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Massage for Your Aching Back

Medication, physical therapy and back exercises are the usual care for low back pain, but traditional bodywork proved to be more beneficial among 401 patients who participated in a study that evaluated the short-term and long-term effects of massage. A study team at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle divided the patients into three groups: one group received relaxation massage that focused on muscles, a second group underwent structural massage designed to ease tension in specific tissues and joints and a third group continued with their usual care for back pain. The patients in the two massage groups received a weekly hour-long massage for 10 weeks. The study reported that afterward these patients had less pain and were better able to go about their daily activities than the participants who continued with usual care. Either kind of massage appeared to have the same positive result. What’s more, the effects of massage lasted for six months after the 10-week treatment course, although the benefits seemed to dissipate after a year. The study was published in the July 5, 2011 Annals of Internal Medicine.

My take? This is more good news about the health benefits of massage for back pain. Earlier studies have shown that massage can also lessen the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, ease post-operative pain, reduce headache frequency, relieve arthritis pain, reduce blood pressure and improve immune function. Part of the reason massage may work as well as it does is simply that many people expect it to yield a benefit. That's fine with me - the positive effects are objective and measurable, and the intervention has very low risk. Learn more about treating low back pain.


Calcium, Vitamin D May Lower Melanoma Risk

If you've ever been diagnosed with either of the most common types of skin cancer - basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma - you're at higher risk for melanoma, which is much more likely to be life-threatening than the other types of skin cancer. But now researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have hypothesized that taking calcium and vitamin D supplements may cut the risk of melanoma. The study team reported a risk reduction of up to 57 percent among women who previously had one of the other two types of skin cancer, compared to a similar group of women who didn't receive the supplements. The doses were 1,000 mg of calcium plus 400 IU of vitamin D. This combination didn't appear to offer any benefit to women who did not have a history of non-melanoma skin cancer. The conclusions came from an analysis of data from the Women's Health Initiative (WHI), a study that followed 36,000 women ages 50 to 79 for an average of seven years. The Stanford team said that its study results, based on the comparison of the effects on women's health of taking calcium and vitamin D vs. a placebo, were the first to suggest a cancer-reducing benefit.


Minor Ailments Boost Dementia Risk

As the old song goes, little things mean a lot. New research from Canada suggests that a combination of relatively minor ailments such as skin, stomach or bladder problems, dentures that don't fit, arthritis, or trouble hearing can raise the risk of age-related dementia. (Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia.) Published in the July 13, 2011 issue of Neurology, the analysis of data gathered from more than 7,200 people age 65 or older showed that a collection of minor ailments may have a cumulative effect on the risk of dementia. The study suggested that each extra health problem increased the risk of dementia by three percent compared to the risk of other seniors in the study with no minor health problems. All told, the healthy participants with no complaints had an 18 percent risk of developing dementia over the next decade while those with a dozen small problems had a 40 percent risk. The study author said that the findings seem to suggest that paying attention to general health and dealing with small problems may reduce the risk of dementia.

My take? This is an interesting study, but I think more research needs to be done to confirm the findings and to learn whether taking care of relatively small problems - such as ill-fitting dentures - really does affect the risk of dementia. In the past, researchers have focused on the increased risks posed by more serious disorders such as heart disease and diabetes. If you have your health problems - minor or major - under control, the best strategies for lowering the risk of dementia include fostering a positive attitude, maintaining your blood pressure in the healthy range, exercising regularly and keeping your mind active.


Diet Drinks: New Warning

Contrary to popular marketing, you can gain weight drinking diet sodas. In fact, a new study shows that men and women who consumed diet drinks saw their waist sizes expand 70 percent more than study participants who avoided diet drinks. Researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio followed 474 men and women ages 65 to 74 for almost 10 years. During that time, they found that those who consumed two or more diet sodas a day increased their waist circumferences five times more those of the other study participants. The explanation may be related to findings from another study, in which laboratory mice ate a diet containing the artificial sweetener aspartame, while mice in another group consumed their regular food. After three months, the mice in the aspartame group had higher blood sugar levels than those in the other group. Researchers speculated that artificial sweeteners may trigger appetite but don't provide calories to satisfy the craving, or that the sweeteners could inhibit brain cells that make you feel full, thus prompting more eating.


Is Snacking Making You Fat?

