Category: General Interest

Men in Medical Face Masks Rated as More Attractive

Source: Sammy Williams on Unsplash

Besides COVID prevention, there is an upside to wearing the ubiquitous face masks worn in many countries: they increase attractiveness, at least in men. 

A study published in Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications measured how different types of face masks changed the attractiveness of 40 male faces.

However, the researchers discovered the type of covering matters – blue medical masks were found to increase facial attractiveness more than other types of masks.

Dr. Michael Lewis, an expert in the psychology of faces, said: “Research carried out before the pandemic found medical face masks reduce attractiveness – so we wanted to test whether this had changed since face coverings became ubiquitous and understand whether the type of mask had any effect.

“Our study suggests faces are considered most attractive when covered by medical face masks. This may be because we’re used to healthcare workers wearing blue masks and now we associate these with people in caring or medical professions. At a time when we feel vulnerable, we may find the wearing of medical masks reassuring and so feel more positive towards the wearer.

“We also found faces are considered significantly more attractive when covered by cloth masks than when not covered. Some of this effect may be a result of being able to hide undesirable features in the lower part of the face—but this effect was present for both less attractive and more attractive people.”

In the study, 43 female participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of images of male faces without a mask; wearing a cloth mask; a blue medical face mask and holding a plain black book covering the area a face mask would hide. The research took place seven months after face masks became mandatory in the UK.

“The results run counter to the pre-pandemic research where it was thought masks made people think about disease and the person should be avoided,” commented Dr Lewis.

“The current research shows the pandemic has changed our psychology in how we perceive the wearers of masks. When we see someone wearing a mask we no longer think ‘that person has a disease, I need to stay away’.

“This relates to evolutionary psychology and why we select the partners we do. Disease and evidence of disease can play a big role in mate selection – previously any cues to disease would be a big turn off. Now we can observe a shift in our psychology such that face masks are no longer acting as a contamination cue.”

Next steps are to see if the reverse holds true for women’s attractiveness to men.

Source: Cardiff University

A Look Back at 2021

Photo by Olya Kobruseva on Pexels


The start of 2021 saw South African hospitals battling for resources amid a COVID surge, and planning for what would be a very controversial and drawn-out vaccination programme which would be partly paid for by the overflowing coffers of the country’s medical aid schemes. Indeed, there was a real concern that the as-yet-to-be-named Beta variant would evade vaccines, which would prove to be true – and a story which would be repeated with the Omicron variant later in the year. In China, the start of an investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Wuhan was stymied by the Chinese government denying them entry.

The middle of the year saw the Third Wave, now driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant which had ravaged India earlier in the year. Production setbacks further dogged South Africa’s vaccine programme as millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccines were deemed unfit for use. In Brazil, deaths passed half a million amid condemnation of the mishandling of the COVID pandemic by its President Jair Bolsonaro. Economic frustration, stoked by political manoeuvring around the trial of former President Jacob Zuma, saw much of the country erupt in looting and violence. This would seriously damage COVID vaccination and surveillance efforts in the affected areas, particularly KwaZulu-Natal.

Statins seemed to be losing some of their bad image as new studies revealed that they were not associated with cognitive decline, following on from a 2020 study showing many of their feared side effects were the result of the ‘nocebo’ effect. The US government initiated a probe into how a controversial drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease managed to receive approval despite no evidence of benefit. Dr Zweli Mkhize stepped down as Health Minister amidst revelations about procurement irregularities relating to the Digital Vibes contract.

Towards the end of the year, South African vaccination rates fell due to a combination of factors: vaccine hesitancy, apathy and difficulty servicing remote areas. Omicron was detected in late November, immediately raising alarm due to the extremely large number of mutations it possesses. In response, countries around the world announced immediate travel bans or heightened quarantine restrictions. However, these proved futile as the highly contagious Omicron was already loose in the borders of many countries, rendering the controversial containment efforts moot.

