Busyness May Be Better For Your Brain

Do you ever complain about how busy and hectic your life is? Your to-do list is a mile-long. You spend your day running from place to place. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done.

If you’ve ever worried about how this busyness might affect your health, here’s some reassuring news: the results of a recent study showed that older adults who lead busy lives tend to perform better on tests of cognitive function than their less busy peers.

The research, published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, is part of the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study (DLBS), which was designed to assess cognition and brain health, structure, and function in healthy adults. 330 healthy adults ages 50-89 from the DLBS participated in the current study on busyness.

The participants were administered a questionnaire regarding their daily lifestyle to assess their level of busyness. They responded to questions such as:

  • How busy are you during an average day?
  • How often do you have too many things to do each day to actually get them all done?
  • How often do you have so many things to do that you go to bed later than your regular bedtime?

Each participant also underwent a series of neuropsychological tests to measure their cognitive performance. The researchers examined five core cognitive constructs—processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge.

The results showed that the busier the participants were, the better their cognitive function. A busier lifestyle was associated with superior processing speed of the brain, working memory, reasoning, and vocabulary. The strongest association existed between busyness and episodic memory, or the ability to recall distinct events from one’s past. The findings were consistent across the entire span of ages and education levels.

The research team warns that their data does not lead to the conclusion that busyness causes better cognition. While that is one possibility, it’s also possible that people with better cognition are capable of participating in more activities and tend to seek out a busy lifestyle.

A factor that the researchers believe could possibly mediate the relationship between busyness and cognition is new learning. Those leading busy lives may have more opportunities to learn new things – they’re more likely to be exposed to new information and different types situations from day to day. Previous research supports the theory that new learning enhances cognitive function.

So don’t let your busy life get you down. Focus instead on all the good it might be doing for your brain.

Article sources:

Festini, Sara B. “The Busier the Better: Greater Busyness Is Associated with Better Cognition.” Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 17 May 2016.

News release, Frontiers


Mind-Body Practices May Ease Low Back Pain

Have you ever had an achy low back? If so, you’re not alone. 80 percent of Americans will experience pain in their low back at some point in their lives. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 25% of adults responding to a large survey said they had experienced low back pain in the past three months.

You might be tempted to reach for painkillers for relief from low back pain. Unfortunately many drugs may interact with other drugs, cause unwanted side effects, or lead to dangerous conditions like liver damage, ulcers, or gastrointestinal bleeding.

Luckily, new research has revealed a non-drug alternative to treat lower back pain – mind-body therapy. Researchers at the Group Health Research Institute set out to explore ways to treat low back pain without resorting to medication. They examined a type of mindfulness meditation called mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to see how each technique affected low back pain.

Study leader Daniel Cherkin, PhD, a senior investigator at Group Health Research Institute, was encouraged by the results. “We’re constantly looking for new and innovative ways to help our patients,” he said in a news release. “The research suggests that training the brain to respond differently to pain signals may be more effective–and last longer–than traditional physical therapy and medication.”

MBSR and CBT are both mind-body practices. MBSR is a technique developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD that emphasizes paying attention to feelings, thoughts and reactions from moment to moment. It also encourages awareness of the body through the practice of simple yoga poses. The goal of CBT training is to change pain-related thoughts and behaviors.

342 Group Health patients aged 20 to 70 enrolled in the study. Each patient had experienced low back pain for at least three months and was unsure of the cause of their pain. Patients were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Two of the groups participated in eight weekly two-hour training sessions. One of these groups was trained in MBSR, the other in CBT. The third group received just their usual care.

Compared with the group receiving only usual care and no training, the MBSR and CBT groups were more likely to experience at least a 30% improvement in their low back pain.

“Our findings are important because they add to the growing evidence that pain and other forms of suffering involve the mind as well as the body,” Cherkin said. “Greater understanding and acceptance of the mind-body connection will provide patients and clinicians with new opportunities for improving the lives of persons with chronic back pain and other challenging conditions that are not always effectively managed with physical treatments alone.”

