Tis the season for lists of the year's standout films, books, and songs. We do things a little differently at Men's Health. The most notable film on our list is bacterial. The must-read: Your text messages (but only if you aren't driving). And the top song is an instrumental: the sound of your bell being rung on the field.
Here are four health menaces that emerged in 2011—and, as writer Christie Aschwanden found out, aren't going away in 2012. Read her report below to learn just how scary they are, and what you should do to dodge them in the new year.
HEALTH MENACE #1: E. coli
This year’s outbreak began in Germany with a batch of tainted sprouts—and ended with 50 deaths and more than 4,000 infections worldwide. What made this never-before-seen strain the deadliest in modern history? One possibility: The German bug is unusually adept at clinging to the human GI tract, says Robert Tauxe, M.D., M.P.H., deputy director of foodborne diseases at the CDC.
It's tempting to chalk this up to last year's news, but here's the problem: Scientists still don't have any idea where this unique E. coli strain came from? A person? An animal? "Until we understand this, it's tough to say whether or not an outbreak will occur in the United States," says Edward Dudley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of food science at Penn State University, who has studied E. coli for a decade.
How to Protect Yourself: Even if the German E. coli strain doesn't migrate to America, you're still at risk from eating raw sprouts: They've been the source of at least 30 salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in the United States since 1996. So make sure you blanch sprouts for 1 minute in boiling water before you eat them. Other produce can be safely cleaned with a cold-water rinse plus a quick scrub, especially if the skin is edible or the produce requires slicing. (Your knife can transport bacteria from the skin into the flesh—a food-safety slipup that may be behind the recent listeria outbreak traced to Colorado cantaloupes.)
And don't forget to check your chuck: Simmons College researchers found that only 3 percent of home cooks check the temperature of hamburgers, despite the fact that 90 percent of those cooks are aware of the link between raw ground beef and E. coli. Ground beef and ground pork should hit an internal temperature of 160ºF; poultry should reach 165ºF.
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HEALTH MENACE #2: Multitasking motorists
We'll assume you've wised up and stopped texting behind the wheel. But even if you aren't stupidly typing and driving, you could still be endangered by all the idiots who are—and there are plenty out there: In a recent CDC survey, more than half of U.S. drivers ages 18 to 29 admitted to texting (or e-mailing!) while driving at least once in the last 30 days.
To date, 34 states have banned texting while driving, but legislation may not be the answer. Since California implemented the ban in 2009, rates have doubled, according to a new Automobile Club of Southern California survey. Drivers may now simply hide their phones while texting, leading them to look down for longer periods of time. As a result, crash rates have actually increased in some states with texting bans, according to a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute.
How to Protect Yourself: Learn how to spot a multitasking motorist: Texting drivers generally drive more slowly than the rest of traffic and tend to drift in and out of their lanes, say Clemson University researchers. If you spot a meandering slowpoke, allow for more than the typical 4-second following distance, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood advises. You should also pay particular attention as you approach highway off-ramps—distracted drivers are more likely to miss their exits and may swerve at the last minute to make them, according to a recent report from the National Safety Council.
HEALTH MENACE #3: Bedbugs
Bedbugs are notorious city dwellers. But now the little bloodsuckers are spreading so fast that even suburbanites are finding them under mattresses and in dark corners. Infestations leaped by as much as 30 percent in 2011, according to a new survey from the National Pest Management Association (NPMA). The reason for the spike isn't entirely clear, though the study points to an uptick in travel, bedbugs' increased resistance to pesticides, and a lack of education on how to stop their spread.
Scientists recently convened in Washington, D.C., for the Second National Bedbug Summit, but it may be a while before we see the results of their strategizing. After the meeting, the EPA awarded 1- to 2-year research grants to explore new methods of eradication. In the meantime, you can expect the spread to continue: The little buggers are among the toughest pests to eradicate, according to the NPMA.
How to Protect Yourself: Bedbugs like to hide near their food source—sleeping humans—so check around your sheets, pillowcases, and mattress for tiny black spots (excrement), reddish spots (crushed bugs), small white eggs, or bloodstains. And, while you're at it, check these other 8 Places Germs Hide in Your Home. If you suspect you're sleeping with the enemy, place a Climbup Insect Interceptor Bedbug Monitor and Trap ($20, bedbugsupply.com) under each leg of your bed. A slick layer of talc lining the traps will capture any passing pests. Catch a couple? Call an exterminator who's trained in dealing with bedbugs.
HEALTH MENACE #4: Sports concussions
Concussions hit the headlines in 2011 after Stanley Cup winner Sidney Crosby took a blow to the head and 4 days later was struck again. He was out for the rest of the season. In September, Phillies second baseman Chase Utley and Eagles quarterback Michael Vick sustained similar injuries. The big guys brought national attention to a growing problem: The rate of traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, is on the rise in the general population, according to the most recent CDC data.
"Concussion rates may continue to rise," says Johna Register-Mihalik, Ph.D., A.T.C., a researcher at the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The trend may partly be a function of increased awareness—concussions that once would have been written off are now being diagnosed.
But also, we’re changing. "Athletes are getting bigger, stronger, and faster, and people now often play sports year-round," she says. Although pro and college leagues have adopted stricter safety standards, those standards may not trickle down to the recreational level at which performance is less critical and doctors aren't waiting on the sidelines, says Register-Mihalik.
How to Protect Yourself: Strengthen your neck to protect your head. "A stronger neck helps control acceleration of your head, especially when you're able to prepare yourself for a blow," says Register-Mihalik. "This in turn may slow the movement of your brain, which is the cause of concussion." Try isometric neck flexions—you press your forehead firmly against your hand, trying to resist as much as possible. Then, whenever you think you're about to take a hit, try to brace yourself: Look in the direction of the potential hit, tense your neck muscles, and bend your knees and waist slightly. "If you're prepared for the impact, it may help dissipate the force to your brain," Register-Mihalik says.
IS IT A CONCUSSION? Here's how to know when it's safe to get back in the game.