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Thursday
Dec042014

How to Make Kids Smarter

The key may be physical fitness. A new study suggests that kids who are aerobically and physically fit may have developed better brainpower and thinking skills than kids who are not so fit. Earlier research has linked higher levels of fitness to better attention, memory and academic skills, and the study authors noted that exercise is known to increase brainpower temporarily – which is why working out before taking a test is a good idea. So far, however, they haven’t determined whether physical fitness makes kids permanently smarter. For the new study, the researchers scanned the brains of 24 nine and 10 year olds, looking for differences in white matter, which facilitates communication between brain regions. Some of the kids were fit and some weren’t. The differences suggested that the fit kids had better-connected brains, but another researcher noted that the less fit kids in the study weighed more than the fit kids, raising the question of whether obesity, not fitness, explains the difference in brainpower. The same research team is now engaged in a five-year randomized, controlled trial to see whether white matter improves over time in kids who begin and maintain a new fitness routine.

Sources:
Laura Chaddock-Heyman, Arthur Kramer, Charles Hillman et al, “Aerobic fitness is associated with greater white matter integrity in children,” frontiers in Human Neuroscience, August 2014, doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00584

Thursday
Dec042014

Exercise Quickly Lowers Breast Cancer Risk

The risk of breast cancer diminishes rapidly after postmenopausal women begin to exercise, even if their daily activity is no more than a half hour walk. A study from France found that women who began exercising for at least four hours a week in the four years during which the data was collected had a 10 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who didn’t exercise during that period. The risk of breast cancer also diminished in women who spent two hours a week cycling or engaging in other sports. However, the cancer risk was not reduced among women who reported performing this amount of exercise during five to nine years before they took part in the study, but who were less active during the four years of the study itself. The researchers noted that their findings addressed the question of how rapidly exercise impacts breast cancer risk and determined that the risk remains 10 percent lower in physically active women as long as they continue to exercise, but not after they stop. Earlier studies have shown that physical activity can also boost survival rates for women who have already been diagnosed with the disease.

Sources:
Agnès Fournier et al, “Recent Recreational Physical Activity and Breast Cancer Risk in Postmenopausal Women in the E3N Cohort.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, 2014; DOI: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-14-0150

Thursday
Dec042014

Weather and Your Aching Back

Don’t blame the weather for your backache – it probably has nothing to do with it. Researchers in Australia took a critical look at the common belief that back pain is weather related, and found that apart from a clinically insignificant link between wind speed and gusts, there’s no connection between backache and rain, temperature, barometric pressure or relative humidity. The research team, from the University of Sydney, reviewed 993 cases of sudden, acute back pain reported by patients in primary care clinics in Sydney from October 2011 to November 2012. They compared reports of back pain with weather information provided by Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology – for each case, the investigators checked the weather one week before and one month before the date each patient first reported back pain. The researchers made the point that their findings apply only to back pain, not to the effect of weather on pain associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia as well as other diseases. The study was published online July 10, 2014 by Arthritis Care & Research.

Tuesday
Dec022014

What Fish Can Do for Your Brain

Here’s a strategy that could help you keep your wits about you as you age: eat baked or broiled fish at least once a week. A study from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that seniors who routinely ate baked or broiled fish had larger brain volumes in areas linked to memory and cognition. The researchers were surprised to find that the connection between a weekly dish of broiled or baked fish and bigger brains seemed to be related to lifestyle factors (of which diet is one part), and go beyond the fish providing omega-3 fatty acids, which are known to help stave off age-related brain changes. The 260 seniors who participated in the study were cognitively normal when they joined a larger study of heart health in people over 65 and they all remained cognitively normal when tested later in the heart study. For the brain study, all the participants underwent high resolution MRI scans, which revealed brain volume in the two key areas. Those who reported eating broiled or baked fish weekly were more likely to have a college education than other study participants. Eating fried fish, however, provided no evidence of these benefits for the brain.

Sources:
Cyrus A. Raji and James T. Becker, et al “Regular Fish Consumption and Age-Related Brain Gray Matter Loss.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2014; DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2014.05.037

Monday
Dec012014

Benefits of a Window at Work

If your desk is near a window in your office, you probably sleep longer and better at home, get more physical activity, and overall have a better quality of life than co-workers whose desks aren’t so well positioned. Those findings come from a new study by researchers at Northwestern Medicine and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who examined the effects of exposure to natural light in the workplace. All told, the study found that employees lucky enough to sit by a window received 173 percent more white light exposure at work and slept an average of 46 minutes more nightly than those who had no natural light exposure during working hours. Increasing evidence shows that exposure to light during the day, particularly in the morning, benefits health through its effects on mood, alertness and metabolism, according to study senior author Phyllis Zee, M.D., a neurologist and sleep specialist at Northwestern Medicine. Study participants included 49 day-shift office workers, 27 who worked in windowless surroundings and 22 whose workplaces had windows. Some wore devices on their wrists to measure and monitor light exposure, activity and sleep. The researchers said that for natural light at work to have an effect, your desk should be within 20 to 25 feet of walls containing windows.

