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Good News: We're Living Longer


Life expectancy in the United States increased as of 2012, (the last year for which there is data). Babies born in 2012 have an average life expectancy of 78.8 years, although baby girls can expect to outlive baby boys by almost five years, the same additional span as babies born in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which released the new statistics. (Baby girls born in 2012 have a life expectancy of 81.2 years while boys can look forward to an average of 76.4 years). The reason for the uptick: declines in mortality rates for the two leading causes of death - heart disease and cancer. These two diseases now account for 46.5 percent of all deaths. The CDC also determined that a woman who was 65 in 2012 could expect to live 20.5 more years while men who were 65 in 2012 could look forward to 17.9 more years. In other good news, the CDC reported that the infant mortality rate dropped by 1.5 percent in 2012 to a historic low of 597.8 infant deaths per 100,000 live births.


Trying to Cut Back on Salt and Calories? Here's the Secret

You might want to reconsider the sandwiches in your life if your goal is to lower your sodium intake and cut calories. A new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that on any given day, 49 percent of adults in the U.S. eat at least one sandwich and that sandwiches account for one fifth of total daily sodium intake. The sandwiches included classics like ham and cheese with mayo, burgers, franks, and just about any concoction you're likely to eat between two slices of bread or on a roll of any kind. The USDA researchers identified sandwiches as sources of too much salt and too many calories after analyzing data from a survey called "What We Eat in America, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009-2010." Participants in the survey reported on everything they ate and drank the previous day. The data showed that people who ate sandwiches took in significantly more calories - about an additional 300 - than those who didn't eat meals between bread. They also consumed about 600 mg more sodium daily than those who didn't eat sandwiches. Bottom line: for every 1,000-calorie sandwich you enjoy, you also get 1,700-1,800 mg of sodium.


How Exercise Affects Memory

We've known for some time that regular aerobic exercise can give memory a boost, but now a new study from Georgia Tech has shown that 20 minutes of simple resistance exercise can also do the trick. Researchers recruited healthy young adults to either perform exercises or serve as controls. They first showed a series of 90 photos on a screen to all the participants. Then, everyone sat at a leg extension machine. Half the participants performed the leg exercises - extending and contracting each leg 50 times at their personal maximum effort. Those in the control group just sat at the machines while one of the researchers moved their legs passively. Two days later, all the participants returned to the lab and were shown 180 photos, half of which were those they had seen at the first session. Memory tests indicated that the participants who actively performed the exercises remembered about 60 percent of the photos, while those in the control group remembered only 50 percent. The research team now intends to look further into how resistance exercise affects memory in various populations, including older people with memory impairment.

My take? This study contributes to accumulating scientific evidence suggesting that physical activity helps keep your mind sharp and your memory from slipping. A related study at the University of Pittsburgh found that brain volume increased in areas associated with memory in seniors who took 40-minute walks three days a week for one year. And a study in mice at Columbia University found that exercise triggered blood flow and cell growth in brain areas linked to age-related memory decline. It's interesting to learn from the Georgia Tech study that resistance exercise can also affect memory for the better.


Abdominal Obesity: Is this You?

Although average Body Mass Index (BMI) numbers have been holding somewhat steady in recent years, American waistlines continue to expand, which is bad news for our country's health. The latest look at these measurements focuses on the changes over time in abdominal obesity. This "belly fat" is closely associated with metabolic syndrome, and can indicate increased risks of diabetes and heart disease. The investigation reveals that since 1999, waistlines and belly fat have increased among men, women, whites, blacks and Mexican Americans. The researchers, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reported that in 2012 abdominal obesity was present in 54.2 percent of us, up from 46.4 percent in 1999. (In men, a waist measurement greater than 40.2 inches signals abdominal obesity. For women, abdominal obesity is present at a waist measurement greater than 34.6 inches). The CDC team analyzed data from nearly 33,000 men and nonpregnant women age 20 and up to reach their conclusions. The biggest increases from 1999 to 2012 were among non-Hispanic white men in their 40s and among African Americans in their 30s. You might not notice an increase in your waist size if your scale says you haven't gained weight, and you're better off using a tape measure to keep track of where the fat resides.


