Today’s Headlines: Walnuts, E-Cigarettes and Loved Ones

Walnuts may help improve your memory. You now have another reason to load up on nuts. While past research had found nuts to help with your heart, new research has found they may help with memory as well. “In a cross-sectional study that drew from a large sampling of the U.S. population aged 20 and older, Dr. Arab and co-researcher Dr. Alfonso Ang found that people who ate more walnuts performed significantly better on a series of six cognitive tests. The study adds to a body of research surrounding walnuts’ overall brain health benefits, including the possible effect of slowing or preventing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in mouse models.” Nuts have a variety of positive health effects and regularly eating them has been found to lower the risk of heart disease. “There are numerous active ingredients in walnuts that may contribute to protecting cognitive functions, the researchers say. They are high in antioxidants and a combination of vitamins and minerals. A significant amount of alpha-linolenic acid, a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid in walnuts, also benefits heart and brain health.” (CBS)

E-cigarette smoke may contain cancer-causing chemicals. Good research about the benefits and dangers of e-cigs is still needed, but data continues to appear about the new smoking replacement. The most recent research has found that the smoke replacement may not be completely safe. “Under certain conditions, taking 10 puffs from an e-cigarette would expose a user to about 2.5 times as much formaldehyde as he or she would get from smoking a single tobacco cigarette. Formaldehyde is used as an industrial disinfectant and as an ingredient in permanent-press fabrics, plywood, glues and other household products. It is also formed when the propylene glycol and glycerol in e-cigarette liquids and oxygen are heated together. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer says formaldehyde can cause leukemia and nasopharyngeal cancer. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency considers the chemical a ‘probable human carcinogen.’” The amount of the chemical made depended on the voltage of the e-cig. “When the e-cigarette was used on the ‘low voltage’ setting of 3.3 volts, the researchers didn’t detect any formaldehyde in the vapor. However, when the device was on the ‘high voltage’ setting of 5 volts, they measured an average of 380 micrograms of formaldehyde per sample.” While the jury is still out on e-cigs, caution should be taken when deciding whether or not to use them. (LA Times)

Having your partner present may increase pain. It might seem comforting to have a loved one come to doctor’s office or hospital with you, but a new research study has found that their presence may actually increase how much pain you feel while there. “The team recruited heterosexual couples and asked them a series of questions to measure how much they sought or avoided closeness and emotional intimacy in relationships. Each female volunteer was then subjected to a series of painful laser pulses while her partner was in or out of the room. The women were asked to score their level of pain and their brain activity was measured. The researchers found that certain women were more likely to score high levels of pain while their partner was in the room. These were women who said they preferred to avoid closeness, trusted themselves more than their partners and felt uncomfortable in their relationships. When their partners were present, these women’s brain activity also showed higher spikes of activity in regions of the brain linked with experiencing body threat.” If your personality is similar to those of the women tested in this study, you might think twice about bringing your husband or boyfriend to your next doctor’s appointment for moral support. (BBC)

Leaky Vessels Likely Contribute to Alzheimer’s

brain MRIFor decades, the process that leads a brain down the path of Alzheimer’s disease has remained a mystery. While researchers found some clues, their efforts were hampered by the challenge of growing brain cells called neurons effectively in the lab and by their ability to image the brain in enough detail. As a result, many researchers were stuck using dead brains to study Alzheimer’s rather than examining the living tissue. Recent research fixed the problem of growing neurons in the lab for testing and now new research has improved the way we image the brain. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Health Goals, Sitting and Exercising With Friends

Motivating partners help you reach your goals. It can be tough to stay motivated to follow your New Year’s resolutions when the going gets tough, but your significant other may be your best motivator. “Researchers found that married or cohabiting couples with a ‘healthier’ partner are more likely to change than those with an unhealthy partner. The study also revealed that having a partner who was making healthy changes at the same time was even more powerful.” The researchers examined a group of people mostly over 50 who were looking to quit smoking, lose weight and get fit. “17 percent of the smokers kicked the habit, 44 percent of inactive participants became newly active, and 15 percent of overweight men and women lost sat least of 5% of their initial weight. Those who were smokers were more likely to quit if they lived with someone who had always been cigarette-free. Similarly, those who weren’t physically active were more likely to start if they lived with someone who was already active. On every measure of health that was tracked, all of those who started off unhealthy were much more likely to make a positive change if their similarly unhealthy partner made a healthy lifestyle change.” (CBS)

