day for the last 5 days, see figure),” Stefánsson Thors explains. “Fewer than 200 children were infected but none needed hospital admission although they were rigorously followed up by telephone (every 1-2 days) while symptomatic.”

However, while Stefánsson Thors says Iceland’s policy has been based on evidence (which would imply that he considers keeping schools open an evidence-based policy), he stops short of making a clear recommendation. Instead, he praises Iceland’s overall coronavirus response, which is understandable considering that the country is now reporting fewer than 10 cases a day.

“To summarise, the Iceland approach was to react in time and escalate measures as the epidemic surged, but all decisions were made based on the available data (and not emotion). Excellent communication between the health authorities and the public where all decisions were made clear a few days in advance. The three people running the press conferences are now rated as the most popular people in Iceland! The endgame is now in hand and considering that only a small proportion of the population has been infected, the risk of resurgence of infections is high and restrictions are likely to remain in place for the remainder of this year causing catastrophic situations for the tourist industry and the economy of Iceland. One can only hope that the next wave of infections (which is likely to come) will also spare young children.”

Should schools be reopened?

This pressing question is still without a clear answer — and we won’t have one anytime soon. However, policymakers should consider existing evidence and make decisions based on this existing evidence.

The existing literature also doesn’t say much about high schools and universities — teenagers and young adults might be in a different category than young children.

It’s also important to note that even if children aren’t necessarily at a high risk themselves, there is an entire staff system around schools that can be subjected to disease spread. This is not a clear-cut issue though, at the very least, children don’t seem to be the major concern for this outbreak.

Children with underlying conditions face severe COVID-19 complications

While we have previously considered children to be somehow spared the worst of the pandemic (more on that here) new research comes to show that it was, perhaps, only us hoping for the best.

Image via Pixabay.

Children, teens, and young adults are at greater risk for severe complications from COVID-19 than believed, a new paper reports, and as with other age groups, those with underlying health conditions are the most vulnerable to the disease. The authors say theirs is the first study to describe the “characteristics of seriously ill pediatric COVID-19 patients in North America”.

The kids aren’t alright

“The idea that COVID-19 is sparing of young people is just false,” said study coauthor Lawrence C. Kleinman, professor and vice-chair for academic development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“While children are more likely to get very sick if they have other chronic conditions, including obesity, it is important to note that children without chronic illness are also at risk. Parents need to continue to take the virus seriously.”

The authors followed 48 American and Canadian children and young adults (from newborns to 21 years old) who were admitted to pediatric intensive care units (PICU) for COVID-19 in March and April. Over 80% of them (43 individuals) had chronic underlying conditions ranging from obesity, diabetes, or seizures to chronic lung disease and immune suppression. Of this group, 38% (18 individuals) required invasive ventilation. All in all, 35 of the patients in this study (73%) presented to the hospital with respiratory symptoms.

During their time in the hospital, 11 patients (23% of total) experienced failure of 2 or more organ systems. Two of them died while receiving care and, by the end of the study period, 15 (31%) were still hospitalized, with 3 still requiring ventilatory support and 1 receiving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

“This study provides a baseline understanding of the early disease burden of COVID-19 in pediatric patients,” said Hariprem Rajasekhar, a pediatric intensivist involved in conducting the study at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School’s Department of Pediatrics.

“The findings confirm that this emerging disease was already widespread in March and that it is not universally benign among children.”

All in all, the team says they were “cautiously encouraged” by the patients’ outcomes as they recorded a 4.2% mortality rate among the PICU group — which is 4.2% higher than I’d like it to be but still way better than the 62% mortality rate the team cites for adults admitted to ICUs. They also highlight the lower incidence of respiratory failure seen in this study compared to those seen in adult ICU patients.

That being said, however, they also point to growing concerns about a new COVID-related syndrome seen in children in the New York metropolitan area, citing the incidence of heart failure and a Kawasaki disease-like condition termed pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome as examples.

“Although our data collection for this study has ended, we continue to develop collaborations with colleagues in our region and across the country to try to understand these more severe complications,” he concludes.

The paper “Characteristics and Outcomes of Children With Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Infection Admitted to US and Canadian Pediatric Intensive Care Units” has been published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

When should schools reopen? The kind of policy that should never be taken lightly

Credit: Pixabay.

While most schools and universities are currently closed, many states in the U.S. will make their own decisions about whether schools will return for the rest of the academic year. In order to help schools open safely, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a set of guidelines for best practices.

The authors of the new report note that safety should come first and that schools should partner closely with local health departments to assess risks, which can differ greatly from county to county.

“From a health perspective, the health of kids and the health of staff has to be thought through before schools reopen,” Dr. Nathaniel Beers, one of the authors of the guidelines and a pediatrician at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The decision to open schools again is not an easy one to make. On the one hand, there are obvious risks to public health. On the other hand, keeping schools closed for too long deprives children of their education, despite commendable efforts to continue schooling online.

What’s more, many children from low-income families rely on free meals served at schools. Others require special education services like speech therapy and occupational therapy.

“Teachers may live in areas without good Wi-Fi. A lot of kids don’t have access to the technology they need. There have been a lot of problems with consistency and equity, and with who can get a meaningful learning experience. Schools have been creative—bus drivers might drive their routes to deliver meals to kids, or to provide a Wi-Fi hot spot from a router in the bus,” Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association (NEA), said in a statement.

What are the risks faced by children?

The worst outcomes of COVID-19 are experienced by those older than 65 or with underlying chronic diseases — most people are well aware of this. But what about children?

Initially, scientists thought that children were less likely to catch the disease in the first place. For instance, a study that followed 1,099 patients with COVID-19 from 552 hospitals in 30 Chinese provinces found very few infections among children — just 0.9% of confirmed cases were under the age of nine, while only 1.2% were between 10 and 19 years old. Of the nine children with COVID-19 in the study, just one developed severe symptoms.

In another recent analysis, researchers in the US and China analyzed more than 72,000 confirmed cases from China, finding that children under the age of 10 accounted for under 1% of all infections. There were 1,023 deaths in the sampled population, but not a single child was among them.

The real rate of infection among children might be much higher, though.

It seems like children may be just as likely to catch the novel coronavirus as any other age group — it’s just that they rarely develop symptoms.

Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, co-led a study with colleagues at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Shenzhen and the Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention in which they monitored 391 COVID-19 patients and 1,286 people who had come in contact with these patients.

When these contacts were tested, the researchers found that children aged 9 and younger were just as likely as other age groups to get infected (7-8% of the time).

Most of the children did not show any symptoms at all but they still carried viral loads that can infect other people.

What’s more, when they do feel sick and exhibit symptoms, some children with COVID-19 risk factors can develop some of the worst outcomes.

A new study published this week followed 48 American and Canadian children and young adults (from newborns to 21 years) who were diagnosed with COVID-19 and admitted to pediatric intensive care units. The researchers found that 80% of them had at least one chronic underlying condition (obesity, diabetes, chronic lung disease, and immune suppression). Unfortunately, two of the patients died while receiving care while others required ventilatory support.

“The idea that COVID-19 is sparing of young people is just false,” said study co-author Lawrence C. Kleinman, professor and vice-chair for academic development at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“While children are more likely to get very sick if they have other chronic conditions, including obesity, it is important to note that children without chronic illness are also at risk. Parents need to continue to take the virus seriously.”