Fortunately, early signs from Netcare showed that Omicron caused less severe disease. By year end, new effective COVID treatments were going through these stages of their final approval. Merck’s Molnupiravir (Lagevrio) had shown promise for the treatment of COVID, though later analysis with additional data showed it to be less effective than believed. Expected production for Pfizer’s nirmatrelvir (Paxlovid) was expected to increase to 80 million courses after results showed an 89% reduction of hospitalisation or death for outpatients. As the year closed, there was some good news for South Africa’s economy as travel bans were lifted – though the countries imposing them now had Omicron surges of their own to contend with.

Most Superheroes Will Age Healthily, Researchers Conclude

Spider-Man has a healthy outlook, so long as he doesn’t binge drink or smoke like his mentor, Iron Man. Source: Pixabay

Australian researchers in the Christmas edition of the British Medical Journal took a whimsical look at the ageing trajectories of Marvel superheroes based on their attributes and behaviours as seen in the films, finding them to be largely well-adjusted and likely to age healthily. 

Positive behaviours and health assets
Marvel superheroes are physically active, socially engaged, and optimistic, with high educational attainment and (with one notable exception) healthy weight, all of which have been associated with a positive ageing trajectory.

The review found that superheroes regularly engage in physical activity and exercise, both associated with healthy ageing. They often undertake high intensity interval training (HIIT), associated with improved health status in ageing men.

Even during discussions about how to stop aliens from enslaving humanity, superheroes stand regularly and pace, increasing their step count and further improving their healthy outlook.

In terms of social engagement, superheroes exhibit a high degree of social cohesion and connectedness, both linked to reduced dementia risk. People with strong social ties tend to live longer than isolated people, regardless of other risk factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption, and physical activity.

The superheroes show a positive or optimistic mindset on several occasions, as well as psychological resilience and a sense of purpose, all of which have been associated with healthy ageing.  Some have traumatic backgrounds, including Spider-Man who was orphaned, which increases his risk of substance abuse and mental health problems. However, his supportive social contacts, including positive male role models help mitigate this.

Most of the superheroes did not drink or smoke excessively, save for Iron Man and Thor, which is associated with longevity and healthy ageing. However, Thor is already thousands of years old and the researchers could not assume that modifiable personal traits would affect his life trajectory.

Negative behaviours and risk factors
Superheroes are exposed to loud noises, air pollution, and receive multiple head injuries precipitated by high risk physical activities.

Superheroes are repeatedly exposed to loud noises such as explosions, which is linked to hearing loss, which in turn is associated with an increased risk of cognitive impairment and dementia. Some of the superheroes, such as Hulk and Thor, have booming voices, potentially indicative of early sensorineural hearing loss.

During their activities, superheroes sustain multiple major head injuries, increasing their dementia risk. Involvement in high risk activities, which could increase their likelihood for life changing physical injury and disability.

Of the individual cases presented, Black Panther has probably the best health outlook, as he is extremely wealthy and intelligent, health assets that he shares in common with Iron Man. However, unlike Iron Man, he does not drink or smoke excessively, and is a vegetarian, which has well-studied benefits in healthy ageing.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Hulk was noted to have serious health concerns. Bruce Banner transforms to the Hulk when he experiences tachycardia—specifically, a heart rate of 200 beats per minute. The frequency of this occurrence suggests a predisposition to cardiac arrhythmias, possibly indicating underlying cardiac disease.

Hulk’s body mass index (BMI) is about 120 (calculated from height 213cm–243cm and weight 471kg–635kg). Although being in the overweight category might be protective, obesity is associated with a higher death rate as well as dementia, and several chronic health conditions and frailty. Hulk’s BMI also raises pragmatic concerns around future access to appropriate healthcare. Hulk’s almost constant anger (“That’s my secret Captain. I’m always angry”) might lead to increased inflammation and comorbidity in advanced old age.

Source: The British Medical Journal

Brain Surgeons versus Rocket Scientists: Who’s Brainier?

Source: Sammy Williams on Unsplash

A light-hearted research article published in the Christmas edition of the BMJ sought to see once for all who is ‘brainier’: brain surgeons versus rocket scientists.