Skirt Size and Breast Cancer Risk

If your skirt size increased between the ages of 25 and 60, your risk of breast cancer has likely increased, too, according to the results of a new British study. Researchers at University College London examined data from nearly 93,000 British women and found that three out of four reported bigger skirt sizes at the average age of 64 compared to their size at age 25. The investigators reported that for every increase in skirt size breast cancer risk jumped by 33 percent. This would mean a 77 percent increased risk for women whose skirt sizes went up two sizes size every 10 years from age 25 until after menopause. The study team determined that increases in skirt size was the strongest predictor of a breast cancer diagnosis, and noted that skirt size served as a proxy for abdominal weight gain. Bear in mind, however, that a 77 percent increased risk isn't as frightening as it sounds, since it is its based on relative risk. This is what "relative risk" means: assume that out of every 100 women one will develop breast cancer; a 77 percent increased relative risk means that 1.77 women will develop breast cancer and that 98.23 will not.


Fruits and Vegetables for Your Head

The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the higher the odds that you'll be as healthy mentally as you are physically. This conclusion comes from research at Britain's University of Warwick, which showed that good mental health was consistently linked to fruit and vegetable consumption among both men and women. Analyzing data from nearly 14,000 adults who participated in the Health Survey for England, the investigators found that 33.5 percent of those identified as having a high level of mental well-being ate five or more fruit and vegetables daily, compared to 6.8 percent of the mentally fit who ate less than one serving daily. The researchers explained that remarkable mental well-being is not merely the absence of mental health problems - it is strongly linked to optimism, happiness, high self-esteem, resilience and good relationships. Smoking, obesity, and alcohol consumption were all lifestyle factors linked to low mental well-being, a condition associated with mental health problems.

My take: The suggestion that we can influence our mental fitness through diet is good news. In 2012, University of Warwick researchers reported that eating seven servings of fruit and vegetables per day was associated with increased mental health and happiness. My anti-inflammatory diet calls for eating four to five servings of vegetables and three to four servings of fruit per day to reduce inflammation in the body. It is becoming increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious physical and mental illnesses - including heart disease, many cancers, and Alzheimer's disease. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins (such as secondhand tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation, but dietary choices play a big role as well. The more fruits and vegetables you eat, the healthier - and, perhaps, happier - you're likely to be.


Can Pollution Make You Fat?

Maybe so, and worse, it could lead to heart disease. A new study of seniors living in Massachusetts suggests that black carbon, a component of traffic-generated air pollution, influences levels of leptin. High levels of this hormone are associated with obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

A team of researchers from Brown University measured blood levels of leptin in 765 seniors living in Boston and found that levels of the hormone were 27 percent higher among those with the most exposure to black carbon. These individuals also had lower incomes and higher rates of high blood pressure and diabetes than others in the study. The research team didn't establish where the pollution was generated, reporting that the proximity of the nearest major highway was not apparently related to leptin levels. Rather, they suggested that black carbon exposure probably reflects overall pollution from traffic on a wider range of roads in the immediate vicinity of the participants' homes. The study doesn't prove that black carbon exposure increases leptin levels, but the researchers suggested that their findings may help explain increases in cardiovascular disease associated with air pollution.


Mindfulness for Migraines

Mindful meditation may prove a worthwhile do-it-yourself treatment for migraine headaches. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center recruited 19 adult migraine patients and assigned 10 of them to be taught mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) while the others received standard medical care. Those in the mindfulness group attended eight weekly classes to learn MBSR techniques and were asked to practice on their own for at least 45 minutes a day, for at least five days a week. Results showed that the mindfulness patients had fewer headaches than usual. In addition, the migraine episodes they did have were less severe and didn't last as long as they had in the past, or as long as the headaches experienced by those in the control group. Compared to the standard medical care group, the mindfulness patients had 1.4 fewer migraines per month. Because the study sample was relatively small, researchers will need to study the effect of MBSR on a larger group of patients in order to confirm its effectiveness. In the meantime, MBSR is worth a try. There are no side effects.