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A Sense of Purpose = Longer Life

Having a high sense of purpose in life appears to lower your risk of death and cardiovascular disease. That conclusion comes from an analysis of 10 studies conducted in the U.S. and Japan involving data on 136,265 participants whose average age was 67. The men and women were followed for an average of 7 years during which more than 14,500 of them died and more than 4,000 suffered a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event. The researchers found after adjusting for other factors that the death rate was about 20 percent lower for the participants who reported a strong sense of purpose in life (this is called ikigai in Japanese, which translates to “a life worth living”.) The authors of the investigation, from Mt. Sinai-St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, noted a “well documented link” between “negative psychosocial risk factors” and heart attack, stroke and overall death and wrote that more recent evidence suggests that positive psychosocial factors can lead to better health and longer life. The study didn’t explain the mechanisms of how a purposeful life could promote health and deter disease, but the researchers suggested that a sense of purpose might help buffer physical responses to stress or perhaps, simply lead to a healthier lifestyle.


Walnuts Get A Calorie Cut

If you enjoy nuts but have been concerned about calories, you can allow yourself a few more walnuts without feeling guilty - they don’t contain as many calories as we once believed. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have found that a 1-ounce serving of the nuts actually provides 39 fewer calories than listed on the USDA Nutrient Database. That’s a 21 percent reduction. The old count was based on a 19th century calculation that’s been found wanting. Determining the true count involved recruiting 18 healthy adults randomly assigned to a 3-week controlled diet without walnuts, and then another 3-week controlled diet that included 1.5 servings of the nuts. Using a method called bomb calorimetry to calculate the number of calories actually metabolized, the researchers concluded that we can now count fewer calories (146 instead of 185) when we eat an ounce of walnuts. A 2012 study by the same USDA team suggested that almonds have 32 percent fewer calories than earlier estimates. With the new method an ounce of almonds yields 129 calories, not 170.


Longer Breast Cancer Survival With Stress Management

Breast cancer patients who incorporate stress management therapies early in their treatment could live longer and experience prolonged intervals free of disease before recurrence. These findings come from a study of cognitive-behavioral stress management at the University of Miami. Researchers there reported that learning stress-management skills helped reduce distress in the women participants. The study protocol also showed reduced inflammatory signaling in circulating cells during treatment and afterward. During 10 weekly group sessions, the women in the study were taught stress reduction techniques including muscle relaxation and deep breathing, in addition to receiving training on improving coping strategies and altering negative thoughts. The researchers noted that earlier studies have demonstrated that distress, negative moods and heightened inflammation during treatment may contribute to progression of breast cancer. They’re now looking at whether changes in inflammatory gene expression during and after stress management predict how patients fare up to 15 years after treatment. They are also considering whether a five-week stress management program will work as effectively as the 10-week one.

My take: This should be welcome news for women with breast cancer. We know that stress is linked to cancer as well as to other leading causes of death, including cardiovascular disease, but the interventions used in the study are easily accessible, and you can learn the basics of stress management techniques such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation on many websites. The “relaxing breath” is an especially effective tool for stress management. You also should be aware that getting regular aerobic exercise can reduce stress and has been shown to improve breast cancer survival. 


Garden Therapy For Breast Cancer Patients

We know that “ecotherapy” - also known as nature therapy or green therapy - can help improve an individual’s ability to cope with distress by boosting mood, confidence and self-esteem. A small study from Wales now suggests that this type of therapy can provide benefits even when it takes a simple form, such as growing a garden indoors in a bowl. Seven women participants were provided a bowl, compost and three “starter” plants by researchers from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. The investigators devised the “garden bowl” as a way for breast cancer patients to interact with nature at home. The 3-month study also included an online discussion forum. The women were encouraged to upload photos of their garden bowls and keep diaries as well as participate in the discussions. Results suggested that the women gained confidence and feelings of control as well as improved self-esteem, all positive changes that have been observed in other ecotherapy studies. In addition, the researchers reported that the intervention “clearly evoked feelings of joy” in the participants. The investigators also suggested that garden bowls could serve as an alternative means of engaging with nature for those who may not be able to spend time outdoors.