These studies show that children and teens rarely develop the worst outcomes of COVID-19 that are fatal for older adults, but they still can pass the virus to their households and, in some rare cases, can get very sick and die.

When to open schools

According to the AAP, schools can consider reopening as long as they address the following issues:

  • The availability of testing and contact tracing.
  • Implementing infection control measures, such as disinfecting classrooms and surfaces, screening children and staff, use of masks, appropriate social distancing, limiting interactions between children and staff, and testing for infection when appropriate.
  • The availability of supplies for disinfecting and testing.
  • How plans for opening will differ by grade level
  • A plan for possible intermittent school closings.
  • Creating options for a phased reopening, perhaps with reduced school hours, to allow local health officials to monitor community infection rates.
  • Making plans for children with high-risk medical conditions who might not be able to return to school safely.
  • Considering plans for sports teams and events, as well as other extracurricular activities.

These considerations are echoed by teachers’ unions in the UK, such as the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and the National Education Union (NEU), who have called for “clear, scientific published evidence” that schools are safe to re-open.

In a joint statement, the UK school teachers said that “there should be no increase in pupil numbers until a national test, track and trace scheme has been fully rolled out.”

Other countries have already reopened their schools, including Norway, Japan, Denmark, China, and Taiwan. However, children will have to adjust to a new reality. In these countries, staff members are taking students’ temperatures at the door. Some schools have closed playgrounds, and are spacing desks in classrooms a safe six feet apart.

Germany announced that it will allow students back to school in the coming weeks, but with class sizes cut in half. Teachers will have to wear masks and students are told to dress more warmly as windows and doors will be kept open to increase air circulation.

Of course, all of this costs money and with many U.S. public schools already running on a tight budget pre-pandemic, many of these measures might be unfeasible for some districts.

“Tax revenue is going to decrease dramatically. Not only will we not have money to reduce class sizes, we may have huge layoffs,” Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement.

“Kids will have faced months of fear and uncertainty and lived through trauma, but school nurses and school psychologists will likely be laid off,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “And we need more custodians to disinfect schools and they need training on disinfecting for coronavirus. If we don’t have what we need this time, someone could actually die,” she said.

Screen time doesn’t make kids less social, inter-generational analysis reveals

Social distancing means more time inside for our youngsters, and that also means more screen time. However, a new study suggests that this isn’t cause for much concern — young people today are just as socially skilled as those from the previous generation, it found.

Image via Pixabay.

The team compared teacher and parent evaluations of children who started kindergarten in 1998, which is around six years before the launch of Facebook with those who started school in 2010 when the first iPad debuted. According to their findings, both groups were rated similarly on interpersonal skills — such as the ability to form and maintain friendships and get along with people who are different from them. Both groups were also rated similarly for self-control, the ability to regulate one’s temper.

Kids these days

“In virtually every comparison we made, either social skills stayed the same or actually went up modestly for the children born later,” said Douglas Downey, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s very little evidence that screen exposure was problematic for the growth of social skills.”

Downey conducted the study with Benjamin Gibbs, associate professor of sociology at Brigham Young University. The idea for the study came several years ago during — of all things — an argument Downey had with his son at a pizza restaurant. They were discussing whether younger generations had poorer social skills than older ones.

“I started explaining to him how terrible his generation was in terms of their social skills, probably because of how much time they spent looking at screens,” Downey said. “[His son] Nick asked me how I knew that. And when I checked there really wasn’t any solid evidence.”

To get to the bottom of the issue, Downey used data from The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which is run by the National Center for Educational Statistics and follows children from kindergarten to the end of fifth grade. Using this data, they compared children who began kindergarten in 1998 (19,150 students) with the cohort that began kindergarten in 2010 (13,400 students).

As part of the study, each child was assessed by teachers six times during this time. They were also assessed by parents at the beginning and end of kindergarten and the end of first grade. The authors focused mostly on teacher evaluations because they are more abundant and perhaps more objective — although the results from parents were comparable, they say.

Children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screentime showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

As far as the teachers were concerned, children’s social skill did not decline between the 1998 and 2010 groups. In fact, teachers’ evaluations of children’s interpersonal skills and self-control tended to be slightly higher for those in the 2010 cohort than those in the 1998 group, Downey said. Even children in the two groups who were engaging in the most screen time showed similar development in social skills compared to those with little screen exposure, results showed.

“But even that was a pretty small effect,” Downey said. “Overall, we found very little evidence that the time spent on screens was hurting social skills for most children.”

“There is a tendency for every generation at my age to start to have concerns about the younger generation. It is an old story. The introduction of telephones, automobiles, radio all led to moral panic among adults of the time because the technology allowed children to enjoy more autonomy,” he says.

If anything, all this new technology is teaching younger generations that having good social relationships means being able to communicate successfully both face-to-face and online, Downey said.

The paper “Kids These Days: Are Face-to-Face Social Skills among American Children Declining?” has been published in the American Journal of Sociology.

How to talk to your kids about COVID-19

The pandemic situation is stressful and hard to understand for everyone — it’s safe to say that no one really knows what will happen. It’s a stressful period full of uncertainty. But talking to kids can make a big difference in helping them cope with the situation.

Talk to children

As adults, we’re struggling to make sense of this new normal. But we have to remember that for kids and teenagers, it’s even weirder. They’re also experiencing the worries and anxieties related to COVID-19, and they need all the support they can get.

“I think first and foremost, parents and caregivers need to talk to their children and their teens. Don’t wait for them to bring it up. Even preschool children have heard of coronavirus,” says Robin Gurwitch, Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.

Parents often tend to overlook just how much children can understand and how they tend to absorb information. It’s easy to think that it’s safer to shield them as much as possible, but that’s not a healthy approach.

“If you haven’t already done so, our advice is to take a breath and start the conversation. Words could be as simple as, ‘There’s been a lot of talk about coronavirus or COVID-19, tell me what you know about it.’ For teens, you may use that opening or you may even say something like, ‘Tell me what your friends have been saying about it.’ By listening, you will hear their understanding, and you will be able to gently correct any misinformation and misperceptions that they may have about the disease.”

Talking about COVID-19 can help reduce their anxiety

Of course, talking about a pandemic is not exactly the most comfortable thing a parent can do. But it can do good, researchers stress.

“Research after the Boston Marathon bombing found that stress reactions in children whose parents tried to shield them from that event had more stress reactions, more distress than parents who openly talked to their young children about the event,” adds Gurwitch.

Of course, when talking to a child, it’s important to consider what information they need to know and understand. Try to adapt the information for their level of awareness. For instance, children’s ability to understand information about COVID-19 will be low in very young children (i.e., less than age 3) and will become more sophisticated with age. You can discuss the basic symptoms and basic prevention methods, and explain why some of the preventive measures are taken.

Even if it’s just acknowledging the problem, it’s an important step forward.

Stress in children can manifest in multiple ways

It’s also a time where we need to be a bit more understanding with children. The changing situation and the uncertainty that they too must face can manifest in several ways, Gurwitch explains.