The research team will continue to study the effects of MBSR and CBT on low back pain. They plan to examine whether the pain-relieving effects of the therapies persist for more than a year. They will also examine whether mindfulness and CBT impact pain through similar or distinct processes.

The results of the study were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.


Article sources:

Cherkin, Daniel. “Effect of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction vs Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or Usual Care on Back Pain and Functional Limitations in Adults With Chronic Low Back Pain.” JAMA. 2016; 315(12):1240-1249.

National Institutes of Health – “Low Back Pain Fact Sheet”

News release, Group Health Research Institute





Save Your Eyes From the Sun

Survey says too many Americans are putting their vision at risk by not protecting their eyes from the sun.

Most of us are aware of the potentially dangerous effects of the sun on our skin. So we slather on the sunscreen, slap a hat on our heads, and stay in the shade when the sun is high. Unfortunately, very few of us pay attention to protecting our eyes when we’re outdoors.

A nationwide survey released today by the Vision Council reveals the risks that many of us take with our eyes and vision. Although 75 percent of Americans surveyed expressed concern about eye problems that might result from UV exposure, only 31 percent protect their eyes by wearing sunglasses every time they step into the sun.

“UV damage to your eyes can start in as little as 15 minutes,” said Justin Bazan, OD, medical adviser to the Vision Council, in a news release. “Many Americans have a ‘passive’ relationship with their sunglasses, and they don’t realize the dangerous health consequences that can occur from overexposure to the sun’s rays without the right eye protection.”

The lack of attention we pay to protecting our eyes from the sun is taking its toll. 34 percent of respondents have already experienced symptoms of prolonged UV exposure, such as red or swollen eyes, vision problems, and eye irritation.

The Vision Council’s report, based on a survey of 10,279 adults from across the United States, shows that Americans are much more aware of the long-term effects of the sun on their skin than their eyes. 51 percent of respondents identified skin cancer as a concern, and 42 percent worry about sunburn. But many fewer respondents identified sunburned eyes (31 percent), cataracts (26 percent) or age-related macular degeneration (21 percent) as concerns.

The results of the survey indicate that many Americans are playing a dangerous game with their vision. UV exposure to the eyes is risky – immediately and over longer periods of time.

Short-term effects may be experienced after just a few hours of intense, prolonged exposure to the sun. These include photokeratitis, or sunburned eyes, and pterygium, a growth on the surface of the eye. These conditions cause pain and irritation. Eyes may become bloodshot, irritated, swollen, or hypersensitive to light.

The longer-term effects are even more frightening. Cataracts and macular degeneration are dangerous disorders that may result from long-term exposure to UV light. Both carry the threat of eventual vision loss.

The following recommendations from the report will help to minimize your risk of UV-related eye damage:

  • Make UV protection a crucial consideration when buying sunglasses.
  • Look for lenses and frames designed for specific activities and lifestyles.
  • Purchase sunglasses only from a reputable source and look for a label on the lens or frame indicating UVA and UVB protection.

“By highlighting the cumulative and irreversible damage UV overexposure can cause, we hope to encourage Americans to make UV-eye protection an everyday habit to preserve their eyesight,” said Mike Daley, CEO of the Vision Council.


Article sources:

Vision Council – “Spare Your Sight: Using Shades for Protection and Style”





The Dangers of Too Little Sleep

Try not to lose sleep over the results of the latest sleep studies. Those lost hours of rest could lead to a variety of health issues, according to recent research – the common cold, depression, even heart disease or Parkinson’s.

Insomnia may cause alarming changes in the brain.

The findings of a recent study published in Radiology link chronic sleeplessness to alarming changes in the brain. Researchers in China used an advanced MRI technique to compare the brains of 23 people suffering from insomnia with the brains of 30 people with normal sleep patterns.

The images allowed them to analyze the brain’s white matter tracts. “White matter tracts are bundles of axons–or long fibers of nerve cells–that connect one part of the brain to another,” study author Shumei Li said in a news release. “If white matter tracts are impaired, communication between brain regions is disrupted.”