Being active doesn’t make up for sitting all day. While getting out and exercising may help lower your risk of a variety of diseases, it doesn’t make up for being inactive all day. “Those who engage in regular physical activity but still spend a large proportion of their day in sedentary activity were found, on average, to be 30% less likely to die of any cause in a given period than were those who get little to no exercise. But even those who punctuate a long day of sitting with a vigorous workout were estimated to be 16% more likely to die of any cause in a given time than were those who do not sit for long.” The risk seemed to hold even if sitting all day didn’t make you heavier. “The amount of time spent sitting was found to drive up health risks independently of other factors that would often contribute to poor health and which might also be linked to sedentary behavior, such as smoking, age and obesity. That suggests, for example, that although long hours spent sitting might indeed contribute to weight gain, it is probably harmful even if it doesn’t make you obese.” The authors recommend “getting up from your desk for one to three minutes every half-hour or so and move around. While watching TV, stand or exercise during the advertisements.” (LA Times)

Working out with a walking group brings major benefits. Regular social walks with friends may not seem like intense exercise, but the benefits those walks bring seem to be big according to new research. “The research team analyzed 42 studies across 14 countries and found that people who were part of walking groups showed significantly lower blood pressure, resting heart rate, body fat, cholesterol levels and even depression scores compared with their levels before they embarked on group walks. They also had better lung capacity — a good indicator of fitness — and were able to walk farther. These weren’t hard and grueling hikes, either. The vast majority, 75%, weren’t even strenuous enough to count as moderate physical activity, yet the health effects were clear.” The social aspect of walking was key to the success of the activity. “Those who were part of walking groups also had low levels of dropout — about three-quarters stuck with it — a finding the authors credit to the presence of other people. Even if you don’t join to make friends, being able to clear your mind and follow the leader is enjoyable and fulfilling.” (TIME)

Stress Is Making You Less Empathetic

stressed woman at desk

When you’re under the gun at home or at work, it can be hard to find time for others’ feelings. But don’t be so hard on yourself; there might be a biological reason for your response. New research published this week has found that stress hormones play a pivotal role in how empathetic we are and has revealed that the mechanism isn’t unique to humans.

Research has been done showing that both mice and humans display empathy toward others. While we’ve known for a long time that our feelings are influenced by the emotions of those around us, the case might seem less obvious of for mice. But past research has revealed that mice appear to experience pain more intensely when a familiar partner is also experiencing pain. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Lavender, Social Media and Heart Disease

Lavender may make you more giving. We all prefer some smells over others, but new research suggests that certain scents may change the way you behave. “The researchers set up a trust game in a room misted with one of two aromas: lavender, which is considered soothing, and peppermint, which is associated with alertness and energy. The researchers put a few drops of essential oils, diffused by a candle, in the room before the 90 young adults in the study came in to play. The trust game is a test that measures levels of trust. One person (the “trustor”) gets money, and they can keep it or give any amount of it to the other person. If they give, the cash received triples and the person who just got a cash infusion gets to decide whether to share it with the original trustor. Without being told about any change in scent, when people smelled lavender, they gave significantly more money than when they had sniffed peppermint or nothing at all.” The researchers think the effect has to do with the way our sense of smell is linked to part of the brain that control trust. The calming effect of lavender may boost activity in those regions of the brain. (TIME)

Social media use doesn’t increase stress. You’ve probably had pundits say that you wouldn’t be so stressed if you weren’t constantly following what was happening on social media. But research released this week shows that probably isn’t true. “Heavy users of the Internet and social media do not have higher levels of stress, and women who use Twitter, email and photo sharing show less stress than women who do not use them.” The study found that women were also more stressed than men and the authors think social media may serve as a way for women to deal with this increased stress. “The electronic tools may provide women with a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism that is not experienced or taken advantage of by men.” But the type of information on social media mattered. “A woman with an average number of Facebook friends is aware of 13 percent more stressful events among her closest ties than those who use social media less. A typical male Facebook user knows of 8 percent more stressful events. Awareness of stress in others’ lives can be a significant contributor to people’s own stress.” (Reuters)

