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Socialize for a Better Brain

We know that exercising the brain by doing puzzles, learning a language, reading or engaging in other mentally stimulating activities can lower the risk of Alzheimer's Disease. Now researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have learned that socializing can help as well. The investigation team is studying 1,138 older adults (mean age 80) in an effort to understand what kinds of activities improve cognition as we age. All the participants receive yearly evaluations that include a medical history and neuropsychological tests. The study group also responded to a questionnaire about their social activities, including going to restaurants, sporting events, playing bingo, taking trips (day or overnight), doing volunteer work, visiting friends or relatives, attending religious services or participating in group activities (the researchers gave the Knights of Columbus as an example). The study has shown that the participants who were most socially active experienced only one quarter of the cognitive decline over an average of five years as those who were least active socially. In analyzing their results, the researchers took into consideration other factors that could have influenced cognitive decline and tried to rule out the possibility that cognitive decline leads to avoidance of social activity, rather than the other way around.

My take? Throughout life, connections to others are vital to our health and well being. I believe that we are not meant to be all alone, but rather parts of bigger families, bands, and tribes. We are naturally communal beings and derive great satisfaction from the experience of belonging to a group with a common purpose. I'm happy to know that the Rush study confirmed what many of us know intuitively - that it is better (at any age) to maintain our connections with others than to isolate ourselves. As we age, the more stimulation we receive - intellectual and social - the greater our chances of keeping our minds, and memories, as sharp as they are today.

Learn more: Eight Ways to Connect


Are You at Risk for PCOS?

If you are a woman experiencing irregular menstrual periods, infertility and other hormonal difficulties, you may have polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Also known as polycystic ovary disease, the condition is characterized by small, non-cancerous cysts in one or both of a woman's ovaries. PCOS usually has more than one symptom, including:

  1. Irregular or absent menstrual periods
  2. Development of some male sex characteristics, most commonly excess hair on the face and body, deepened voice, and male-pattern baldness
  3. Acne
  4. Weight gain or obesity
  5. Infertility (PCOS is the most common cause of female infertility)
  6. Diabetes or prediabetes might better be stated as insulin resistance
  7. Decreased breast size

PCOS affects between five and 10 percent of females. Conventional treatment includes medication and fertility drugs (if pregnancy is desired). In addition to maintaining a healthy weight through diet and exercise, I recommend following an anti-inflammatory diet; avoiding conventionally raised beef and dairy products, which may contain residues of estrogenic hormones used as growth promoters; and increasing intake of whole soy foods, which contain isoflavones, substances that may help regulate hormone imbalances.

Since women with PCOS are at higher risk for hypertension, high cholesterol, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea and endometrial cancer, see your physician if you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above.

More on Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome.


5 Steps to Healthy Grilling

It's delightful to grill outdoors when the weather is warm. Unfortunately, grilling meats can lead to the production of carcinogenic (potentially cancer-causing) chemicals called heterocyclic amines (HAs). To reduce HAs, try the following:

  1. Limit the quantity of meat you grill, and make grilled vegetables the main course.
  2. Pre-cook your foods in the oven or on the stovetop and finish them off outdoors - less grill time means fewer carcinogens.
  3. If you do grill meat, cook it thoroughly but avoid charring or blackening it (don't eat any blackened parts).
  4. Marinate your meats. Marinade may help reduce HA formation, especially if it's made with spices such as ginger, rosemary and turmeric.
  5. Avoid charcoal lighter fluid or self-starting packages of briquettes in a charcoal grill - they will leave residues of toxic chemicals in your food. A healthy alternative is an inexpensive chimney lighter that uses a small amount of newspaper to ignite a mass of charcoal in a large metal cylinder. Gas grills are good alternatives to those that use charcoal.

Along with grilling, try making True Food Kitchen's Watermelon & Heirloom Tomato Salad this 4th of July!


Scheduling a Colonoscopy: Have It Early in the Day

A new study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that as the day goes on, doctors who perform colonoscopies are less likely to spot suspicious polyps. The investigators looked at the results of nearly 1,100 colonoscopies and noted the time of day the procedures were performed. They found that at least one polyp was identified in 42 percent of the colonoscopies but that for each hour later in the day, the number of polyps seen dropped by four percent. The probable reason? Doctors' fatigue.  However, the investigators noted that the chief reason for missing polyps is still improper bowel cleansing by patients in preparation for the exam. They also advised prospective patients to query the doctor who will be performing the colonoscopy, make sure that he or she is aware of the study, and ask them what can be done to compensate for factors that may lead to missing polyps. The study was published on March 29, 2011 by the American Journal of Gastroenterology


Saturated Fat in Your Diet? (Poll)

Here's a Q&A on how my thinking on saturated fat has recently evolved. A scientific analysis of 21 recent studies has shown that there is "no significant evidence" that saturated fat in the diet is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease.