The scientists found that the insomnia patients had reduced white matter integrity in several right-brain regions and the thalamus. The affected areas control sleep, wakefulness, alertness, cognitive function, and sensorimotor function. The cause of these changes in the white matter may be the loss of myelin, the protective sheath that coats nerve fibers.

Sleep loss may lead to heart disease.

A team of researchers at the University of Helsinki recently discovered that lack of sleep affects the way the human body metabolizes cholesterol. By analyzing small blood samples, they observed that the genes responsible for controlling cholesterol transport were less active in people experiencing sleep loss than in those who got adequate sleep. They also found that people who slept less had fewer high-density HDL lipoproteins (the “good cholesterol” transport proteins) than those who slept sufficiently.

These risk factors may contribute to the higher risk of atherosclerosis (hardening or narrowing of the arteries) and cardiovascular disease in people suffering from sleep deprivation.

Chronic lack of sleep may increase your risk of Parkinson’s disease.

A study published earlier this month in Molecular Psychiatry reveals that chronic sleep loss and irregular sleep-wake cycles may be risk factors of Parkinson’s disease. Researchers from the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University (LKSOM) examined how disturbances in circadian rhythms affected the development of Parkinson’s in a mouse model of the disease.

The mice were divided into two groups. The first, the control group, was exposed to a normal circadian schedule – 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark each day. The second group was exposed to 20 hours of light and 4 hours of dark. All the mice developed Parkinson’s, but those exposed to the altered circadian schedule experienced significant learning impairments and drastic reductions in motor coordination and motor learning skills – much worse than those observed in the control group.

The findings lend support to the research team’s theory that sleep disorders and disrupted circadian cycles may contribute to the development of Parkinson’s.

Sleeping fewer than 5 hours may increase your risk of cold and other infections.

People who sleep no more than five hours each night may be at higher risk of suffering from a cold or other infection than those sleeping more, according to a study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Surveys of 22,000 Americans showed that 19 percent of those sleeping five hours or fewer each night suffered from a head or chest cold in the last 30 days, compared with 16 percent of those who slept for six hours and 15 percent of those who slept more than seven hours.

Lack of sleep may affect cardiovascular, endocrine and immune functioning, which in turn heightens your risk of disease or infection. In addition, “poor sleep may lead to health behaviors that raise one’s risk for poor heath,” study author Aric Prather told Reuters Health. “Short sleepers are less likely to exercise and more likely to engage in less than ideal nutrition that, again over time, can affect health.”

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Insomnia may lead to depression.

Insomnia may increase your risk of depression by impairing your ability to regulate emotions. Published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the study surveyed 880 current and retired United States firefighters between the ages of 18 and 82 years. 52.7 percent of participants reported insomnia symptoms, while 39.6 reported suffering from depression.

Analysis of the firefighters’ survey responses revealed that emotional regulation difficulties had a significant impact on the relationship between insomnia and depression. These difficulties included a lack of problem-solving skills and the inability to control negative emotions.

“Our study findings suggest that firefighters with sleep difficulties are likely to experience greater struggles accessing strategies to regulate their emotions, especially when feeling upset. This, in turn, may lead to or worsen feelings of depression and low mood,” said lead author Melanie Hom said in a news release. “These results are important because they provide a plausible explanation for why and how sleep problems may contribute to depression, which are critical questions for prevention and intervention.”

Article sources:

Aho, Vilma. “Prolonged sleep restriction induces changes in pathways involved in cholesterol metabolism and inflammatory responses.” Scientific Reports 6, Article number: 24828 (2016), doi:10.1038/srep24828.

Doyle, Kathryn. “Short Sleep May Be Tied to Cold or Infection Risk.” Reuters.com.

Hom, Melanie A. “The association between sleep disturbances and depression among firefighters: emotion dysregulation as an explanatory factor.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, http://dx.doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.5492.