Healthy living makes a big difference in heart disease.  Lifestyle has long been known to influence heart health, but results from a 20-year study focused on women have found that effect can be dramatic. “Women who led a healthy lifestyle in their young adult years were 92 percent less likely than those who didn’t to develop heart disease by middle age. U.S. researchers followed thousands of women starting in their 20s and 30s and found those with healthy diet and exercise habits, who didn’t smoke, were also 66 percent less likely to have any heart risk factors like diabetes or hypertension by the time they were in their 40s and 50s. The results suggest that more than 70 percent of heart attacks in younger women could potentially be prevented by changes in lifestyle.” While those who did everything right had the lowest risk, the researchers pointed out that adding even one or two changes can drop your risk in the long term. The key is starting early rather than waiting until it’s too late. “Once you develop a risk factor it’s not too late to start improving your lifestyle and trying to get things going in right direction. This is a disease process that develops over time and you may look and feel healthy now but we worry about your risk in the future.” (Fox)

How Fruits and Vegetables Protect Your Bones

green vegetablesBone health is a serious concern for all ages, but especially for the aging population where fractures can be life-threatening. Bone health is often thought of in terms of density, because how dense your bones are reflects how strong your bones are. Stronger bones are less likely to break in old age. Bone density peaks in a person’s early 30s and then starts to decline. How fast this decline happens varies based on health, diet, lifestyle and genetic factors. For example, menopause leads to an increased loss of bone density, so hitting it early means more bone loss than someone who hits it late. Lifting weights strengthens bones and leads to a slower loss of bone than in those who don’t lift weights. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Eyelashes, Older Diabetics and Aspirin

Extending your eyelashes may dry your eyes out. Many women seek to make their eyelashes appear longer, darker and fuller than they naturally are with mascara and extensions. But new research has found that those longer lashes may not be so good for your eyes. “Researchers started off by measuring animals’ eyelashes, which were always one-third the width of the eye. Such natural lashes apparently protect against dirt and drying by creating an area of stagnant air in front of the eye. Researchers then studied synthetic lashes attached to artificial eyes made from aluminum caps filled with water. When the lashes were natural length, they reduced particle accumulation and evaporation by half in a wind tunnel. But at longer lengths they actually funneled air into the artificial eyes, drying them out and carrying in particles like dust.” The research hasn’t been repeated in real women, but several physicians have seen similar effects in their practice with women who use mascara, which can also unnaturally lengthen eyelashes. (Fox)

Many older diabetics may be pushing their blood sugar too low. Basic diabetes education has taught many diabetics to focus on keeping their blood sugar below a certain target based on the patient’s medical history. A new study examining blood sugar control in older adults has found that bar may be set too low in many. “The researchers measured a substance in the blood called hemoglobin A1c. A1c reflects a person’s average blood sugar levels over the past three months. A person without diabetes would have an A1C reading under 5.7 percent. People with pre-diabetes may have a reading between 5.7 and 6.4 percent. Levels above that qualify for a diabetes diagnosis. Most people with diabetes aim to keep the number under 7 percent. Almost two-thirds of the older adults in the study maintained tight blood sugar control, keeping their A1C levels at 7 percent or lower, according to results.” The problem is that other research has shown that keeping the A1C level so close to seven dramatically increases the risk of low blood sugar, which can lead to serious consequences in those who are older without any real benefit. Older adults with low blood sugar are particularly at risk for falls, which can lead to serious and life-threatening injuries. The researchers say all diabetics should continually reassess with their doctor which A1C and blood sugar goals are right for them. (Reuters)

