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Reader’s Digest Health Report: January/February 2017

We’ve rounded up the four best medical discoveries from around the world for January and February.

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1. Excess Body Fat Linked to More Cancers

After assessing more than 1,000 studies, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently concluded that maintaining a healthy weight lowers the risk of developing cancer in 13 different sites, including the liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. Previously, IARC had linked being overweight or obese to only five varieties – notably colorectal and esophageal cancers.

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2. Memory Decline Results from Change of Focus

From an experiment published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to monitor the brain activity of people aged 19 to 76 as they took a visual-memory test. Starting in middle age, subjects began scoring lower than their younger counterparts. This didn’t reflect impairment, however, but rather a difference in what the older brain considers important. Older participants had higher activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, which deals with introspection and information about one’s own life. The elderly might be able to improve their memory for details by training the brain to pay attention to external’s information.

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3. Protein Intake Lowers Risk of Frailty

Researchers in Bordeaux, France, looked at 1,345 seniors to see how many could be considered “frail,” which was defined as having three or more of the following: significant unintentional weight loss, fatigue, muscle weakness, a slow walking pace or less than an hour of physical activity per week. They found that subjects who ate at least one gram of protein a day for each kilogram of their body weight were almost 60 per cent less likely to be frail.

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4. Reading Fiction Builds Empathy

A review compiled by a University of Toronto psychologist suggests that novels and short stories encourage empathy. In one of the studies, participants who read literary fiction scored better than controls (who read non-fiction) at guessing what people were feeling by looking at photographs of their eyes. In another, subjects who read a story about a Muslim woman showed a reduced unconscious bias against Middle Eastern-looking faces.