Laughter really is the best medicine

By Alison Ashton
Copley News Service
A hearty laugh and a humorous outlook may guard you against a heart attack. A new study by cardiologists at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore compared 150 people who had suffered a heart attack or undergone coronary bypass surgery with 150 age-matched, healthy people. Participants with heart disease were 40 percent less likely to laugh in a variety of situations.
       "The old saying that 'laughter is the best medicine,' definitely appears to be true when it comes to protecting your heart," says Michael Miller, M.D., F.A.C.C., director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. "We don't know yet why laughing protects the heart, but we know that mental stress is associated with impairment of the endothelium, the protective barrier lining our heart vessels. This can cause a series of inflammatory reactions that lead to fat and cholesterol build-up in the coronary arteries and ultimately to a heart attack."
       A good chuckle may help relieve stress, especially in awkward or difficult circumstances. For example, study participants were asked their reactions to such situations as having a waiter accidentally spill a drink on them. They were also asked true/false questions to measure their hostility levels. People with heart disease were less likely than their healthy counterparts to find humor in uncomfortable situations and more likely to be angry and hostile.
       "The ability to laugh - either naturally or as learned behavior - may have important implications in societies, such as the U.S., where heart disease remains the No. 1 killer," says Miller. "We know that exercising, not smoking and eating foods low in saturated fat will reduce the risk of heart disease. Perhaps regular, hearty laughter should be added to the list."

A pair of studies in the American Psychological Association's journal Health Psychology also suggests that a happy outlook benefits women's health during their childbearing years. The first study explored how optimism may reduce low-birth-weight and pre-term babies in pregnant women. Researchers examined 129 women considered high risk for early delivery or low-birth-weight babies. Women were evaluated for their levels of optimism, and those who scored highest were less likely to have pre-term or low-birth-weight babies than those with gloomy expectations.
       "The women who were the least optimistic during pregnancy delivered lower-birth-weight babies," says psychologist Marci Lobel, Ph.D. "Although less-optimistic women also reported more stress during pregnancy, stress alone is not the culprit; a woman's outlook on her life and the health behaviors she practiced during pregnancy were the factors that influenced her birth outcomes. More optimistic women had better birth outcomes in part because they exercised more frequently, which improved a baby's greater gestational age at birth."
       The second study shows that a woman's perception of stress affects her overall health as much as well-known stress factors like poverty.
       "It is not simply the effects of income or education that are linked to better health, but also the perception that one is higher on the social hierarchy," explains study author Nancy Adler, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
       Researchers asked 160 healthy women of varying socio-economic backgrounds to rank their social status. Women who placed themselves higher on the social ladder reported better physical health, better sleep, less stress and less abdominal fat (an important indicator of how an individual adapts to stress). Those who perceived themselves as having lower social standing suffered from chronic stress, were pessimistic and felt they had less control over their lives.

One way to improve your life expectancy after a heart attack is to eat the Mediterranean way - that's lots of olive oil, cooked vegetables, fruit and fish.
       "Despite the fact that good dietary habits are known to be the cornerstone of heart health, there is limited data demonstrating the amount of benefit for individuals who have had a heart attack," says Roberto Marchioli, M.D., co-coordinator of a study by the Consorzio Mario Negri Sud in Santa Maria Imbaro, Italy.
       "A significantly lower risk of death was associated with eating more Mediterranean-style foods and fewer foods containing saturated fats, such as butter," says Marchioli. "People in the study who had the most butter and vegetable oils in their diet had a risk of death almost triple that of people who ate more fresh fruits and vegetables and used olive oil."
       The Mediterranean diet is relatively high in fat, but it's rich in hearty-healthy nutrients - antioxidants from fruits and vegetables, plus monunsaturated fatty acids in olive oil and polyunsaturated fatty acids from fish. Residents of Mediterranean countries, for whom this is a typical diet, are less likely to die from heart disease than their northern neighbors.
       Doctors also wanted to find out if supplements of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (n-3 PUFA) would offer even more benefits.
       "N-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids include a particular kind of fat that is typically found in cold-water fish, such as salmon, tuna and herring. The amount of n-3 PUFA in other foods is minimal," says Marchioli. "This study demonstrated that taking 1 gram of n-3 PUFA daily, in addition to following their doctors' lifestyle and dietary recommendations, could lower the risk of death after heart attack by 20 percent."