“What we often see is that they may be more irritable and whiny, even sometimes more defiant than usual, which is challenging, because as adults, we’re a little bit more short-tempered and a little bit less patient. So we have to make sure we take a breath and recognize that their irritability and defiance may be a problem of distress.”

Try to be more supportive than usual, Gurwtich suggests. It’s important to acknowledge children and try to help them feel better about themselves.

“I can’t underscore [enough] the importance of positive praise for children of all ages, but particularly young children so that they see that you recognize that they are being a help and they’re doing something well. You will increase the chances that they’ll feel better about themselves and repeat that behavior too.”

Encourage them to be responsible and practice good hygiene

However, if ever there was a time to encourage children to be more responsible and practice better hygiene, the time is now. This is almost certainly the most important moment in modern history to practice good hygiene, and the outbreak can be used as leverage to get your message across.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says we should channel our concern into good hygiene — and it’s an excellent opportunity to make something good out of what is a pretty unfortunate situation.

Encourage your children to wash their hands with soap and water frequently (particularly after going to the toilet, coming from a public place, and before and after eating). Children can be taught to sneeze in their elbow or in a tissue that they immediately throw away.

Children seem to be spared by COVID-19 — but some can still get very sick

Credit: Pixabay.

COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the infection with the novel coronavirus, is particularly dangerous for the elderly and individuals with chronic diseases. However, the disease seems to spare children, although they too can become infected and pass the virus to other people. In the most comprehensive study of its kind to date, scientists have confirmed that the virus is much less severe for children.

Most cases of children with COVID-19 are mild or moderate — some don’t show any sign of illness at all

Researchers at Shanghai Children’s Medical Center studied 2,143 cases of COVID-19 among children, from newborns to 18 years of age. The median age of the participants is 7 years.

More than 90% of the cases showed mild to moderate symptoms or were even asymptotic.

Mild cases, representing 52% of the cohort, were marked by the kind of symptoms one typically sees due to the common cold — fever, fatigue, sore throat, runny nose, and cough. Some mild cases also exhibited digestive symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Moderate cases — about 39% of all cases — progressed into pneumonia, which caused frequent fever and cough. There was no obvious shortness of breath in these cases.

Severe cases (5%) started off with early respiratory symptoms and were sometimes joined by gastrointestinal issues. After one week after the first symptoms appeared, the respiratory problems intensified.

Some of these severe cases progressed into those that required critical care (0.4%) due to acute respiratory problems or failure. In some situations, this led to heart failure or kidney injury.

About 4% of the children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, didn’t show any symptoms at all. However, they still tested positive after doctors took nasal or throat swabs.

Only one fatality was registered among the over 2,000 participants — a 14-year-old boy with no further details concerning his condition, such as whether he suffered from any chronic disease known to complicate the disease (cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, autoimmune disorders, and cardiovascular disease).

The findings are due to appear this week in the journal Pediatrics, but the results were made public earlier due to the urgency of the COVID-19 crisis.

They confirm what raw data suggested all along: children can get sick but it’s exceptional for them to die of the illness.

Young children might get infected just as often as adults — it’s just that they rarely show symptoms

Initially, scientists thought that the children are less likely to catch the disease in the first place. For instance, a study that followed 1,099 patients with COVID-19 from 552 hospitals in 30 Chinese provinces found very few infections among children — just 0.9% of confirmed cases were under the age of nine, while only 1.2% were between 10 and 19 years old. Of the nine children with COVID-19 in the study, just one developed severe symptoms.

In another recent analysis, researchers in the US and China analyzed more than 72,000 confirmed cases from China, finding that children under the age of 10 accounted for under 1% of all infections. There were 1,023 deaths in the sampled population, but not a single child was among them.

Children were similarly less affected compared to adults during the 2003 SARS outbreak, caused by a related coronavirus strain called SARS-CoV-1. Writing for The Scientist, journalist Anthony King says, “In Hong Kong, no one under the age of 24 years died, while more than 50 percent of patients over 65 succumbed to the infection. Globally, less than 10 percent of those diagnosed with SARS were children, and only 5 percent of them required intensive care.”

The real rate of infection among children might be much higher, though.

It seems like children may be just as likely to catch the novel coronavirus like any other age group — it’s just that they rarely get sick.

Justin Lessler, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, co-led a study with colleagues at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Shenzhen and the Shenzhen Center for Disease Control and Prevention in which they monitored 391 COVID-19 patients and 1,286 people who had come in contact with these patients.

When these contacts were tested, the researchers found that children aged 9 and younger were just as likely as other age groups to get infected (7-8% of the time).

Most of the children did not show any symptoms at all but they still carried varial loads that can infect other people.

So, although few children actually do get sick, they can be an important source of disease transmission, especially in the household. Many governments have shut down schools and kindergartens — in light of such findings, this has proven very wise so far.

Infants and toddlers are the most vulnerable to complications

That’s the good news. The bad news is that children and infants who do get sick seem to be particularly vulnerable to complications.

According to the results of the Pediatrics , 11% of the infants included in the study and 15% of children in the age group 1-5 were critical cases. These were the most vulnerable groups identified by the study.

The study didn’t answer one important question: why are most cases involving children with COVID-19 so mild compared to adults?

In their study, the authors share some opinions (which weren’t tested). It is possible that cell receptors that bind to the virus may be less sensitive in children. They also often catch the cold and other respiratory illnesses during the winter more frequently than adults, so the children might have built higher levels of antibodies to fight the infection.

Lastly, the study suggests that children likely play a major role in viral transmission. The results suggest that children have more symptoms that make them more contagious than the general population, such as runny nose. Their higher incidence of gastrointestinal issues also raises concerns that the virus may still linger in feces for weeks after the infection clears.

The main takeaway here is that children are largely protected against the most mortal effects of COVID-19 — although we’ll come to learn more about how the diseases affect children once the pandemic reaches its peak and more fringe cases appear. The findings also show that the children aren’t immune to the illness and the situation needs to be handled with care across all age groups.

Lied-to children more likely to grow up as lying, ill-adjusted adults

Parenting is hard work, and lying can seem like a valid option when trying to keep your kids in line. An international team of researchers, however, now reports that this may cause problems for them later in life.

Image via Pixabay.

The team notes that children who were lied to by their parents are likely to lie more as adults and face adjustment difficulties (disruptiveness, conduct problems, the experience of guilt and shame, as well as selfish and manipulative character).

You’ll go blind from that

“Parenting by lying can seem to save time especially when the real reasons behind why parents want children to do something is complicated to explain,” says Setoh Peipei, Assistant Professor at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore’s School of Social Sciences and lead author of the paper.

Children look to their parents when forming their own characters and values. What we tell our children definitely matters, but so does how we act. If parents tell kids that they should always be honest, then go ahead and lie later (dishonesty), it can send conflicting messages to their children. Peipei notes that such behavior “may erode trust and promote dishonesty in children.”

The NTU team collaborated with Canada’s University of Toronto, the United States’ University of California, San Diego, and China’s Zhejiang Normal University. The study included 379 Singaporean young adults, asking whether their parents had lied to them as children, how often and how much they themselves lie now, and whether they faced any difficulties adjusting to adulthood challenges. Adults whose parents lied to them more as children grew up to lie back. They also reported more difficulties in meeting psychological and social challenges.

