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Amish Farms Are Really Good at Protecting Kids from Asthma

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Ad Meskens via Wikimedia Commons

Some ethnic groups are more asthma-prone than others, but that doesn’t mean it’s genetic. A study of 60 kids on Amish and Hutterite farms found huge differences in asthma between the two groups despite their similar genetic backgrounds, lifestyles, and customs. The study was published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Asthma and other autoimmune conditions have increased dramatically over the past three decades. Today, around 10.3 percent of all American kids from ages 5 to 14 have asthma, yet there’s still a lot about this condition we don’t understand, like why it happens or if it could be prevented. Some studies have shown that kids who live with dogs are less likely to develop asthma, as are kids who live on farms. But the farm itself seems to make a difference. Previous studies have found that Amish children are only half as likely (5.2 percent) as children in the general population to develop asthma, while those in Hutterite communities have almost double the chance (21.3 percent).

To find out why that might be, researchers recruited 30 kids aged 7–14 from an Amish community in Indiana and another 30 aged 8–14 from a Hutterite farm in South Dakota. They took samples of the kids’ blood and looked at their DNA and immune systems. They also installed dust collectors in the families’ homes and used a vacuum to suck up additional particles from the participants’ living room floors and mattresses. Some of the dust samples were used to test the house’s microbiome, or microbial ecosystem. Others were turned into dust extract and used to treat lab mice, which had already been dosed with compounds that made them sensitive to asthma.

Amish and Hutterite cultures can seem very similar to outsiders. Both groups were founded by immigrants from Central Europe. They have big families and live relatively old-fashioned lifestyles, eschewing things like TV and pasteurized milk. But there is one pretty big difference: the way they farm. Amish communities are divided into single-family dairy farms and use horses for field work and transportation, while Hutterite families use modern agricultural equipment on centralized farms, living slightly apart from where they work. Would the communities’ different farming styles be enough to alter their kids’ immune systems?

For sure. Co-author and University of Chicago geneticist Carole Ober said the team observed a “whopping disparity” in asthma between the groups. Six of the Hutterite children (20 percent) had asthma, but none of the Amish kids did. Their immune systems were very different: Amish kids had more infection-fighting cells called neutrophils and fewer inflammation-promoting eosinophils than their Hutterite counterparts.

These differences were mirrored in the very air they breathed. The authors note that dust from Amish homes was “much richer in microbial product.” And mice treated with Amish dust were far less likely than the others to show asthma symptoms.

The researchers were quick to clarify that a richer microbial ecosystem doesn’t equate to a dirty house. Every home has dust; it’s the contents of the dust that differ. In this case, those contents are altered by Amish houses’ proximity to farms. “Their children run in and out of them, often barefoot, all day long,” Ober said in a press statement. “There's no obvious dirt in the Amish homes, no lapse of cleanliness. It's just in the air, and in the dust."

In the future, the team said, these findings could lead to targeted asthma prevention therapies. "You can't put a cow in every family's house," Ober said, "but we may be able to protect children from asthma by finding a way to re-create the time-tested Amish experience."

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Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
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Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

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Health
Skipping Breakfast Could Be Bad for Your Heart
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There are mountains of evidence supporting the claim that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting something in your stomach in the first hours of the morning can regulate your glucose levels, improve your cognition, and keep your hunger in check. Now new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to another reason not to wait until lunchtime to break last night’s fast. As TIME reports, people who skip breakfast are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers surveyed over 4000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 54 living in Spain. After looking at the dietary habits of each participant, they broke them into three groups: people who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in the morning; those who got 5 to 20 percent; and those who ate less than 5 percent.

The subjects who ate very little in the a.m. hours or skipped breakfast all together were 2.5 more likely to have generalized atherosclerosis. This meant that plaque was starting to collect on the walls of their arteries, hardening and narrowing them and increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. People who fell into the 5 to 20 percent calorie category were also more likely to show early signs of the disease, while those who ate the most calories in the morning were the healthiest.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Previous studies have shown a connection between skipping breakfast and health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and unwanted weight gain. A possible explanation for this trend could be that waiting several hours after waking up to eat your first meal of the day could trigger hormonal imbalances. The time between getting into and out of bed is the longest most of us go without eating, and our bodies expect us to consume some calories to help kickstart our energy for the day (drinking straight coffee doesn’t cut it). Another theory is that people who don’t eat in the morning are so hungry by the time lunch rolls around that they overcompensate for those missing calories, which is why skipping breakfast doesn’t make sense as a diet strategy.

But of course there are many breakfast skippers who aren’t motivated by health reasons either way: They just don’t think they have the time or energy to feed themselves in the morning before walking out the door. If this describes you, here are some simple, protein-packed meals you can prepare the night before.

[h/t TIME]

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