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Solid school ties reduce student woes

By Alison Ashton
Copley News Service

School violence is on the rise, but there may be an effective way to identify at-risk kids. Andrea Bonny, M.D., of the Children's Hospital Medical Center of Cincinnati, found that kids who feel disconnected from their school are at risk of unsafe behavior and poor health.
       "The extent to which students feel connected to their school environment is an important factor protecting them from unsafe behaviors, such as violence and substance abuse, and poor emotional and physical health," says Bonny.
       She surveyed 2,000 students in grades 7 through 12 at eight public schools to measure how close they felt to people at school, if they felt part of the school, were happy at school, felt safe at school and considered teachers fair. Feeling disconnected from school was linked with declining health, cigarette use, lack of extracurricular activities and increased visits to the school nurse.
       Students who were black, female or attended urban schools also had lower school connectedness scores. Students who did feel connected to their school reported lower rates of emotional distress, tendencies toward suicide, violence, substance abuse and early sexual activity. In fact, Bonny found school connectedness was more protective than any other factor - family closeness - against absenteeism, delinquency, drug use and pregnancy.
       Good news about kids comes from researchers at the University of Maine in Orono: Psychologists found that all it takes is one best friend to fend off loneliness and depression in a child, even among kids who don't hang with the in crowd.
       "We found that, even if a child is not accepted by the larger group, one close friendship can serve as a buffer to loneliness and depression," says psychologist Cynthia Erdley.
       "We know that children who are rejected by their peer group are at risk for a variety of negative outcomes that have implications for their psychological adjustment as adults," she adds.
       "More recent studies are beginning to uncover similar risks for children who fail to develop close friendships. For instance, children without friends appear to be at increased risk for depression, anxiety and low self-esteem."
       Close friendships are marked by affection, a sense of reliance and intimacy. Best pals feel comfortable confiding in each other and know they'll be understood. These friendships are the training ground for key adult relationships, say researchers, including marriage. Parents can help their kids foster close friendships by arranging play dates, enrolling children in structured activities and monitoring kids' interaction with peers.
       It's also easy to spot a child who doesn't have close friends. Kids may be unable to name specific friends, or name children who aren't really their friends. Lack of phone calls or invitations from peers, spending time with kids who are significantly older or younger, and the lack of time spent with peers outside of school are other clues.

If you have a sweet tooth, blame your parents, since a craving for sweets appears to have a genetic factor. Moreover, a preference for sweets is linked to the urge to drink alcohol.
       Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill worked with male twins to uncover the genetic link.
       "Several years ago, we found the first clinical evidence linking sweet liking with alcoholism in a study that involved subjects tasting a wide range of concentrations of table sugar in water," says Dr. David H. Overstreet, an associate professor of psychiatry.
       That study compared the taste preferences of abstinent alcoholic men with nonalcoholic men; 65 percent of the alcoholics preferred the sweetest solution, which was twice as sweet as Coca-Cola Classic.
       "In this new study, we found that despite different life experiences, twin brothers continue to share sweet and alcohol preferences," says Overstreet.
       Twins also shared similar emotional responses to sweets, saying that munching sweets made them feel happier or less irritable. Understanding the link between sweet cravings and alcohol consumption may eventually help health-care professionals spot people at risk of developing alcoholism.
       "For example, those individuals who reported drinking more alcohol on occasion and having more alcohol-related problems also had problems with controlling how many sweets they ate," Overstreet explains. "They were more likely to report urges to eat sweets and craving for them. They also were more likely to report this craving when they were nervous or depressed, and they believed eating sweets made them feel better."
       Is everyone with a sweet tooth likely to become alcoholic? Liking sweets is common and most people will not become alcoholics, says Dr. Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy, who also worked on the twins study. However, alcoholics like strong concentrations of sweet flavors, he adds, and developing a taste test "could be used to screen youngsters to detect those with a predisposition to alcoholism, which might allow early education and prevention rather than waiting until alcoholism develops."