“Our research suggests that parenting by lying is a practice that has negative consequences for children when they grow up,” adds Peipei. “Parents should be aware of these potential downstream implications and consider alternatives to lying, such as acknowledging children’s feelings, giving information so children know what to expect, offering choices and problem-solving together, to elicit good behaviour from children.”

Participants were quizzed using four questionnaires. The first questionnaire asked them to recall if their parents told them lies that related to eating; leaving and/or staying; children’s misbehaviour; and spending money. (e.g. ‘if you don’t come with me now, I will leave you here by yourself.). The second asked participants to indicate how frequently as adults they lied to their parents, lies in relation to their activities and actions, prosocial lies (or lies intended to benefit others), and exaggerations about events. Lastly, participants filled in two questionnaires that measured their self-reported psychosocial maladjustment and tendency to behave selfishly and impulsively.

While self-reported data is subjective and thus not as reliable as objective data, the analysis found that parenting by lying placed children at a greater risk of developing problems such as aggression, rule-breaking, and intrusive behaviours later on in life. The team further notes that the study is designed to spot a correlation and should not be used to infer a causal relationship between the two elements.

“It is possible that a lie to assert the parents’ power, such as saying ‘If you don’t behave, we will throw you into the ocean to feed the fish’, may be more related to children’s adjustment difficulties as adults, compared to lies that target children’s compliance, e.g. ‘there is no more candy in the house’.

“Future research can explore using multiple informants, such as parents, to report on the same variables,” suggested Asst Prof Setoh.

The paper “Parenting by lying in childhood is associated with negative developmental outcomes in adulthood” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology.

“Wave of maturation” prepares our brains for adolescence

A new study puts together a roadmap of brain development from childhood to adolescence.

Image via Pixabay.

Researchers at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles report a “wave of brain maturation” underpins the social and behavioral changes children develop as they transition to adolescence.

Leaving the little leagues

“We know that children are growing substantially in their ability to self-regulate during this time,” says Mary Baron Nelson, Ph.D., the first author on this publication. “Among many other changes, their attention spans are expanding and they are learning social norms such as gauging appropriate responses or behaviors.”

As children mature, they enter more intense academic and social environments. During this period, their brains develop the ‘hardware’ for greater cognitive, emotional, and behavioral control. However, the team notes that we know very little about how this shift looks like from a neurological point of view.

They studied the anatomical, chemical, and behavioral changes in a group of “234 healthy, inner-city male and female youth” aged 9-12. “We used brain imaging, measured multiple chemicals and metabolites, and took cognitive and neuropsychological scores,” says Dr. Baron Nelson.

During this transition period, a “wave of maturation” sweeps through the brain, they report. The most notable change was seen in white matter tracts, which develop with age from the back to the front of the brain. The frontal lobes, the team explains, mediate executive function — long-term and complex planning, decision-making, and behavior. The frontal lobes only fully mature during our late twenties.

Children get a better handle on their impulses and on complex concepts as they grow into adulthood, and their performance in the researchers’ tasks reflect this. They conclude that the anatomical and metabolic changes described in this study are responsible for the increased abilities.

However, they do note that it is surprising to see these developments so early on, largely beginning during years 9-12.

“We’ve learned that this is not a wait-and-see period of time,” says Dr. Baron Nelson. “Dynamic changes are happening here and this gives us a real opportunity for intervention. We can help shape these kids as they grow.”

The paper “Maturation of Brain Microstructure and Metabolism Associates with Increased Capacity for Self-Regulation during the Transition from Childhood to Adolescence” has been published in the Journal of Neuroscience.


Toddlers prefer high-status winners — but avoid bullies who win by force


Credit: Pixabay.

Toddlers as young as 1.5 years already use cues of social status to decide who they prefer having around or would rather avoid. The findings suggest that seeking out and associating with high social status individuals is a deeply ingrained human trait. However, if the status is acquired by force, the toddlers avoided such individuals. This is perhaps indicative of “fundamental social rules and motives that undergird core social relationships that may be inherent in human nature,” one of the authors of the new study said.

Fair status orientation

In 2015, researchers performed a meta-analysis of studies that looked at 33 non-industrial societies from around the globe, including hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, and agriculturalists. According to the findings, it didn’t matter whether a man is a better hunter, owns more land, or more livestock — men with high social status had more children compared to men with low status. One study remarkably found that 8 percent of men in populations spanning Asia shared nearly identical Y-chromosome sequences with Genghis Khan, the Mongolian ruler who died in 1227.

This directly challenges the egalitarian hypothesis, the idea that status was a relatively weak target of selection for modern humans, since most of that evolutionary period involved living as egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

More recent studies suggest that humans are status-orientated from a very early age. Even nine-month-old infants seem to grasp instances of simple conflict of interest, with one study showing that when two puppets block each other’s paths, the infants assumed that the largest individual will defeat the smallest.

Ashley Thomas and colleagues at the University of California Irvine performed a different variation of this experiment. The authors changed the paradigm such that when the puppets met in the middle — all under the watchful gaze of 1.5-year-old toddlers — one of the puppets yielded to the other by moving aside, allowing the other puppets to continue unincumbered to reach its goal of crossing the stage.

When the children were presented with the two puppets and asked to choose their favorite, 20 out of 23 children reached for the puppet that had won the conflict. This was the high-status puppet that others voluntarily yielded to.

“The way you behave in a conflict of interest reveals something about your social status,” said Thoms.

“Across all social animal species, those with a lower social status will yield to those above them in the hierarchy. We wanted to explore whether small children also judge high and low status individuals differently.”

In another experiment, the researchers documented what happened when a puppet won the conflict by brute force. When the two puppets crossed paths, one of them was forcefully knocked off the stage. Now, 18 out of 22 children avoided the bullying winning puppet, reaching for the victim instead.

“Our research shows that it’s part of human nature to be aware of social status: Even nine-month-old babies assume that the largest person will win, and even 1 1/2 year-old toddlers seek out those whom other people yield to. However, in contrast to other primates, it’s crucial for even the youngest human beings that others also acknowledge someone’s social status or priority right. We’re generally repulsed by bullies who brutally steamroll others to get their own way,” Thomsen explains.

It makes sense for adults who have experience with good and bad leaders to account for such different status representations and motives. However, it’s not clear at all what motives guide infants who have minimal experience in such situations.

“Our results indicate that the fundamental social rules and motives that undergird core social relationships may be inherent in human nature, which itself developed during thousands of years of living together in cultural communities,” Thomsen concludes.

Scientific reference: Ashley J. Thomas et al, Toddlers prefer those who win but not when they win by force, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0415-3. 

Child playing.

Children prefer simple objects over toys because they’re “not limited” to being a single thing

For kids, versatility might be the way to go — as far as toys are concerned, anyway.

Child playing.

Image credits Esi Grünhagen.

I have it on reasonable authority that kids are very likely to ignore a particular toy and make a starry-eyed beeline for the box it came in. I haven’t got any of my own, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of that, but I do have a cat — so I can relate to how confusing such an experience might be.