My take? These study results support what we’ve known for some time - that exposure to natural light is beneficial to health. Sleep expert Ruben Naiman, Ph.D., notes that many people get insufficient light during the day, particularly in the morning, and most of us spend the bulk of our waking hours indoors in what Dr. Naiman describes as relatively dampened light. Healthy levels of light naturally energize us, drawing us outward into the world, and regular patterns of light exposure also help us maintain normal circadian cycles, Dr. Naiman says. If your day-to-day routine and work environment don't provide much exposure to natural light, you might consider using a light therapy box – special devices that aim to replicate sunlight.

Sources:
Phyllis Zee and M. Boubekri et al, “Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers: a case-control pilot study.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, doi: 10.5664/jcsm.3780

Thursday
Nov272014

Probiotics for High Blood Pressure

Probiotics are products containing the "friendly" bacteria that normally inhabit the human intestinal tract, where these beneficial microbes help complete the digestive process. Some of these microbes actually produce vitamins, and evidence suggests that without them, the immune system doesn't function optimally, compromising resistance to infection. The latest word on probiotics is that they may also help lower blood pressure. A new analysis of nine earlier randomized controlled trials found that regularly taking probiotics led to reductions in systolic blood pressure (the top number) by an average of 3.56 millimeters of mercury and diastolic pressure by 2.38. While these changes aren’t dramatic, the Australian research team that conducted the review concluded that bigger reductions may occur in people who already have high blood pressure (some of the study participants had normal blood pressure to begin with) Greater benefits might also be possible using probiotics that provide larger quantities of helpful bacteria or multiple species, or when people take probiotics for more than two months, as was the case in the studies reviewed. Positive effects from probiotics on diastolic blood pressure were greatest in people whose blood pressure was equal to or greater than 130/85, which is considered elevated. The probiotics used in the studies were primarily strains of Lactobacillus in dairy products. The study authors concluded that more research is needed before doctors can confidently recommend probiotics for control and prevention of high blood pressure.

Sources:
Jing Sun et al, “Effect of Probiotics on Blood Pressure - A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized, Controlled Trials,” Hypertension, doi: 10.1161/ HYPERTENSIONAHA.114.03469

Tuesday
Nov252014

Chili Peppers for Colon Health?

Capsaicin, a natural compound found in hot peppers (it's what gives them their heat), is an effective local anesthetic, and may be good for our hearts and blood vessels as well because it lowers cholesterol (although we don't yet know how). And now new research suggests that capsaicin can also reduce the risk of colorectal tumors, at least in mice. The compound seems to work by activating TRPV1, a receptor in cells that form the lining in mouse (and human) intestines, leading to a reaction that helps reduce risk from tumors. The study, from the University of California, San Diego, found that feeding capsaicin to mice prone to gastrointestinal tract tumors reduced the growths and extended the lives of the mice by more than 30 percent. The treatment may work in humans, too. Study leader Eyal Raz said the new findings suggest that “individuals at high risk of developing recurrent intestinal tumors may benefit from chronic TRPV1 activation. We have provided proof of principle.” Another member of the team added that future studies should be designed to explore the association between TRPV1 function and human colorectal cancer.

Sources:
Eyal Raz et al, Ion channel TRPV1-dependent activation of PTP1B suppresses EGFR-associated intestinal tumorigenesis” The Journal of Clinical Investigation on August 1, 2014 doi: 10.1172/JCI72340

Monday
Nov242014

Run Five Minutes, Save Your Life?

If you can find even five to 10 minutes a day for running, a new study suggests your risk of premature death would be significantly lower than that of people who don’t run or engage in any type of strenuous exercise. These findings come from a review that examined data from 55,137 people between the ages of 18 and 100 who had check-ups at the Cooper Clinic and Cooper Institute in Dallas, during which they had fitness tests and responded to questionnaires about their exercise habits. The researchers found that the daily runners had a 30 percent lower risk of dying from any cause than non-runners and a 45 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease, even if they were overweight or smoked. All told, the runners lived three years longer than the non-runners. The report didn’t delve into the mechanisms behind the benefits of running and didn’t try to determine whether it was the only type of strenuous exercise that lowered the risk of premature death.

My take? The great advantage of running is its intensity. As this study suggests, it promotes fitness quickly and efficiently. Because of its intensity, running releases endorphins in many people, creating the runner's high that some describe as an "energy buzz." The euphoria experienced with running - like aerobic exercise highs in general - acts as an effective antidepressant. Running, however, also has some potentially serious disadvantages including a higher chance of injury than most other aerobic activities. Running can also traumatize the body, especially joints in the knees, and back, as well as the kidneys. To minimize the risk of injury never run on concrete. If possible, run on cinder tracks or dirt paths. Always wear well-made running shoes designed to minimize shock to the joints, and get a new pair whenever your present ones start to wear out. If you develop pain in any joints, stop running or cut back on it until you determine the reason for the pain. It will be interesting to see if other forms of intense exercise – sprint swimming, for example, which is easier on the joints – confer the same lowered risk of premature death.

Sources:
Duck–chul Lee and Timothy Church et al, “Leisure-time Reduces All-Cause and Cardiovascular Mortality Risk,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology, doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2014.04.058