Many people taking aspirin probably don’t need it. Aspirin has become a mainstay in preventing a variety of diseases related to blood clotting, including heart attacks and stroke. In spite of the benefits of aspirin there are also risks of bleeding that can be dangerous and even deadly. “Researchers examined the medical records of patients who were being tracked as part of the American College of Cardiology’s PINNACLE registry. They focused on patients who were taking aspirin to prevent their first heart attack or stroke.” They assessed the risk for death from heart attack or stroke in each of these patients. “Their analysis revealed that 11.6% of the patients had a risk below 6%, which is too low to justify the potential side effects of the therapy. In general, these patients were much younger (49.9 years old, on average) than people taking aspirin with good reason (average age 65.9 years). 80% of them were women. In fact, 16.6% of the women analyzed were taking aspirin inappropriately, compared with only 5.3% of the men.” This isn’t to say all younger women taking aspirin don’t need it. But it does indicate that many may have been put on aspirin with careful thought about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. If you’re on aspirin, discuss the reasons why with your doctor. (LA Times)

The Next Big Treatment for Smoking Might Be Vaccines

474969191Vaccines have been a standard in the medical battle against deadly disease for more than half a century, and have helped bring many of the major childhood killers like smallpox and whooping cough under control. While vaccines have traditionally been used to battle infections from viruses and bacteria, scientists are starting to use them to fight other invaders. In the case of smoking, they’ve set their sights on nicotine. Read more  »

Today’s Headlines: Old Age, Avocados and Antioxidants

Staying fit as you age keeps you young. We often hear that nothing stops the physical decline of aging. But new research out this week has found that highly active older adults are fitter than previously thought. “Scientists recruited men and women between 55 and 79 who were serious recreational riders but not competitive athletes. The scientists then ran each volunteer through a large array of physical and cognitive tests. The scientists determined each cyclist’s endurance capacity, muscular mass and strength, pedaling power, metabolic health, balance, memory function, bone density and reflexes.” In comparison to their younger counterparts, these active older adults performed far beyond expectations. “On almost all measures, their physical functioning remained fairly stable across the decades and was much closer to that of young adults than of people their age. As a group, even the oldest cyclists had younger people’s levels of balance, reflexes, metabolic health and memory ability.” Only muscular power, muscular mass, and aerobic endurance succumbed to the ravages of time. “If you gave this dataset to a clinician and asked him to predict the age of one of the cyclists based on his or her test results, it would be impossible. On paper, they all look young. The numbers suggest that aging is simply different in the active.” (NYT)

Antioxidants may not matter as much as we thought. Antioxidants have been touted as one of the central components of fruits and vegetables that make them healthy for humans and extend their life span. But new research has shown that doesn’t seem to be the case. “People who get a lot of antioxidants in their diets, or who take them in supplement form, don’t live any longer than those who just eat well overall, according to a long term study of retirees in California.” While many studies have shown that eating lots of fruits and vegetables lengthens your life, it was never clear if antioxidants or some other compound was responsible. The authors looked at antioxidant vitamins A, C and E. “There was no association between the amount of vitamins A or C in the diet or vitamin E supplements and the risk of death. Vitamin users may have different lifestyles or underlying disease states that are related to their risk of death.” The researchers say their findings emphasize that the benefits of vitamin supplements are still unclear and that they should not be used to replace a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. (Reuters)

Avocados may help lower levels of bad cholesterol. In spite of their strange appearance, avocados pack a serious health punch and are full of healthy fats, vitamins and other nutrients. New research has found they may also help with your cholesterol. “The study, conducted by researchers at Pennsylvania State University, analyzed the effect avocados had on cardiovascular risk factors by replacing saturated fatty acids from an average American diet with unsaturated fatty acids from avocados. Researchers found that compared to the baseline average American diet, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) also known as ‘bad cholesterol’ was 13.5 mg/dL lower after consuming the moderate fat diet that included avocado – a significantly lower level than those consuming less fat without a daily avocado in their diet. In addition to lowering cholesterol, blood measurements taken during the study showed lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, small dense LDL and non-HDL cholesterol in patients on the avocado inclusive diet.”  The results held regardless of the weight of the participant on the diet. (Fox)

Post-Holiday Season Continues Same Holiday Spending and Eating

Woman shopping for candy grocery storeFor many, participating in the holiday season also means putting on a few pounds. Festive dinners, decadent desserts and boozy brunches all contribute to the increased waistline many end up with by the time the New Year comes. Resolving to eat better in the New Year helps to ratchet back the eating and slow or reverse the holiday weight gain, or so we thought. New research out this week indicates that the bad habits of the festive season may actually last much longer. Read more  »