Lauretti, E. “Circadian rhythm dysfunction: a novel environmental risk factor for Parkinson’s disease.” Molecular Psychiatry, 5 April 2016, doi:10.1038/mp.2016.47

Li, Shumei. “Reduced Integrity of Right Lateralized White Matter in Patients with Primary Insomnia: A Diffusion-Tensor Imaging Study.” Radiology, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1148/radiol.2016152038.

Prather, Aric A. “Association of insufficient sleep with respiratory infection among adults in the United States.” JAMA Intern Med. Published online 11 April 2016, doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.0787.

News release, American Academy of Sleep Medicine

News release, Radiological Society of North America

News release, Temple University Health System

News release, University of Helsinki





Climate Change-Induced Health Crisis Looms Large

American College of Physicians warns of the potentially devastating impact of climate change on global public health.

 Climate change poses a clear and imminent threat to global health, according to the American College of Physicians (ACP). In a policy paper published April 19, 2016 in Annals of Internal Medicine, the ACP warned that unless widespread action is taken to lower greenhouse gas emissions, public and individual health will suffer dire consequences.

“We need to take action now to protect the health of our community’s most vulnerable members — including our children, our seniors, people with chronic illnesses, and the poor — because our climate is already changing and people are already being harmed,” said ACP President Wayne J. Riley, MD, MPH, MBA, MACP in a news release.

In the paper, the ACP cautioned that climate change has the potential to raise the rates of respiratory and heat-related illnesses, increase the prevalence of insect-borne and water-borne diseases, contribute to food and water shortages, and cause malnutrition. Those most vulnerable to these dangerous effects are the elderly, the poor, and the infirm.

According to Riley, doctors can help to avert this global health crisis by “advocating for effective climate change adaptation and mitigation policies, helping to advance a low-carbon health care sector, and by educating communities about potential health dangers posed by climate change.”

As protectors of public health, physicians have a responsibility to educate themselves and their patients about the effects of climate change and to work towards reducing their own and others’ energy usage. To that end, the ACP recommended that courses on climate change be included in the curricula of medical schools and continuing medical education programs.

The healthcare sector ranks close to the top for energy use, second only to the food industry. It spends about $9 billion annually on energy costs. The ACP strongly urged the healthcare industry to take a good look at its energy consumption and to cut back where possible. Potential areas of improvement are transportation, energy efficiency, use of alternative energy, green building design, waste disposal and management, food waste reduction, and water conservation.

“This paper was written not only to support advocacy for changes by the U.S. government to mitigate climate change, but to provide our international chapters and internal medicine colleagues with policies and analysis that they can use to advocate with their own governments, colleagues, and the public, and for them to advocate for changes to reduce their own health systems impact,” said Riley.


Article sources:

Crowley, Ryan A. “Climate Change and Health: A Position Paper of the American College of Physicians.” Ann Intern Med. Published online 19 April 2016 doi:10.7326/M15-2766

News release: American College of Physicians

5 Surprising Health Benefits of Coffee

Do you worry that your coffee habit is getting out of hand? Don’t put down that cup of joe just yet. Numerous research studies in recent months point to ways in which coffee may actually improve your health. Here are their findings:

It reduces your risk of premature death.

People who drink a moderate amount of coffee daily (fewer than five cups per day) have a lower risk of death from heart disease, neurological disease, type 2 diabetes and suicide, according to researchers from Harvard University. In a study published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, the scientists looked at the effects of drinking caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee. They observed health benefits from both. This led them to believe that coffee’s protective effects come not from caffeine, but from other chemical compounds.

“Bioactive compounds in coffee reduce insulin resistance and systematic inflammation,” said study author Ming Ding, MD, in a news release from the American Heart Association. “They might be responsible for the inverse association between coffee and mortality.”

It reverses the effects of liver disease.

Scientists in Europe recently studied the effects of coffee on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). When mice with a high fat diet were also given a daily dose of coffee, there was significant improvement in several markers for NAFLD. They also experienced less weight gain than other mice fed the same diet. The dose of coffee given was equivalent to 6 cups of coffee for a human weighing 155 lbs. The scientists concluded that coffee protects the liver from NAFLD because it reduces the permeability of the gut.

