Concussions have deservedly gotten most of the attention in efforts to reduce the risk of head injuries in sports.
But scientists increasingly think that hits too small to cause concussions also affect the brain, and that those effects add up. And it looks like some athletes may be more vulnerable than others.
"Maybe we should be asking a different question," says Dr. Thomas McAllister, chair of the department of psychiatry at the Indiana University School of Medicine. "Not 'Is hitting your head bad?', but for whom it's bad."
To figure that out, McAllister and colleagues put sensors in the helmets of varsity football and hockey players at Dartmouth University, to measure when and how hard they got hit over the course of a season.
They also had the athletes take cognitive tests at the beginning and end of the season, along with athletes in non-contact sports like Nordic skiing and track and field.
They didn't find the dramatic differences in brain performance at the end of the season that they were expecting in the contact-sport players.
But when they looked at the athletes who didn't do well on the cognitive tests at the end of the season, more of them were playing contact sports. All told, 20 percent of the 80 football and ice hockey players scored 1.5 standard deviations lower than would be expected, compared to 11 percent of the 79 athletes in non-contact sports.
That group of contact-sport athletes also had more changes in their brain's white matter in MRI scans.The more often they got hit and the more intense the hits, the more the white matter changed.
The study was published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.
White matter is the brain's communications network, and changes in white matter are a hallmark of brain injury. But the changes seen here were subtle, and the study can't prove that those changes came as a result of hits.
This may even end up being good news for contact sports players, McAllister speculates, because at the beginning of the season their brains were looking pretty good. And that's in people who had been playing these sports for years.
"It's sort of reassuring," he told Shots. "But we don't know if these kinds of changes are long-lasting and progressive, or whether it's just a subset of people who might be vulnerable to these repetitive impacts."
If that turns out to be true, and if researchers could figure out a way to identify people whose brains are more vulnerable, then perhaps that could be factored in when children choose sports.
As the Planet Money t-shirts (all 25,000 of them) have fanned out across the country - going to people like Arjun and Heidi, who listen on long car rides; Nancy in Denver, whose mother sewed jeans to support their family in El Paso; and Corvell, a music maker and dreamer of dreams - so too has the multi-everything microsite. Word of the XXL-sized reporting project has cropped up in publications such as Fast Company, the Of A Kind newsletter, Glamour and Gizmodo.
Writing about the women who made our shirts, Doris in Columbia and Jasmine in Bangladesh, Jezebel remarked, "For us watching them at home, surrounded by the fabrics we purchased in a store, putting faces to the materials we use every day is an exercise in extreme humility."
Glamour noted the "fantastic step-by-step video series... Have you ever stopped to think about your $20 T-shirt's journey before it landed, neatly folded in your third dresser drawer?"
And last night, Stephen Colbert hosted Alex Blumberg, co-creator of Planet Money and lead reporter on the T-shirt project. Colbert declared his dislike for the reporting right up front.
"Not a fan of this project," Colbert told Blumberg. "The global marketplace is someplace where we export work to have happen in whatever conditions we want, and then the products come back to me cheap enough to throw about without thinking about it. ...Why do you want to make the hand of the market visible?"
Watch Blumberg set Colbert straight about reporting on this tee (which you can still get your hands on, until the end of the month):
Did you travel in 2013? Perhaps you went to Disneyland. Or maybe you met someone special or watched the Super Bowl. Those moments of commonality are being highlighted by Facebook, which today released its list of the year's most popular topics, events and places.
After we spent a few moments reviewing the most common life events people reported in 2013, the list reads a bit like a 10-sentence short story — perhaps a fable or a coming-of-age tale.
See what you think: Here are the events Facebook says "people added to their Timeline most frequently in 2013."
1. Added a relationship, got engaged or got married
4. Ended a relationship
5. First met a friend
6. Added a family member, expecting a baby or had a baby
7. Got a pet
8. Lost a loved one
9. Got a piercing
10. Quit a habit
On a more individual level, if you're the sort of person who goes through life logged in to Facebook, this link should take you to the site's review of events in your life this year. Prepare to be moderately creeped out by a computer's parsing of your experiences.
The list above reflects events worldwide; Facebook released the data today, along with snapshots of various countries and other data, including popular topics for updates and the top locations for "check-ins" at a particular geographic spot.
Two lists focused on people's favorite to discuss on Facebook — in the United States and worldwide.
Most Talked About Topics In The U.S.
1. Super Bowl
2. Government Shutdown
3. Boston Marathon
4. Syria Crisis
5. Harlem Shake
6. Pope Francis
7. George Zimmerman
8. Royal Baby
9. Nelson Mandela
10. Presidential Inauguration
11. NBA Finals
12. Kim Kardashian
13. Miley Cyrus
14. James Gandolfini
15. Meteor Sighting
Most Talked About Topics Worldwide
1. Pope Francis
2. Election [includes all campaigns]
3. Royal Baby
5. Margaret Thatcher
6. Harlem Shake
7. Miley Cyrus
8. Boston Marathon
9. Tour de France
10. Nelson Mandela
We'll note that the Harlem Shake was particularly popular in Poland — in fact, it was bigger than anything else in the country, coming in at No. 1.
Here's the list of the most popular spots to check in on Facebook in the United States. Of course, these places aren't necessarily the ones Americans visited the most — in a sense, they're the ones people most wanted others to know they'd been to.