Chatting on a mobile phone while you're behind the wheel of a car really does slow down your reaction time. A new study from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, reveals that cell phone use slows braking reaction time by 24 percent.
       "That's a significantly slower reaction time. At 65 mph, such a delay would increase stopping distance by nearly 10 feet," says William P. Berg, an associate professor of physical education, health and sport studies.
       "This is a considerable delay, especially considering that all the research participants had to do was focus on and react to the simulated brake light. In actual driving, the demand for attention would be far greater, and therefore, so could the delay."
       The study used 16 young adults; each was told to move their foot from the accelerator to the brake pedal as quickly as possible when they saw a red light. Participants performed the exercise without a phone and while using a phone to listen to a weather report, answer simple questions, answer challenging questions and respond to questions designed to elicit an emotional response. There was no difference in the reaction time between male and female drivers, and both genders were slower to hit the brakes when they yakked on the phone.

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How long can humans live?

By Alison Ashton
Copley News Service

If it seems like centenarians are more common than ever - so common that Willard Scott can't wish them all a happy 100 on the "Today" show - you're right. On average, American women can expect to live 79 years, and American men are likely to make it to 72. That's not bad, but how long could we live, barring disease or injury?
       Scientists commonly believe humans have a maximum life span of 115 years, maybe 120. Now University of California at Berkeley demographer John Wilmoth calls that into question. Wilmoth scrutinized Swedish national death records - the most comprehensive in the world - since 1861 and found that the oldest old are living longer than ever. In Sweden of the 1860s, the oldest age for death was 101. That slowly improved to 105 in the 1960s, then rocketed to 108 in the 1990s.
       "We have shown that the maximum life span is changing," says Wilmoth, whose findings are in the journal Science. "It is not a biological constant. Whether or not this can go on indefinitely is difficult to say. There is no hint yet that the upward trend is slowing down."
       Wilmoth says our increasing life span is tangible evidence of human progress, the product of advances in public health and medicine. The longest-lived person born in 1756 died in 1857 at 101, while the longest-lived person born in 1884 expired in 1993 at 109. Between the 1860s and 1960s, improved sanitation, safer water supplies and better control of infectious diseases meant fewer people got sick in the first place. Wilmoth believes this made for a healthier older population.
       "The elderly today are benefiting from the fact that they were not as sick when they were children as in past generations, and these changes took place 80 to 100 years ago."
       After 1970, the trend began to slope upward rapidly.
       "That corresponds closely with breakthroughs in certain medical practices, such as understanding and treating heart disease and stroke," Wilmoth explains.
       And what about that so-called 120-year limit?
       "Those numbers are out of thin air," says Wilmoth. "There is no scientific basis on which to estimate a fixed upper limit. Whether 115 or 120 years, it is a legend created by scientists who are quoting each other."
       You're not likely to make it to 150 or older, says Wilmoth, because current conditions make it rare to survive past 110.
       "But future generations could have a higher range."

Jogging may not make you live to 110, but it can cut your risk of death. A study in the British Medical Journal followed 4,658 Danish men, ages 20-79, over a five-year period and found that consistent joggers had a lower risk of death than nonjoggers or even new joggers.

Pregnant women often give up smoking for their baby's health, but kicking the habit could save Mom's postpartum sanity. A European survey of more than 3,000 Danish infants found that babies whose moms smoked between 15 and 50 cigarettes daily during pregnancy were twice as likely to be colicky as babies of nonsmokers. In this study, colic was defined as crying more than three hours a day, more than three days a week. Feeding practices made a difference, too. When Mom smoked, breast-fed babies were less likely to be colicky than bottle-fed infants.

Expectant parents choosing between old-fashioned, environment-friendly cotton diapers or the more convenient disposable kind may want to consider a new study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. Male infertility rates have risen in the last 25 years, and researchers from Cambridge University and the University of Kiel in Germany say plastic-lined disposable diapers may be to blame. That's because disposable diapers lined with plastic significantly raise the temperature in the scrotum, which can damage testicular development and sperm health.
       Researchers monitored scrotal temperature in 48 healthy baby boys over two 24-hour periods. The boys wore reusable cotton diapers for one period and plastic-lined disposable diapers for the other. Scrotal temperatures were consistently up to 34 F above body temperature when the boys wore disposable diapers, and the highest temperatures were recorded in the youngest babies. When the boys wore cotton nappies, scrotal temperature did not rise.

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