It prevents type 2 diabetes.

Three to four cups of coffee per day could reduce your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In a report in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Natural Products, scientists revealed that two naturally occurring compounds in coffee have an impact on insulin levels in the body.

Insulin is a hormone that the body produces to convert glucose from food into energy. People with type 2 diabetes develop a resistance to insulin. The pancreas then makes more insulin to overcome this resistance, but eventually it just can’t make enough. When there’s not enough insulin, the glucose can’t be converted to energy and remains in the blood. High blood glucose levels are dangerous and can lead to blindness, nerve damage, and other health issues.

The researchers discovered that two compounds in coffee, cafestol and caffeic acid, both increase insulin secretion when glucose was present. They also found that cafestol increased glucose uptake in muscle cells, leading to lower blood glucose levels.

It’s rich in antioxidants.

When researchers from Monash University in Australia observed the behavior of free radicals in coffee, they discovered that coffee acts as an antioxidant. Antioxidants are compounds found in food that keep free radicals in check and prevent them from inflicting damage on cells and DNA.

Free radical reactions may be responsible for most degenerative diseases, such as atherosclerosis, cancer, inflammatory joint disease, asthma, diabetes, senile dementia and degenerative eye disease. By stabilizing free radicals, the antioxidants in coffee may help to prevent these diseases and slow the aging process.

It lowers your risk of dying from heart disease.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for both men and women in the United States, where it’s responsible for one in every four deaths. Drinking coffee may prevent this deadly condition. Researchers from the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee report that three to five cups of coffee per day may reduce your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease by up to 21%.

Article sources:

Centers for Disease Control – “Heart Disease Facts”

Florence, TM. “The Role of Free Radicals in Disease.” Aust N Z J Ophthalmol. 1995 Feb;23(1):3-7.

News release: American Chemical Society

News release: American Heart Association

News release: European Association for the Study of the Liver

News release: Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee

News release: Monash University




Healthy Habits – How Many Do You Have?

Recent research reveals that 97% of Americans don’t have all four of these basic healthy habits.

What are the most important things you should be doing for your health? While there’s a ton of advice out there, most doctors agree that it boils down to four basic habits: watch what you eat; exercise moderately and regularly; keep an eye on your body fat percentage; and don’t smoke.

Just doing these four things lowers your risk of many health issues, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Seems simple, right? But according to recent research, only 2.7 percent of American adults adhere to all four habits.

When researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi looked at the behavior of 4,745 adults from across the United States, they were shocked to discover how few people had all four habits. Ellen Smit, senior author on the study and an associate professor in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, remarked on the findings in a news release. “This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “This is sort of mind boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”

Not smoking was the most popular healthy habit, with 71 percent of subjects avoiding cigarettes. 46 percent of subjects hit or exceeded their activity level goal. 38 percent ate well. A mere 10 percent had a body fat percentage in the normal range.

Rather than simply asking the subjects about their behavior and relying on self-reported data, the study also used actual behavioral measurements. Each subject wore an accelerometer, which is a device that measures movement. The goal was 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity per week. Smoking status was confirmed by blood samples. X-ray absorptiometry was used to determine body fat percentage. Subjects who were in the top 40 percent of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA were considered to have a good diet.

Some other remarkable findings of the study were:

  • Having a normal body fat percentage appeared to be the most important factor in achieving healthy levels of HDL and total cholesterol.
  • While only 2.7 percent of the subjects had all four healthy habits, 11 percent had none, 34 percent had one, 37 percent had two, and 16 percent had three.
  • There were differences in habits according to gender. Women were less likely to get enough exercise, but were more likely to avoid smoking and eat well.
  • Mexican Americans scored higher on the healthy eating scale than non-Hispanic white or black adults.
  • While adults over 60 had fewer healthy habits than adults ages 20-39, they were more likely to be non-smokers and eat a healthy diet.