U.S. Top Check-Ins
1. Disneyland & Disney California Adventure (Anaheim, Calif.)
2. Times Square (New York)
3. Epcot - Walt Disney World (Lake Buena Vista, Fla.)
4. Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles)
5. AT&T Park (San Francisco)
6. Rangers Ballpark (Arlington, Texas)
7. Universal Studios Hollywood (Universal City, Calif.)
8. Fenway Park (Boston)
9. MGM Grand Hotel & Casino (Las Vegas)
10. Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo (Houston, Texas)
On Facebook's list of hot spots worldwide, Disneyland was No. 1 in three other locations: France, Japan and Hong Kong. In Russia, the place to be was Gorky Park of Culture and Leisure.
And some of the global check-ins reflected large national events. For instance, the most popular spot in Turkey was Taksim Square, the epicenter of anti-government protests in Istanbul.
There's a brand-new holiday display at Florida's state Capitol in Tallahassee: a pole celebrating the fake holiday Festivus from the TV show Seinfeld.
It's the latest protest exhibit after a nativity scene was set up in the rotunda last week.
"This whole thing is just a serious feat of ... ridiculousness," says Chaz Stevens, who marched into the Capitol building on Wednesday morning clutching a case of empty Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans and a 6-foot pole made of PVC pipe. It's a nod to the unadorned aluminum pole that is part of the nonsecular Festivus holiday invented by George Costanza's dad on Seinfeld.
The celebration also includes an "airing of grievances" during the family meal, in which each person describes disappointments experienced over the course of the year.
Stevens says when he heard about the Capitol nativity scene, it was just too much. So he applied to the state to install his own display: a pole covered in beer cans.
"This is about separation of church and state," Stevens says. "The government shouldn't be in this business of allowing the mixture of church and state."
The displays are allowed inside Florida's Capitol building because the state has designated the rotunda as "a public forum." Howard Simon of the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union says the state had no choice.
"They're not going to be allowed to discriminate. It's going to be a public forum for all forms of speech and expression and displays," Simon says.
In fact, Florida has a pending application from a group called the Satanic Temple. Simon says it's unconstitutional for government to put up nativity scenes because that's sponsorship of religion. So these public forums tend to become free-speech "battle zones."
Andrew Seidel of the Freedom From Religion Foundation says that's what happened in a Loudon County, Va., courthouse two years ago.
"I think it was something like nine or 10 atheist displays went up. One of them was a crucified Santa. One of them was the Flying Spaghetti Monster," Seidel says.
Seidel says it all started when elected leaders there allowed a nativity scene on public property. He says cities tend to close forums after such displays appear. "When a religious group seeks to co-opt the power and the prestige of the government for their religious message, the best way to dilute that co-opting of the power and prestige is to put up our own message."
His foundation's banner at the Florida Capitol says "Happy Winter Solstice." Below that is a drawing of the Founding Fathers and Statue of Liberty worshiping a just-born Bill of Rights. He says the banner was a response to the nativity unveiled with a worship service two days earlier by Florida Prayer Network Director Pam Olsen.
"We are taking a stand for Christ in Christmas, a stand for truth and religious freedom, and what better place to do this than the heart of our state government?" Olsen said.
Olsen says the Chicago-based group that sponsored her celebration aims to put a nativity at every state Capitol. Stevens says he and his pole are up for the challenge.
"I'll see all 50 Capitols then," Stevens says. "Why not? Sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon."
No word yet on whether Florida accepted the Satanic Temple application.
The death rate from malaria dropped by 45 percent globally between 2000 and 2012, the World Health Organization reported Wednesday. In Africa, the rate fell by almost half.
Despite this progress, the mosquito-borne disease remains a serious problem in the developing world, said Dr. Robert Newman, who heads WHO's global malaria program. There were more than 200 million cases of malaria in 2012, and the disease killed an estimated 627,000 people last year.
"The burden is not equally distributed," Newman told reporters at a briefing in Washington Wednesday. Seventeen countries in the world account for 80 percent of the malaria deaths, he said. Sixteen of those countries are in Africa. The other country in that group is India.
Nevertheless, Newman calls the 45 percent reduction in malaria deaths a huge turnaround. "That's pretty astonishing for a disease that had been neglected and abandoned," he said. "People had decided that [malaria] is just something you have to live with in Africa, in Asia, in the Americas."
The other good news in WHO's report is that, compared with 12 years ago, more kids in Africa are sleeping under insecticide-treated bed nets and more people have access to malaria drugs that actually work. Plus, rapid diagnostic tests are now widely available in most low-income countries.
The billions of dollars spent by governments and foundations over the last decade to fight malaria are paying off, Newman says.
Still though, challenges from malaria remain huge. Resistance to some of the most effective malaria drugs has started to develop in Southeast Asia. Efforts to produce an effective vaccine, so far, haven't panned out.
Although the number of malaria cases is going down, it's clear that the world will fall far short of the World Health Assembly's goal to slash the number of malaria cases by 75 percent by 2015.
And malaria isn't just a just a deadly disease in Africa, said Joy Phumaphi, the former health minister of Botswana. It's also a tremendous economic burden on the continent.
"Once a child presents with a fever, a mother has to take care of that child," Phumaphi told Shots. "The mothers are the main breadwinners in rural communities." They plow the fields, and they go and sell produce in the markets, she says.
"As soon as the child becomes sick, the mother cannot do that anymore," Phumaphi said. "So her income shrinks. And she has to take the limited money that she was going to spend on food or educating her children to now go and buy medicines."