Laughter really is the best
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
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
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
"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
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Solid school ties reduce student
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
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.
INHERITED SWEET TOOTH
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
"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
"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
"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
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."
CELL PHONE ALERT
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?
Copley News Service
LONGER LIFE SPAN
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
"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
"But future generations
could have a higher range."
JOG, AND LIVE LONG
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
STOP SMOKING, PREVENT COLIC
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.
KEEP COOL IN COTTON
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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