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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.


Forest Bathing for Mind and Body

We've known for some time that connecting with nature can give you a psychological lift.  A new, large-scale study by the University of Michigan, in partnership with three universities in the U.K., goes beyond that. It found that participation in group nature walks is associated with significantly lower depression, less perceived stress and enhanced mental and physical well-being.

The research team evaluated 1,991 individuals who walked with a group at least once a week as participants in England's "Walking for Health" program. They found that walkers in rural areas reported less perceived stress, less negativity and greater well-being than those who joined urban groups and walked on city streets. People who had recently experienced stressful life events like serious illness, unemployment, divorce or the death of a loved one especially benefited from outdoor group walks.

My take: I'm not surprised by these findings. It's well established that being close to nature can be calming, trading the jarring sounds, sights, and smells of city life for trees, birds and forest streams. A Japanese study published in 2010 showed that forest bathing - or taking in forest scenery for as little as 20 minutes - reduced levels of salivary cortisol by 13.4 percent, bringing measurements of this stress hormone down to lower-than-average concentrations. Nature walks can also lower blood pressure and pulse rate and trigger a dramatic increase in the activity of natural killer cells produced by the immune system to ward off infection and fight cancer.


Children and Your Prescription Drugs

Each year between 2007 and 2011, about 9,500 children managed to get past child-resistant caps on prescription drug vials, swallow some of the pills and end up in the hospital. A study published in the September 15, 2014 issue of Pediatrics found that three-quarters of those kids are one-and-two year olds. In almost half of those cases, the drugs involved are buprenorphine (used to treat addiction to narcotics and sometimes to relieve pain) or clonidine (found in medications to treat high blood pressure, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and migraine headaches).  About 28 percent of the poisonings stemmed from ingestion of Vicodin, Oxycontin, Percocet and other opiod pain relievers, as well as the anti-anxiety drugs Valium, Ativan and Xanax. One way to make drugs safer would be to individually wrap each pill, suggested Daniel S. Budnitz, director of the Medication Safety Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and senior author of the study. Since the research for the study was completed but before publication, some of the medications named have been repackaged in blister packs, which may help defeat curious kids ... and make it harder for some older adults to get to their pills. Bottom line: if you want to avoid a rush to the hospital with a curious child who has swallowed your pills, be sure to keep all drugs out of sight, and stored in a place even the most enterprising kid can't reach.


Can You Be Allergic to Antibiotics in Food?

Here's another good reason to consider choosing organic fruits and vegetables: the case of a 10-year-old girl who had an anaphylactic reaction to a slice of blueberry pie. Her clinical course has alerted allergists to the possibility that some people can have a severe allergic response to antibiotic residues in food. The young patient had a history of asthma and seasonal allergies as well as anaphylaxis to penicillin and cow's milk, but she had no known allergy to the ingredients in the pie. After ruling out other possibilities, doctors concluded that her reaction was due to a blueberry in the pie contaminated with streptomycin, an antibiotic used in agriculture as a pesticide in fruit to combat the growth of bacteria, fungi and algae and in medicine as a treatment for tuberculosis. While allergic reactions like this one are considered rare, the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology noted that allergists and emergency room personnel should be aware of the possibility that antibiotic residues can trigger allergic reactions.

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