Scary Money News

Besides wrinkles, there’s one thing that nobody wants more of: debt. And while people in the U.S. are less likely to be in the red than they were in the past, those who do have debt are even deeper in the hole, according to a just-released report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

To track the ups and downs of U.S. household debt, economists took a look at money owed by American families in 2000 and 2011 and adjusted the figures for inflation. Their findings: the percentage of U.S. households in debt declined from 74 percent to 69 percent. Unfortunately, people who carried debt in 2011 owed a median of $ 70,000—nearly $ 21,000 more than the inflation-adjusted figure from the year 2000. And it gets worse: The net worth of most U.S. households—as in total, not just those that were in debt—dropped by nearly $ 13,000 during the years examined by the study.

Compulsive shopping isn’t the culprit here—college loans and medical bills were more likely to be behind people’s debt than credit card statements.

Want to get out of the hole—or make sure to stay in the black? Start with these simple ways to avoid debt  and manage any outstanding balance you might have.

photo: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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Scary News About STDs

In terrifying sex news, a recent CDC report estimates that there are more than 19.7 million new sexually transmitted infections in the U.S. each year. While many of these infections are treatable and even curable, they commonly go undetected because they often have no signs or symptoms.

Case in point: The most common infection, HPV, often presents without any symptoms at all. “About 70% of all new infections are HPV infections,” says study author Catherine Lindsey Satterwhite, Ph.D., epidemiologist with the CDC. Most of those cases will go away on their own, but few can lead to genital warts or even cervical cancer.

Before you swear off sex altogether, remember that there are plenty of preventative measures you can—and should!—take. Here, the tips you need to stay safe:

Be smart about condoms
They may not be foolproof, but condoms are your best line of defense (other than abstinence) against STDs. “The big thing to remember with HPV is that it’s transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, so even when using condoms you’re not going to have full protection, because there is plenty of genital skin that doesn’t get covered,” says Alyssa Dweck, M.D., author of V is for Vagina. The same goes for the herpes virus. But don’t let that deter you from using protection. It still offers significant protection against infections such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis, and others.
RELATED: When Is It OK To Go Without a Condom?

Get tested regularly
For women aged 21-30, doctors suggest getting a pap smear once every three years, as well as a screening for common STDs and HIV annually. Women over 30 should also expect an HPV test along with their pap smear every five years. “If you’re with a new partner, anticipating being with a partner, or if you have multiple partners, you should get tested,” says Dweck.
RELATED: Types of STDS: Trouble Down Below

Ask your doctor about any irregularities
Even if your next screening isn’t for two years, you should always see your doctor if symptoms pop up. “Any weird bumps, abnormal bleeding after sex, or signs of an infection may be concerning,” says Dweck. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, call up your gyno.
RELATED: 7 Surprising STD Facts

photo: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock

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The Scary Stomach Bug You Need to Know About

Move over, major flu outbreak—there’s a nasty new bug in town. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a new strain of norovirus from Australia is now the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the country, accounting for 58 percent of infection cases in December.

Called the GII.4 Sydney, the virus causes gastroenteritis–an illness that attacks the stomach and intestinal tract, leaving those affected with nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea (food poisoning is another example of gastroenteritis). The CDC estimates that noroviruses cause 21 million illnesses each year, contributing to 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths in the U.S. The disease can be the most severe for young children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions.

“Every few years new strains come around. As far we know, it’s too early to tell if it’s going to be a worse norovirus than we see every year,” says Todd Reynolds, M.D., a family medicine practitioner at Prevea Health, says.

The virus spreads quickly from person to person, especially in closed crowded places such as schools, hotels, public transit vehicles, and daycare facilities. Gross fact alert: Contamination with norovirus means that the surface or area in question has been exposed to vomit or diarrhea particles, Reynolds says. These particles don’t have to be obvious or huge—microscropic particles left over on someone’s hands are enough to make you violently ill. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine or medicine available to prevent or treat norovirus infections. On the plus side, these illnesses are short-lived, and often don’t last more than 72 hours, Reynolds says. That said, those 72 hours are sure to be miserable, and possibly life-threatening.

Even though there’s no way to prevent the virus entirely, there are precautions you can take. Adopt these four practices, STAT:

Wash your hands. Seriously.
Reynolds recommends spending a solid 30 seconds rinsing your hands with soap and water–water above body temperature often kills more bacteria. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are useful if you’re on the go. And along these lines—stop touching your hair and face so much! Whatever you can do to minimize the chance of exposure to this virus, the better.