However, I don't advise eating saturated fat with abandon, because the foods that are full of it (salty bacon, conventionally raised beef, processed cheese) are often not the best for our health. Try to limit it to about ten percent of daily calories. You may choose to use your "budget" of saturated fat calories on ice cream, butter or high-quality natural cheese, or even an occasional steak (from organic, grass-fed, grass-finished cattle, please).

How do you choose to spend your saturated fat "budget?"


Preventing and Treating Pink Eye

Yesterday’s post discussed the symptoms of pink eye and who is most vulnerable. Today, we list simple ways to prevent this sometimes contagious infection of the eyelid and eyeball:

  1. Wash your hands well, often, and always before and after applying antibiotic drops
  2. Don’t touch your eyes with your hands
  3. If being treated with antibiotic drops never touch the antibiotic bottle directly on the affected eye, and be careful not to touch the inflamed eye and then the other eye
  4. Use a new towel and washcloth every day
  5. Change pillowcases often
  6. Throw away eye any makeup used while infected, including mascara
  7. Don’t share cosmetics, washcloths, and eye products with others
  8. Keep infected children out of school or day care until a few days after treatment begins or the infection clears up

While viral pink eye will resolve on its own in a few weeks without treatment, it can be difficult to distinguish between viral and bacterial conjunctivitis. Consequently, many doctors prescribe antibiotic eye drops to anyone with pink eye - the antibiotics won’t be effective against viral infections, but they may help prevent a secondary bacterial infection. The eye drops usually cause symptoms to clear up within a few days. Pink eye caused by allergies is usually treated with allergy medications and eye drops that relieve itchy eyes.


Are You at Risk for Pink Eye?

If you have itchy, red eyes that seem worse than is typically experienced with seasonal allergies, you may have pink eye. Also known as infectious conjunctivitis, pink eye is an inflammation of the membrane (called the conjunctiva) that lines the eyelid and eyeball.

Pink eye can be due to an allergic reaction to pollen, dust or other foreign material in the eye, such as contact lens solution; a bacterial infection, which is more common among children than adults; or viruses, particularly those associated with colds or a sore throat, as well as other childhood illnesses. All types of viral or bacterial pink eye are highly contagious.

The symptoms of pink eye can affect one or both eyes and include:

  1. Redness
  2. Itchiness
  3. Blurred vision
  4. A feeling or grittiness or having something stuck in the eye
  5. Tearing and discharge (yellow color is often associated with a bacterial cause)
  6. Pain or discomfort when exposed to bright light
  7. Crusts that form on the eyelids overnight

Young children are the most likely to get pink eye, as the close quarters in school or day care provides the perfect climate for passing it around. Other people at higher risk for developing pink eye include those with allergies to airborne pollen and those who wear contact lenses, particularly extended-wear brands, as both these groups tend to touch and rub their eyes more frequently.

If you or your children experience any of the symptoms above, visit your physician for a diagnosis.

To learn how to treat and prevent pink eye, read tomorrow’s post.


Supplement Use Increases - Good News?

More than half of adults in the United States now take at least one dietary supplement, usually a multivitamin, according to new data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report, which examined surveys of 18,504 adults between 1988 and 1994 and 9,432 adults from 2003 to 2006, showed an increase in supplement consumption between these two periods from about 40 percent to more than 50 percent. In particular, the survey found that use of calcium supplements had increased from 28.2 percent in 1988-94 to 61 percent in 2003 to 2006. The report noted that most adults and teenagers (with the exception of girls between the ages of nine and 18) likely receive enough calcium through their diets and from supplements. The survey also found an increase in the number of Americans who are taking vitamin D supplements - according to the report, 56.3 percent of women over 60 take vitamin D.

My take: It's gratifying to learn that more people are becoming health conscious and are attempting to improve their well being through micro-nutrition. But it's important to remember that the rationale for taking supplements in the first place is as insurance against nutritional gaps in the diet. Ideally, a well balanced diet should supply most of your nutritional needs, but many people, for a variety of reasons, don't eat optimally on a regular basis. Also, modern, chemically intensive growing methods may deplete nutrients. If you use drugs like alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine or if you're sick or under stress, your body's requirements for some micronutrients and protective phytonutrients may be higher than your diet can supply. Because of these variables, a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement can help ensure that you are getting what you need. 

On the flipside, it is also important to remember that vitamins, minerals and other dietary supplements won't make up for a diet lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables. If you take supplements, think of them as insurance, not as a way to excuse unhealthy eating habits.

Learn what vitamins I take: Dr. Weil's Personal Vitamin Routine