Brain surgeons and rocket scientists are often put on a pedestal as the exemplars of intellectual endeavour. But which of them is smarter and deserves the accolade more? Or at all? A group of neurosurgeons – who were, of course, totally unbiased – decided to resolve this conundrum.

Delving into the background of the phrases, they wrote that, “The phrase ‘It’s not rocket science’ is thought to have originated in America in the 1950s when German rocket scientists were brought over to support the developing space program and design of military rockets,” a research team led by University College London neuroscientist Inga Usher explained in their new paper.

“The origin of ‘It’s not brain surgery’ is less clear. It is tempting to speculate that the pioneering techniques of the polymath and neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing captured the attention of the public and promulgated the phrase.”

Their study aimed to settle the debate once and for all, and to “provide rocket scientists and brain surgeons with evidence to support their self-assuredness in the company of the other party.” The researchers tested participants across cognitive domains such as emotional discrimination and motor control. Eschewing an overall winner, they assessed the cognitive characteristics of each specialty using a validated online test, the Great British Intelligence Test (GBIT). This test had been used to measure distinct aspects of human cognition, spanning planning and reasoning, working memory, attention, and emotion processing abilities in more than 250 000 members of the British public. Rather than being an IQ test, it is intended to more finely discriminate aspects of cognitive ability. The dataset also let the researchers benchmark both specialties against the general population.

The neurosurgeons showed significantly higher scores than the aerospace engineers in semantic problem solving (possibly attributable to their familiarity with Latin and Greek scientific terminology). Aerospace engineers showed significantly higher scores in mental manipulation and attention. Domain scores for memory, spatial problem solving, problem solving speed, and memory recall speed were similar for both groups. When each group’s scores for the six domains were compared with those in the general population, only two differences were significant: the neurosurgeons’ problem solving speed was quicker and their memory recall speed was slower. No significant difference was found between aerospace engineers and the control population in any of the domains. 

The researchers observed that, “despite the stereotypes depicted by the phrases ‘It’s not rocket science’ and ‘It’s not brain surgery’, all three groups showed a wide range of cognitive abilities. In the original GBIT, 90% of Britons scored above average on at least one aspect of intelligence, illustrating the importance of studying multiple domains that make up a concept of intelligence rather than a single measure.”

The researchers came to the conclusion that, based on the findings, in situations that do not require rapid problem solving, it might be more correct to use the phrase “It’s not brain surgery”. It is possible that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers are unnecessarily placed on a pedestal and that “It’s a walk in the park” or another phrase unrelated to careers might be more appropriate. Other specialties might deserve to be on that pedestal, and future work should aim to determine the most deserving profession.

On a more serious note, they also considered that fewer young people are choosing surgery or engineering as a career path, and that such pursuits are commonly seen as ‘masculine’, deterring many females at an early stage. Their results however, showed that neither field differed significantly in cognitive aspects from the general public, which should help reassure future candidates that there is no ‘requirement’ for any type of personality trait.

Source: The British Medical Journal

Great Gift Ideas for Healthcare Workers

Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

If you’re stuck for gift ideas for a certain healthcare worker, or you are one yourself and looking to leave hints for someone stuck for ideas, this list could help. 

1: A Good Pair of Scrubs
This one may seem obvious, but not all scrubs are identical or of high quality, and healthcare providers can never have enough high-quality scrubs. Ones that are soft, flexible, and moisture-resistant are ideal. For the fashion-conscious healthcare worker, go for jogger style.

2: A Massage Gun
The healthcare working environment is a physically demanding one. With long shifts, sometimes up to 24 hours or even longer, much of the time is spent standing. A massage gun can work wonders for sore muscles, aches, and pains.

3: Good Moisturiser or Hand Cream
Healthcare workers wash their hands and use hand sanitiser all day long, which can cause the skin to dry out and lead to painful cracking. A good moisturiser can go a long way. However, avoid those that are heavily scented since some patients may be sensitive to the chemicals. Another great option is hydrating single-use hand masks.