While the findings of the study were alarming, hopefully they will serve as a wake-up call to the many American adults who have unhealthy habits. Experts agree that more research needs to be done to discover the best ways to help people incorporate healthy behaviors into their daily lives.


Article Sources

News release: Oregon State University




The Wonderful Walnut

A handful of walnuts is good for your heart and your waistline.


Dieters who are watching their waistlines might steer clear of walnuts when they hear that a one ounce serving (a small handful) has a whopping 18 grams of fat and 185 calories. However, a recent study revealed that a walnut-rich diet can actually help you to lose weight and improve your heart health.

The research, led by Cheryl Rock, PhD, RD, of the University of California San Diego, compared the weight loss of women eating a diet with unsaturated fats (like those found in walnuts and olive oil) with those on a lower-fat, higher-carb diet.

“One of the surprising findings of this study was that even though walnuts are higher in fat and calories, the walnut-rich diet was associated with the same degree of weight loss as a lower fat diet,” said Rock in a news release.

The results of the study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, also showed that a diet containing walnuts led to improved cardiovascular health.

This finding may seem counterintuitive, given walnuts’ high fat content. However, 13 of the 18 grams of fat in a one ounce serving are polyunsaturated, and include a sizable amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). ALA is a plant-derived form of omega-3 fatty acids. The heart healthy benefits of polyunsaturated fats have been proven before: a recent study from Harvard showed that polyunsaturated fats may lower your risk of heart disease and help you to live longer.

“Considering the results of this study, as well as previous walnut research on heart health and weight, there’s something to be said for eating a handful of walnuts a day,” said Rock.

Lauren Blake, RD, wellness dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, suggests a few creative ways to eat walnuts each day:

  • Puree or grind walnuts and add them to dips, chili, or smoothies.
  • Chop up a handful of walnuts and sprinkle them over a salad, vegetables, or fruit.
  • Spread walnut butter on fruit or toast or mix into oatmeal. Buy it at the store or, even better, make your own at home.
  • Top off your favorite dessert with chopped walnuts.
  • Give plain yogurt some pizzazz by mixing in crushed walnuts. Add a little sweetness by topping with honey or maple syrup.
  • Walnut oil is great for dipping chips or veggies, blending into a salad dressing, or drizzling over food. Blake cautions against heating walnut oil, which gives it a bitter taste.
  • Add crunch and flavor to fish by coating it with pureed walnuts.


Article sources:

California Walnut Board: “California Walnut Butter”

Lauren Blake, RD, Wellness Dietician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center

News release: Edelman Seattle

News release: Harvard School of Public Health






Age Well Through Exercise


Exercise is a fundamental component of a healthy lifestyle at any age. But as good as exercise is for children, teens and young adults, it grows more and more important with each passing year.

“Multiple studies have demonstrated the benefits of regular exercise for health in older adults,” says Nathan Wei, MD, clinical director of the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md. “Beneficial effects occur in the brain, heart, and muscles.  Sarcopenia [muscle loss] is retarded.  Plus, exercise increases endorphin production, leading to less perception of pain.”

Expert Advice on Exercise: Make it a Habit

The key to reaping the benefits of exercise as you age is to develop a regular, consistent exercise habit. “Consistency trumps intensity when it comes to exercise,” says Joseph Barry, MD, an internist and geriatrician at SignatureMD in Camillus, NY. “If you push too hard, the likelihood of injury increases. If you aren’t consistent with your exercise, like a daily walk, you won’t develop the habit and you won’t keep at it.”

Wei also recommends exercise consistency, as well as variety. “Exercise regularly – I mean every day – and incorporate cardio, resistance, and stretching or yoga,” he advises.

What the Science Says About Exercise and Aging

Here are the top 5 reasons to keep exercising as you age, and the research behind them:

  1. You’re less likely to injure yourself by falling.

Falls are the leading cause of injury among older adults, according to the National Council on Aging. Maintaining a steady exercise routine as you age could decrease your risk of falling and hurting yourself. Yale researchers found that regular physical activity, including moderate walking and exercises to increase flexibility, strength and balance, resulted in fewer injuries from falling in older men.