But fret not, parents around the world, for science comes to the rescue. A new study from the University of Alabama reports that children, particularly those at preschool age, are probably attracted to generic objects because they make for more versatile toys.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

“The inclusion of generic objects like sticks and boxes may allow children to extend their play because the generic objects can be used as multiple things,” said lead author Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader, UA assistant professor of human development and family studies.

“Pretend play such as object substitution has so many benefits, such as increased socialization and problem solving.”

A cardboard box can become virtually anything in the mind of a child, the researchers say. In contrast, a spaceship or unicorn toy — despite being much more visually appealing — is doomed to remain a spaceship or unicorn for as long as you play with it. And therein lies the reason why children, especially younger ones, would generally prefer to play with the box.

Children often substitute one object for another during play. A stick can become a sword, a rifle, or a pen. But such substitutions aren’t made lightly — the object has to have a passable resemblance to the one it’s being substituted for. As such, an object’s features such as shape or markings can disqualify it completely for a certain play-task.

“Children don’t necessarily like the box better than the toy, but they can do more things with the box because it’s not limited,” Scofield said.

The team worked with 66 children and four primary objects: one round unmarked one, one round object marked to resemble a clock, a rectangular unmarked one, and a rectangular object marked to look like a book.

The children were read a story about a young boy named Tommy. Throughout the story, Tommy needed help finding certain items that would help in the scenarios of the story. The children were asked to pick which of the four best fit the object needed in each situation. For example, at one point Tommy wanted to go outside and play with his friends, but it was cold, and he needed a jacket. His jacket was missing a button, so the children were asked which of the four items could be a button.

“There are two parts to this,” Scofield said. “First, we expect children to choose based on shape. Since most buttons are round, we think children will choose one of the two round objects to stand in for the button. Second, we expect children to favor the unmarked shapes. We think the marked shapes have a kind of fixed identity that restricts what they can be.”

The 66 children — 22 three-year-olds, 22 four-year-olds, and 22 five-year-olds — behaved pretty much exactly as the team expected them to behave: they picked the correct shape 92% of the time in all scenarios. They also showed a preference for the unmarked objects, choosing them 65% of the time in all four scenarios. Plain objects offer more flexibility to children, which can be helpful information for parents and childcare providers when purchasing toys, Burns-Nader said.

The team concludes that children’s play spaces stand to benefit from including generic objects with few details as tools to promote object substitution and creative play.

The paper “The role of shape and specificity in young children’s object substitution” has been published in the journal Infant and Child Development.

Want your kids to be calmer and have improved mental health? Connect them to nature, scientists say

Having a stronger bond with nature can alleviate a number of mental health issues for children, a new study reports. The more connected to nature they are, the less likely they are to suffer from hyperactivity, distress, and behavioral problems.

Many parents feel that an overly urban lifestyle is severely detrimental to the development of children, and a new study suggests that they are, at least partly, correct. Increasingly, physicians and psychologists have started to pay more and more attention to this phenomenon, and many environmental programs around the world hope to (re)connect children with nature.

For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) summarized scientific evidence highlighting the benefits of green spaces for children. The WHO recommends that all children have green spaces within 300 meters (1,000 feet) of their home for recreation and play. But in some cases, even when these green spaces aren’t available, they are not being used.

“We noticed a tendency where parents are avoiding nature. They perceive it as dirty and dangerous, and their children unfortunately pick up these attitudes. In addition, the green areas are often unwelcoming with signs like “Keep off the grass”, said Dr. Tanja Sobko from the School of Biological Sciences of the University of Hong Kong and author of the new study.

Sobko and colleagues developed a 16-item parent questionnaire to measure “connectedness to nature’ in very young children. The test focuses on four aspects: enjoyment of nature, empathy for nature, responsibility towards nature, and awareness of nature.

They carried out the questionnaire with 493 families with children aged between 2 and 5, in conjunction with the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire — a well-established measurement of psychological well-being and children’s behavior problems. The scientists found that children with a stronger connection to nature had less distress and hyperactivity, as well as fewer behavioural and emotional difficulties and improved pro-social behaviour.

Remarkably, children who took greater responsibility towards nature also had fewer difficulties connecting and relating with their peers.

Mental health problems affect about 1 in 10 children and young people worldwide, but the percentage can vary significantly by geography. In China, for instance, up to 22% of preschoolers show signs of mental health problems. Having green spaces can be a surprisingly effective way of alleviating these issues, making for happier and more peaceful children.

This isn’t the only project of this type Sobko has worked on. She is also involved in a Hong Kong research-based project called Play&Grow — the first in Hong Kong to promote healthy eating and active playtime with preschool children by connecting them to nature.

The study “Measuring connectedness to nature in preschool children in an urban setting and its relation to psychological functioning” has been published in PLoS.

Credit: Pixabay.

What is the ‘right’ age to have a child? Here’s what the science says

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Over the past three decades, there has been a steady increase in the average age of parents. Advances in fertility science mean that people can, literally, put their eggs or sperm on ice and delay the start of parenthood. Many large companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, now offer egg freezing to employees as part of their healthcare package. Putting off having a baby has never been easier or more socially acceptable. But is it a good thing?

There are three things to consider. Will your child be healthy? Will you get pregnant? How much will it cost?

Parents have a moral obligation to give their child the best start in life. But children born to mothers over the age of 35 and fathers over the age of 45 are at greater risk of having genetic and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia and autism, which arguably affects the child’s quality of life.

Also, older parents are more likely to need assisted reproduction, such as IVF, which is associated with babies being born early or with low birth weight. Babies born via IVF are also at higher risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disease in later life.

If prospective parents freeze their eggs or sperm when they are younger, they can reduce some age-associated risks but not those due to IVF. The method of fertilisation in IVF with frozen eggs is intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), where sperm is injected into the egg. ICSI can also increase the risk of birth defects in children. Using ICSI is also more common in older men where sperm motility is poor. Again, not the best start in life.

So you’ve decided to wait

If you want to wait to have children, you are not alone.

Most couples will fall pregnant after trying for a year. Although one in seven couples has trouble conceiving – and age is a big player in this. One in six women aged between 35 and 39 years of age will not conceive after one year. If their partner is over 40, this drops to more than one in four.

IVF is seen by many as a fail-safe way of conceiving, but its success is also governed by age. For a woman using her own eggs, the success of IVF over 40 is less than 10%.

The risks of delaying parenthood have been simulated with computer modelling. If a 30-year-old woman delays trying for a baby from age 30 until 35, her chances of falling pregnant are reduced by 9%, but IVF will only compensate for 4%.

And if you want to freeze eggs, great. Except women produce fewer eggs (“oocytes”) as they get older, so older women may need more rounds of stimulation to store the eight to ten eggs needed for a reasonable chance of a successful birth – and this can be extremely expensive.

What will it cost you?

Although IVF is expensive, there are also other significant indirect costs of having a child.

The “motherhood wage penalty” is often cited in economic discussions about the effect of motherhood on women’s careers. It is the loss of earnings women are subjected to as they move into a non-paid job for a period of time. There is some evidence to suggest that women can earn more by delaying motherhood from their early twenties to early thirties.

But this wage penalty does not appear to be gender specific. A paternity quota of parental leave was introduced by the Norwegian government in 1993, and a study found a similar negative effect on the earnings of stay-at-home fathers.