Negative Thoughts And Alzheimer’s Risk

People who regard the prospect of aging negatively are more likely to develop brain changes linked to Alzheimer’s disease than those who have a more positive outlook. On the plus side, changing those downbeat views may help reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. The findings that views of aging can influence Alzheimer’s come from a Yale study that looked at healthy individuals enrolled in the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. The researchers elicited the participants’ views on aging and followed up years later with MRIs - and in some cases brain autopsies - to see if a person’s outlook on aging correlated with brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s. The MRIs showed a greater decline in the volume of the hippocampus, the brain area that is key to memory, among people whose views of aging were negative than among others in the study. The brain autopsies showed a significantly greater number of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles - both brain changes indicating Alzheimer’s - in participants with negative views of aging. In some cases these views were expressed 28 years before the plaques and tangles were seen. Study leader Becca Levy, Ph.D., associate professor of public health and psychology, suggested that stress generated by negative views on aging might be responsible for the brain changes. Replacing negative beliefs with positive ones might help head off the impact of the pessimistic views, Dr. Levy said.


My Take? This is an interesting study. What it found about the outcome of negative views of aging squares with earlier findings about the health risks associated with pessimism. We know that pessimism has been linked to a higher risk of dying before age 65, while positive emotions - such as optimism - are associated with lowered production of the stress hormone cortisol, better immune function, and reduced risk of chronic diseases. We also know that optimism is at least partially learned, which suggests that Dr. Levy is right - it is possible to replace negative views with positive ones.  


Transitioning From Summer To Autumn (Recipe)

The autumn equinox has been a big event in many cultures throughout the millennia, marking the time when days shorten and nights lengthen. The Dr. Weil staff likes to celebrate by setting positive resolutions and integrating seasonal produce into their dishes to prepare for the transition. We recommend this Autumn Ingredients Salad as the perfect recipe to integrate fall's vibrant flavors. 


Water v. Diet Soda For Weight Loss

Replacing diet soda with plain water might help you lose more weight, especially if you’re already on a diet. Researchers at the University of Nottingham in the UK recruited 89 overweight and obese women ages 27 to 40 who usually drank diet sodas at lunch and asked half of them to switch to water. The others were instructed to continue drinking diet sodas after lunch five times a week for the 24-week duration of the study. Of the 89 women who initially enrolled, 62 completed the study. Those who switched their lunchtime drink to water lost about 8.8 kilograms (19.4 pounds), compared to 7.6 kilograms (16.8 pounds) for the women who continued to drink diet soda. Another plus: the research team reported improvements in insulin sensitivity in the women who switched to water. Even though the difference in weight loss between the two groups was small, diet drinks definitely have another downside. Earlier studies have linked them to obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 


Why Not Sleep Late On Weekends?

If you often sleep in on weekends, you may be increasing your risk of heart disease and diabetes. In fact, a study from the University of Pittsburgh suggests that the greater the difference between the time you usually get up on weekdays and how late you sleep on weekends the greater the risk. Researchers tracked 447 men and women ages 30 to 54 and determined that those who slept later on weekends had lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol, higher triglycerides, higher insulin resistance and higher body mass index than those who kept consistent sleep schedules throughout the week. The link between sleeping habits and these factors remained even after the researchers controlled for physical activity, caloric intake, drinking alcohol, and symptoms of depression. During the 7-day study the participants wore devices that recorded when they fell asleep and woke up, and also measured their movements night and day. Almost 85 percent of the participants woke later on days when they didn’t have to go to work. Earlier research revealed an association between shift work and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. It’s not yet known whether the effects seen in the study from sleeping in on weekends are long lasting.