  1. Your brain will look younger.

Americans spend millions of dollars each year to maintain the youthful appearance of their faces, bodies and skin. But most never worry for a second about how old their brain looks.

It might be time to start. Normally, as you age, the volume of the gray matter in your brain decreases. With MRI imaging, scientists can assess the age of your brain based on the volume of its gray matter. The lower the volume, the older the brain looks.

A recent study shows that climbing stairs has an impact on the volume of your brain, and consequently how young or old it looks. Researchers from Concordia University’s Montreal-based PERFORM Centre found that the more flights of stairs a person climbs, the more youthful his or her brain appears in MRI images. For every flight of stairs climbed in a day, the age of the brain decreases by 0.58 years.

  1. You’ll cut your risk of Alzheimer’s in half.

The decrease in brain volume that usually occurs with age increases your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. A study from UCLA Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh indicates that you can drastically lower your risk of Alzheimer’s through aerobic exercise.

Study participants, with an average age of 78, performed a variety of aerobic activities, such as dancing, gardening, walking, and riding an exercise bike. The researchers discovered that increased physical activity was associated with larger volumes in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes of the brain. Those who experienced these higher brain volumes due to exercise were 50% less likely to suffer from dementia due to Alzheimer’s.

  1. You’ll lower your chances of developing other age-related conditions too.

One of the reasons people develop various health issues as they age is a process called cellular senescence, in which cells lose the ability to replicate. When senescent cells build up, they contribute to age-related diseases and conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes and osteoporosis.

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic recently looked at the impact of diet and exercise on the process of aging in mice. They found that the mice that exercised gained less weight, had less body fat, and were protected against the accumulation of senescent cells. This slower rate of cell senescence led to a decrease in the development of age-related conditions in the more physically active mice.

  1. Exercise eases pain and improves mobility in arthritis sufferers.

Approximately half of adults 65 years and older suffer from arthritis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis causes achiness, pain, stiffness, and swollen joints. Many sufferers avoid exercise, thinking it will exacerbate their symptoms.

Not so, says Linda Russell, MD, a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in New York. “People believe that if you have arthritis you shouldn’t exercise, but appropriate exercises actually help decrease pain,” she said in a news release from HSS.

HSS offers a low-impact exercise program in senior centers throughout New York City. In a survey of 204 program participants, many reported that they experienced less pain and were able to perform their daily activities more easily.


Article sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Arthritis-Related Statistics”

Joseph Barry, MD, board certified in Internal Medicine and Geriatrics, member of SignatureMD, Camillus, NY

Nathan Wei, MD, FACP, FACR, Clinical Director, Arthritis Treatment Center, Frederick, MD

National Council on Aging: “Fall Prevention Facts”

News release, Concordia University

News release, Hospital for Special Surgery

News release, Mayo Clinic

News release, University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

News release, Yale University




Understanding Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are extremely common in healthy women. While UTIs do occur in men, women are much more prone to them. Approximately 1 in every 2 women will suffer from a UTI in her lifetime.

Commonly known as bladder infections, UTIs have a tendency to come back. According to R. Mark Ellerkmann, MD, Director of the Center for Urogynecology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Md, a six-month study showed that 27% of UTIs recurred once and 3% recurred more than once in college age women.

Fortunately, recurrence appears to be more of a painful annoyance than a serious health risk. “There is no evidence that recurrent UTI leads to health problems,” says Dr. Ellerkmann.

What causes UTIs?

Bacteria usually cause infections of the urinary tract. 80% of these infections can be traced to the common intestinal bacteria Escherichia coli. Normally, harmful bacteria are washed out of the body through the flow of urine. A recent study reveals the process by which bacteria evade this normal process of elimination.