Scrub all contaminated surfaces
The CDC suggests using a chlorine bleach solution to rid infected areas. Wearing gloves can prevent your skin from feeling irritated and cracked, Reynolds advises. And if you don’t have any chlorine or bleach lying around, check out the Environmental Protection Agency’s list for other registered disinfectants proven effective against noroviruses.

Toss contaminated clothes in the laundry
Any piece of clothing you suspect has been contaminated with the virus should be cleaned ASAP. Wash them with detergent at the maximum cycle length and let them machine dry.

Wash and cook food properly
While this particular norovirus doesn’t come from infected food, it’s still good practice to wash and cook your meals appropriately. Noroviruses can sometimes survive temperatures up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Your best bet is to rinse foods well and cook meals thoroughly to decrease viral particles that could be left. Throw out any suspicious foods, and keep children away from anywhere you’re prepping food—kids are major culprits when it comes to spreading the virus.

photo: Jupiterimages/Thinkstock

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The Scary New Travel Danger

Forget jumping on the bed. The first thing you should do when you book a hotel room is check the locks . A small new tool is allowing thieves to break into locked hotel rooms at some of the most popular chains—and many hotels haven’t been notified their locks are at risk, according to a report from NBC news.

Although only a handful of burglaries have been tied specifically to the use of this device, the specific locks in question—produced by brand Onity—are on the doors of over 4 million rooms across the country, according to security expert Jim Stickley, co-founder of TraceSecurity Inc. and author of The Truth about Identity Theft. The lock-picking tool—often referred to on the Internet as the “Onity hack”—takes less than 20 minutes to build, costs less than $ 40, and everything you need can be found at your neighborhood electronics store, he says. Even though one part of the process requires coding a microchip, easy-to-follow online video tutorials provide simple step-by-step instructions for anyone looking to make they very own lock pick, he says. When the tool is inserted into the small port at the bottom of the locks in question, both the door handle and deadbolt are immediately unlocked, says Stickley.

How do you know an Onity lock when you see one? The brand name is most likely not on the outside of the lock, but may be mentioned on the inner panel of the door, where the deadbolt protrudes, says Stickely. Most of these locks also have digital key cards that are inserted into the lock vertically, not horizontally, he explains.

Since the publicity of this lock breach, Onity has offered assistance to 1 million rooms, but Stickley isn’t sure what that means or how exactly they plan to help. The group has sent small plastic caps that can be inserted inside the lock to prevent a thief from plugging in their device, but the caps can easily be removed with a screwdriver, he says. He thinks a better bet is changing the software. “Onity has a firmware upgrade that will prevent the code from working,” says Stickley. “But the problem is that hotels with these locks may not even know this is a risk because Onity hasn’t notified them.”

Of course not all hotel vandals are using this lock picker—rooms can be burglarized by many other means. To be safe, do some pre-vacation recon, says Stickley. “Call your hotel ahead of time to ask them if they have Onity locks and if have they solved the breach,” he says. “If they do, or they don’t know, don’t stay there. Any hotel that doesn’t have these locks will make it very clear that they are not a part of this breach” he says.

Locks aside, there are many other ways to protect yourself and your belongings when away from home. Keep these suggestions in mind the next time you book a trip:

Use the safe
Hotel room safes are definitely under-utilized, says Courtney Scott, a senior editor at Travelocity. “If you aren’t brining documents, cash, or traveler’s checks with you when you leave the room, they should always go in the safe,” she advises. If your room doesn’t offer a safe, ask the concierge if there is a secure place to store items at the front desk, or if you are staying in a hostel, ask if they have lockers available for rent.

BYO locks and door stops
Besides locking your actual suitcases, chaining or locking your luggage to a heavy, stationary item in the room makes it harder for thieves to run off with big-ticket items, says Scott. When you are in the room overnight, always lock the door with the chain lock. Scott also advises packing a small door stop in your luggage that you can to place under the door to prevent people from coming in.

Leave laptops at home
“If you can avoid it, don’t bring your laptop on your trip and use your smart phone or a small tablet to access the Internet instead,” Scott says. Bulky electronics are usually left in hotel rooms because they are to heavy to carry around during the day, but many won’t fit inside the safe either, which leaves them vulnerable. Only bring them along if you can keep them with you during the day.