The bottom line is, if you take time out to have a family there will be a drop in earnings.

When to start?

The scientific data is clear. The “right” age to have a child according to your biological clock is under 35 for women and under 40 for men.

More than 75% of young people underestimate the impact of age on male and female fertility – yet only 27% of doctors discuss this with patients aged 18-34 years who wish to delay childbearing for social reasons. There needs to be a greater awareness about the risks of delaying family planning, and family doctors should play a more proactive role in this.

So, ultimately, if you want to have a child, the right age may be sooner than you thought.

Charlotte Walker, DPhil Candidate in Women’s and Reproductive Health, University of Oxford and Suzannah Williams, Principal Investigator, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Starting from a seemingly simple tooth, researchers were able to learn much about the lives of Neanderthal children. Credit: Tanya Smith & Daniel Green.

Neanderthal children endured harsh winters and lead poisoning 250,000 years ago

Starting from a seemingly simple tooth, researchers were able to learn much about the lives of Neanderthal children. Credit: Tanya Smith & Daniel Green.

Starting from a seemingly simple tooth, researchers were able to learn much about the lives of Neanderthal children. Credit: Tanya Smith & Daniel Green.

There’s much we don’t know about how our close cousins, the Neanderthals, lived and interacted among themselves. A one-of-a-kind new study is filling in the blanks, providing unprecedented insight into the lives of Neanderthal children. The teeth of two juveniles who lived 250,000 years ago in France suggest that their childhoods were pretty rough, going through much harsher winters than modern humans had experienced. They even were exposed to lead poisoning — the first such instance recorded in a human relative. But despite the numerous hardships, their mothers seem to have done the very best they could.

Nursing Neanderthal kids

The fossilized teeth belonging to the two Neanderthal children were recovered Payre, a site in the Rhone Valley, southeast France. Tanya Smith, a biological anthropologist at Griffith University in Australia, along with colleagues performed a CT scan of the remains and then cut each tooth into thin slices. Like tree rings, teeth record the diet as well as the climate of the individual in each daily growth line of enamel. The results were then compared to the teeth of a modern human child who lived 5,400 years ago at the same site.

Barium isotopes — a marker for milk consumption — told Smith and colleagues that the Neanderthal young were nursed by their mother until they were 2.5 years of age. According to the research team, that’s about just as long as modern humans in hunter-gatherer societies nurse their babies.

The ratio of different isotopes of oxygen found in the layers of the children’s teeth shows that the Neanderthal young lived through colder winters and more seasonal variation in climate than modern humans who lived more recently at the same site. This assertion fits with evidence that scientists previously gathered suggesting that modern humans lived through a much stabler climate in the past 10,000 years.

A 250,000-year-old Neanderthal tooth yields an unprecedented record of the seasons of birth (age 0), nursing (yellow box), illness (red line) and lead exposures (blue lines) over the first 2.8 years of this child’s life. Oxygen isotope values sampled on a weekly basis are shown as a ratio of heavy to light variants. Credit: Smith et al, Science Advances.

A 250,000-year-old Neanderthal tooth yields an unprecedented record of the seasons of birth (age 0), nursing (yellow box), illness (red line) and lead exposures (blue lines) over the first 2.8 years of this child’s life. Oxygen isotope values sampled on a weekly basis are shown as a ratio of heavy to light variants. Credit: Smith et al, Science Advances.

“Our approach is based on the fact that two naturally-occurring atomic variants of oxygen vary in predictable ways. During prolonged periods of warm weather, surface water is higher in the heavy variant of oxygen. The opposite pattern occurs during cool periods. When individuals drink from streams or pools of water, values from these sources are recorded in the hard mineral component of forming teeth,” Smith wrote in The Conversation.

The children were exposed to lead at least twice during their early lifetimes, likely due to food and water with contaminants from nearby lead mines, only 25 kilometers from the archaeological site.

Although the researchers didn’t study adult remains, the findings nevertheless tell us quite a lot about some invisible heroes — the Neanderthal mothers who, despite great hardship, took care of their young as best as they could, perhaps nursing them as carefully as human mothers would.

In the future, the researchers plan on performing the same dental thinning and isotope analysis technique on other specimens and even other types of humans.

“Traditionally, people thought lead exposure occurred in populations only after industrialization, but these results show it happened prehistorically, before lead had been widely released into the environment,” Christine Austin, Assistant Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and co-author of the new study, said in a statement. “Our team plans to analyze more teeth from our ancestors and investigate how lead exposures may have affected their health and how that may relate to how our bodies respond to lead today.”

“Dietary patterns in our early life have far reaching consequences for our health, and by understanding how breastfeeding evolved we can help guide the current population on what is good breastfeeding practice,” said Manish Arora, Professor and Vice Chairman Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at the Icahn School of Medicine. “Our research team is working on applying these techniques in contemporary populations to study how breastfeeding alters health trajectories including those of neurodevelopment, cardiac health and other high priority health outcomes.”

The findings appeared in the journal Science Advances.

Crystals of Kaydor.

The right video game can help children develop empathy and better emotional control

Empathy is a skill that can be learned, new research shows. The research team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping middle schoolers develop it in the most entertaining way possible — with a video game.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Crystals of Kaydor, the Adventures of…. Lettucehead..?
Image credits Center for Healthy Minds / University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On a distant planet, one space-braving robot explorer is forced to crash-land his spaceship. Bits and pieces scatter everywhere, and our intrepid explorer is now stranded. Needless to say, it’s not his best day. Luckily for the bot, however, the planet is inhabited. The locals don’t speak his language, but the robot can gather the pieces needed to fix his ship by building emotional rapport with them.

The robot is played by the middle schoolers, and the whole scenario is a video game — one that can help kids become more empathetic, according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) that study how learning empathy changes the brain.

The game of empathy

“The realization that these skills are actually trainable with video games is important because they are predictors of emotional well-being and health throughout life, and can be practiced anytime — with or without video games,” says co-author Tammi Kral.

The game, named Crystals of Kaydor, was created by the team for this study and it is designed to teach empathy.

The team worked with 150 middle schoolers in two groups. One played Crystals of Kaydor, while the second group played a commercially available game called Bastion. I can attest that this latter is quite an enjoyable adventure game, but it does not target empathy in any way.

Kids rake an average of over 70 minutes of gameplay each day, the team notes. This time tends to increase during adolescence, which coincides with a period of rapid brain development. Teenagers are also highly susceptible to developing feelings of anxiety and depression during this stage of their lives, and they’re also likely to run into bullies. The team’s plan was to see if their game could help them develop emotional finesse during this often confusing period of the children’s lives.

In the game, kids have to interact with the crashlanded alien. However, players can’t understand the character’s language, and must learn to identify the emotions he’s feeling as well as their intensities from his expression — luckily, the alien exhibits the same range of emotions as a human being, and they’re accompanied by humanlike facial expressions. The game is intended to help the kids practice and develop empathy. The researchers measured how accurate the players were in identifying the emotions of the characters in the game.

Neural connectivity changes.

Training-related increases in neural connectivity after Crystals relative to Bastion. Significant group-wide connectivity changes in red, significant differences per individual participants in blue.
Image credits Tammi A. Kral et al., 2018, npj Science of Learning.