4: Quick Meal Solutions
Gift cards for food delivery services like Uber Eats or Mr D are a great way for healthcare workers to get an easy meal – and can offer healthy alternatives to junk food. Cooking most likely is not at the top of their priority list either on shift or coming off of it, so this can be a practical way to be supportive and make their lives a little easier.

5: Custom Tailored Lab CoatThe long white lab coat is a symbol of office for physicians, a representation of all the long years of hard work they’ve put into their career as well as a reassuring sight for patients. A custom-tailored and embroidered white lab coat would make the perfect gift for any physician.

6: Spa DayTwo years into the pandemic with the constant threat of burnout, there’s nothing quite like having an indulgent spa day for your healthcare worker friend or family member to relax. A good massage to ease stiff muscles and a sauna session is a fantastic way to help unwind, lease the burden and de-stress.

7: Smartwatch
A smartwatch that can track health data and perform other functions can make a great gift for a healthcare worker if they don’t have one already. Smartwatches are of course convenient for checking the time, but they can also monitor activity and exercise levels and overall well-being and sync with mobile phones for calls, alerts, and many apps – some of which can warn if healthcare workers are falling ill.

8: Travel Mug
People who are on the go for their job can always use a travel mug, especially paramedics who spend long nights on shift on the road. This will keep coffee (or tea, hot chocolate, or soup) at just the right temperature for extended periods of time.

9: Compression Socks
Working in a field that requires a great deal of time spent on their feet, most healthcare workers likely know about the benefits of compression socks. They prevent muscle soreness and stiffness in the legs, and just like regular socks (and scrubs), you can never have too many.

10: Blue Light Blocking Glasses
Hours spent sitting at a computer, inputting patient charts can cause some serious eyestrain. This can purportedly be reduced by wearing blue light glasses (which can be either prescription or non-prescription) which filter out blue light, supposedly reducing strain. Evidence for the glasses are mixed, but many swear by them.

Source: MedPage Today

No Evidence of Videogame and Violence Link in the Real World

New research finds no evidence that violence increases after the release of a new video game.

Violent video games like Call of Duty are often linked by the media and public to real-life violence, although there is limited evidence to support the link. Debate on the topic generally intensifies after mass public shootings, with some commentators linking these violent acts to the perpetrators’ interests in violent video games. But different factors have been pointed out as more likely explanations, such as mental health issues and/or easy access to guns.

Before governments introduce any policies restricting access to violent video games, it is important to establish whether violent video games do indeed increase players’ violence in the real world.

Taking data from the US, Dr Agne Suziedelyte at University of London, provides evidence of the effects of violent video game releases on the violent behaviour of children. Dr Suziedelyte examined the effects of violent video games on two types of violence: aggression against other people, and destruction of objects or property.

Appearing in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, the study focused on boys aged 8 to 18 years: the group most likely to play violent video games.

By using econometric methods which identify plausibly causal effects of violent video games on violence, rather than only associations, Dr Suziedelyte found no evidence that violence against other people increases after the release of a new violent video game. Parents reported, however, that children were more likely to destroy things after playing violent video games.

Dr Suziedelyte said: “Taken together, these results suggest that violent video games may agitate children, but this agitation does not translate into violence against other people — which is the type of violence which we care about most.

“A likely explanation for my results is that video game playing usually takes place at home, where opportunities to engage in violence are lower. This ‘incapacitation’ effect is especially important for violence-prone boys who may be especially attracted to violent video games.

“Therefore, policies that place restrictions on video game sales to minors are unlikely to reduce violence.

Source: City University London

Cats and Dogs Develop Myocarditis from COVID

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels

A new study reveals that pets can be infected with the Alpha variant of SARS-CoV-2. Due to its increased transmissibility and infectivity, this variant rapidly outcompeted pre-existing variants in England, before being replaced by the Delta variant.

The study, which was published in Veterinary Record, describes the first identification of the SARS-CoV-2 Alpha variant in domestic pets; two cats and one dog were positive on PCR test, while two additional cats and one dog displayed antibodies two to six weeks after they developed signs of cardiac disease. Many owners of these pets had themselves developed respiratory symptoms several weeks before their pets became ill and had also tested positive for COVID.  