Have multiple forms of ID
Scott advises scanning a copy of your passport and storing it in a separate bag or area of your belongings, especially when traveling internationally. Having a back up form of identification will help you book travel back home in case your regular ID is lost or stolen. You can also register with the US consulate in the country you are visiting—an especially important tip if you are traveling to a 3rd-world country, says Scott.

Watch the order of your security trays
Airports are notoriously chaotic and crowded, which makes them prime locations for lost or stolen items, says Scott. A simple trick for keeping your valuables close during the security screening? Place wallets, keys, phones, and jewelry in the last tray on the conveyer belt, she says. That way, if you get held up with a TSA officer for a spontaneous pat-down, your small stuff won’t be sitting out for grabs as long and is less likely to be mistaken for someone else’s belongings who is late for their flight.

Dress down
Thieves don’t only target hotel room as a source for loot—they target people, too. “One of the biggest safety threats when traveling is pick-pockets and stolen wallets,” says Scott. Tourists are easy targets for this type of thievery because they are usually preoccupied with reading maps or corralling family members and carrying extra belongings with them. Try blending into your surrounding as much as possible, Scott says, which means leaving your precious jewels and designer sunglasses at home.

Read the fine print
What about traveler’s insurance? Depending on your risks, it can definitely be worth it, says Scott. But it’s important to read through the coverage to know what exactly you are paying for. “As it pertains to stolen items, or delays and cancellations, you may not actually be covered,” she says. “You don’t want to invest all this money in a plan and then get robbed and have no recourse.”

Image: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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The Scary Way Your In-Laws Affect Your Marriage

Not exactly besties with your mother-in-law? It might be a good thing. Keeping your husband’s parents at arm’s length could be good for your marriage, according to an article scheduled to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Family Relations.

Researchers followed 373 couples since they were first wed in 1986. In each couple, both the husband and wife rated how close they felt to their in-laws on a scale of one to four. Researchers tracked the couples over time and collected data, including whether or not the couples stayed together. Marriages in which the wife reported having a close relationship with her in-laws had a 20 percent higher risk of divorce than couples where the wife didn’t report a close relationship. Conversely, marriages where the husband reported being close with his in-laws had a 20 percent lower probability of separation than couples where the husband reported a relationship that wasn’t as close.

Terri Orbuch, Ph.D., lead researcher and author of Finding Love Again: 6 Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship, says the discrepancies in gender come down to how men and women view relationships differently. “When a wife sees that her husband is really trying to bond with her family, she interprets it as a sign of love–he’s trying to be close with them because it’s important to her,” says Orbuch.

But when wives devote time to their husbands’ parents, it doesn’t always have the same result. “If a woman is spending lots of time improving the relationship with her in-laws, she may have a difficult time setting emotional boundaries,” says Orbuch. “And often, when you get too close, you might interpret whatever your in-laws say as interference or meddling.”

Want to give your marriage a fighting chance? The key is to create healthy boundaries. These guidelines will help you lay the right foundation:

Draw the Lines (with Your Spouse) Beforehand
Everyone has a different idea of what’s normal in terms of the parent-child relationship, says Andrea Syrtash, author of Cheat On Your Husband (With Your Husband). So make sure to discuss with your spouse what makes you uncomfortable and how much interaction with his folks you would prefer. And the rules may be different for each set of parents, Syrtash points out. Your husband may want to give his dad a spare key to your house so he can drop by to “help out” with chores. But you may prefer to live three states away from your parents and only see them on special occasions.  Chances are you probably won’t be on the same page when it comes to the role you want your parents to play, but at least you’ll know where the other person stands. Also, when he knows what you’re comfortable with, he’ll be better able to help you police those lines.

Let Him Do the Dirty Work
If there’s an issue with his parents, ask your husband to handle it first. This strategy has a dual benefit: It guarantees that he’s the primary guardian of the relationship with them, rather than you; and also, it helps avoid unnecessary additional conflict due to misunderstandings—he knows them best, after all, Syrtash says. To get him on board, try to position your complaint in a way where you are asking for his help without necessarily blaming his folks (for instance: “I want to be close with your parents, but sometimes I feel like they don’t understand me.”) “As long as your spouse knows that you want the relationship to improve, he’ll be more receptive to helping get things on track,” she says.

Never Badmouth Him to His Folks
Avoid talking about your marriage with your in-laws, Orbuch says. Especially avoid talking about troubles between you and their son, because it can open up a line of communication (either critical or “helpful”) that isn’t appropriate. If one of them baits you, make a joke to deflect the comment, Syrtash advises. Say his dad mentions something about how your husband doesn’t know how to raise kids—you can come back with a lighthearted response like, “One reason I love him is because he’s a big kid himself! We’re all learning.” Vent to your friends if you have to get something off your chest.