By contrast, kids who played Bastion embarked in a storyline where they collected materials needed to build a machine to save their village, but tasks were not designed to teach or measure empathy. Researchers used the game because of its immersive graphics and third-person perspective.

According to Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds and paper co-author, empathy is the foundation of prosocial behavior, and as such, an important skill for our children to develop.

“If we can’t empathize with another’s difficulty or problem, the motivation for helping will not arise,” says Davidson.

“Our long-term aspiration for this work is that video games may be harnessed for good and if the gaming industry and consumers took this message to heart, they could potentially create video games that change the brain in ways that support virtuous qualities rather than destructive qualities.”

Did it work?

The team took functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans from both groups before and after the gaming phase of the study. Both groups played for two weeks. After the two weeks, the team compared the connections between different areas of the brain, focusing on those associated with empathy and emotion regulation. Participants also completed tests during the brain scans that measured how accurately they empathized with others.

Crystals of Kaydor.

Several screenshots depicting the player-controlled robot, the emotion recognition mechanics — which include selecting an emotion and its intensity — and other game mechanics.

After the two weeks of play, kids in the first group showed greater connectivity in brain networks associated with empathy and perspective thinking, the team reports. Some among them exhibited changes in neural networks linked with emotion regulation as well. The team says this last skill is crucial and begins developing around this age — and their game can help promote healthy development.

Kids that played Bastion also showed more robust neural connectivity in brain areas that underpin empathy — however, the effect was much less pronounced than that seen in the Crystals of Kaydor group. They further report that kids in the first group who showed increase connectivity in brain areas related to emotion regulation also scored better on the empathy test after the two week period.

Kids who did not show increased neural connectivity in the brain did not improve on the test of empathic accuracy.

“The fact that not all children showed changes in the brain and corresponding improvements in empathic accuracy underscores the well-known adage that one size does not fit all,” says Davidson.

“One of the key challenges for future research is to determine which children benefit most from this type of training and why.”

Davidson adds that simply teaching empathy skills to groups that have trouble with them, including individuals on the autism spectrum, may be an accessible way to improve their quality of life.

The game is currently only being used for research purposes and is not available to the public, but it has helped inform other games that are currently being submitted to the FDA for clinical applications. The research was funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The paper “Neural correlates of video game empathy training in adolescents: a randomized trial” has been published in the journal npj Science of Learning.

Credit: Pixabay.

Poor grip in children predicts poor health in the future

A weak handshake may be a sign of unhealthy outcomes in the future, according to a new study — the first that associates grip strength with adolescent health over time.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Researchers at Baylor University, the University of Michigan and the University of New England measured the grip of students once in the fall of their fourth-grade year, and again at the end of the fifth grade. The team employed a handgrip dynamometer to assess grip strength for both dominant and non-dominant hands.

Around 27.9 percent of the boys and 20.1 percent of the girls were classified as weak. Both boys and girls with weak grips were more than three times as likely to decline in health or maintain poor health as those who were strong. The effect was most pronounced for cardiometabolic health maintenance and health, as reported in the Journal of Pediatrics.

“What we know about today’s kids is that because of the prevalence of obesity, they are more at risk for developing pre-diabetes and cardiovascular disease than previous generations,” said senior author Paul M. Gordon, a professor Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences.

“This study gives multiple snapshots over time that provide more insight about grip strength and future risks for developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease,” he said. “Low grip strength could be used to predict cardiometabolic risk and to identify adolescents who would benefit from lifestyle changes to improve muscular fitness.”

What the study implies is that, besides good nutrition and aerobic activity, a great emphasis ought to be placed on improving and maintaining muscle strength during adolescence as well. This is particularly important in today’s context where 17.2 percent of U.S. children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years are obese and another 16.2 percent are overweight, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Doctors recommend that youths perform at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily — but fewer than a quarter of U.S. children actually comply.

Gorden notes that if a teen already had a strong grip, developing an even stronger grip doesn’t necessarily provide improvements in the individual’s health. “It’s the low strength that puts you at risk,” he said.

[panel style=”panel-warning” title=”Building muscle is important for your health” footer=””]To build muscle strength, do resistance training two or three times per week. Give your muscles one or two days off in between workouts.

Take advantage of daily activities to challenge your muscles. For example:

  • Lift a carton of milk a few times before you put it back in the refrigerator to build your arm muscles.
  • Take the stairs whenever possible. This will build the muscles in your legs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen.
  • Get active while talking on the phone or standing in line by doing leg lifts and heel raises — and don’t worry if this looks weird. This will help strengthen the muscles in your legs and buttocks.


In adults, grip strength — an easy and inexpensive test to assess an individual health — is an indicator of all-cause death, cardiovascular death, and cardiovascular disease. A 2015 study linked each 11-pound decrease in grip strength to a 16% higher risk of dying from any cause, a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, a 9% higher risk of stroke, and a 7% higher risk of heart attack.

In the future, researchers plan to study how weakness during childhood is reflected in poor health throughout adulthood.

Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

American toddlers are consuming more added sugar than the recommended daily intake for adults

Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

Some sugars occur naturally in fruits and milk products. However, other sugars are added to foods and drinks during preparation, processing, or at your table. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Caleb McDonald)

Exceeding the daily allowance of added sugars is bad for your health — and this can pose even worse consequences for children. According to a recent study, most American toddlers consume copious amounts of added sugars, exceeding the maximum recommended amount for adults.

“This is the first time we have looked at added sugar consumption among children less than 2 years old,” said lead study author Kirsten Herrick, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Our results show that added sugar consumption begins early in life and exceeds current recommendations. These data may be relevant to the upcoming 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

Added sugar — the kind that is not naturally occurring, such as that found in fruits or milk — is one of the world’s biggest health risks. Almost all processed foods have added sugar in them, and it’s this pervasive nature that makes it extremely easy for people to exceed the moderate threshold.

Dietary guidelines suggest limiting calories from added sugar to less than 10% per day, but most Americans exceed this limit greatly. This is a problem because studies have associated sugar consumption to weight gain, increased risk of cardiovascular disease (the number one cause of death worldwide), acne, diabetes, cancer, depression, kidney disease, negatively impacts oral health, and accelerates aging.

Americans are increasingly consuming more added sugars in their diet. Today, the average American adult consumes 152 pounds (68kg) of sugar per year, up from 123 pounds (55kg) in 1970. And according to researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this trend is set to continue as younger generations become accustomed to excessive amounts of sugar from a very young age.

The team of researchers examined data collected from a nationally representative sample of over 800 infants aged 6 to 23 months old who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2011 and 2014. The children’s parents were supposed to document every food item the kids ingested during a 24-hour period, based on which the researchers calculated the mean sugar intake.

The study concluded that toddlers 12 to 18 months old consumer 5.5 teaspoons of sugar per day, while older toddlers aged 19 to 23 months consumed 7.1 teaspoons. To put things into perspective, this is close or, in some cases, more than the recommended amount of daily sugar intake by the American Heart Association (AHA). According to AHA’s guidelines, adult women shouldn’t consume more than 6 teaspoons of sugar and men should limit intake to nine teaspoons per day.