These pets all had experienced an acute onset of cardiac disease, including severe myocarditis. Humans also have a slight risk for myocarditis from COVID, particularly in children, for whom the risk is 37 times higher than without having contracted COVID, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

“Our study reports the first cases of cats and dogs affected by the COVID alpha variant and highlights, more than ever, the risk that companion animals can become infected with SARS-CoV-2,” said lead author Luca Ferasin, DVM, PhD, of The Ralph Veterinary Referral Centre, in the UK. “We also reported the atypical clinical manifestations characterised by severe heart abnormalities, which is a well-recognised complication in people affected by COVID but has never described in pets before. However, COVID infection in pets remains a relatively rare condition and, based on our observations, it seems that the transmission occurs from humans to pets, rather than vice versa.”

Source: Wiley

There’s no better time to say ‘Thank You, Doctor’

Doctor’s Day is celebrated on 16 November to acknowledge and thank South African doctors for the exceptional services they deliver on a daily basis. EthiQal is proud to continue to honour this annual tradition of celebrating doctors countrywide, this November.

“The challenges that our medical professionals have confronted and overcome over the last year have been astounding,” says Alex Brownlee, EthiQal executive.

“The pandemic has placed immense pressure on doctors and their families, through the increased personal risk of exposure, the frustration associated with delayed surgeries and erratic schedules, and the emotional trauma of seeing more suffering and fatalities.”

EthiQal’s Doctors’ Day initiative is celebrating its fourth year running in 2021. Through its “This is why we say thank you” campaign, EthiQal calls on the country to express gratitude to its doctors for their bravery and commitment, by sharing their healthcare hero stories on the dedicated Doctors’ Day webpage.

In return, five lucky entrants that share their gratitude stories will each receive R1 000 in cash. What’s more, EthiQal will donate R10 000 to the Healthcare Workers Care Network – a nationwide healthcare worker support network that offers all healthcare workers across the public and private sectors free support, pro bono therapy, resources, training and psychoeducation.

To qualify, participants must submit their stories by visiting www.doctorsday.co.za, before 25 November 2021.  Follow the Doctors’ Day stories on social media. (Facebook: @ethiqaldoctor; LinkedIn: EthiQal)

EthiQal proudly also celebrates its 5th birthday on Dr’s Day. EthiQal is the only South African provider of occurrence-based medical professional indemnity insurance for doctors. The dynamic team at EthiQal believes that doctors are national assets and are committed to protecting their well-being and future. 

Chief Sitting Bull’s DNA Matched to Living Descendant

By Orlando Scott Goff – Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27530348

A team of researchers led by the University of Cambridge has proven a man’s claim to be the great-grandson of legendary Native American leader Sitting Bull has been confirmed using DNA extracted from Sitting Bull’s scalp lock. This is the first time ancient DNA has been used to confirm a familial relationship between living and historical individuals.

The researchers used a new method to analyse family lineages using ancient DNA fragments, which searches for ‘autosomal DNA’ in the genetic fragments extracted from a body sample. Since half of our autosomal DNA is inherited from the father and half from the mother, this means genetic matches can be checked regardless of whether an ancestor is on the father or mother’s side of the family.

Autosomal DNA from Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull’s scalp lock was compared to DNA samples from Ernie Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux. The resulting match confirms that Lapointe is Sitting Bull’s great-grandson, and his closest living descendant.

“Autosomal DNA is our non-gender-specific DNA. We managed to locate sufficient amounts of autosomal DNA in Sitting Bull’s hair sample, and compare it to the DNA sample from Ernie Lapointe and other Lakota Sioux – and were delighted to find that it matched,” said senior author of the study, Professor Eske Willerslev in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology and Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre, who also developed the new DNA analysis technique.

Lapointe said: “over the years, many people have tried to question the relationship that I and my sisters have to Sitting Bull.”

Lapointe believes that Sitting Bull’s bones currently lie at a site in Mobridge, South Dakota, in a place that has no significant connection to Sitting Bull and the culture he represented. He also has concerns about the care of the gravesite. There are two official burial sites for Sitting Bull – at Fort Yates, North Dakota and Mobridge – and both receive visitors.