If you've been gaining weight in recent years and wonder why, you may simply be eating much more than you think you are. In the late 1970s, Americans consumed roughly 3.8 meals and snacks per day. The daily average is now 4.9, up some 29 percent in about 30 years. Those 4.9 meals and snacks add up to 2,375 calories per day - about one-third more than the average consumption in the '70s. Experts point out a contributing factor being the near-constant availability of food - 30 years ago, we didn't see junk foods displayed at the gas station, the drugstore and most other places we go from day to day. The new data comes from an analysis of four nationally representative food surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 1977 and 2006. Research also shows that even rats get fat and show signs of diabetes when they can graze cafeteria style on snack foods. In a new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, snack-grazing rats grew heavier than rats consuming a high-fat diet containing lard.

My take? These findings make sense. I don't think there's any escaping the fact that a big part of the obesity epidemic is over-consumption of low quality snack and junk foods. However, I don't blame snacking itself. Eating very small portions between meals is actually a good idea, as it can help keep blood sugar levels and energy steady, which leads to improved mood, better productivity and more effective appetite control. But if you're trying to lose weight or to eat a healthier diet, that convenient bag of chips can sabotage your efforts. Processed foods contain too many calories, the wrong kinds of fat and carbohydrates, and have too much salt and too many additives. Instead, plan snacks ahead of time and make sure you always have healthy ones on hand: fresh or dried fruit; raw, unsalted nuts (pistachios, cashews or walnuts); flavorful natural cheeses and dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa solids are all good options.

Read more: How to Eat in Seven Words


Berry Good News for Bones

Blueberries provide lots of antioxidant compounds that are good for our general health, and a new study suggests that they may help strengthen bones, too. An animal study funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has shown that baby rats fed foods containing 10 percent freeze-dried blueberry powder developed significantly more bone mass than baby rats who didn't get blueberry power in their food. Now researchers have to determine whether these same effects occur in humans. In other berry news, researchers from Italy and Spain published a study online on June 21 in the journal Food Chemistry showing that eating strawberries improves the antioxidant capacity in blood. The research team provided 12 healthy human volunteers 500 grams (about 17.6 ounces) of strawberries daily and took blood samples periodically over the span of a month. They concluded that the strawberries increased the response of red blood cells to counter oxidative stress, a biochemical process associated with disease. The team is now looking into the effects of eating smaller amounts of strawberries daily. If you want to increase your consumption of strawberries, be sure to buy organic ones - non-organic farming methods may yield berry crops that are high in pesticide residues.

Learn more about pesticides on produce:



Hammocks: Sway Yourself to Sleep

Did you ever wonder why you're more likely to doze off while lying in a hammock or sitting in a rocking chair? A small study from the University of Geneva in Switzerland suggests that the rocking motion allows some of us to go to sleep sooner than we do lying on a bed and encourages deeper sleep as well. The researchers asked 12 volunteers (none of whom had sleeping problems) to nap on a custom-made bed and on an experimental hammock. During their naps, the volunteers were hooked to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor their brain activity. Results showed that all of the volunteers fell asleep in less time when lying in the hammock than when they were on the bed. The swaying motion of the hammock also boosted the duration of the sleep stage that normally occupies sleeping at night, and increased spurts of brain activity known as sleep spindles, which are consistent with deeper sleep. The researchers next want to study whether swaying or rocking can improve longer periods of sleep and help treat insomnia.


Potatoes: The Most Fattening Food

If you've gained weight as an adult, blame it on potatoes - chips, fries and other potato dishes seem to be the foods most directly responsible for the pound per year the average adult gains. That news comes from a Harvard School of Public Health Study that examined the diet and lifestyle factors that appear most related to long-term weight gain. The researchers reviewed three separate studies that included data from nearly 121,000 men and women who were followed from 12 to 20 years. None of the participants were obese or suffered from any chronic disease when they joined the studies. The researchers assessed changes in consumption of specific foods and drinks, physical activity, TV time and time spent sleeping to help identify what contributes most to weight gain. All told, the researchers found that diet was the primary culprit and that the foods linked to the greatest weight gain were potato chips, other potato-based foods, sugar sweetened beverages, and unprocessed and processed meats. Increased consumption of some foods (vegetables, whole grains, fruits, nuts and yogurt) were linked to less weight gain.

My take? Here's another example of how specific foods that rank high on the glycemic index can contribute to weight gain. The glycemic index ranks carbohydrates on the basis of how quickly they raise your blood sugar. Rapid elevations in blood glucose set in motion a series of physiologic changes that induce the body to store calories as fat. Foods scoring higher than 60 (on a scale of 100) are considered high glycemic index foods. These include potatoes as well as most pastries and snack foods, most bread (both white and whole wheat), raisins and watermelon. Regular consumption of high glycemic index foods increases your risk of developing insulin resistance, an underlying cause of obesity, high cholesterol and adult-onset diabetes. In that respect, high glycemic index foods - including potatoes - can be considered "bad carbs."