[panel style=”panel-warning” title=”AHA: Limit children’s sugar consumption” footer=”Recommendations from the American Heart Association (AHA).”]The AHA recommends parents watch food labels for added sugar in the form of fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, glucose, honey, lactose, and sucrose. In July 2018, they will be able to see added sugar amounts listed on the labels.[/panel]

Among children aged 12-23 months, the researchers found that added sugar consumption was highest among non-Hispanic black children and lowest among non-Hispanic white children. There were no differences in added sugar consumption by race among infants 6-11 months.

“Once kids start eating table food, they’re often eating the same types of foods that Mom and Dad have in their diet, and other research has demonstrated that adults exceed recommendations for added sugar too,” said Herrick.

The findings are worrisome because sugar is addictive and the earlier you start eating lots of it, the harder it is to kick the habit later in life. Researchers recommend that parents monitor the added sugar intake of their children and take steps to ensure their diets are healthy with minimum added sugar before they turn two.  The primary source of added sugar in Americans’ diet are sweetened beverages, accounting for 47% of all added sugars consumed by Americans. Researchers say that cutting on sugary drinks should be the first thing that parents turn to in order to have the biggest impact on their children’s health.

“The easiest way to reduce added sugars in your own diet and your kids’ diet is to choose foods that you know don’t have them, like fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Herrick.

The findings were presented at the American Society for Nutrition annual meeting during Nutrition 2018, held June 9-12, 2018 in Boston.

Over 4% of English children are obese by the time they’re 11

More than 1 in 25 children in England are severely obese by the time they leave primary school. The overall number of children entering primary school obese is 15,000 — and by the time they finish primary, there will be 22,000 of them.

This is not the ideal children’s food.

Obesity is definitely a modern plague. For the first time in its history, mankind has (in the developed world, at least) an abundance of nutrients and foods available at its disposal. The problem, it seems, is that we’re largely incapable of choosing wisely. Right now, mankind is facing an obesity pandemic, with 2 billion individuals worldwide. Childhood obesity has also grown by a staggering amount: 1000% in the past 40 years. In Europe, Britain is the most obese country, whereas worldwide, the US is the undisputed “champion” of obesity rates, with 70.1% of its population being overweight, and 38.2% obese.

In England, it’s the first time this type of comprehensive analysis has been carried out on childhood obesity. The Local Government Association (LGA), which published the report based on Public Health England figures, said more government action was urgently needed. Izzi Seccombe, chairwoman of the LGA’s community wellbeing board, said:

“These new figures on severely obese children, who are in the most critical overweight category, are a further worrying wake-up call for urgent joined-up action.” She added that unless the problem is tackled, “today’s obese children will become tomorrow’s obese adults” .

However, the government seems unimpressed by these figures. The UK leaders insist that their plan to tackle obesity is among the most comprehensive in the world, even though things seem to be getting worse.

Truth be told though, the UK government isn’t just idling. Just a month ago, it implemented a tax on sugary drinks, which was hailed by doctors and policymakers alike as a victory for health. Already, in many bars across the country, the diet version of soft drinks has become prevalent (and while this is still far from ideal, it’s a big step forward). But for all its merits, the sugary tax might not be enough — and, more importantly, the growth of obesity might be connected with other, deeper problems.

The widely controversial austerity measures implemented over the past decade have caused poverty in the UK to soar. NY Times’ Peter Goodman recently wrote, “After eight years of budget cutting, Britain is looking less like the rest of Europe and more like the United States, with a shrinking welfare state and spreading poverty” — and this is clearly visible in the obesity rates. Unfortunately, healthy food is often more expensive than the unhealthy, calorie-rich alternatives. As a result, Britain has developed its own fast-food culture, with pre-packaged and pre-cooked food often being the norm. These foods are generally cheaper, more filling, but also very unhealthy.

Obesity is linked to a swarm of health problems including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, gallstones, asthma, liver disease, kidney disease, and several types of cancer.

Apps aimed at kids are a sponge of personal data, in direct violation of federal law, study reports

Thousands of apps targeted at children are silently and unlawfully gathering their data, study finds.

Kids apps.

Peekaboo, they see you. Image credits: Thomas Quinn.

In the wake of the Facebook / Cambridge Analytica meltdown, people are understandably quite concerned about the heap of data apps have gathered on them, and what happens to this wealth of information. Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, but according to a study published on April 16th, you should be even more concerned.

Hide your kids

Researchers from the International Computer Science Institute say that the majority of free Android apps intended for children are tracking their data — in direct violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, a federal law that regulates data collection from users under 13 years of age.

The study analyzed 5,855 apps targeted at children, each gathering an average of 750,000 downloads between November 2016 through to March 2018, according to the paper. These apps, which had over 172 million downloads combined, were games like Fun Kid Racing and Motocross Kids — Winter Storm. Using a Nexus 5X as a platform, the team downloaded and ran each app for about 10 minutes, to simulate a usual session. The results were quite worrying.

Thousands of the apps the team looked at collected data from the device in some way or another, some including location (GPS) data or personal information. Up to 235 of these apps accessed the phone’s GPS data, 184 of which later transmitted this data to advertisers, according to the study. According to Serge Egelman, the paper’s co-author, the findings are bound to worry parents, particularly since they would need an ‘expert’ level of technical knowledge to be able to figure out which apps did this for themselves.

“They’re not expected to reverse-engineer applications in order to make a decision whether or not it’s safe for their kids to use,” he said.

People often give permission for apps to gather ad-tracking data in exchange for free service — we’re all guilty of doing this at one point or another. It isn’t only Android apps that do it, either. For better or for worse, there is a myriad of apps — and most likely a Facebook tracker — peeking at your data all the time.

However, we’re adults, and the right to make our own choices comes with its own risks, including giving away permissions for apps. Children, who aren’t discerning enough to know what consequences their buttoning might have, are given protected legal status through COPPA. Children’s apps are thus not allowed to track data without first gaining explicit parental consent. The study, however, found that many of the apps they analyzed didn’t conform to the law.

Egelman says that even if companies try to ensure they conform to COPPA, the results are still worrying. The simulated interactions were handled by a machine randomly pressing buttons, and most apps still tracked data in one form or another. COPPA requires producers to get “verifiable consent,” meaning that they have to take steps to ensure that people know what information they were releasing to the app.

“If a robot is able to click through their consent screen which resulted in carrying data, obviously a small child that doesn’t know what they’re reading is likely to do the same,” Egelman said.

Back in 2014, Google allowed users to reset their Android Advertising ID to give them better control over how online apps track their data. Developers are required to only use that ID when tracking user data, but the team says two-thirds of the apps they looked at didn’t allow users to reset their ID. Even more glaringly, over 1,000 of the apps also collected personal information in direct violation of Google’s terms of service, which prohibits such tracking in apps targeted towards children.

To add insult to injury, over 40% of the apps further failed to transfer the data in a secure way. Some 2,344 children’s apps transferring collected data did not use TLS encryption, a security standard that makes sure the data and its recipient are authentic. The security measure is the “standard method for securely transmitting information,” the researchers said.

The paper ” “Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?” Examining COPPA Compliance at Scale,” has been published in the journal Proceedings on Privacy Enhancing Technologies.