Prepare Your Responses
If your in-laws frequently say offensive things, or make you feel as if they’re meddling or judging your lifestyle, prepare responses to their common quips in advance of seeing them. “Instead of being defensive, respond with a simple answer and move on to another topic, or shift focus to someone else at the table,” Syrtash says. “If that’s not easy to do, politely excuse yourself.” Understand that some people will just push your buttons, and it’s up to you whether you choose to rise to the bait. The more you respond, the more enmeshed you might get—and sometimes, it’s best to simply refuse to engage.

Image: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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The Scary New Health Risk in Your 20s, 30s, and 40s

Strokes aren’t just grandma’s problem anymore. Alarming numbers of young women (even in their 20s!) are now suffering from strokes, according to a new study published in Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Researchers looked at instances of first-ever strokes and found that people under 55 years of age make up about 19 percent of all stroke patients in 2005—up almost 50% from 1993. Meanwhile, the number of strokes among 20- to 44-year-old Caucasians (who are generally at less risk than African Americans) has nearly doubled.

“There is a disturbing trend, an epidemic of diabetes and obesity in young adults in this country,” says study author Brett Kissela, M.D., a neurology professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. “The longer you have these risk factors, the greater your chances for having a stroke.” What’s more, as many young women assume strokes only occur in the elderly, they aren’t addressing their risk factors. “They are less likely to go to the doctor, because they assume they’re in good health,” says Kissela, noting that women can go from feeling fine one second to suffering a stroke the next.

It’s no wonder that strokes rank as the fourth leading killer—and the most common cause of adult disability—in the United States.

And while you can’t change your family history of stroke–which may make you more susceptible, yourself–you can eliminate just about every other risk factor out there:

6 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Stroke

Lower Your Blood Pressure “High blood pressure is the number-one risk factor for stroke, and many young women do not realize if they have it,” says Kissela. High blood pressure causes the heart to pump harder to move blood through the body, which can weaken blood vessels and damage organs (like your brain). While the ideal blood pressure is different for every person, a generally healthy range is less than 120 over 80, and everyone should have their pressure checked at least every two years.

Keep Your Cholesterol in Check Your cholesterol levels can say a lot about your health. While LDL or “bad” cholesterol has been shown to increase stroke risk, HDL or “good” cholesterol can actually decrease your risk. Oats, beans, legumes, fish, nuts, red wine, green tea, tomatoes, grapefruits, and even cocoa can help keep your cholesterol in balance. The National Stroke Association recommends that all adults age 20 and older have their cholesterol checked at least once every five years. Shoot for a cholesterol level of less than 200 mg/dL.

Feed Your Noggin What you eat influences your risk big time, Kissela says. While a typical Western-style diet ups stroke risk by 58 percent, consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and fish—the same foods that guard against so many other diseases—can lower your risk of stroke by 30 percent, according to the Nurses’ Health Study. When it comes to produce, look for folate (found in dark, leafy greens), potassium (in bananas and pumpkins), and lycopene (in tomatoes and watermelon). Another recent study from the American Academy of Neurology found that people who consume the greatest amounts of lycopene are 55 percent less likely to have a stroke than people who consume the lowest amounts.

Get Your Sweat On If you’ve been looking for some workout motivation, here it is: A regular exercise habit lowers blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels, and reduces your risk of obesity and diabetes. Basically, it slashes risk factors left and right—no matter when you jump on the fitness bandwagon. Increasing your exercise time by 3.5 hours per week can reduce your stroke risk by almost 40 percent, regardless of age, according to the American Medical Association.

Pop the Right Pill Taking estrogen, such as that contained in the combination birth control pill, can increase a woman’s risk of having a stroke. A 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that risk of stroke is up to 1.7 times higher in women who take low doses of estrogen—and that taking a higher dose can increase that risk up to 2.3 times higher. If you have risk factors for stroke, talk to your doctor about progestin-only birth control options such as the “mini-pill” (a progestin-based oral contraceptive that’s free of estrogen), implant, shot, or IUD, which have not been found to significantly change the risk of having a stroke.