Lapointe, with the help of the DNA evidence confirming his heritage, now hopes to rebury the great Native American leader’s bones in a more appropriate location.

The new technique can be used when very limited genetic data are available, as was the case in this study. This could be used to match up long-dead historical figures and their living descendants.

The technique could also be used on old human DNA that might previously have been considered too degraded to analyse – for example in forensic investigations.

“In principle, you could investigate whoever you want – from outlaws like Jesse James to the Russian tsar’s family, the Romanovs. If there is access to old DNA – typically extracted from bones, hair or teeth, they can be examined in the same way,” said Willerslev, who is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.

It took the scientists 14 years to find a way of extracting useable DNA from the 5-6cm piece of Sitting Bull’s hair, which was extremely degraded, having been stored for over a century at room temperature in a museum before it was returned to Lapointe and his sisters in 2007.

In traditional DNA analysis, which searches for a genetic match between specific DNA in the Y chromosome passed down the male line, or, in females, specific DNA in the mitochondria passed from a mother to her offspring. Neither are particularly reliable, and in this case neither could be used as Lapointe claimed to be related to Sitting Bull on his mother’s side.

Tatanka-Iyotanka, better known as the Native American leader and military leader Sitting Bull (1831–1890), led 1,500 Lakota warriors at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876 and wiped out US General Custer and five companies of soldiers.

“Sitting Bull has always been my hero, ever since I was a boy. I admire his courage and his drive. That’s why I almost choked on my coffee when I read in a magazine in 2007 that the Smithsonian Museum had decided to return Sitting Bull’s hair to Ernie Lapointe and his three sisters, in accordance with new US legislation on the repatriation of museum objects,” said Willerslev.

He added: “I wrote to Lapointe and explained that I specialised in the analysis of ancient DNA, and that I was an admirer of Sitting Bull, and I would consider it a great honour if I could be allowed to compare the DNA of Ernie and his sisters with the DNA of the Native American leader’s hair when it was returned to them.”

Until this study, the familial relationship between LaPointe and Sitting Bull was based on birth and death certificates, a family tree, and a review of historical records. This new genetic analysis lends further credence to his claims. Before the remain can be reburied, they will have to be analysed in the same to ensure a genetic match to Sitting Bull.

Before the remains from the Mobridge burial site can be reburied elsewhere, they will have to be analysed in a similar way to the hair sample to ensure a genetic match to Sitting Bull. 

Source: Cambridge University

Men and Women Have the Same Emotional Turbulence

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

Contrary to widely held gender stereotypes, women are not more emotional than men, say researchers of a new study into emotional differences in gender.

Feelings such as enthusiasm, nervousness or strength are often interpreted differently between the two genders. It’s what being ’emotional’ means to men versus women that is part of a new University of Michigan study that dispels these biases.

For example, a man whose emotions fluctuate in a sporting event is described as “passionate” while a woman whose emotions change in any event, even if provoked, is considered “irrational,” said senior author Adriene Beltz, assistant professor of psychology.

Prof Beltz and colleagues followed 142 men and women over 75 days to learn more about their daily emotions, both positive and negative. The women were divided into four groups: one naturally cycling and three others who used different forms of oral contraceptives.

The researchers detected fluctuations in emotions three different ways, and then compared the sexes. Little to no differences were seen between the men and the various groups of women, suggesting that men’s emotions fluctuate to the same extent as women’s, although likely for different reasons.

“We also didn’t find meaningful differences between the groups of women, making clear that emotional highs and lows are due to many influences – not only hormones,” Prof Beltz said.

These findings could have implications for research, which has historically excluded women partly because ovarian hormone fluctuations result in variation, especially in emotion, which cannot be experimentally controlled, the researchers said.

“Our study uniquely provides psychological data to show that the justifications for excluding women in the first place (because fluctuating ovarian hormones, and consequently emotions, confounded experiments) were misguided,” Prof Beltz said.

Source: University of Michigan