A team of researchers from the University of Basel and ETH Zurich found that bacteria attach to proteins called FimH that live on the surface of the urinary tract. A bacterium latches onto FimH through a sophisticated locking mechanism. FimH holds on tightly to the bacterium, which prevents it from being flushed out with the urine. It then travels up the urinary tract into the bladder.

The anatomy of women explains their higher susceptibility to UTIs. A woman’s urethra is shorter than a man’s, which makes it easier and faster for bacteria to travel to the bladder. In addition, the opening of a woman’s urethra is very close to the anus and vagina, which are sources of opportunistic bacteria like E. coli.

Signs that you might have a UTI are pain during and after urination, the constant urge to urinate, more frequent urination, pink or blood-tinged urine, fever, chills, and mild pain in the upper abdomen or back.

Risk Factors

There are a number of factors that Ellerkmann says may increase your risk of recurrent UTIs:

  • Sexual activity
  • Sexual intercourse with a new sex partner during the past year
  • Use of a diaphragm with spermicide or spermicide-coated condoms
  • Contracting a first UTI at or before 15 years of age
  • Having a mother with a history of UTIs

How to Minimize Your Risk

Here are a few ways to prevent a UTI from coming back over and over again:


Amy Howell, PhD, a research scientist at Rutgers University, has spent years studying the effects of cranberries on urinary tract health. Her research indicates that the consumption of cranberries may avert recurrent UTIs.

“Cranberries help prevent UTIs because they contain active plant components called proanthocyanidins (PACs),” says Howell. “In 1998, my lab published our discovery in The New England Journal of Medicine showing that PACs in cranberries help prevent certain uropathogenic E. coli from adhering to bladder cells.”

An easy way to get enough PACs is to drink cranberry juice cocktail. Howell suggests drinking a 10-ounce glass, which is the amount shown to be effective against UTIs in clinical trials.

Ellerkmann recommends cranberry extract, which is a concentrated formulation taken in pill form.


Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are beneficial to your body. “There is some evidence that vaginal and oral probiotics may be helpful in patients experiencing recurrent UTIs,” says Ellerkmann.

How do probiotics prevent UTIs? According to Ellerkmann, those containing a strain of friendly bacteria called lactobacilli produce hydrogen peroxide, which prevents harmful bacteria from adhering to the urinary tract surface and thwarts their growth. Other types of probiotics produce lactic acid, which makes the pH of the vagina more acidic. Acidic environments are unattractive to opportunistic bacteria like E. coli.

While probiotics show promise in preventing recurrent UTIs, Ellerkmann believes more studies are needed to prove their efficacy.

Wipe front to back.

Because of the close proximity of the anus and vagina, it’s all too easy for harmful bacteria to travel from one to the other, then travel up the urethra. Wiping front to back decreases this risk.


D-Mannose is a naturally-occurring sugar that can be found in cranberries, peaches, apples, other berries, and some plants. Ellerkmann says there is evidence that it may prevent some bacteria from adhering to the lining of the bladder. Its mechanism of prevention is similar to that of PACs.

Avoid irritating feminine products, such as douches and deodorants.

Chemicals in these products may irritate the urethra and bladder. Ellerkmann warns that douches may actually increase UTI risk by eliminating the “good” bacteria and yeasts that live in the vagina.

Vaginal Estrogen (for post-menopausal women)

After menopause, the vaginal pH rises and becomes alkaline. Uropathogens such as E. coli are attracted to alkaline environments. Therefore in post-menopausal women, opportunistic bacteria are more likely to travel from the anus to the vagina and urethra.

Like some probiotics, vaginal estrogen lowers the vaginal pH. “Estrogen promotes and brings about a more acidic vaginal pH, making the vagina a less favorable environment for colonization by uropathogens like E. coli,” says Ellerkmann.


Article sources:

Amy Howell, PhD, Associate Research Scientist, Marucci Center for Blueberry Cranberry Research, Rutgers University, Chatsworth, NJ

Mayo Clinic, “Cystitis”

News release, University of Basel

Mark Ellerkmann, MD, FACOG, Director, Center for Urogynecology, Mercy Medical Center, Baltimore, Md