Avoid the D Word Diabetes quadruples your risk of suffering a stroke, since diabetes often comes with high blood pressure, cholesterol, and obesity—and treating diabetes can delay the onset of complications that increase the risk of stroke, according to the National Stroke Association. But 7 million Americans—many of whom are active and fit—don’t know they have it. If you’re over 45 or under 45 and overweight, have a family history of diabetes, high blood pressure, polycystic ovary syndrome, or have given birth to a baby weighing more than nine pounds, the National Institutes of Health recommends that you talk to your doctor about getting tested. While diabetes can affect young, fit women—including some surprising celebrities—there are ways to reduce your risk of diabetes and stroke.

photo: Creatas Images/Creatas/Thinkstock

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Scary News Alert: Your Diet Can Give You Alzheimer’s

alzheimers: neuronsStep away from the doughnuts in the office kitchen—if not for your body, then for your brain.

You likely know that an unhealthy diet can lead to obesity and related conditions like type 2 diabetes, but there’s growing evidence to suggest that eating sugary, processed foods can trigger what some experts are calling Type 3 Diabetes: brain-altering Alzheimer’s Disease.

While the concept of Alzheimer’s as brain diabetes is not new to some researchers, it recently gained attention after prominent food writer Mark Bittman covered the topic in a New York Times column. A food writer discussing Alzheimer’s? Believe it.

Suzanne de La Monte, M.D., M.P.H., is a neuropathologist at Brown University whose team coined the term type 3 diabetes. Her research over the past decade suggests that consuming too much sugar can lead to insulin resistance in the brain—a very bad thing. “We found that by making the brains of rats insulin resistant, the rats developed an Alzheimer-like disease pattern, including neurodegeneration,” she says.

How Insulin Resistance Leads to Dementia
A biology refresher: Our cells need glucose from food for energy. Insulin, a hormone produced in the pancreas, helps cells take in glucose from the bloodstream, which the cells then metabolize for energy. If there’s an excess of glucose in the bloodstream, say, from eating too much sugary food, your pancreas will produce more insulin to keep up. Your cells, however, can become resistant to the increased insulin.

If cells in your brain become insulin-resistant, they don’t get enough energy and they deteriorate. Starved brain cells can result in memory loss and confusion—the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

The Scope of the Problem
As obesity rates climb, so too, researchers expect, will cases of diabetes and Alzheimer’s. While having diabetes doesn’t cause Alzheimer’s, the two diseases are linked: In 2011, Japanese researchers concluded that having diabetes doubles your risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

That’s a scary stat when you consider that nearly 105 million Americans (almost a third of the population) have diabetes or pre-diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Almost 5.5 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s and more than 115 million new cases of are projected worldwide in the next 40 years, according to Rhode Island Hospital.

“The obesity epidemic leading to soaring rates of diabetes is killing us earlier and producing a crippling state of chronic disease,” de la Monte says. “These problems are stressing our healthcare systems and shortening lifespan.”

How To Avoid It
“This problem is all about prevention,” de la Monte says. “The public health answer is to stop obesity at the youngest possible age by impressing upon parents the need to not over-feed children or feed them fast or processed foods.”

But it’s not too late for adults to safeguard their health. De La Monte recommends the following:

1. Keep Tabs on Your Weight
“It takes years to reach disease levels of obesity,” de la Monte says. If you regularly weigh yourself and measure your waist, you’ll know when you’re gaining weight and you can act earlier to lose it.

2. Eat Less Meat
De la Monte suggests moving toward plant-based foods and cutting down on meat. “I am not advocating vegetarian or vegan lifestyles, just changing proportions to follow the U.S. government’s MyPlate guidelines.” Those guidelines suggest that half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables; the other half grains and protein. (Learn more about the benefits of eating less meat.)

3. Cut Back On Sugar
Sugar is implicated in type 2 and 3 diabetes, so it’s best to keep sugar consumption to a minimum. But don’t think that reducing your sugar intake gives you license to overeat other unhealthy foods instead. “The false impression that cutting sugar in one aspect of the meal frees you up to eat four slices of pizza is completely wrong,” she says.

4. Cook More
Learning to cook (with fresh, non-processed foods) is a good idea—and it also saves money. (Need some ideas? The Women’s Health Recipe Finder lets you search dishes by cook time, main ingredient, and more!)

5. Avoid Nitrates
Research suggests that there is a link between Alzheimer’s and consuming foods containing nitrosamines. Protect yourself by avoiding foods that list sodium nitrite on label, de la Monte writes on Common culprits are processed foods including cheese, hot dogs, ground beef, and smoked meats like bacon.

photo: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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